Ted Wetzel's Disagreement Fitness

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Newsletter 137 — July 18, 2023


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By Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess 

At the end of Newsletter 131 on Bridging the Theory/Action Gap, we asked readers for comments. Ted Wetzel, the creator of Dinner and a Fight  Dialogue (that's not an error, that's the name for Ted's process), shared some thoughts with us and told us about his idea of "Disagreement Fitness," which is similar, we think, to our idea of Constructive Confrontation.  We explore the similarities and differences below.


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The Core Idea of Both Disagreement Fitness and Constructive Confrontation

The central idea of both of these conflict strategies is to help people confront their inevitable differences in constructive, rather than destructive, ways.  Ted suggests that people could learn to disagree constructively by engaging in "constructive disagreement exercises" in primary schools through graduate school and through life-long learning in business, civics, and family structures.  He calls for "disagreement gymnasiums," where people could practice constructive disagreement, and "volunteer disagreement peace teams" made of of "skilled everyday citizens" who would "spring into action when unity is threatened." 

Ted goes on to explore the many factors that are creating "a negative spiral of disunity." These include the "natural human temptation to accumulate power," and the "Internet information firehose," which, he says, creates a "manipulative breeding ground for distrust," which creates "intolerable mental anguish," which is soothed by joining an information silo which cuts off relationships with others, blames others for problems, talks only to people who agree with them, dismisses the beliefs and interests of others, and hence sabotages effective democratic decision making. We wholeheartedly agree. We call the "negative spiral of disunity" "hyper-polarization," and have written in many places about how it is being amplified by the many factors that  Ted mentioned.

We would add another reason for pursuing what Ted calls constructive disagreement (and what we call constructive confrontation). It works!  It is much more likely to get you what you want or need than is destructive confrontation or disagreement which just further drives the escalation and polarization spiral, leads to decision making stalemate, increasing distrust, fear, and at times, even violence.  It very seldom gets anybody what they want or need.

In his last section, Ted muses about what it takes to shift a culture from one that engages in disagreement destructively (in his words, it is "disagreement unfit") to one which is "disagreement fit." He notes that "a culture-shift rubric" only works when it is larger than one organization, has "approachable language" that can be easily adopted by others without "dislodging other patterns," has language that "allows for expansion, innovation, is welcoming and yearns for continuous improvement," and lastly "obviously and naturally acknowledges the painful gap that the culture shift fills."

Guy and Heidi's Further Response 

As we suggested up above, we completely agree that Americans (and citizens of countries all around the world) would benefit greatly from learning how to disagree in a more constructive manner.  We agree that a "negative spiral of disunity" (polarization) is a serious threat to democracy and the well-being of citizens in countries around the world. 

We also agree that a cultural change such as the one that Ted envisions cannot be brought about by one organization.  That's why we've been calling for "massively parallel peacebuilding" (or in other contexts, massively parallel problem solving or massively parallel democracy building.) It is going to take a massive number of people and organizations all working in different places and in different roles to encourage people to deal with disagreement differently and better.  The most visible organizations which are doing this now are the various "bridge-building" organizations, of which Ted's Dinner and a Fight Dialogue and Braver Angels are two examples.  

But it is going to take more than dialogue to change disputing culture.  We laid out six steps in our "constructive confrontation process."

  1. Figure out what is really going on (it is always much more complex than simple us-vs-them)
  2. Envision a desired future, making sure it is one in which your adversaries would also be willing to live (if they aren't, they'll keep on fighting you)
  3. Plan your strategy, considering how you would respond if the other side used that strategy against you (if you would react badly, they probably will too),
  4. Implement your strategy
  5. Monitor results and compliance (yours and others') with any agreements.

In his Disagreement Fitness document, Ted mentions "the Top 10 Constructive Disagreement Exercises." When we asked him what those were, he responded that the list is still in development.  So, we thought we would offer some suggestions based on our constructive confrontation steps.

