Constructive Confrontation: A Transformative Approach to Intractable Conflicts
By Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess
This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess, "Constructive Confrontation: A Transformative Approach to Intractable Conflicts," Mediation Quarterly. 13:4 (Summer 1996), pp. 305-322.
Constructive confrontation is designed to deal with intractable conflicts. The authors note that conflict itself is an inevitable element of human life. However, conflict need not be destructive. The goal of constructive confrontation is to minimize the destructive elements of conflict, and so foster conflicts' constructive potential.
The authors approach conflict via a medical analogy. They see destructive conflict as a pathological process (notice, however, that conflict itself is not pathological). The constructive confrontation approach seeks to "cure" the underlying causes of destructive conflict where possible. Constructive confrontation takes an incremental, rather than holistic, approach to destructive conflicts. It examines, diagnoses, and (it is hoped) treats each aspect of the conflict process separately.
Continuing in this medical vein, the constructive confrontation process can be described generally as having three stages: diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up. The diagnosis stage makes use of conflict maps, which lay out the various parties, issues and positions. In the diagnosis stage, one first seeks to distinguish core issues from conflict overlays. One then identifies the destructive conflict dynamics operating at each level.
In the treatment stage, the practitioner chooses and (when possible) implements specific remedies. For example, hostility-provoking insults may be limited bilaterally by setting communication guidelines, and unilaterally by refraining from employing insults. Treatment should focus on conflict overlay problems first.
The next stage is monitoring and follow-up. In this stage the treatments in place are evaluated for their effectiveness. New diagnoses may arise. Adjustments to current treatment processes may be made. This stage emphasizes the ongoing nature of the constructive confrontation approach.
The authors describe a number of the possible diagnoses which may be made regarding either overlay or core problems. Overlay problems include such things as framing problems, misunderstandings, procedural problems, escalation and polarization. Core problems include inadequate identification of strategic options, inaccurate cost-benefit analyses, and parties who overlook ripe moments.
Each of these problems have variations, and the authors describe many of the finer diagnoses which may be made. For example, framing problems may be the result of muddled framing, or attempts by one side to frame the other out of the picture, or by unnecessary zero-sum framing.
Numerous useful techniques have been developed across the field of conflict resolution for addressing particular problems. However, the authors observe that transformative mediation's techniques for fostering empowerment and recognition offer particularly promising approaches to a wide variety of destructive conflict dynamics.
Constructive confrontation is similar to the transformative approach in a number of ways. Both approaches emphasize fostering constructive processes over achieving a final resolution of the conflict. Both seek to improve and clarify parties' understandings, both of themselves and the other parties. Both approaches encourage parties to identify and focus on the most important issues.
The goal of constructive confrontation is to help each party develop an approach to the conflict at hand which will best serve that party's interests, in light of their understanding of the other parties involved, common justice, and fairness. This goal is consistent with the transformative goals of empowerment and recognition. Like the transformative view, constructive confrontation's incremental approach sees conflict as an ongoing process. Both approaches emphasize flexibility and responsiveness to the needs of the particular situation. Finally, the authors observe that "both stress the primacy of relationships or community values over selfish values."[p. 320]
These two approaches also differ in significant ways. Unlike transformative mediation, constructive confrontation does not require third-party intervention, although a third-party may facilitate. Also, constructive confrontation has been developed primarily to address public policy conflicts, involving a number of parties, issues, and options. Transformative mediation focuses more on interpersonal disputes.
Constructive confrontation offers more structure than transformative mediation, while retaining much of the flexibility of the transformative approach. The constructive confrontation approach offers relatively specific diagnostic possibilities and similarly specific lists of treatment options.
Despite these differences, the two approaches do agree in their basic goals. As Burgess and Burgess observe, "The ultimate goal of both transformative mediation and constructive confrontation is the constructive transformation of conflictual relationships."[p. 321]