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Book review: The Third Side


Book reviews > The Third Side


This is a definitive book on conflict management by the uber-guru of negotiation and mediation. Ury has mediated in the Middle East, the Balkans, N. Ireland and many other places.

Fighting is natural and human, and is the ultimate approach. But it is destructive and win-lose at best. Revenge and feuding turns it into lose-lose. Ury points out how the win-lose of the agrarian society is giving way to both-win or both-lose of the knowledge society as hierarchical control is being fractured by knowledge networks.

The 'third side' is the person on the sidelines in a conflict who wants to help. Third-siders can be neighbors, neutrals, bystanders, family, friends. Event the warring parties themselves can take the third side. This book describe ten roles that this person can take.

Their goal is always to prevent conflict before it happens. Even the presence of a third person will calm conflict, but doing nothing does not optimize the help they can give.

Three strategies (and roles within each) are offered to manage increasing levels of conflict: 

  • Prevent (Provider, Teacher, Bridge-builder)
  • Resolve (Mediator, Arbiter, Equalizer, Healer)
  • Contain (Witness, Referee, Peacekeeper)

Ury describes these ten roles in detail and shows how they can be played in combination, even with the same person playing more than one role.

1. Provider

When there is conflict is often over scarce resources the Provider finds ways for both sides to get what they need, even deep needs such as love, safety and esteem. They can also provide knowledge to enable intelligent decisions.

2. Teacher

People often fight because they know of no other way to resolve
their differences. The Teacher shows them how to handle conflict without resorting to violence and arms.

3. Bridge-builder

People in conflict often become separated by deep divides which lead to ignorant stereotyping, etc. The Bridge-builder builds ways across the dividing chasm, for example by building trust, showing how the others are human too.

4. Mediator

Where there are conflicting interests, the Mediator tries to bring them to the table. If this fails, they use shuttle diplomacy, going back and forth. Sometimes a higher authority may be able to coerce them to the table.

5. Arbiter

When there are disputed rights or when mediation fails, the Arbiter acts a judge and selects a final solution, to which both parties must agree to be bound.

6. Equalizer

Where there is unequal power, the powerful may not seek help but the powerless deserve it. Their position of greater power may cause the powerful to rethink and bring them to the table.

7. Healer

Injured relationships can fester if left alone. The Healer seeks to calm emotion and soothe hurt, for example by listening and acknowledging within a climate of healing.

8. Witness

When nobody pays attention, atrocities may be committed. The Witness needs only see and tell the truth. Just by their presence, they may also dissuade the wrong-doer.

9. Referee

When people resort to conflict without rules, people get really hurt. When you cannot stop them fighting, the Referee at least sets and polices the rules.

10. Peacekeeper

Where people are completely vulnerable, they are open to easy attack. The Peacekeeper provides safety for the victims, interpose themselves between the warring parties and enforcing the peace.


Overall, this is a wonderful must-have book for any mediator. Even though it may be a bit specialized for many persuaders, it will be a surprisingly useful addition to the bookshelf.


Buy Me

William Ury, The Third Side, Penguin Books, NY, 2000

The definitive book on mediation from the co-author of Getting to Yes and other books. Ury describes ten roles anyone can play when they find themselves between two warring parties.

See also the review of this book.



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