Alternatives to Violence

The Chain of Violence

“Violence has been with us forever!”

“It’s basic human nature to be violent.”

“Look at the animals in the jungle. We’re just the same as them!”

Sound familiar? You’ve probably heard people talk about violence in this way. Many people believe that violence is basic to human nature; that violence has been deeply imbedded in the human brain since the beginning of time; that there is nothing we can do about it.

But many scientists who study human behavior think differently. They believe that humans have learned to use violence in response to a more basic fact of life—conflict. Some of these scientists suggest that, if human beings have learned to use violent methods to deal with conflict in the past, they can learn to use other, more constructive methods to deal with conflict in the future.

For example, when people are able to describe a conflict clearly, they stand a better chance of solving a problem before it turns violent. In order to describe a conflict, it is helpful to understand what elements, or ingredients, must be combined to produce a conflict. Although conflicts usually arise out of a number of elements, they are always influenced by cause and effect. You’ve seen it happen—Terry insults Jody, Jody pushes Terry, Terry pushes back harder, and so on. Cause and effect can link a series of elements into a chain that leads to violence. What are some of the links in that chain?

According to Carol Miller Lieber, an educator at Washington University, conflict usually begins with a lack of information. People in conflict often don’t know enough about each other to solve a problem they share. This lack of information leads to misunderstanding and the discovery of different goals, needs, values, or opinions. Barriers of race, language, age, or gender can turn up the heat on conflict.

These differences can be described as opposing points of view. At this stage in a conflict, people who hold opposite points of view will begin to argue. If they do not deal positively with their problem, they will resort to verbal threats or attacks to describe their differences. At this stage, the conflict often generates a flashpoint, behavior that triggers a physical attack from another group or individual.

Teens Believe They Learn to be Violent

In a recent study conducted by Children’s Institute International, three out of four teen-ages said that they believed that violent behavior is learned. Of those, 43 percent think that violence is learned from parents. Another 20 percent say it is learned from television. Approximately 15 percent say it is learned from friends or others in the neighborhood. Additionally, young people who have carried a knife or gun in the past year are significantly more likely to believe that violence is learned. 

 Today, educators, social service experts, and psychologists are developing programs that teach young people how to resolve conflicts without using violence. What are these programs and how do they work? Have they gotten good results? Can anyone start a conflict resolution program? There are several different types of conflict resolution programs. Most of these programs move beyond a simple avoidance of violence to bring people face to face with the deeper, underlying elements of conflict.

Conflict Resolution Programs

Most conflict resolution programs are based on the premise that people can control emotions that arise out of conflict and lead to violent action. These programs are usually designed to provide people with skills they need to deal with conflict as it unfolds. Most conflict resolution programs focus on developing strong communication and problem-solving skills. Role-play activities are particularly useful in developing conflict resolution skills because they allow participants to experience what “the other side” feels and to understand the consequences—positive and negative—of a broad range of responses to conflict.

The primary goal of conflict resolution is to deal with the problem of violence, to keep individuals safe, healthy, and alive. But conflict resolution also encourages young people to peacefully address cultural and racial differences—skills that are necessary for survival in a multicultural world.

For example, at Roosevelt High, a San Francisco Bay Area high school, 53 percent of students are Asian; 42 percent are Latino. The school resonates to the sound of 15 different languages. In the past, racial issues often led to violence. By using conflict resolution techniques to explore the causes and effects of racial tension, students are now sharing their different cultural backgrounds instead of fighting over them. “We basically learned how to work together on little problems like misunderstandings and big problems like racism,” said one Roosevelt High student. Dealing skillfully and methodically with a serious problem like racism on campus can help young people overcome feelings of helplessness and distrust. As they explore the causes and effects of racial conflict, they begin to feel more powerful and in control of their lives.

Peer Mediation

Mediation relies on a neutral third party to help groups or individuals deal with conflict. Peer mediation is one of the most popular forms of conflict resolution. Peer mediation is particularly effective in dealing with conflict between young people. Today’s school-based, peer mediation programs got their start in the 1980s. They were part of a response to the increase in violence that affected many middle and high schools. Early peer mediation programs were modeled after successful adult programs, where community volunteers intervened to settle conflicts between landlords and tenants, consumers and local merchants, or squabbling neighbors. These neighborhood programs were guided by the idea that members of a community are best equipped to resolve all but the most serious of their own disputes, without having to rely on lawyers, the police, or the courts.

