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#1531, 20 October 2004
Theories of Conflict Resolution : An Analysis
Meha Dixit
Intern, IPCS

Conflict resolution as a discipline has developed theoretical insights into the nature and sources of conflict and how conflicts can be resolved through peaceful methods to effectuate durable settlements.

Morton Deutsch: Cooperative Model

One of the first to develop insight into the beneficial consequences of cooperation as an academic enquiry was Morton Deutsch. In his view, a number of factors like the nature of the dispute and the goals each party aims at are pivotal in determining the kind of orientation a party would bring to the negotiating table in its attempt to solve the conflict. Two basic orientations exist. These are competitive and cooperative. Deutsch further predicts the type of interactions which would occur between negotiating parties as a result of their disputing style. Cooperative disposition of the party would evoke an atmosphere of trust and eventually lead to mutually beneficial options for settlement. On the other hand, competitive approach leads to win-lose outcomes. This approach is inclined to intensifying animosity and distrust between parties and is generally considered destructive.

Some critics of this approach argue, both cooperation and competition are essential to some extent to effectuate resolution of conflict since negotiating a desirable agreement always includes common and diverse goals. Thus finding a balance between these two approaches is the key to successful negotiation.

Roger Fisher and William Ury: Principled Negotiation

Other theorists who advocated cooperative conflict behavior include Roger Fisher and William Ury. They put forward four principles for effective negotiation. These four principles are:

  • Separate people from their problem.
    What Fisher and Ury argue is that this principle helps parties to get a clearer picture of the substantive problem.

  • Focus on interest rather than position.

  • Generate a variety of options before settling on an agreement.

  • Insist that the agreement be based on objective criteria.

At each stage of the negotiation process, the above principles should be observed. Developing a method for reaching good agreements is central to this model.

This model asserts that "separate people from their problem". However, this could make matters worse if human needs of the people are the problem. Moreover, conflicts between ethnic groups are mostly needs based conflicts since one group feels that its basic needs of identity, security, recognition or equal participation are being neglected. Here human needs model can be more useful than interest based model.

John Burton: Human Needs Model

John Burton's work is of immense significance in the field of human needs model. He argues when an individual or group is denied its fundamental need for identity, security, recognition or equal participation within the society, protracted conflict is inevitable. To resolve such conflict, it is essential that needs that are threatened be identified and subsequently restructuring of relationships or the social system take place in a way that needs of all individuals and groups are accommodated. For instance, this model can be useful in the case of Maldives where there are restraints on freedom and participation of its citizens in political life.

Bush, Folger And Lederach : Conflict Transformation

Theorists of conflict transformation, while referring to the interest-based and the human needs models argue, solution that satisfies each country's interests and needs could be reached through these models. However, if negative attitudes developed in each country during the conflict are not addressed, these could serve to generate further conflicts some time later. Whereas conflict transformation aims at a fundamental change in attitude and/or behavior of individuals and/or the relationship between two or more disputing parties.

This approach is very well exemplified in Bush and Folger's theory of transformative mediation and Lederach's model of conflict transformation. Lederach uses the term conflict resolution to refer to peacebuilding. For building peace destructive or negative communication patterns need to be transformed or replaced by constructive or positive interaction patterns. Like Bush and Folger, Lederach stresses the need to transform the disputing parties by empowering them to understand their own situation and needs, as well as encouraging them to recognize the situation and needs of their opponents.

Conflict Transmutation

Those theorists, who practice conflict transmutation argue that conflict transformation may transform relationships, however it does not go far enough in addressing the underlying sources of conflict behavior. Conflict transmutation is centered on the principles found in alchemy as a set of contemplative practices that transform deeply encrusted feeling and thoughts that fuel destructive conflict behavior.


As we take a closer view of world events as well as mundane day to day reality of life, it becomes apparent that conflict is an indisputable fact of our physical and mental existence.

Conflict infact permeates each and every strand of human existence and often takes shape of diabolic cyclical violence unless dealt with creatively and constructively. Though each conflict resolution theory has its own limitations yet conflict resolution as a discipline can be of immense significance in this respect and as we ruminate the current world politics where the powerful does not have qualms about resorting to force at any given opportunity, conflict resolution theories are emblematic of how military force is not always the right approach for dealing with conflict effectively.

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