Prospective Reconciliation: What Should We Work For—And How?

Heidi Burgess

January, 2021

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This video explains why it is important to understand what you mean by "reconciliation"--in other words, what your ultimate goal is, before you design processes or make structural changes to obtain it.  It also stresses the importance of developing one's future goal in collaboration with all interested groups, including ones you consider to be on the other side.  If you develop your goals alone, pushback or noncooperation on the other side will most likely prevent you from succeeding.

Full Transcript:

Slide 1. This is Heidi Burgess. Today I want to talk about prospective reconciliation, which is my term for looking ahead and trying to figure out how you're going to live with the group you are in conflict with, and what the goal is that you're looking for as you work toward reconciliation.

Slide 2. Again, I want to start with a little bit of history. When I first started teaching about reconciliation, I envisioned that there were stages, using the rocket metaphor I talked about before. The stages started with setting the stage, with peacekeeping and peacemaking, and then retrospective reconciliation, which was looking backwards and seeking the truth and obtaining justice. Stage 3 was looking forward, forging a positive view of the future and then Stage 4 was working on small-scale and Stage 5, large-scale implementation.  But I was always a bit uneasy about that notion, because rockets aren't complex,they are only complicated.

Slide 3. So I switched to a baking metaphor, which also isn't exactly complex, but at least instead of having stages, I thought of the things in terms of ingredients.  So you could alter the order in which you did things, and you could alter the amount of what you did.

Slide 4. But then I heard Ebrahim Rasool speak at PeaceCon 2020, where he said "Start with the end." By that he meant that we, in the United States, should do what the Blacks did in South Africa and start with an image of where they wanted to get to. In South Africa, that was the notion that South Africa belong to everyone who lived there. So that defined the goal that they were working towards, and they started to work on developing the processes and structures that would allow that vision to come about.

Slide 5. So while I still say that the order is flexible, after hearing that talk, which was very persuasive, I decided to switch what I called the ingredients in the "recipe" ...

Slide 6. so that ingredient two is prospective reconciliation and ingredient three is retrospective reconciliation.  That is consistent with the line that I often use when I'm teaching which is "you can't get somewhere if you don't know where you're going." So it makes a lot of sense to figure out what reconciliation is, what the goal is that you're trying to reach, before you start working on reaching it.

Slide 7. So how do we decide on a goal? Do we do it alone? Do we do it together? And, if we do it together, with whom?

Slide 8.  Well, if you believe what Rasool said, we should do it with everyone who lives here!

Slide 9. Now I'm aware of the fact that that's quite controversial. For a start, it implies that all those who entered the U.S. illegally should be allowed to stay. That, obviously, is very controversial.  But beyond that, a lot of people on both the left and the right believe that their values, their priorities, their ideas about right and wrong--attitudes, behaviors, policies are the "right ones" or "the truth," and the only way they would be willing to reconcile with people who think otherwise is if those people agreed to their own "proper" view.  Of course, when both sides feel that way, reconciliation cannot happen.

Slide 10.  Until we can agree on one truth, which gets increasingly difficult the more we watch our preferred news media which spin the "news" however they see fit to please their audiences,  

Slide 11. I argue that we are heading to a category five sociopolitical hurricane here in the U.S., and the same is true elsewhere as well.

Slide 12. Of course, the situation in the United States has been bad for quite some time. We got a small image of how bad it might get on January 6 when right-wing protesters supporting Trump stormed the US capital, which up until that day, I would think almost everybody believed was completely unthinkable!  But now it's real, and it, apparently, has been used quite successfully as a recruitment tool for these right-wing groups who are getting more and more people on board. Even worse, they apparently saw the capitol attack as a great success, which reinforced the idea that violence is the way to accomplish their goals. That is not likely to end well.

Slide 13. So, I would argue that we really have no choice. We can go down the road to the category five hurricane. Or we can go the other direction, to calmer waters. Now, notice, I don't have a picture of a completely still body of water. There's waves there, but they're small. We want to move to a place where there still is conflict and there still is disagreement, but it's handled in manageable ways.

