Limit "Us-vs-Them" Language, Thinking and Action


Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

July, 2018


This post illustrates talks about why it is important to think of, speak of, and treat "the other" as a partner, not as an enemy.  It also has a number of suggestions about how to do that and the effects such a change of thinking and action can have.

Full Transcript:

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.

Slide 1. Hi, this is Heidi Burgess, and today I want to talk about how to limit escalation and improve relationships by limiting “us-vs.-them” language, thinking, and actions.

Slide 2. Peter Coleman, who wrote the book "The Five Percent" about intractable conflicts says, "Intractability happens when the many different components of a conflict collapse together into one mass, into one very simple 'us vs. them' story that effectively resists change." We tend to do that all the time. We tend to take whatever conflict we have, and frame it as us-being-right and them-being-wrong. Us-good, them-bad. We're virtuous, they're evil. It’s very easy to do, and it's very pervasive.

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Slide 3. But what happens when we do that? Well, when we start thinking about the other as the enemy, we start treating them like the enemy. And they get angry about that, and most likely they're going to define you as the enemy and start treating you like the enemy. And that's going to make you angry, and that's going to start the escalation cycle. And this goes around and around.

Slide 4. In the escalation video, I showed lots of detail. Down in the lower left, you can see that the beginnings of escalation, the very first item, is out-group identity. And look where it goes from there. It ratchets up to all sorts of escalation and polarization and interpersonal attacks and unthinking anger and heightened emotions and hardening of stances of leaders and followers. You get to the point where you change from wanting to do well to winning to where you just want to hurt the other.  And you get to violence. It keeps on going up and up and up. And it all starts down at the bottom with that out-group identity and other imaging.

Slide 5. So, how do you stop this?

Slide 6. I find a very useful way to think about the problem is to reframe it from you being on the other side of the table from your enemy to seeing you and the other both sitting on the same side of the table and being partners. The “enemy” is on the other side of the table, and your mutual enemy is escalation--the escalation spiral.  What happens if you reverse things like that?

Slide 7. If you start thinking of the other side as a partner, you're likely to start treating them with respect. You'll listen to them, you'll learn from them, you'll find common ground with them. Andy when you do that, they're likely to start treating you with respect, and you can turn that escalation upside down and start working together to solve common problems. First you can solve the problem of escalation and polarization. Then you can start working together to solve the problems that you've been arguing about, like taxes or immigration or climate change. We can't solve those problems because we can't work with the other side who's blocking everything that we try to do. So, reversing the escalation spiral by establishing working relationships with the other is absolutely essential!

Slide 8. How do we do that?

Slide 9. Well, the first thing that conflict resolvers always talk about is active listening. And I'll add to that “be open to surprises.” Don't assume you know what the other side thinks or why they think it.

I have this picture here because this is from our Thanksgiving dinner of a year ago. And I was having dinner with my son, who's forward on the right, and Guy who is behind him. And at the back right is Sheila who is Aaron's new wife. And everybody else is Sheila's family. And as you can probably tell, they're Indian. Most of them are immigrants, first generation immigrants from India. And because they're immigrants, most of them are democratic. But one of them isn't. One of them is a strong Trump supporter. And we got told before the guests arrived that we weren't supposed to talk about politics. I really wanted to talk to the Trump supporter and find out why, I don't understand. Why would an Indian immigrant support Trump? I wanted to learn, but I didn't have the opportunity to do so because I wasn't going to violate my host's request. But talking to people respectfully is the only way we will find out what they think and why.

Slide 10. Another thing we can do besides talk is we can read. This is a really useful article in the US version of The Guardian that suggests conservative journals and websites that are not far, far right that will just anger liberals, but they're reasoned, they're thoughtful, and they have a lot that they can teach liberals about the other side. The ones they talk about are Reason, The American Conservative, The American Magazine which is Jesuit, and Tablet which is Jewish.

Slide 11. One of the quotes from this article I really like says, "If the Trump administration is as authoritarian as some predict... [this was written early on in Trump's term]...progressives, are going to need all the help they can get. To work with others, we may first need to acknowledge them, and learning about other perspectives is not the same as acceding to them."

That's important. Just because you're listening to somebody else, just because you're paraphrasing to make sure you understand them, does not mean you're agreeing with them. But we cannot possibly work with them, we can't even effectively fight them if we don't understand where they're coming from.

Slide 12. Another useful and very interesting article is this one written by Senator Orrin Hatch, a very conservative senator from Utah, who's been in the Senate a long time, he's retiring this year, who is very disturbed about the change in the lack of  civility that he sees in the Senate and the nation overall. So, he wrote this article a couple of years ago and said,

“Our nation cannot continue on its current path. Either we remain passive observers to the problem...[he's talking about the problem of incivility and polarization.] ...or we endeavor to act, to make the necessary changes in ourselves, in our families, and in our communities that will lead to a more civil, prosperous society."

