Constructive Conflict Initiative

Constructive Conflict Statement Graphic

Constructive Conflict Initiative*

A call for a dramatic expansion of efforts to improve society's ability to constructively address the full scale and complexity of the challenges posed by destructive conflicts

June 24, 2019  v1.3

Prepared by
Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess
Co-Directors, Beyond Intractability Project, Conflict Information Consortium
University Of Colorado, UCB 580, Boulder, CO, USA burgess@colorado.edu, 303-492-1635

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You are invited to participate in and help shape a new Initiative designed to encourage and promote efforts to limit the increasingly destructive conflicts that are tearing apart the United States and so many other countries. 

Initiative Goals

  • Increase Public Awareness of the Serious Threats Posed by Destructive Conflict – The chronically destructive way in which we handle conflict is making it impossible for us to solve any of our most important social, economic, and environmental problems. It is also leaving  us increasingly vulnerable to authoritarianism, anarchy, and war.  Yet few people seem to think that these threats are important enough to modify the way in which they approach conflict. We seek to change that assumption.
  • Increase Awareness of the Inadequacy of Current Efforts to Limit Destructive Conflict -- While many people and organizations have undertaken promising initiatives to diminish the growing polarization and destructive conflictthe scale of these efforts has been, when compared with the scale of problem, extremely modest.  Not surprisingly, these efforts have failed to reverse the downward spiral. Clearly, we need to do more. 
  • Promote Public Awareness and Understanding of Destructive Conflict Dynamics – Intractable conflict arises from a complex array of factors that have to be widely recognized and understood before they can be successfully addressed.
  • Expand Utilization of Proven Strategies for More Constructively Handling Conflict – We need a large-scale effort to encourage and support efforts to replace destructive conflict practices with alternative approaches that would better defend both common and partisan interests.
  • Encourage Efforts to Advance the Frontier of the Field – We also need to acknowledge that there are many tough conflict problems that still stubbornly defy the best currently-available strategies for addressing them.  In addition to using proven strategies much more widely, we also need to dramatically expand the development of new approaches which better address the massive scale and complexity of today's societies. 
  • Persuade Everyone That They Have an Important Role to Play in Limiting Destructive Conflicts – The constructiveness or destructiveness of societal conflict is determined by the cumulative way in which citizens at all levels handle their everyday conflict interactions. This means that our collective future depends upon everyone's willingness to learn about and then help implement more constructive approaches.
  • Mobilize the Human and Financial Resources that the Destructive Conflict Problem Demands – Successfully addressing the many different facets of the destructive conflict problem at the full scale of modern society will require recruiting, training, and financially supporting the professional and civic efforts of large numbers of people.

Our goal is not to compete with ongoing efforts to promote more constructive approaches to conflict.  Rather, we seek to promote the visibility of those efforts while encouraging and supporting much more ambitious and dramatically expanded efforts to pursue the above goals.

Conflict Challenges To Be Addressed 

Our future, and the future of our children and grandchildren depend upon finding wiser and more equitable ways of meeting a wide array of daunting conflict challenges.  We need a  mutli-faceted approach that simultaneously addresses, ten tough challenges at the full scale and complexity of 21st century society.  These include: 

  • Develop a Broadly-shared 21st Century Democratic Vision – We need, and do not now have, a broadly shared image of the kind of society that we would all like to work toward – one that transcends partisan differences, builds on past ideals, addresses past injustices, and, above all, provides a framework for advancing our collective interests.
  • Resist "Divide and Conquer" Politics – We need much better ways of preventing people from using sophisticated propaganda strategies to advance their selfish interests by deepening social divisions in ways that make it impossible for us to work together to pursue the common good.
  • Limit Deception and Misunderstandings – We need more effective ways of correcting the highly polarized and often inaccurate and hostile images that the various social groups develop of one another based on today's complex system of "narrowcast" media and social networks.
  • Work with Psychological Complexity – Rational arguments for more constructive approaches to conflict need to be adapted to better work with the complex neuropsychology of human thought with its less rational and more subjective decision-making.
  • Scale-Up Small Group Processes – We need effective mechanisms for scaling up small group facilitation strategies to the point where they can produce transformative experiences in a mass media environment  capable of reaching millions of citizens (who are also likely to be being bombarded with destructive and escalatory conflict messages).
  • Make Fact-Finding Work – More effective mechanisms are needed to help the public understand social problems and evaluate the efficacy of possible solutions. This requires improved procedures for assuring that experts resist conflict-of-interest pressures and act in trustworthy ways that are, in turn, trusted and understood by the larger society.
  • De-polarize and De-escalate Society – We desperately need strategies for defusing today's "us versus them" politics with its increasingly dehumanized, hateful, and potentially violent rhetoric. The goal can't be to hurt the "other" — we have to learn how to work together.
  • Take Advantage of Mutually-Beneficial Opportunities – Collaborative skills and institutions need to be strengthened to the point where we can routinely take advantage of opportunities to advance both our individual and collective interests.
  • Govern the Commons – We need institutions that effectively defend the social, economic, and environmental commons on which we and future generations depend. We also need institutions that protect individual rights and encourage us to fulfill the responsibilities that accompany those rights.
  • Develop a Positive-Sum, Win-Win Economy – We need an economy that generates meaningful and dignified work for all and then equitably distributes the product of that work. The key to getting ahead can't simply be to find a clever way to take something from somebody else.

Our future and the future of our children and grandchildren depends upon finding ways of better meeting this daunting list of challenges.  Doing so will require a dramatic expansion in the degree of sophistication and the level of participation and effort now being directed at the problem. This Initiative merely seeks to convene a discussion of how such an an expanded effort might best be achieved.

The "Find Out More" inset box at the top of this page provides links to much more information including options for participating and helping to shape the Initiative.

We Need Your Help

For the Initiative to be successful, we need your help in strengthening, promoting, and financing it.  More importantly, we need you to take an active part in efforts to meet the above challenges.  As a start, please let us know either privately or publically on our discussion board 1) what you think about this effort,  2) how you think it might be strengthened, 3) who else is doing related work and should be invited to participate, 4) what next steps would be most effective, and 5) whether you would be interested in getting involved in some way.  We would also greatly appreciate any financial support you might be able to provide. We are doing this preliminary work on a meager (and mostly "pro bono") budget and could really use some modest contributions to defray inevitable expenses.

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* We have now received over 80 thoughtful (and almost all strongly supportive) comments and suggestions about the Initiative.  Based upon these comments, we have updated this "Initiative Homepage" (from the original v1.2 draft) in ways that we think more clearly describe the contribution that we are hoping to make.  

We have another initiative called the "Constructive Confrontation Initiative" which is designed to show people how the skills typically used by third parties (for instance mediators) can also be usefully applied from an advocacy (i.e. confrontation) perspective.  This initiative is different from that one.  The Constructive Conflict Initiative has a much broader scope. We apologize for the potential confusion, but each title does say, we think, what the initiatives are about better than alternative titles.