Slide 14. When we design policies from one side only, we get continuing polarization and strife. We tried doing that several times in the past.  Obama pledged to be a president for all the people, but then he pursued his agenda without the cooperation of the right.  Now this wasn't entirely (maybe at all) his fault.  It was his only choice, because the Republican's goal, rather than solving problems or governing, seemed to be to block anything Obama wanted to do, even if, if a Republican had proposed the same thing, they might have been for it. So it wasn't entirely his fault. Then we got Trump who never had any intention of cooperating or listening to or treating the left with anything but contempt. So polarization keeps on rising and rising, and were heading straight towards that hurricane.

Slide 15. If we want to try the road to reconciliation, it is important to note--it is not a smooth one.  It's really tough!

Slide 16## But we have the knowledge; we have the tools; and we have the experience to pull it off. Let me flesh that out a little bit.

Slide 17. There is lots and lots of knowledge available on how to resolve conflicts effectively, how to engage in reconciliation processes effectively, how to get people with very disparate interests and goals and needs to cooperate and work together. This is what you're learning at the Carter School. This is what they teach at Harvard's Program on Negotiation. This is what all 10 or 20,000 articles on Beyond Intractability are all about. The knowledge is out there. We don't have to invent it from scratch!

Slide 18. And we have the tools. The Constitution has already addressed a lot of things that we are fighting about, and despite many complaining about how it is outdated (or fundamentally evil in the first place), I would argue that it still has a great deal of value.  The Bill of Rights.  The 13th Amendments, abolishing slavery.  The 14th Amendments assuring due process. The 15th, prohibiting the denial of the right to vote on the basis of race or former condition of servitude. The 19th, giving women the right to vote. All of these amendments have made it better.  And we may decide to improve it still! But it remains the bedrock foundation of our rule of law, which while gravely challenged over the last four years, was ultimately what saved our democracy. At least this time.  Along with the constitution, the courts and the Congress are also very important to upholding and evolving our rule of law.  Despite Trump "packing" the courts with conservative judges from the Supreme Court on down, when it came to asserting that the rule of law was more important than politics, all the courts--over 70 of them, held firm.  They upheld the rule of law.  They preserved U.S. democracy. So we have institutions that still do work, which is not always the case in deeply-divided societies, especially those that are emerging from authoritarian regimes or civil wars.

Conflict resolvers also know that legal mechanisms have a lot of problems and informal mechanisms such as mediation, which is what the lower right icon is supposed indicate, produced superior outcomes in many situation.  And  we have many thousands of people trained in mediation in this country. So we have the ability to scale up to mediate many more conflicts with our knowledge and our tools.

Slide 19. We also have the experience we need. This is just an example of three very experienced organizations that help people come together across divides and work out their differences. There are many, many more.  Search for Common Ground is the largest peace building organization in the world, which is working in over 30 countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the U.S.A, and has been doing so since 1982. It's founder, John Marks, founded search to "introduce a new concept: we all 'win" when the focus is on what we want to achieve, not what divides us."  Now, he didn't mean that this way, but a second interpretation of those words is that we should look first to or goals ("start with the end") before we look at our past, which is what divided us, and what we did when we were so divided. As I said, that view is debatable, but in my mind it holds merit, for the same reason Mark originally spoke those words--focusing on commonality takes us farther than focusing on difference. 

The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, NCDD, is actually an umbrella organization which brings together over 700 organizations and individuals who do dialogue and deliberation in the United States and beyond.

And finally, Essential Partners, which used to be called the Public Conversations Project, which was founded in 1989 with the goal of equipping "people to live and work better together in community by building trust and understanding across differences." To do that, they have facilitated 1000s of dialogues, first starting with Abortion, and continuing on to many other very deep-rooted, intractable conflicts in both the U.S. and abroad. Although they didn't frame what they did in terms of "reconciliation" per se, I'd argue that the goal of building trust and understanding across difference is, indeed, working toward reconciliation.  These three organizations are three of my favorites, but there are many (probably 1000s) of others. 

