Parties to Intractable Conflict

Heidi Burgess

Updated May, 2017
Originally published January 2004

MBI MOOS LogoCurrent Implications

People in the United States, and elsewhere too, have been increasingly concerned about the level of political polarization and distrust among "ordinary people" in civil society, to say nothing about our political leaders. 



The people involved in conflicts hold many roles. These are described briefly below, and then in more detail in the associated essays.

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Disputants or first parties differ in the directness of their involvement and the importance of the outcome for them. Primary parties are those who oppose one another, are using fighting behavior, and have a direct stake in the outcome of the conflict. Secondary parties have an indirect stake in the outcome. They are often allies or sympathizers with primary parties but are not direct adversaries.[1] Disputants also can be divided up according to their stance towards the other side. We divide interest groups into moderates, hardliners, external supporters, conflict profiteers, and spoilers.

In addition to the disputants, there are third parties. Some may be acting in active intermediary roles, such as mediators, arbitrators, or dialogue facilitators, while others may be by-standers. As conflicts become increasingly polarized, however, the by-standers tend to be pulled in, being forced to join one side or the other, and polarizing the conflict even further.

Most intractable conflicts are so deeply-rooted that the parties need outside help to transform the conflict into something more constructive. Most often, people think in terms of mediators. But there are many more roles people can play to help transform intractable conflicts. In his book, The Third Side[1], Ury suggests that there are at least 10 roles that people can play: provider, teacher, bridge-builder, mediator, arbitrator, equalizer, healer, witness, referee, and peacekeeper. Some of these roles are traditional "third party roles," while others are not. The chart below summaries what each role does.

Process Role What they say:
Prevention Provider What is needed here?
Teacher Here's another way. (Or, let's look at this more carefully.)
Bridge Builder I'd like to introduce you to ...
Resolution Mediator Let's work it out.
Arbitrator What's fair here is ...
Equalizer Let's level the playing field.
Healer Let's make amends.
Containment Witness Hey! Look what they are doing!
Referee No knives! No guns!
Peacekeeper OK! Break it up!

This is derived from a graphic on (Note: the parenthetical comment in the "teacher" box is ours; the rest are from Ury's diagram.)

All of these people can contribute to making a conflict less intractable. With many people in each role working at different levels of a conflict, a great deal of good can be accomplished, even when the conflict is not ripe for resolution.

Current Implications

People in the United States, and elsewhere too, have been increasingly concerned about the level of political polarization and distrust among "ordinary people" in civil society, to say nothing about our political leaders. 

Since Trump was elected US President, we have been getting a lot of inquiries asking "what can I do to respond constructively" or to 'be helpful"? Some have wanted to defend the many groups who have come under attack; others have wondered how to reduce the gap between the pro-Trump and anti-Trump sides.  We don't get too many calls from Trump supporters, but I would imagine that they too are wondering how to reduce the level of distrust and how they can get liberrals to understand and believe that they are not all "deplorables." (That was a term Hillary Clinton used to describe some--not all-- of Trump supporters that got interpreted to mean "most" or "all.")

Our answer often revolves around two strategies that I teach in my conflict skills class go a long way towards defusing many conflicts.  Those are "respect" and "listen."  We cover those in later posts, however.  

The third part of my answer discusses the different roles people can and do play in conflicts, particularly Bill Ury's concept of "third side roles."  This essay introduces the notion of the third side in the context of other more traditional descriptions of conflict roles. Readers can click on each of the third side roles listed in the box below, and they can read more about what each role is and how they might be able to play that role themselves in conflicts they are involved in.

We follow this with several other essays that describe different roles that people can play in conflict and conflict transformation.

--Heidi Burgess   April 2017.

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[1] Paul Wehr, "Conflict Mapping" in the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflicts, available at (This was the forerunner to this Knowledge Base Project.)

[2] William Ury, The Third Side New York: Penguin USA 2000.

Use the following to cite this article:
Burgess, Heidi. "Parties to Intractable Conflict." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: January 2004 <>.

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