Preventing Interpersonal Violence

Michelle Maiese

April 2005


One of the greatest challenges facing humanity is learning how to prevent interpersonal conflicts from turning violent. In Brazil, the death toll from interpersonal and gang violence has reached the level of 50,000 deaths per year. [1] But what sorts of mechanisms exist for preventing violence, and how might these mechanisms be strengthened? In most cases, it is not community leaders, educators, or police officers that play a primary role in violence prevention. Rather, it is the individuals faced with interpersonal conflict who must choose whether to simply walk away from the dispute, resort to violence, or solve their differences cooperatively. They are the ones who must recognize interpersonal conflict need not always lead to violence and abuse.

However, in order to nonviolently resolve intense conflict, individuals often need help. For example, many communities, schools, police departments, and corporations have local mediation services that offer conflict resolution training and help people to settle disputes. The mechanisms capable of effectively preventing and controlling violence are most often based on the active intervention of people within the community itself, what William Ury calls the "third side."[2]This potential third side consists of friends, relatives, neighbors, bystanders, and other members of the surrounding community. All of these parties can play a constructive role in preventing violent conflict. They are the people who help disputants to find some common ground that can serve as the basis for agreement. In many cases, the third side is the community itself taking responsibility for its own conflicts. [3] Oftentimes it is the people who are closest to conflict that can play the most significant role in preventing violence.

Community Initiatives

Many attempts at violence prevention turn out to be community-based approaches with a complex division of labor among many different actors. Such actors include ministers, police, probation officers, businesses, schools, and parents. All of these parties have a different role to play in reducing latent tensions, addressing people's needs, and preventing violent conflict within their community. [4]

Violence prevention within communities is grounded in at least three important roles: the provider, the teacher, and the bridge-builder. [5] First is the provider. This is someone who attempts to fulfill the frustrated needs that often create conflict in the first place. To help prevent violence, community members should try to address important social issues, such as unemployment, economic problems, road repair, sanitation, and social unease. For example, it is typically helpful to acknowledge any racial or religious tensions that plague that community and to address any issues that tend to contribute to such conflict.

Second is the teacher. This individual helps to teach people how to resolve conflicts in ways more productive than violence. The way in which individuals learn to deal with anger and aggression begins in the home and continues at school. There therefore needs to be greater emphasis on teaching children how to resolve conflict rather than escalate it. Community-wide education campaigns can encourage families to take advantage of parenting skills classes, family therapy, and anger management programs. [6] The hope is that these sorts of education campaigns might mobilize individuals to learn about ways to prevent violence in their community.

In addition, many theorists recommend instituting a violence prevention curriculum in public schools. The capacity to see another's point of view and to learn alternatives to violence as a means of resolving conflicts is crucial. Schools can help prevent interpersonal violence by teaching children how to manage conflict through listening and talking, rather than using physical force. Teaching children how to function in a social setting without behaving violently towards those who stand in their way is the first step toward decreasing rates of physical assault. [7] Because education is thought to be an integral part of violence prevention, a whole section devoted to this subject is provided below.

The third role is that of the bridge builder. Violence prevention is largely a matter of trying to find ways to strengthen and mobilize the community. This requires finding ways to strengthen families, neighborhoods, schools, churches, and local politics. The bridge builder tries to organize joint projects that can create ties among community members and build relationships that cut across group differences. [8] Specific projects that can help bring community members together and give them the opportunity to discuss concerns include community-wide dialogues, forums, rallies, and celebrations. [9]

In the 1980s and 1990s, various efforts were made to reduce the amount of youth and gang violence in the Boston area. Such efforts included after-school and alternative-sentencing programs run by churches; cooperation among police officers and ministers to discourage youth from gang banging; ministers' collaboration with police, probation officers, and prosecutors to devise suitable punishments for gang activity; community policing; and the strengthening of schools, churches, and local politics. [From: Christopher Winship, "Reducing Youth Violence in Boston: Lessons from the 1990s," in Must We Fight?, ed. William Ury, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishing, 2002), 59-61.]