  1. To learn how to figure out what is going on, we recommend that people do our "why web" exercise. This exercise asks participants to think about the things that would have to change to fix things and then ask why aren't those things being done. Next participants are asked what it would take to fix these "second-order" problems and why those things aren't being done. The process continues until you've drawn a "why web" of the multifaceted nature of the problem and all of the things that would have to be done to fix it. 
  2. A second exercise that helps people figure out what is going on involves identifying what we call "core conflict elements" and "overlay factors." In preparation for doing this, k it would be helpful for participants to watch the two BI videos about Conflict Core and Overlay Factors and then try to identify all the core and overlay factors that are present in a particular conflict. Both of these exercises help people learn that almost all difficult and intractable (or hyper-polarized) conflicts are much more complex that simply us-vs-them, and will take a much more complex and nuanced response that simply "beating them." 
  3. An exercise which helps people explore their values that we like is Value-Based Conversations. We do not have a write up of an exercise to explore interests and needs, but teachers/trainers could have students read the BI article on "Interests, Positions, Needs, and Values" and then try to identify their own interests, positions, needs, and values with respect to one particular conflict.  The teacher/trainer might then explore which of those might be shared with the other side, and based on that, where some common ground might be found.
  4. Another exercise which we like a lot is one that helps groups of people both find common ground, and identify constructive approaches for addressing differences —  a process that tracks closely with Ted's notion of "Disagreement Fitness!" We call it Finding Common Ground / Constructive Approaches for Addressing Differences: a Discussion Guide.
  5. A final exercise we use with students to visualize a desired future is called the Reconciliation Index which helps participants imagine what a "reconciled" future would look like, and how to get there. It also helps participants gauge how close or far away a particular society is from "reconciliation." 

All of these exercises can be adapted for different audiences and uses, although they probably don't go down to the kindergarten level.  But simplified versions could be used in upper elementary grades and the real thing could be used in middle school, high school and college courses. They can also be used in family groups, work groups, church groups, book groups, wherever adults get together to talk.

The one place where we have a significant disagreement with Ted is where he says that "a culture-shift rubric only works when it... has "approachable language" that can be easily adopted by others without "dislodging other patterns," We think it is essential that we dislodge the currently dominant language pattern of disrespect, even hatred of "the other."  When people get into the silos that Ted describes, they are strongly encouraged to define everything their group believes as right and virtuous, and everything the other groups believe as wrong, and oftentimes even evil. And they say that—loudly and clearly—whenever they get the chance.  So we would argue that a culture shift towards "disagreement fitness" requires that people break out of those language patterns and adopt, instead, a more respectful, curious approach. "Tell me more, why do you say that?"  "What life experiences brought you to that conclusion?" "I care about that too. Is there a way we can work on this problem together?" 

In our Newsletter 131 Bridging the Theory/Action Gap: One Key to Improving the Effectiveness of Efforts to Strengthen Democracy we said that we needed to bridge the gap between the conflict theorists who (like us) lecture or write about what "people should do" and conflict actors who are actually working in communities to solve problems.  Ted's suggestion is one way to bridge that gap: disagreement fitness training is an example of the kinds of actions that individuals and organizations can take to help communities more toward the democratic ideals that democracy and conflict theorists write about. 

Read Ted's Full Proposal 

P.S. We were very pleased to read this Washington Post article right after writing this:  "Why this governor is promoting ‘healthy conflict?’ The story is about Utah governor Spencer Cox (R) who recently became Chair of the National Governor's Association.  Each year, the incoming chair typically outlines a "signature initiative" that they plan to focus on during her term of office" and Cox's initiative is called "healthy conflict."  From the article: "the more he thought about it, the more he realized that the country's pressing problems cannot be solved unless citizens learn how to "disagree better."  Wow!  It sounds as if he's read our Intractable Conflict Challenge and Ted's "Disagreement Fitness."  The article does say that he's "working with experts at Stanford and Dartmouth to understand the science behind toxic animosity." Hooray!  Now all we need to do is reach the other 49 governors (which he might—or at least a number of them) and many of our senators, representatives, and executive branch leaders as well as local leaders and regular citizens.  It's a tall order, but its great that we have the chairman of the National Governor's Association working on this!  

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Once a week or so, we, the BI Directors, share some thoughts, along with new posts from the Hyper-polarization Blog and and useful links from other sources.  We used to put this all together in one newsletter which went out once or twice a week. We are now experimenting with breaking the Newsletter up into several shorter newsletters. Each Newsletter will be posted on BI, and sent out by email through Substack to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy here and find the latest newsletter here or on our BI Newsletter page, which also provides access to all the past newsletters, going back to 2017. NOTE! If you signed up for this Newsletter and don't see it in your inbox, it might be going to one of your other emails folder (such as promotions, social, or spam).  Check there or search for beyondintractability@substack.com and if you still can't find it, first go to our Substack help page, and if that doesn't help, please contact us

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