Slide 20. One other organization that I will mention here is the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice, which was part of Search for Common Ground, and also ran abortion dialogues in the 1990s. BI contributor Michelle LeBaron and Nike Carstarphen evaluated their work and published an article about it in the Negotiation Journal in 1997.

Slide 21. In this article, LeBaron and Carstarphen point out that reconciliation is usually seen as one of the last conflict resolution processes (out of the right side of that bell curve on conflict stages, after peacemaking after peacekeeping, but they observed that "occasionally, however, emotional issues will block even entry into negotiation.  This might be especially true when deeply held values and beliefs are central to a conflict, as in the abortion conflict. In these circumstances, reconciliation must take place in the first stages of a process to resolve the conflict." (p. 349)  

Slide 22. Similarly to Public Conversations/Essential Partners, the Common Ground Network's goals were understanding, and fostering intergroup civility and coexistence.  But the Common Ground Network went farther than PCP/EP by having a third goal of "act[ting] together when it furthers overlapping interests and values.  PCP was careful, at least in the early days when I was more familiar with their work than I am now, to completely avoid the words "common ground."  Founder Laura Chasin felt those words scared people away, because they had no interest in finding "common ground" with the other.  But if you read about their dialogues, or listen to their descriptions (look for interviews with Laura Chasin, Robert Stains, and SallyAnn Roth) on Beyond Intractability, you will learn that people who participated in those dialogues often did, indeed, find common ground, as well as understanding of and respect for "the other."  So while they may not say their goal is "reconciliation," that is what both of these organizations were and are doing, and they provide an example of the expertise we already have in how to do this.

Slide 23. We also have plenty of expertise in goal-setting and future visioning.  One notable example of this is the Cincinnati Police Community Relations Collaborative which was designed and carried out by a colleague of ours Jay Rothman. This took place in the early 2000s, after there were some police shootings in Cincinnati and tensions between the police and the community were very similar to the relations between police and communities that we are seeing today. Jay started what he called an a"action evaluation process," which actually was a process that looked not only backwards to examine what happened (truth in Lederach's conception of reconciliation), but it brought the whole community together--leaders and the grassroots-- to visualize how they wanted to see police community relations working in the future. 

Slide 24. The Cincinnati Collaborative was a very intense, long-running process, but similar shorter, yet still successful processes have been undertaken by members of the Community Relations Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice that has been trying to help communities heal racial conflicts since their formation with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  (If you are interested, Beyond Intractability's Civil Rights Oral History Project has transcriptions of extensive interviews we held with leading CRS mediators in the early 2000s. While these are now fairly old, they teach lessons about how to reconcile racial conflicts that are still very valid today.)

Slide 25.  And finally, I want to talk about Sierra Leone's Citizen's Manifesto.  I didn't know anything about that, until I watched a video that Shamil Idress  shared with me earlier this week. (There is a link to this video in the reference section, so you you can watch it yourself.  He and his wife (who is an expert in violent extremism) were interviewed on CNN about their work and how it related to the violence we just experienced in the U.S. on January 6.

I'd like to read the section of that interview that relates to what were talking about here. He said in Sierra Leone after the Civil War the tour that country apart in the lead up to an election that promised to be just as fractious as the one we had here if not worse, the citizens of that country joined together in the largest coalition of civil society organizations in the country's history as a united front and it said to all the political parties that you all have your political platforms, but we have developed a citizens manifesto with seven demands that no matter who wins, we want to see you do these things in the first hundred days.

Slide 26.  They went to basic things like financial transparency, women in the cabinet, things that a vast majority across political dividing lines, the majority of Sierra Leone citizens could agree to do.

We, as American's can do absolutely the same thing. But we need to start now. We need to start forging that common ground now. The need is urgent. The choices is in front of us.  Other countries have done it and so can we.