Slide 13. And Orrin Hatch, who is not exactly trained in conflict resolution, came up with three really good ideas of how to do this. First, speak responsibly. “Refrain from dehumanizing, demeaning, or unfairly disparaging the other side.” That's not an exact quote, but it's using his words closely to an exact quote. And then he went on to say, "Resist the impulse to frame every tiny policy disagreement as a zero-sum struggle for the soul of the country."

Slide 14. Step two, "To better understand how the other side thinks and feels, we must make a conscious effort to diversify our media intake... to help us break free from party groupthink and be better prepared to engage in civil debate with friends and neighbors."  Again, we need to listen, we need to read, we need to know why the other side thinks what it does.

Slide 15. And lastly, expand our social circles. "How can we expect to engage politically with members of the opposing party if we don't even interact socially with one another? In the spirit of civility, we would all do well to make friends with members of the opposing party. I speak from personal experience."

And then much of the rest of the article talks about Hatch’s close friendship with Ted Kennedy, who, of course, was a very liberal senator from Massachusetts. But Hatch and Kennedy were close friends for their entire Senate tenure.

Slide 16. Going back to the notion of zero-sum framing, Guy often talks about the way that we frame conflicts as a football game, where all that matters is who is ahead and who scores. Every event is taken to mean one side scored a goal or the other side scored a goal, which is very similar to the ideas put forth in Lester Thurow's book The Zero-Sum Society. This just works to polarize us further and to frame the other side as the opponent, the enemy. So, we need to avoid doing this, just like Guy and Orrin Hatch advised.

Slide 17. Another thing to keep in mind is the idea that I presented earlier in another slideshow called the “Power Strategy Mix.” The idea here is that there are four types of people on the other side. There's “Persuadables.” There's “Reluctant Persuadables,” who are going to take more effort to persuade than the “persuadables,” but it's possible. “Traders,” don’t act so much on principle, but if you give them something they want, they'll give you something you want. And then there's a group that we call “Incorrigibles.”  These are the folks who are NOT GOING TO CHANGE!

Now note the boxes under Persuadables, Reluctant Persuadables, and Traders are fairly thick. And the box under Incorrigibles is thin. That's because there aren't very many of them. Most people on the other side in almost all conflicts are in one of the other three groups.

The colors in those columns refer to power strategies or types of power. Red is coercive power, green is exchange power, and white is collaborative power, the power that you get from working with another person or the other side.
When you're working with Persuadables, you should use mostly collaborative power because they're persuadable. They will collaborate with you if you just talk to them about principles and look for areas of common ground.

With Traders, you want to use mostly exchange power because they're ready to trade. You just need to figure out what they want and give that to them, so you can get what you want. And that works.

With Reluctant Persuadables, you can use some trade and a lot of persuasion and maybe a little bit of coercion to push. But that's dangerous because coercion tends to make people angry. Save coercion for the Incorrigibles because nothing ever else is going to work with them. But be careful of the fact that it's going to make them mad.

Try everything else first. And to the extent that you can use collaborative power or exchange power, you're going to make partners out of these folks. You're going to get them on the same side of the table working against the Incorrigibles, working against the folks who are pushing the escalation spiral.

Slide 18.  Now how do you do that? Well, the conflict resolution field has two approaches or three, depending on how you look at it, that they use a lot. I guess I'd call it three.

One is mediation or consensus building where you get people on both sides to sit down with a mediator or a facilitator who helps them actively listen and work out an agreement that's mutually acceptable.

If that's not possible, we do dialogues where we get people to sit down together and just learn to understand each other better and to prepare the ground possibly for a later mediation or consensus building. The organization Essential Partners (which used to be called The Public Conversations Project) has been doing dialogue on contentious conflicts for a long, long time. They started on abortion, and they've branched out from there. And they told me early on when I started to work with them a little bit that they “never use the term common ground” in their dialogues. Because if they ask people to try to find common ground about abortion, nobody would ever come. So, that's why they just get people to talk about why they are on the side of the conflict that they are on and to form better relationships. And at that they have been very, very successful. I could tell you a lot more about it, but we don't have time. But, I strongly suggest that you go to their website (which is and learn about them and look at their resources, one of which is a conversation guide for the red-blue divide.

This useful for folks who are sitting down for Thanksgiving dinners and do want to engage with the people who are on the other side of the conflict. There is a way to do it without blowing up dinner, and Essential Partners can help you figure out how.

