By Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess
The highly escalated, increasingly dehumanized, and deeply intractable nature of today's big conflicts can threaten pretty much anything that we have ever really cared about. In the United States and far too many other places, these conflicts have now reached the point where it seems that most everyone has concluded that compromise is no longer a realistic option and that, like it or not, they are involved in a win-lose confrontation that they simply cannot afford to lose.
In conflicts that are that important, it is particularly important that one uses the best possible conflict engagement strategies. That may not involve compromise or conciliation with the other side, but it does need to involve a good understanding of the nature of the conflict dynamics, as well as an understanding of strategies that are most likely to make things better (for you and ideally for society as a whole), not worse.
Right now in the United States, it seems that the confrontation strategies that both sides are using are not doing that at all—they are making things worse for both sides and society as a whole. Political polarization continues to escalate, stalemate is a frequent occurrence, and serious problems remain unaddressed.
Although a sophisticated understanding of conflict dynamics tends to be the domain of conflict “experts,” – scholars, mediators, and lawyers – many people have grown to be distrustful of these “experts” and “neutral intermediaries.” They worry, for example, that mediators will pressure them into making unwanted compromises. Or, if they do compromise, they fear they will be double crossed. So, rather than compromising, many pursue a no-holds-barred confrontation strategy that just increases polarization and stalemate.
The alternative that avoids these risks --specifically for advocates and partisans—is Constructive Confrontation*.
The purpose of this seminar is to highlight what we mean by the term “constructive confrontation,” to (briefly) explain how it is different from what most advocates are doing now, and to explain things that everyone – including YOU! – can do to confront YOUR personal and our societal conflicts more constructively.
Introduction: What is Constructive Confrontation and Why Do We Need It?
- Confront Constructively This TTDTH post answers these questions and gives an overview of the kinds of activities that are required for advocates to confront conflicts more constructively than is the norm, thereby better protecting their own interests than they can with "business-as-usual" confrontation.
First Steps: Things to Think about Before You Jump into the Fray.
- Pick Your Fights--Let Things Go When You Can. Fights cost a lot and may be lost. If you can “live and let live,” it is often much better (and easier) for all.
- Don't Take the "Hate Bait" Hate begets hate, fear, anger, and eventually violence. Don't fall into the trap! And if you are in, climb out!
- See the Complexity It's not Just "Us versus Them" Parties, issues, dynamics, power, and relationships are among the conflict elements that one must clearly understand before choosing a strategy of engagement.
- First, Do No Harm Doctors promise to, at a minimum, “do no harm.” People who want to engage in conflicts should do the same.
Next Steps: Once You Are In—Plan your Strategy
- Be Willing to Consider the Possibility That You May Be Wrong Most of us are so enmeshed in our own worldviews that we don't consider that we might be wrong. It helps to listen to outsiders and consider that possibility.
- Focus on Fixing the Problem, Not Attacking People Attacking people makes them angry. Enlisting their help to solve a mutual problem is more likely to work as hoped.
- Seek Co-existence, Not Total Victory The demand for total victory is a recipe for continuing and deepening strife--co-existence is essential for peace.
- Understand Your--and Others'--Fundamental Human Needs Fundamental needs are common drivers of conflict. But they don't have to be.
- Minimize the Use of Force Exchange and respect are more powerful than force--they persuade without causing backlash.
- Persuade People By Meeting Their Interests Too If you can let the other side win something too, the chances of cooperation go way up.
- Try Collaboration First! If we dig below positions, we often can collaborate with "our enemies" to the benefit of all.
- Allow Your Opponents to "Save Face." No one likes to be humiliated--allowing your opponent to save face will help defuse a conflict.
- Find Others to Work With Alone we can do a little bit, but with others we can accomplish much more. Collaboration works!
How to Communicate Constructively
- Treat EVERYONE With Respect Respect is free to give, yet its payback is huge: breaking down stereotypes and often earning respect in return.
- Listen To and Talk With (not to) the Other Side Even if you think you know what the other side thinks, you likely don't--and they don't know you either.
- Listen Actively and Empathically Empathic listening is amazingly powerful--sometimes that is all that is needed to defuse destructive conflicts.
- Practice - and Preach - Civility in Public and Private Discourse Incivility begets more of the same, while civil discourse can help de-escalate conflict and improve relationships.
- Break Down Negative Stereotypes Don’t assume a person you don’t know is just like you expect them to be. Give them a chance to surprise you!
Roles Each of Us Can Play
This section is based on William Ury's concept of the "Third Side."
- Play a "Third Side Role" "Third siders" are disputants and outsiders - united in a desire to transform conflicts for the better.
- Be a Provider Conflict usually arises from frustrated needs, like safety, identity, love and respect. Providers are those who help others attain such needs.
- Be a Conflict Resolution Teacher Educators play a critical role in preventing or de-escalating conflict. Teaching tolerance and critical thinking and helping to break down stereotypes can help disputants manage their own conflicts more constructively.
- Be a Bridge Builder A relationship operates like savings in the bank; whenever an issue arises, the parties can dip into their account of goodwill to help deal with it. Bridge building, or the act of building relationships, takes place all around us, sometimes without us even perceiving it.
- Be a Mediator – Mediators get involved in a dispute in order to help the parties resolve it. Unlike arbitrators or judges, mediators have no power to define or enforce an agreement, but they can help the parties to voluntarily reach agreement.
- Be an Arbiter Arbitrators listen to the arguments of both sides in a dispute and issue a final and binding decision. Arbitration is used for cases that either cannot be negotiated, or where negotiation has failed.
- Be an Equalizer Stronger parties often refuse to negotiate with weaker parties. This is where the equalizer comes in. Each of us is capable of empowering the weak and the unrepresented. This essay discusses the role of the equalizer in intractable conflicts.
- Be a Healer Conflict often leaves deep wounds. Even if a conflict appears resolved, the wounds may remain and, with them, the danger that the conflict could recur. The role of the healer is to restore injured relationships.
- Be a Witness In Bloomington, Indiana, a group called "Moms on Patrol" walks the streets with cell phones, looking out for dangerous gang activity, and reporting it to the police. By watching carefully, witnesses like Moms on Patrol can prevent escalation of conflict and even save lives.
- Sound the Alarm People don't realize how destructive their conflict behaviors often are: we must sound the alarm to spur change!
- Be a Referee If and when people do fight, it is important to reduce the harm. Referees set limits on fighting.
- Be a Peacekeeper When violence breaks out, the community needs to employ measures to stop harmful conflict in its tracks. The police and UN peacekeepers can act as peacekeepers, but it is a community function too. Parents, teachers, co-workers all can be peacekeepers in their own domains, as is described in this essay.
*We have a new initiative called the "Constructive Conflict Initiative" which is calling for a dramatically expanded, long-term effort to improve society's ability to constructively address the full scale and complexity of the challenges posed by destructive conflict. While related to the ideas presented here, the Constructive Conflict Initiative is much broader than this Seminar. We apologize for the potential confusion, but each title does say, we think, what the materials are about better than alternative titles.