Lederach, John Paul. Defining Conflict Transformation.
In this article, Lederach provides a definition for conflict transformation.
I propose the following definition:
Conflict transformation is to envision and respond
to the ebb and flow of social conflict
as life-giving opportunities
for creating constructive change processes
that reduce violence,
in direct interaction and social structures,
and respond to real-life problems
in human relationships.
The meaning and implications of this definition will be easier to
understand if we analyze the italicized components. Imagine conflict
transformation as a person on a journey, comprised of a head, heart,
hands, and legs.
The head refers to the conceptual view of conflict -- how we think
about and therefore prepare to approach conflict. In the head we find
the attitudes, perceptions, and orientations that we bring to creative
conflict transformation. Our definition uses the terms envision and
Envision is active, a verb. It requires an intentional
perspective and attitude, a willingness to create and nurture a horizon
that provides direction and purpose.
A transformational perspective is built upon two foundations:
- a capacity to envision conflict positively, as a natural phenomenon that creates potential for constructive growth, and
- a willingness to respond in ways that maximize this potential for positive change.
A transformational approach recognizes that conflict is a normal and
continuous dynamic within human relationships. Moreover, conflict
brings with it the potential for constructive change. Positive change
does not always happen, of course. As we all know too well, many times
conflict results in long-standing cycles of hurt and destruction. But
the key to transformation is a proactive bias toward seeing conflict as
a potential catalyst for growth.
Respond suggests that vision must result in action, engaging the
opportunity. The tilt is toward involvement. Respond recognizes that
the deepest understanding comes from the learning process of real-life
Both foundations -- envision and respond -- imply a certain
level of "head" work. They represent the ways we think and orient
ourselves as we approach the conflicts in our lives, relationships, and
Ebb and flow: We often see conflict primarily in terms of its
rise and fall, its escalation and de-escalation, its peaks and valleys.
In fact, we often focus on a singular peak or valley, a particular
iteration or repetition of a conflict episode. A transformational
perspective, rather than looking at a single peak or valley, views the
entire mountain range.
Perhaps it is helpful here to change our metaphor to one that is less
static. Rather than narrowly focusing on the single wave rising and
crashing on the shore, conflict transformation starts with an
understanding of the greater patterns, the ebb and flow of energies,
times, and even whole seasons, in the great sea of relationships.
The sea as a metaphor suggests that there is a rhythm and pattern to
the movements in our relational lives. At times the sea movements are
predictable, calm, even soothing. Periodically, events, seasons, and
climates combine to create great sea changes that affect everything
A transformational approach seeks to understand the particular episode
of conflict not in isolation, but as embedded in the greater pattern.
Change is understood both at the level of immediate presenting issues
and that of broader patterns and issues. The sea is constantly moving,
fluid, and dynamic. Yet at the same time it has shape and form and can
have monumental purpose.
The heart is the center of life in the human body. Physically, it
generates the pulse that sustains life. Figuratively, it is the center
of our emotions, intuitions, and spiritual life. This is the place from
which we go out and to which we return for guidance, sustenance, and
direction. The heart provides a starting and a returning point. Two
ideas form such a center for conflict transformation.
Human relationships: Biologists and physicists tell us that life
itself is found less in the physical substance of things than in the
less visible connections and relationships between them. Similarly, in
conflict transformation relationships are central. Like the heart in
the body, conflicts flow from and return to relationships.
Relationships have visible dimensions, but they also have dimensions
that are less visible. To encourage the positive potential inherent in
conflict, we must concentrate on the less visible dimensions of
relationships, rather than concentrating exclusively on the content and
substance of the fighting that is often much more visible. The issues
over which people fight are important and require creative response.
However, relationships represent a web of connections that form the
larger context, the human eco-system from which particular issues arise
and are given life.
To return for a moment to our sea image, if an individual wave
represents the peak of issues visibly seen in the escalation of social
conflict, relationships are the ebb and flow of the sea itself.
Relationships -- visible and invisible, immediate and long-term -- are
the heart of transformational processes.
Life-giving opportunities: The word life-giving applied to a
conflict situation reminds us of several things. On one hand, the
language suggests that life gives us conflict, that conflict is a
natural part of human experience. On the other, it assumes that
conflict creates life like the pulsating heart of the body creates
rhythmic blood flow which keeps us alive and moving.
Conflict flows from life. As I have emphasized above, rather than
seeing conflict as a threat, we can understand it as providing
opportunities to grow and to increase understanding of ourselves, of
others, of our social structures. Conflicts in relationships at all
levels are the way life helps us to stop, assess, and take notice. One
way to truly know our humanness is to recognize the gift of conflict in
our lives. Without it, life would be a monotonously flat topography of
sameness and our relationships would be woefully superficial.
Conflict also creates life: through conflict we respond, innovate, and
change. Conflict can be understood as the motor of change, that which
keeps relationships and social structures honest, alive, and
dynamically responsive to human needs, aspirations, and growth.
We refer to our hands as that part of the body capable of building
things, able to touch, feel and affect the shape that things take.
Hands bring us close to practice. When we say "hands-on," we mean that
we are close to where the work takes place. Two terms of our definition
stand out in this regard.
