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Brussels, November 2007

Conflict transformation – content, behaviour, attitude

How conflict transformation theories deal with conflict escalation and de-escalation

Conflict resolution, conflict settlement, conflict handling, conflict management, conflict regulation or conflict transformation are terms which are often used indiscriminately although there are certain nuances of meanings. Conflict resolution implies that “the deep-routed sources of conflict are addressed, and resolved”. Conflict settlement refers to the “reaching of an agreement between the parties which enables them to end an armed conflict. It puts to an end the violent stage of conflict behaviour.” Conflict regulation and conflict management are “sometimes used as a generic term to cover the whole gamut of positive conflict handling”.(1)

Conflict transformation puts an emphasis on the process of dealing with conflict, and is therefore, in my eyes, preferable to the other terms. It touches all three corners of the famous conflict triangle that Johan Galtung has defined. The process of dealing with the conflict then moves around the triangle(2).

At this point it should be very clearly pointed out that conflict transformation is not synonymous with what external parties do, nor is it synonymous with conflict intervention. The importance of local peace builders, of peace constituencies and of local zones of peace has gained more and more recognition in the last few years(3).

Table 1.3 See Associated documents

Müller/Büttner(4) (1998) have proposed making the triangle a pyramid in order to include the dimension of conflict escalation. They argue that in the first three stages of Glasl’s conflict escalation scheme the content is in the centre of the conflict. Then the attitudes of the opponents become the major factor, and as soon as the conflict becomes violent, the behaviour itself is the main problem.

A pyramid diagram would look like this:

Table 1.4: Conflict pyramid and escalation track

See Associated documents

Müller/Büttner 1998:19

De-escalation of a conflict then may be seen as the reversal of this process(5). First the emphasis would be on the behaviour. That is, stopping the violence through a cease-fire, and then monitoring the cease-fire. Now work on attitudes can begin. Only when attitudes change for the better will it be possible to deal with the original conflict and to attempt to find a solution. (Then it would be time to work on attitudes, and probably only when there is a change for the better in these, there is a chance to deal with the original conflict and its content, and to attempt finding a solution for it.)

While most experts would agree with the first assumption, the order of the second and the third might be questionable. In fact, very often there is some peace agreement (conflict settlement in the meaning defined above) before any substantial work on the relationship of the actors has been done. Later in this study will argue that all three dimensions need to be tackled simultaneously.


  • (1) :Miall et al 1999:21

  • (2) : See Galtung 1982 and 1996

  • (3) : See Diamond 1999, Lederach 1997, Boulding 2000, Ackerman/Duvall 2000

  • (4) : Müller/Büttner 1998

  • (5) : Fisher 1993:44, Müller/Büttner 1998:20