Slide 27. The choice is in front of us brought me right back to my forking road image, and “other countries have done it and so can we” reminding me of Kenneth Boulding’s “First Law” Indeed, it happened in Sierra Leone.  It happened in Cincinnati.  Essential Partners works toward reconciliation every day and has since the 1990s.  I agree with Shamil—we can do this!  It is possible!

Slide 28.  So far all this talk has been about process, so I want to spend just a few minutes talking about substance. It seems to me that the one thing that people really need to focus on when they are trying to define what would allow a people to live together successfully is John Burton's focus on human needs. Like Kenneth Boulding, John Burton was another early founder of the field, who was focused on the centrality of human needs in deep-rooted, intractable conflict. He built on Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of fundamental human needs, pulling out three in particular that he thought deeply related to deep-rooted conflicts:  identity, security and recognition. Burton maintained that when individuals or groups do not have those three needs fulfilled , deep-rooted, often violent conflict was inevitable. He therefore  advocated finding ways to fulfill those needs as a way to reach full resolution of a conflict as opposed to superficial settlement, which might be obtained by negotiating on the basis of interests alone.  So I would argue that substantively, one of the key aspects of reconciliation has to be respecting everybody's identity, assuring their security and giving them recognition for their accomplishments.

Slide 2.  One other Kenneth Bolding idea is important here and that's his peaks and mesa theory. Boulding pointed out that the goal of a peacemaking process (and I would say a reconciliation process) should not be perfection, when everything is worked out perfectly to all sides' satisfaction (because, for a start, that would be impossible.) Rather the goal should be an agreement and implementation of that agreement that is "good enough" to avoid the cliffs or the catastrophes.  Using the metaphor, anywhere on the mesa top is fine.  You don't have to climb to the very summit. What is important is that you don't fall off the cliff at the side--mixing metaphors now, you don't want to fall into that category five hurricane.

Slide 30.  This relates to an idea I should have put in the introductory video about reconciliation, but forgot to.  Reconciliation is a continuum, it is not a duality.  So it is not a choice between full reconciliation and total war, or even full reconciliation and extreme polarization, fear, distrust, hatred and violence, which is where I saw the U.S. on January 6, at the end of Trump's term.  How far Biden will be able to move us to the right on this diagram remains to be seen, but that's the direction he is trying to move, and, I'd argue, if he just gets us up on that mesa, not to the top of the Matterhorn, that will be a great accomplishment!

Slide 31.  Another example of the peak and mesa theory is the approach Guy and I took with our co-editor Paul Wehr when we wrote and edited the book Justice without Violence.  This was an edited book that we did in the 1990s, with about 15 other authors.  We were all looking at ways to obtain justice, using nonviolence instead of violent strategies.  Before we started writing, we got all of the authors together and we tried to decide what we meant by "justice."  After many hours of debate, we couldn't agree.  So we decided to bring in some experts-- some philosophers-- to tell us what justice was. Well! That just got us bogged down even more because philosophers certainly don't agree what justice is. Arguing about such things endlessly is their bread and butter!

So we just finally decided to use a Boulding's Peak and Mesa theory.  Rather than deciding on the perfect definition of justice (the peak) we found it was easy to agree on what injustice was:  slavery, taking away people's homes and herding them onto reservations, putting people in internment camps, concentration, re-education camps, genocides, gross inequality of income and wealth. Everybody could agree that those things were unjust. So what we decided to look at , despite the title, was how to eliminate gross injustice without violence. That was the mesa approach.

Slide 32.  I mention this here because it holds an important lesson for those seeking “justice” now in the United States.  Just today I read an article in the New York Times  (January 21, 2021) entitled “Charlottesville Inspired Biden to Run.  Now It Has a Message for Him.”  The message, it says, in the subtitle is:  “Now, as President Biden calls for national unity, residents say it requires accountability first.” I have heard this echoed by many people who call for justice before considering peace or mercy.  No doubt, justice in some form in essential for reconciliation.  That form may, indeed, include accountability as demanded in this article.  But I would advise that justice advocates look for the mesa top, not the summit of the mountain, and consider how justice needs to be combined with truth, justice, and mercy to obtain reconciliation.  Should justice come first, the other three later?  That  will be a matter of later discussion!

