How Do We Get What We Want and Need? Through Polarization or Bridge-building, Reframing, and "Omni-Win" Approaches?

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Newsletter #60 — October 31, 2022


In This Issue

From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors

Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess


In this newsletter, we are going to try to "catch up" with the several posts that have been submitted and posted to the BI/CRQ discussion page, but we haven't yet had room to include them in a newsletter.  So we are going to skip the "Directors' Essay" this time, and go straight to discussion posts sent in by our readers.  However, we do want to use a little space here to note that we talked at length with Duncan Autrey about a month ago about many of the topics we've been covering in this discussion/blog, and he as posted that discussion as two podcasts on his Omni-Win Project page on Substack.  They are available in audio and video format.  The first set (audio and visubstadeo) is found at and the second is at We hope you'll watch/listen!


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From the BI/CRQ Hyper-Polarization Discussion

Julia Roig -- Rethinking 'Polarization' as the Problem 

Julia makes a distinction in her article between "good polarization" and "toxic polarization."

One metaphor for the polarization we’re experiencing right now – articulated by Quaker activist and peacebuilder George Lakey – is that society is heating up, like a hot forge. I.e., the fire that we put metal into that becomes so malleable, we can hammer it into something beautiful… or not. Conflict. Disruption. This is the heat rising. And that is not necessarily all bad – because it’s a sign that we need change. What comes out of the forge, the sword or the plowshare – that’s up to us, how we organize ourselves.

Sometimes this takes the form of actions that are loud and disruptive – naming where they see injustice for example. There is a saying that “we need to polarize to organize.” You are staking out a side (a “pole” … saying that “this is what we stand for!”)

That, Julia asserts, is "good polarization" and it is much needed right now. We must not be complacent right now. We must not accept current levels of violence. We must not accept "the forces who are actively trying to divide us to stay in power."

Toxic polarization, on the other hand, is when we may tip over into “dehumanizing” those we consider “other.” We see this rhetoric alive and well from many politicians, on social media, perhaps even behind closed doors when we hear our colleagues use derogatory terms to describe an entire group of people (for their political affiliation, religion, or ethnicity.) Toxic polarization looks like zero-sum thinking; when we think in binaries (everything becomes black and white – there’s little tolerance for gray;) when we fall into group think (“us vs them”) or herd mentality; when we become increasingly afraid to speak up within our friend groups, for fear of being ostracized.

Toxic polarization is fueled, Julia asserts, by threats to our identities and way of life.

When we feel that our identity, or our group, is under threat we no longer have the ability to deliberate. We have a harder time engaging in difficult conversations where we are able to discuss nuanced, complex issues, to debate solutions. How can we come together across difference if we consider those “different” from us as actually dangerous to our way of life? We see these dynamics playing out all over the world and they are manipulated and weaponized by those who wish to stay in power at whatever the cost.

She concludes by saying "now is not the time to turn down the heat." Rather, we must stand up for our values that demand dignity and safety for all.

Read Julia's Full Article

Summary of Lisa Schirch: Transforming the Colour of US Peacebuilding: Types of Dialogue to Protect and Advance Multi-racial Democracy  

We discussed some of Lisa's submission in Newsletter 56, and more in Newsletter 59, but we left a few things out we that want to include here.  Following her discussion of the different types of polarization, which we talked about in Newsletter 59, she observed that "civility" and "impartiality" mean different things to different people.  

Bridgebuilders see [civility] as talking calmly and respectfully to people who differ from oneself, and she cites "decades of research [that] attest to the positive impact of experiencing or even witnessing respectful intergroup contact." On the other hand, some on the right think of "civility" as a call for "political correctness" and attempt to silence conservative views.  At the same time, she says, right-wing media accuses Black Lives Matter of being uncivil "because they name injustices and provoke discomfort in their calls to disrupt the status quo. ...Activists ask why naming and protesting racism is considered “uncivil” when the term civility is not applied to everyday violence against people with black and brown bodies.

She then presented a table comparing bridge-building dialogue and social justice movement building.

  • Bridge-builders, she says, see the big problem as toxic polarization.  Social Justice advocates see it as systemic racism and oppression. 
  • Bridge-building strategy, she says is dialogue across divides.  Social justice strategies is shifting power to end systemic racism.
  • Bridge-builders see civility as talking respectfully and trusting institutional democratic processes. Social justice advocates see civility as silencing those who name or protest injustice.
  • Bridge-builders are partial to multicultural democracy by impartial to political parties. Social justice advocates are partial to justice and largely lean Democratic. 

She concludes by saying that peacebuilding needs both bridge building and social justice work.  This needs to be balanced, she says, in much the way John Paul Lederach defines strategic peacebuilding as a "meeting place where 'truth and mercy meet, and peace and justice kiss.' " But, citing Adam Curle, she argues that advocacy and activism must come first to shift power and increase awareness of justice, and only when power becomes closer to balanced does she advocate engaging in dialogue to build wider coalitions to formulate new policies, relationships, and institutions. 

