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Conflict transformation

How people can work together to create a more peaceful future

Written by Ildephonse Niyokindi and David Couzens 2023

A husband and wife in Rwanda stand with their arms around each other and look out over a view of trees and hills

Following years of family conflict, Telesphore and Primitive in Rwanda now live in peace. Photo: Marcus Perkins/Tearfund

In Burundi, a smiling man stands in the middle of a group of seated women who are dressed in colourful clothes

From: Peace and reconciliation - Footsteps 121

Actions we can take to help build peace and foster reconciliation in our homes and communities

Small disagreements are part of everyday life, and most of the time they can be resolved quickly and effectively by talking things through, apologising and moving on.

However, if communication breaks down, a small disagreement – in a family, community, nation or region – can quickly grow into a much bigger problem.

For example, imagine two people are standing together and looking at a stream that has less water in it than usual. They are having a conversation about what to do. One person wants to divert the water onto crops, but the other thinks it should be used to power a watermill. At this point, if they work together it is likely that they will be able to find a solution that suits them both. 

But they start to argue and things quickly become personal. No longer are they standing side by side, focusing on resolving the problem. Instead, they are seeing each other as the problem. Their argument becomes louder, they say unkind things to each other, and they start to bring up disagreements from the past. It becomes increasingly difficult for them to find a way out of the situation.

Frustrated and angry, they stop talking to each other and instead talk about each other, surrounding themselves with people who agree with their point of view. The original problem then gets lost in a series of negative actions and responses: one group digs channels to divert the water onto crops; the other group breaks the channels so the water can flow to the mill; the first group damages the mill; the second group destroys the crops; and so the conflict grows. 

During this process of retaliation there is less and less direct communication and the facts become harder to recognise. Rumour and misinformation thrive, trust disappears and the level of violence increases.

A group of smiling Rwandan men and women lean over a small tree that they have just planted

Planting a tree during peacebuilding training in Kigali, Rwanda. Photo: David Couzens/Tearfund

Constructive dialogue

To break cycles of conflict and violence – big or small – we need to avoid responding in anger, try to understand each other and recognise that there is usually right and wrong on both sides. 

Ultimately, we need to go back to when it was just two people facing a common challenge. And instead of personalising the problem, we need to talk to each other and work together to find a solution that works for everyone.

Depending on the complexity of the situation, this can take a long time. Involving someone from outside the conflict may help. They can listen to both sides and encourage constructive dialogue until a solution is found. 


Even once a solution is found, it can be difficult for people to move on from conflict, especially if they have experienced any kind of trauma. Feelings of fear and anxiety are often combined with shame, humiliation and a desire for both safety and justice. 

If people try to ignore these feelings, they might emerge in the form of physical illness, flashbacks or nightmares. They may find themselves wanting to take revenge against those who have hurt them, or they might become frightened of people who are different.

It can be helpful if people affected by conflict are able to:

  • Talk freely, in a safe space, about the trauma and mourn for what they have lost: perhaps a home, land, family member, health, dignity or self-confidence.
  • Avoid getting trapped in the ‘Why me?’ question, asking instead, ‘Why them?’ What happened to cause the people on the other side of the conflict to believe that their actions were justified? 
  • Recognise that there is often wrongdoing on both sides during a conflict. Were there things that they themselves (or their group) should have done differently?
  • Choose to forgive, recognising that this does not mean forgetting what happened, or that what happened does not matter. 

Forgiveness can help people to move on from being victims, held back by the pain of what happened, to being survivors, acting in their own strength. However, they should never feel pressured into forgiving: it must be their decision. 

Illustration of how to break the conflict cycle

Without good communication and the restoration of relationships, even when a conflict appears to have ended, hidden hurts may cause it to start again. 

It can take many years before the decision to forgive moves from being an idea in someone’s head to a way of being. It has, however, been shown to be a vital step in healing from trauma, and it opens the door to reconciliation.


There is a complex relationship between the need to forgive and the desire for justice: for truth to be revealed and people to be held to account for their actions. If there is to be reconciliation and lasting peace, truth, justice, mercy and forgiveness all need to be present.

It can be helpful for people on both sides of the disagreement to be given the opportunity to talk to each other about how they have been hurt. If they are able to really listen to each other, this can aid healing and build understanding.

Over time, and with support, it is possible for survivors of conflict and trauma to tell a new story that does not see one side as aggressor and one as innocent victim. Instead, it recognises the complexity of the conflict and the pain that has been suffered by all. This creates opportunities for people and communities to work together to create a better, more peaceful future.

Written by

Written by  Ildephonse Niyokindi and David Couzens

Ildephonse Niyokindi is a Global Peacebuilding Officer with Tearfund and David Couzens is Tearfund’s Global Peacebuilding Lead

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