There are also various things that law enforcement officers can do to help prevent community violence. For example, police officers can conduct community outreach initiatives and collaborate with community leaders to discuss problems, concerns, and tensions affecting that community. A broad cross-section of these community leaders, working alongside police, can form a task force that reaches out to community members in a proactive manner.

This requires the maintenance of direct lines of communication between police officers and community leaders. Officers should explain and clarify police procedures and requirements to community leaders and enlist their help in maintaining order.

Working together, officers and leaders can stress the importance of respecting the rights of others and keeping the peace. [10]

In the United States, the Community Relations Service (CRS) [11] has devised guidelines to help communities implement mechanisms and procedures that will enable them to resolve conflict before they escalate into major disturbances. In particular, the CRS focuses on preventing and resolving interracial confrontation and hate violence. The organization recognizes that complaints or disagreements should be dealt with immediately at the local government level, before they reach the point of violence. One way to reduce racial tensions is to enact ordinances to insure equal opportunity and encourage compliance with these equal opportunity statutes. A municipality might also implement a comprehensive management system for the enforcement and protection of civil rights, as well as adopt a general ordinance outlining its commitment to positive race relations. [12]

Finally, insofar as individual behavior is shaped by psychological factors that have to do with one's family and upbringing, violence is a problem that oftentimes begins at home. After all, one of the most violent manifestations of interpersonal conflict is spousal abuse.

When physical violence, emotional abuse, or sexual abuse takes place in the household within which an individual grows up, that individual becomes more likely to perpetrate violence him/herself. Unfortunately, family life sometimes teaches people that violence is the only away to handle interpersonal conflict.

Community-wide campaigns aimed at challenging social norms that ignore or support violence should be developed. An important part of youth violence prevention is the development of community-based programs to prevent child abuse and domestic violence and thereby take violence out of the home. These programs should challenge the belief that family violence is a private and not a public concern, and encourage friends, neighbors, and relatives to reach out to at-risk families in order to break the terrible isolation that keeps them from getting help. [13]


As previously noted, one central component of violence prevention at the interpersonal and community level is education. Children and adolescents need to learn how to manage anger and aggression non-violently and to interact with others without resorting to force. [14] Some theorists have pointed out that whether they know it or not, schools are in the business of conflict resolution. The question is not whether approaches to conflict are being taught, but rather what methods are being taught. When conflict arises at school, common responses include physical aggression, insult, and appeal to an authority figure such as a parent or teacher. In other instances, students may simply ignore the conflict, refuse to listen, or even give in to a bully. While each of these responses is appropriate under some circumstances, a collaborative approach to conflict is often the best and only way to obtain satisfactory, long-term results. [15]

Some theorists point out that learning itself is a vital form of conflict prevention. The skills children learn in English, social studies, and math can help them to reason their way through stressful and dangerous situations and increase the likelihood that they use words rather than force to persuade. Their education may also enable them to better understand others' point of view and to think beyond the prevailing assumption that one has no choice but to fight. [16] In short, schools can prevent violence by insuring that all children are well served academically and by teaching children to manage conflict and anger.

Theorists also maintain that conflict resolution skills should be a fundamental part of schools' curriculum, discipline approach, and management style. In conflict resolution education, students have the opportunity to learn mediation skills such as active listening, anger management, conflict de-escalation, perspective taking, brainstorming, and distinguishing between interests and positions. [17] For example, many high schools have developed peer mediation and negotiation education programs to deal with bullying behavior. These programs aim to teach students about problem solving, enhance their capacity for tolerance, and train them to mediate among their peers. [18] Holding school mediations can sometimes help to enhance awareness of diverse communication styles, increase dialogue, and develop new solutions.