Like their adult counterparts, student mediators are taught conflict resolution techniques. Mediators can use these techniques to help fellow students settle disputes without having to turn to a teacher, counselor, or principal. Peer mediation programs work well in schools because young people usually connect better with each other than with adults. As one student described it, “When kids talk to other kids their age, they make them feel more comfortable to open up.” And when young people come up with their own solutions to problems, they are taking control of their own lives. They are more likely to work hard and follow through on plans and projects that they have created to address their own problems.

According to the originators of SCORE (Student Conflict Resolution Experts), a successful peer mediation program in Massachusetts, students will grow to trust a well-planned program because it works. SCORE’s results have been encouraging: Over a six-year period, more than 6,500 conflicts have been successfully mediated. Many of these conflicts involved violence, and many of them revolved around serious racial issues that pitted large groups of students against each other. Ninety-five percent of SCORE’s mediations produced written agreements; less than 3 percent of these agreements have been broken.

An effective peer mediation program should have the capacity to mediate a high volume of conflicts. It should include all types of students as mediators and should be useful in settling even the most challenging disputes, including racial and multi-party disputes. SCORE recommends 20 to 25 hours of hands-on training that develops listening, communication and problem-solving skills. Mediators need to learn how to remain neutral in conflicted situations and to help the conflicted parties look beneath the surface for the root causes of conflict. Most important, peer mediation training should include numerous role-plays that give future mediators hands-on experience in dealing with conflict situations.

One student mediator commented on how the SCORE program made a difference in his life. He said: “Before I got into SCORE, there was no other way...but fighting. You would never think, ‘Well, I’m going to sit down and try to talk with this person. Let’s see if we can work something out.’ I never thought that way. But now I do.”


In negotiation, there is no independent third party: individuals or groups in conflict use agreed-upon ground rules that allow them to work toward an agreement. In order for negotiation to succeed, both parties must want to find a solution. Neither side must try to win. And both sides must be willing to move away from their original, conflicted position. At the same time, both parties must learn to stand up for their own needs, even if they have to change their position.

Strong communications skills are critical in negotiation, so that both sides can clearly express and understand each other’s feelings, needs, and desires. Most important, the parties in conflict must set down and follow guidelines. These guidelines must describe shared interests, for example, “We both need to be able to come to school.” As each party suggests possible solutions to the problem, they can evaluate them by determining if they fall within the guidelines for shared interest.

Other Violence Prevention Methods

Below is a brief survey of other programs and methods for managing and resolving conflicts before they escalate into violence:

Crime prevention and law-related education programs describe how the criminal justice system responds to crime, explore public policy options for dealing with crime, and teach young people how to become involved in making their communities safer.

Gun violence education programs highlight the threats and consequences involved in the mishandling of guns and offer alternatives to solving problems with guns.

Life skills training programs may not address violence directly, but they can help young people learn how to avoid violence. Life skills programs usually offer methods to resolve conflict and develop friendships with peers and adults. Young people learn how to resist negative peer pressure and deal with issues of intergroup conflict.

Recreation programs cannot prevent youth violence by themselves, but they are attractive to young people and work well when linked up with other violence prevention programs. Sports are good outlets for stress and anger, teamwork teaches cooperation, and keep young people off the street and away from possible violence.

Violence prevention programs work best when they are combined with other efforts. For example, efforts to keep weapons out of school can benefit from the support and understanding of parents, local government, the police, and of social or psychiatric services for at-risk youth. The whole community benefits the most when the whole community participates in dealing with the problem of youth violence.

For Discussion

1. In your opinion, is violence an integral part of human nature?

2. How can a conflict lead to violence? What are some links in the chain of cause and effect?

3. Who do you think are better qualified to resolve youth conflicts:  young people or adults?

4. Most violence prevention programs have not yet been evaluated. Do you think they are effective? Why or why not?

5. Imagine that you are the principal of a middle school. You are concerned with student violence. What kind of prevention program
    would you adopt? Why?]


This Online Lesson is made possible by a generous grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation.



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