Slide 33.  So we have the knowledge we have the tools and we have the experience. If we put those together and take that very bumpy road. The path ahead is likely to be much calmer and much more beautiful.

Slide 34.  And we have Boulding's First Law--we know reconciliation processes work and the end goal of reconciliation, at least as you define it as a mesa and not a peak, can be obtained.

Slide 35. So isn't it time that we gather up our knowledge, our tools, and our experience and head out on that bumpy, rutted road?  If we do, instead of a hurricane, we just might find beautiful calming water ahead.


Slide 4: Heidi Burgess, "Ebrahim Rasool on What America Might Learn From South Africa's 300+ Years of Struggle." Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog, Beyond Intractability.

Slides 21, 22, 23: Michelle LeBaron and Nike Carstarhen "Negotiating Intractable Conflict: The Common Ground Dialogue Process and Abortion" Negotiation journal, 1997-10, Vol.13 (4), p.341-361.

Slide 24: and and Jay Rothman "Identity and Conflict: Collaboratively Addressing Police-Community Conflict in Cincinnati, Ohio. Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution. Vol 22:1 2006. 

Slide 25: and Beyond Intractabllity's Civil Rights Oral History Project:

Slides 26-27: Shamil Idriss and Cynthia Miller Idriss on CNN:

Slide 33: Astead W. Herndon." Charlottesville Inspired Biden to Run. Now It Has a Message for Him."  New York Times Jan. 21, 2021.


Photo Credits:

Slide 2: Saturn rocket pic:  Source: Attribution:  Jim Evans. CC BY-SA 4.0

Slides 3, 5 and 6 : Flour and eggs: Author: Daniell Langford Public Domain (CCO), sugar: Douglas P Perkins, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons,  Butter:  CCO, Vanilla: CCO.Cookies: Rdsmith4, CC BY-SA 2.5 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.

Slides 4 : South Africa Map: Htonl, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons,  

Black women:,_Eastern_Cape,_South...(20324205860).jpg. South African Tourism from South Africa, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

White women:  Unsplash:

Slides 8 and 9: Map; Created by:  User:Wapcaplet in Inkscape This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Slide 10: Fox news: Rae Whitlock from Columbus, OH, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons. Msnbc: BadPiggies, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 11: Hurricane: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center from Greenbelt, MD, USA, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 12: TapTheForwardAssist, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 13: Hurricane: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center from Greenbelt, MD, USA, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons and Waves: Heidi Burgess author.

Slide 14: Hurricane: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center from Greenbelt, MD, USA, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.  Map: Angr, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.

Slide 15: Smooth road:  Creative Commons (CC) license. Jeep: Creator: Jeff Brint Copyright: (CC BY-NC 3.0) Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported

Slide 16, 34  and 35: Pixabay. Free for commercial use w/o attribution. Essential Partners: and

Slide 17:   GMU:, Harvard:,  BI Knowledge Base:

Slide 18: Constitution: Pixabay. Free for commercial use w/o attribution

Supreme Court: Pixabay. Free for commercial use w/o attribution

Capitol: Pixabay. Free for commercial use w/o attribution

Mediation Triad:  By Luis Prado, US  (CC by 3.0 license.)

Slides 19 and 20: Essential Partners:, Search for Common Ground:, NCDD:

Slides 26-27: Shamil Idriss and Cynthia Miller Idriss on CNN:

Slide 28: urricane: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center from Greenbelt, MD, USA, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons and Waves: Heidi Burgess author. and  Kenneth Boulding: 

Slide 29, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.

Slide 30: Kenneth Boulding: 

Peak:  By Leigha Schenk.  CC0 Public Domain.

Mesa: MARELBU, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 36: Jeep: Creator: Jeff Brint Copyright: (CC BY-NC 3.0) Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported.