Constructive Confrontation: Applying Conflict Insights from a 1st Party (Not 3rd Party) Perspective

Hyperpolarization Graphic

Newsletter 78 — February 2, 2023



From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors

Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

In Newsletter 74, when we were responding to Julia Roig’s question about the role of civil resistance and social justice movements in massively parallel peacebuilding, we briefly mentioned an idea that we started to develop about twenty years ago that we call “constructive confrontation.” This idea went through a number of iterations through the years and is most fully explained in BI’s Constructive Confrontation online seminar. Many of the underlying ideas are also reflected in the Constructive Conflict Initiative and the current Hyper-polarization Discussion. At this point, we think it is worth going back, and looking at some of these earlier ideas, because they very much relate to the questions Julia was asking.

From 3rd Party to 1st Party Perspectives

We started out in this work by establishing something that we initially called the "Conflict Resolution Consortium."  When we tried to organize seminars and research projects, we were somewhat surprised to discover that our activist friends — people who were involved in terrible, bitter conflicts — weren't interested. They saw conflict resolution processes as little more than ways of sugarcoating the existing power hierarchy and forcing them to make unwanted concessions in the name of compromise.  That said, they clearly understood the deeply destructive nature of the conflicts they were involved in, and they were very interested in more constructive ways of handling these conflicts. This led us to reframe the Consortium's focus away from 3rd party perspectives (which tended to focus on negotiated "resolution") and toward 1st party perspectives (which tended to focus on effective advocacy).  The results were dramatic. We went from a near 90% rejection rate for our invitations to a near 90% acceptance rate. Since most people approach conflict from an advocacy, rather than an intermediary, perspective, they are more interested in using the conflict field's insights to help them build support for, and limit opposition to, their efforts, rather than negotiating compromise agreements to things they do not want to compromise. .

The Basic Idea of Constructive Confrontation

Ever since then, we have been trying to figure out how to apply the insights of the conflict resolution and peacebuilding fields from an advocacy, rather than an intermediary, perspective. Our goal has been to show advocates how using a more sophisticated understanding of conflict dynamics can help them better protect and advance their interests, while also helping advance the interests of the larger community and society. This is in contrast to destructive strategies, which we see as those most likely to destroy relationships, harm the organization, community or society, and make the advocates' own goals harder to attain (by provoking a powerful backlash or by undermining the community’s ability to analyze and solve problems effectively). Destructive strategies also tend to drive the escalation spiral in ways that dramatically increase “transaction costs” by producing costly, lengthy, and bitter confrontations. While avoiding these problems may seem like a “no-brainer,” the steps necessary to do so are seldom followed.

Many advocates are so focused on what they want, and so little focused on what other people want (or worse, they think that what other people want is illegitimate or evil), that they advocate positions that will be completely unacceptable to the other side.  Similarly, they often pursue their goals in ways that generate even more anger and pushback than is necessary, thereby reducing the possibility that they will get what they really want and need. 

For instance, some “anti-racism” advocates suggest that Blacks and other people of color cannot be racist and that, in Kendi's words, "The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination."  This approach ignores the key idea from the human needs theory of conflict that says that all people have a fundamental need for security and identity — and when one’s identity is seen as “less than” or "illegitimate," or one’s security is threatened, this will lead to protracted (often violent) conflict. It is true, no doubt, that people of color’s identities have long been seen as "less than" or "illegitimate," and that does, indeed, lead to conflict. But the solution is not to reverse the insult, because that will just continue the conflict, as indeed, it has, when whites push back and do all that they can to block anti-racism programs. This isn’t because they are "racist," (although some may be); it is because they are human and they don’t want their identity belittled any more than the people of color want theirs to be lessened. This pushback also often results in over-reactions, which inflame racial tensions even further and often block and sometimes reverse the progress the anti-racists were trying to achieve.

An illustration of this is the argument over “CRT” (Critical Race Theory) in schools. Many Whites feel that the highly "progressive" view of history that CRT supporters are pushing seems designed to make them feel guilty about who they are and what their ancestors did. In response, some school boards and state legislatures are blocking these materials and curricula entirely. The backlash against “woke” education is also contributing to a larger movement for school choice and efforts to undermine the public schools’ monopoly on state-funded education. Related pushback against what many see as as reverse discrimination is very likely to result in the ending of affirmative action in college admissions when the Supreme Court rules on that topic in the coming months. This is what we call destructive advocacy — it pushes so hard for one side that it leads to a backlash, destroys relationships, and sets desired progress back even further.  

If proponents of racial equity were, instead, to advocate for programs that try to lift African Americans up without demonizing whites or pushing them down, the outcomes are likely to be much better. For instance, we were listening to a podcast recently entitled “Rethinking diversity, equity, and inclusion training.” Not surprising to us, it pointed out that DEI training that shamed whites, and tried to make them feel guilty about their privilege tended to backfire. The commentators on the podcast pointed out that many studies have shown that such programs increase resentment, harm relations between employees, and usually fail to attain the desired ends of having more diversity, inclusion, and equity in the organizations that required such DEI training.

On the other hand, programs that treat everyone, both African Americans and whites, with respect, had much better outcomes. One example was a mentoring program in which all entry-level employees were given mentors, and the mentees were matched with a mentor who was different from themselves in one or more significant ways. The results of this program were very positive. Everyone learned from the experience, people felt respected, and diversity and inclusion increased. The improved skills training of people of color also meant that over the longer term, their opportunities to attain equity with their mentors was significantly enhanced. Another example is the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism’s “pro-human” approach to racism that actively tries to cultivate support for racial justice across the political divide. These are approaches that we think are more constructive, as they are based on respect for everyone, they create opportunities for everyone to get their needs met, and they result in win-win outcomes.


Subscribe to the Newsletter


Constructive Confrontation Steps

When Heidi used to teach an undergraduate conflict skills class, she told the students that if they were going to only remember two words from the entire class five or ten years down the road, she wanted those two words to be “listen” and “respect.” If you really listen to the other side, not to figure out how to “get them,” but to figure out where they are coming from, and why they see things the way that do, and if you treat them respectfully (of which listening is a good start), the results of such behavior are almost always good.*

Beyond that, constructive confrontation has five principle steps (and a number of sub-steps), all drawn from conflict resolution (and conflict transformation, and dispute resolution) theory and practice. These are tried and true approaches used by many third parties (mediators, and facilitators). We are trying to get disputants and advocates to begin thinking about these things too. These are:

  1. Figure out what is really going on. It’s never just “their fault.” Separate out the “Core Issues” (fundamental interests, values, and needs) from “overlaying factors” (escalation, miscommunication, inadequate or misleading fact-finding and analysis, unfair and ineffective procedures, and other unnecessary complications ). Consider your own side’s “contribution” to the problem. Plus figure out how much of your disagreement with the others is about facts (that might be verified and reconciled), how much of it is about value differences, and how much of it might be attributable to simple misunderstandings.

  2. Determine your goals, interests, values and needs. For the value differences, can you “live and let live” or must you really insist the other side accepts your values. (If you insist on that, your conflict is likely to be very long lived.) So better, consider how you might set up a situation where everyone will be able to live their life according to their own values.

  3. Envision your desired future and decide if there is a place in it for “them.” Again, if the future you are working for doesn’t have a secure place for “the other,” your conflict is likely to be very long lasting. And there might not be a secure place for you either, if the conflict escalates to the point where governance systems start to break down, and civil violence increases.

  4. Plan your strategy What approach(es) are most likely to help you attain your goals and your desired future?

    1. How can you cut through or reduce escalation, miscommunication and other overlaying factors?

    2. How do you want to address the core issues? Your choices are usually interest-based, rights-based, and/or power-based approaches. Interest-based approaches are safest, usually yielding the most cooperation from the other side, and the least pushback. Rights-based approaches yield more pushback, but can result in victories if the rights are widely seen as legitimate and the procedures fair. Power-based approaches are the most hazardous if one is thinking about coercive power strategies, but if you use a good mix of power strategies (integrative, exchange, and coercive), the results are more likely to be constructive.

    3. Once you have developed a strategy, think about how you would respond if the other side implemented that strategy against you. If you would respond badly, that’s not constructive, and they will likely respond badly as well. But if you would be pleased, that’s likely a constructive approach, and the others are likely to respond positively as well.

  5. Implement your plan, monitoring responses as you go, and modifying your actions accordingly.

  6. Set up a means to monitor and encourage compliance with agreements, and have a plan if agreements aren’t followed. Make sure that you live up to any commitments that you make also.

Each one of these steps deserves a post in and of itself, but if you are interested, you can follow the above links and learn more about each of these ideas right now. We’ll be fleshing these ideas out, along with many examples, as we try to fill in our Limiting Hyper-Polarization Matrix (which might be better called a Constructive Confrontation Matrix) as we now see hyper-polarization as being but one aspect of a much bigger problem that is going to need constructive confrontation to solve.

If you have a story about how you or your organization (or another organization) engaged in constructive advocacy, we’d love to hear about it. We’ll be highlighting many of these stories in coming weeks and months.

* I was having a conversation with a colleague yesterday about this topic and he observed that some people need to listen more than others because some people already know what the other side thinks. My answer to that was first, that assumption might not be correct, because individuals often violate stereotypes about their group.

But more importantly, I asserted that the “need to listen” didn’t matter. Listening really is a “magic strategy” (I first wrote “magic bullet” and then decided I didn’t like the violent metaphor!) Listening grants respect—which is an even stronger “magic strategy.” It costs nothing (usually, though there are exceptions when one doesn’t want to give public legitimacy to a bad actor). But usually, particularly when done in private conversations, and many public ones as well, respectfully listening sets the tone and norms for a conversation and strongly encourages the other side to grant you the same respect, which they otherwise might be unlikely to do. So even if one side does know what the other side thinks, listening has significant transactional benefits, and makes the whole encounter more likely to be constructive.

Subscribe to the Newsletter


Please Contribute Your Ideas To This Discussion!

In order to prevent bots, spammers, and other malicious content, we are asking contributors to send their contributions to us directly. If your idea is short, with simple formatting, you can put it directly in the contact box. However, the contact form does not allow attachments.  So if you are contributing a longer article, with formatting beyond simple paragraphs, just send us a note using the contact box, and we'll respond via an email to which you can reply with your attachment.  This is a bit of a hassle, we know, but it has kept our site (and our inbox) clean. And if you are wondering, we do publish essays that disagree with or are critical of us. We want a robust exchange of views.


Contact Form


About BI Newsletters

Once a week or so, we, the BI Directors, share some thoughts, along with new posts from the Hyper-polarization Blog 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 and if you still