Constructive: Constructive can have two meanings. First, at its root it is a verb: to build, shape, and form.
Second, it is an adjective: to be a positive force. Transformation
contains both these ideas. It seeks to understand, not negate or avoid,
the reality that social conflict often develops violent and destructive
patterns. Conflict transformation pursues the development of change
processes which explicitly focus on creating positives from the
difficult or negative. It encourages greater understanding of
underlying relational and structural patterns while building creative
solutions that improve relationships. Its bias is that this is
possible, that conflict is opportunity.
Change processes: Central to this approach are change processes,
the transformational component and the foundation of how conflict can
move from being destructive toward being constructive. This movement
can only be done by cultivating the capacity to see, understand, and
respond to the presenting issues in the context of relationships and
ongoing change processes. What are the processes that the conflict
itself has generated? How can these processes be altered, or other
processes initiated, that will move the conflict in a constructive
direction? A focus on process is key to conflict transformation.
Conflict transformation focuses on the dynamic aspects of social
conflict. At the hub of the transformational approach is a convergence
of the relational context, a view of conflict-as-opportunity, and the
encouragement of creative change processes. This approach includes, but
is not driven by, an episodic view of conflict. Conflict is viewed
within the flow and the web of relationships. As we shall see, a
transformational lens sees the generation of creative "platforms" as
the mechanism to address specific issues, while also working to change
social structures and patterns.
Legs and Feet
Legs and feet represent the place where we touch the ground, where all
our journeys hit the road. Like the hands, this is a point of action,
where thought and heartbeat translate into response, direction, and
momentum. Conflict transformation will be only utopian if it is unable
to be responsive to real-life challenges, needs, and realities.
A transformational view engages two paradoxes as the place where action
is pursued and raises these questions: How do we address conflict in
ways that reduce violence and increase justice in human relationships?
And how do we develop a capacity for constructive, direct, face-to-face
interaction and, at the same time, address systemic and structural
Reduce violence and increase justice: Conflict transformation
views peace as centered and rooted in the quality of relationships.
These relationships have two dimensions: our face-to-face interactions
and the ways we structure our social, political, economic, and cultural
relationships. In this sense, peace is what the New Sciences call a
"process-structure": a phenomenon that is simultaneously dynamic,
adaptive, and changing, and yet has a form, purpose, and direction that
gives it shape. Rather than seeing peace as a static "end-state,"
conflict transformation views peace as a continuously evolving and
developing quality of relationships. Peace work, therefore, is
characterized by intentional efforts to address the natural ebb and
flow of human conflict through nonviolent approaches, which address
issues and increase understanding, equality, and respect in
To reduce violence requires that we address the presenting issues and
content of an episode of conflict, and also its underlying patterns and
causes. This requires us to address justice issues. While we do that,
we must proceed in an equitable way toward substantive change. People
must have access and voice in decisions that affect their lives. In
addition, the patterns that create injustice must be addressed and
changed at both relational and structural levels.
Direct interaction and social structures: As suggested above, we
need to develop capacities to envision and engage in change processes
at all levels of relationships: interpersonal, inter-group, and
social-structural. One set of capacities points toward direct,
face-to-face interaction. The other set underscores the need to see,
pursue, and create change in our ways of organizing social structures,
from families to complex bureaucracies, from the local to the global.
Conflict transformation suggests that a fundamental way to promote
constructive change on all these levels is dialogue. Dialogue is
essential to justice and peace on both an interpersonal and a
structural level. It is not the only mechanism, but it is an essential
We typically think of dialogue as direct interaction between people or
groups. Conflict transformation shares this view. Many of the
skill-based mechanisms that are called upon to reduce violence are
rooted in the communicative abilities to exchange ideas, find common
definitions to issues, and seek ways forward toward solutions.
However, a transformational view believes that dialogue is necessary
for both creating and addressing social and public spheres where human
institutions, structures, and patterns of relationships are
constructed. Processes and spaces must be created so that people can
engage and shape the structures that order their community life,
broadly defined. Dialogue is needed to provide access to, a voice in,
and constructive interaction with, the ways we formalize our
relationships and in the ways our organizations and structures are
built, respond, and behave.
At its heart, conflict transformation focuses on creating adaptive
responses to human conflict through change processes which increase
justice and reduce violence.
Reprinted from The Little Book of Conflict Transformation. (May 2003;
$4.95US; 1-56148-390-7). Copyright by Good Books ( www.goodbks.com ).
Used by permission. All rights reserved.
John Paul Lederach, now a scholar with the Joan Kroc Institute of
Conflict Studies at the University of Notre Dame and a Distinguished
Scholar with the Conflict Transformation Program at Eastern Mennonite
University, writes out of his more than 20 years of work in Central
America, in Asia, Africa, Central Asia, and North America.
Dr. Lederach received his Ph.D. in Sociology (with a concentration in
the Social Conflict Program) from the University of Colorado.
Lederach and his wife, Wendy, have two children, Angie and Josh.
For more information, please visit http://goodbks.com/little_books.asp
Created by: james
Last modified: 2006/08/07 13:02:57.562000 US/Eastern