The YM-YWCA of Winnipeg, Canada, and the Junior League of Winnipeg, an organisation of women committed to education, advocacy and community action, have developed the Acting Peace project to identify and promote solutions to youth violence in Canadian high schools. Acting Peace is a Youth Violence Prevention Educational Resource and Tool Kit that challenges an individual's tolerance for and sensitivity to the presence of violence around them, increases their empathy and understanding of others, and helps develop constructive life management skills. It is comprised of a Resource Guide, artwork and graphics, a videotape, and a variety of exercises, activities and peer-led initiatives. Since the project's inception, over 250 youth, volunteers, professionals, 10 Winnipeg High Schools, and 21 Community Groups have contributed to the development and refinement of the core concepts and educational resources. The package has been re-worked and will serve as an educational resource that allows educators and administrators freedom to deliver the material in a regular curriculum unit. - From "Acting Peace: Violence Prevention Education for High Schools," Available online here.

There are also a variety of anti-bias projects for youth, teachers, and caregivers that are in place at schools and organizations throughout the nation. [19] A growing number of educators are committed to teaching people how to overcome prejudices and to manage anger constructively. These projects aim to train youth, teachers, and caregivers how to control their public expression of biases and constructively resolve conflict. Some of this training concentrates on helping people to understand why certain groups of people are targeted and dispel myths about these groups. Programs also emphasize anger management and provide trainees with the skills they need to diffuse and/or avoid violent confrontations. In many cases, they aim to change people's attitudes towards weapons and the use of violence to solve interpersonal disputes. [20] Many of the exercises involved rely upon role-plays and group discussion and emphasize the idea that people living in a diverse society need to learn how to live together peacefully.

Other Educational initiatives that work to create safe schools and communities include after school and enriched preschool programs, mentoring and employment programs, drug education and prevention programs, and family counseling. [21]

Initial studies suggest that in schools where children learn negotiation and mediation skills, the rate of violence goes down and overall school morale goes up. [22] The more conflict resolution techniques permeate a school's atmosphere, the greater students' social and emotional development and the lower the homicide and assault rates.



[1] William Ury, "Containing, Resolving, and Preventing Violent Conflict: Activating the Third Side in Urban Communities" in Must We Fight? From the Battlefied to the Schoolyard: A New Perspective on Violent Conflict and its Prevention, ed. William Ury. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishing, 2002), 55.

[2] For more about the "third side," see William Ury, The Third Side: Why We Fight and How We Can Stop, (New York: Penguin Publishing, 2000).

[3] Ury, 2002, 78.

[4] ibid., 81.

[5] ibid., 84.

[6] Janet Carter, "Domestic Abuse, Child Abuse, and Youth Violence: Strategies for Prevention and Early Intervention," Family Violence Prevention Fund, Available at: [7] Deborah Prothrow-Stith and Michaele Weissman, Deadly Consequences: How Violence is Destroying Our Teenage Population and a Plan to Begin Solving the Problem, (New York: HarperPerennial, 1991), 145.

[8] Ury, 2002, 84.

[9] "Twenty Plus Things Law Enforcement Officers can Do to Prevent or Respond to Hate Incidents," Community Relations Service, U.S. Department of Justice, Available at:

[10] ibid.

[11] The Community Relations Service is the U.S. Department of Justice's "peacemaker" for community conflicts and tensions associated with differences in race and national origin. Created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, CRS is dedicated to assisting state and community groups, both public and private, with preventing and resolving racial and ethnic conflict. It assists communities in developing local mechanisms that can prevent or reduce violent conflict.

[12] "Avoiding Racial Conflict: A Guide for Municipalities," Community Relations Service, The U.S. Department of Justice, Available at: [13] Carter, [14] Prothrow-Stith and Weissman, 1991, 145.

[15] Jeanne Asherman,"Decreasing Violence Through Conflict Resolution Education in Schools," Available at: [16] Prothrow-Stith and Weissman, 1991, 162.

[17] Asherman

[18] Ury, 2002, 104-5.

[19] Wendy Schwartz, "Anti-Bias and Conflict Resolution Curricula: Theory and Practice," ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education, Available at:

[20] ibid.

[21] Carter,

[22] Ury, 2002, 100.

Use the following to cite this article:
Maiese, Michelle. "Preventing Interpersonal Violence." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: April 2005 <>.

Additional Resources