Read Lisa's full post on BI


Read Lisa's full Toda Policy Brief from which the BI Article was Drawn

Colin Rule : Positive Reframing in Political Conversations: Avoiding the Race to the Bottom

While mediators and seasoned negotiators all know to focus on the problem, but not criticize the opponent; listen closely to what they say (and don't say); look for areas of potential mutual gain, and develop agreements that work for both sides (the basic tenants of Getting to Yes), this can be very difficult when we are a party to the conflict, when we feel we, ourselves, have been wronged.  In that case, Colin observes,

a different set of ideas pop into our head: be aggressive. Push the other side to bend to our will. Threaten and saber rattle. Take stands on principle and refuse to back down, so as to get as much value as possible. Be inflexible to force the other side to agree to your terms.

Research shows these approaches are not very effective. Bullheadedness on one side creates bullheadedness on the other side.  ...  As the former occupant of the White House demonstrates, people observing this distributive approach seem to feel it represents strength and power — even though the results are demonstrably inferior to integrative techniques.

The challenge comes when you want to negotiate in a value-creating, integrative way, but the other side wants to bully and posture to force you to bend to their will. As we discussed before, no one wants to bring a knife to a gun fight. There can be a race to the bottom when one or the other side demonstrates a willingness to go low.  ...

Hence our current moment. It’s true that many people are frustrated and angry, and that anger makes them want to lash out. But the question must be: what outcome do we want to achieve? And do these behaviors help or hinder our efforts to achieve that outcome? And are they making the problem worse? ...

Meeting anger and bullying with more anger and bullying digs the hole deeper. It’s not easy to confront bad behavior with restraint, but it’s vital if we’re going to try to rebuild some of the trust that we’ve lost in our society. We can have our “at long last, have you no sense of decency” moment without resorting to profanity, threats, and insults. They say what you fear you become, and that is what the anger trap can do to you. The only way to win is not to play.

Colin suggests the alternative is one well-known to mediators: positive reframing:

demonstrating that you have really heard the core contentions of the other side, and that you are willing to engage with the strongest part of their argument. [This]is unusual these days. But in my experience, when you do it, the response from the other side is usually surprise, gratitude, and a more open mind.

Much better, we would assert, than our current "race to the bottom."

Read Colin's full post on BI

Duncan Autrey: It's Time to Upgrade Our Democracy 

In this article, Duncan observes that democracy is struggling, because our current form of representative democracy "is inadequate to meet the needs of modern America. People do not believe that their voices are heard, and the truth is they aren't."  

An elected politician can't realistically represent us if our only input is one vote. However, the main problem is that we use a system based on “winning or losing.” When half a population (right or left) can "lose" an election and then rightly doubt whether the "winners" will care about their concerns, we have a problem. This win-lose and us-them dynamic creates rivalrous behavior. Rivalry traps us in a cycle of fierce resistance and protective disdain. It is tearing us apart and makes our government utterly ineffective at doing just about anything.

A better alternative, Duncan asserts, is what he calls and "omni-win democracy" that

considers and serves everyone. People need to be able to have direct input into the decisions that affect their lives. A great democracy would be able to make decisions that are workable for almost everyone. Even better, democracy would be able to harness the generative power of diversity, polarities, and conflict itself and use that power to improve our collective capacity to meet everyone's needs. Here's the best part, this idea is not a fantasy. We already have the tools to create an omni-win democracy. What's more, we don't need to win any election to change our political culture, and we don't even need to change the laws.

We only need to demand that elected representatives actively seek thoughtful, inclusive and ongoing input from their constituents on the issues that matter to them. The people (not politicians and lobbyists) should be the ones who discuss and deliberate on the nuances of policy. Elected politicians need to know what people actually want, so they can truly speak on their behalf.

Fortunately, we already have the tools to facilitate participatory citizen dialogues where the diversity of perspectives of any population can be heard and considered. We already have the tools to help people with divergent views deliberate together in finding mutually agreeable solutions. We have methods to develop systems for easeful conflict resolution and ongoing collaboration. We even have the tools to turn divisive polarization into a generative system of collective thriving.

Duncan reviews the many tools the conflict resolution field has already developed to do this, and highlights some (of many) of the organizations that are doing this kind of work now. He concludes by asserting that

it falls on us, the actual citizens, to insist on more thoughtful and inclusive decision making. Culturally, we need to stop expecting and asking individual politicians to find answers to our challenges on their own (with lobbyists). We need to start expecting (demanding) them to seek out and listen to what people want. We need to seek opportunities to engage in dialogue with those we disagree with. We must urge our elected leaders to support thoughtful and informed deliberation and to earnestly seek ways to integrate the various perspectives of their constituents into win-win solutions. We should simply demand that they prioritize solutions over power.

Read Duncan's Full Article



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Colleague Activities

Highlighting things that our conflict and peacebuilding colleagues are doing that contribute to efforts to address the hyper-polarization problem.

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Beyond Intractability in Context

From around the web, more insight into the nature of our conflict problems, limits of business-as-usual thinking, and things people are doing to try to make things better.

About the MBI Newsletters

Once or twice a week, we will compile BI news, along with new posts from our Hyper-polarization Blog and elsewhere on BI into a Newsletter that will be posted here and sent out by email through Substack to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy on our Newsletter Sign Up Page and find the latest newsletter here on our Newsletter page. Past newsletters can be found in the Newsletter Archive. 

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