Photo by Shulamit Seidler-Feller

Conflict Transformation

John Paul Lederach, Beyond Intractability

I have been using the phrase “conflict transformation” since the late 1980s. I remember that timeframe because it came on the heels of intensive experience in Central America. When I arrived there my teaching vocabulary was filled with the terminology of conflict resolution and management. But I soon found that many of my Latin colleagues had questions, concerns, even suspicions about what such concepts meant.

Their worry was that quick solutions to deep social-political problems would not change things in any significant way. “Conflicts happen for a reason,” they would say. “Is this resolution idea just another way to cover up the changes that are really needed?” Their concerns were consistent with my own experience.

The ideas that inform much of my work arise out of the Anabaptist-Mennonite religious framework. This framework emphasizes peace as embedded in justice, the building of right relationships and social structures through a radical respect for human rights, and nonviolence as way of life. In the course of my work in finding constructive responses to violent conflict, I became increasingly convinced that much of what I was doing was seeking constructive change. I recall that by the late 1980s I would talk about this work as a process of transformation.

However, this notion of transformation raised new questions. Despite its problems, the term “resolution” was more well-known and widely accepted in mainstream academic and political circles. “Transformation,” on the other hand, was regarded by many as too value-laden, too idealistic, or too “new age.” But for me, the term was accurate, scientifically sound, and clear in vision.

Conflict transformation is accurate because the core of my work is indeed about engaging myself in constructive change initiatives that include and go beyond the resolution of particular problems. It is scientifically sound because the writing and research about conflict converge in two common ideas: conflict is normal in human relationships and conflict is a motor of change. And transformation is clear in vision because it brings into focus the horizon toward which we journey, namely the building of healthy relationships and communities, both locally and globally. This process requires significant changes in our current ways of relating.

In this essay, I will engage a creative tension between the metaphors of resolution and transformation in order to sharpen understanding. However, this is not done to minimize or degrade the term “resolution” or the many individuals who creatively prefer it as the best prism for understanding their work. My purpose is to add a voice to the ongoing discussion and search for greater understanding and clarity in human relationships.

But the question remains, what is this transformation stuff? This essay is an attempt to share my understanding of conflict transformation as an orientation, an approach and a framework. It describes transformation as a lens and a strategy for approaching conflict.


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PLEASE NOTE: The views expressed in this section of the website are not neces­sarily those of Encounter as an organization. We support the chorus of voices of the Jewish commu­nity in engage­ment with the complex­i­ties of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so long as they are consis­tent with our core values.