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What Is the Third Side?

What Is the Third Side?

Author: marlene johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand the concept of the Third Side as a model for conflict resolution

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Whenever there is conflict, there are always two sides involved. There are parties on each side who are affected by the conflict and invested in its outcome. But are they the only sides affected? Are they the only ones invested in the outcome of the conflict? I'm Marlene, and I'd like to talk with you about that today. I'd like to talk with you about something called the third side.

The third side is an approach to conflict resolution developed by the Harvard Negotiation Project. This project has a mission to really improve the practice and the theory of conflict resolution as well as negotiation by working on real-world conflicts. The third side is an approach that looks at the perspective and interest of those affected by conflict in the larger community as well as the parties themselves.

So it takes into consideration the legitimate needs of the parties involved-- so that's two sides-- but then there's this third side which is the larger community. It could be made up of neighbors, friends, bystanders, anyone who may be affected by the outcome of this conflict. And in resolving the conflict, the perspective of this third side-- their interests, their needs, their influence-- is taken into consideration in developing a resolution. That's the difference there between the third-side approach and party-party mediation.

They talk about something called the triple win-- the legitimate needs of both sides, the parties, as well as the larger community. The model for the third side-- I really like this model-- is contain if necessary, resolve if possible, best of all, prevent. Contain, resolve, and prevent. They're really calling on all of us in the community to consider when we're part of the third side, when we can be a third sider, as they would call it, and actually influence the outcome of conflicts that we see in our own communities.

This has multiple opportunities to work in a variety of circumstances. It could be within schools where there may be bullying, and you have teachers, administration, even parents coming together to form a mediation program, something called Peace Circles which I know we do here in the Minneapolis schools to work with students to give them the skills that they need to resolve conflict in more constructive ways.

So the third side is really about not trying to eliminate conflict, but transform how it's expressed. Or it could be within communities. Many communities have neighborhood watch programs where neighbors get to know one another and set up a system to watch out for one another, taking back the control of the community. They talk about something called the emergent will of the community and the power of that in terms of transforming what happens within the community.

And I think of one particularly inspiring story. This took place in East Los Angeles in the early '90s. Gang warfare was escalating during that period, and there were a lot of deaths. And there were a group of mothers who were very concerned and grieved over this who met and decided to take the courageous step of going into the community, of leaving the safety of their homes during this very violent and dangerous time, and organizing other mothers to join them to actually walk in to gang areas in the community.

And they did this. They were about 70 strong. They broke the rules of war with this nonviolent action. And by entering the danger zone here, they created this space for peace. It completely disoriented the gang members. They didn't know how to respond to these mothers walking into their territory.

What has happened, what evolved from this, was more than just a brief interlude where you had these gang members disoriented and a lapse in violence. It evolved to where the mother and the gang members actually began to speak and listen to one another. The moms listened to the gangs talk about lack of jobs and police brutality.

And they responded by actually developing a tortilla factory, a bakery, childcare, gang members learned skills. What came from that was a school. And over time, there was this shift where the mothers had been the neighborhood watch team here, the eyes and ears of the police, and this shifted over to them reporting instances of police brutality. So that forged a relationship between the police and the mothers and the whole neighborhood.

It didn't turn into a utopia. Not all the problems were solved. But it went a long way to seeing the emergent will of this community have an enormous influence on de-escalating the conflict and transforming the community.

That's the mission of the third side, to invite all of us to see wherever we are, wherever there is conflict within our own lives, whether it be in our communities, in our homes, and in organizations we belong to, how we can enter in as a third side or take a role in influencing the outcome of conflict. Because it does affect more than just the parties involved. It affects the entire community.

Thank you for joining me. I look forward to next time.

Terms to Know
Third Side

An approach to conflict resolution developed by the Harvard Negotiation Project, which takes into account the perspectives and interests of those affected by a conflict as well as the conflict's parties.