Slide 19. Another thing that conflict resolvers do is either called problem-solving workshops, which was the term that John Burton used who was one of the Parents of the Field who was profiled in this S-CAR Parents of the Field video. Or Herb Kelman at Harvard used the term “interactive problem-solving.” It's basically the same thing, and it's a lot like mediation except, instead of getting people to sit down and negotiate on the basis of interests, Kelman and Burton and Chris Mitchell and many others focus on human needs and argue that most intractable, or Burton called them protracted needs-based conflicts, were caused by the absence on one side or both sides of fundamental humans needs.

Slide 20. So, mediation, dialogue, problem-solving, they work very, very well with small groups of people.

But here's the hitch! There is a huge “ orders of magnitude problem.”

Look at this chart. Mediation, basic mediation, works with three people. Consensus building might be one order of magnitude, or factor of 10 is what that term means, bigger than that--involving 30 people. But look how big a large city is. Look how big a large country is! The red-blue divide in the United States involves a country that has 300 million people. That is eight orders of magnitude bigger than the three-person triad!

Now to give you a sense of how big eight orders of magnitude is, a person out for a stroll in the woods might walk 1.7 miles an hour. Slowly, but that's still a stroll. The space shuttle orbits the Earth at 17,000 miles an hour. That's only four orders of magnitude different! We're talking about eight or nine orders of magnitude difference between the three-person triad and the order of magnitude at which we need to be working.

So, it's not going to work to have lots of dialogues. It's not going to work to have lots of problem-solving workshops. We can't scale it up that much. We have to use a different approach. Well, what is that?

Slide 21. The most obvious one is the media. And this is a story about Search for Common Ground’s soap operas that they have been using in Africa and Bosnia and other places around the world to try to get people to view the other as one of them instead of “the enemy”. And these have been very effective, which is why this article refers to them as “subversive,” because it changes people's attitudes about the other and gets them to see each other as friends as opposed to enemies.

Slide 22. Related to this is the notion of peace journalism, which is defined here at as “when editors and reporters make choices of what to report and how to report it that create opportunities for society at large to consider and value nonviolent responses to conflict.” I would add to that that peace journalism creates opportunities for society at large to learn about and understand where the other side is coming from and why.

Slide 23. Now in addition to traditional media, there's social media. And we found out in the United States in 2016 how much influence social media can have.

Slide 24. And we learned that these guys are really good at it!  They were extremely successful in changing people's attitudes. They were extremely successful at driving hatred and polarization and fear and getting people who nobody thought would vote for Trump to, indeed, vote for Trump. The other side, the compromisers, the collaborators, need to get good at that too.

Slide 25. In his video about “Coexisters vs. Fighters vs. Divide & Conquerors”, Guy had this slide. And he showed that there are people in the middle of both sides who want to work together constructively and they want to successfully coexist. And there's a bunch of “Swing People.” And then there's those “incorrigibles” on the far right and the far left who he is calling “Fighters.” And also there's people who are what he calls” Power-Over Divide & Conquerors.”

Slide 24. That's what these guys are. They have worked very hard to divide us from each other and get us to fight with each other and to completely disempower the constructive coexisting middle. So, it's the constructive coexisting middle that needs to get good at social media too.

Slide 26. That's actually what we're trying to do with our Conflict Frontiers Seminar that we're sending out on Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn. And I'm glad to say we're reaching many thousands of people every month. But it's still a very small order of magnitude, and we need thousands, hundreds of thousand of people to be working with us to do this. Because all of the folks who are on the side of conflict resolution, all of the folks who are on the side of collaboration and respect need to start working against the Divide & Conquerors and the Fighters. And we need to start reframing the conflicts away from “us vs. them” to “we.”


Referenced Resources:

Slide 2: Peter Coleman. The Five Percent.

Slide 4: Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess. "Promote Escalation Awareness"

Slides 10-11: Jason Wilson. “So you want to get out of your bubble: try reading these conservative websites” (The Guardian- US edition.)

Slides 12-15: Sen. Orrin Hatch: I Am Re-Committing to Civility. Time. June, 2017.

Slide 16: Lester Thurow. The Zero Sum Society.

Slide 17:Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess. Power and the Power Strategy Mix.

Slide 18: Essential Partners Resrouces Page

Slide 19: S-CAR Parents of the Field: John Burton and Herbert Kelman. "Interactive Problem Solving: Changing Political Cuture in the Pursuit of Conflict Resolution"

Slide 21: Christopher Dickey "The World's Most Subersive Soap Operas."

Slide 22:

Slide 25: Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. "Our Most Important Conflict: Coexisters vs. Fighters vs. Divide-and-Conquerors"

Slide 26: The Conflict Frontiers Seminar

Photo Credits:

Slide 5: Stop sign pixabay. CC0: public domain.

Slide 6, 18, 19: Mediation Silhouettes – Source:; by Gilbert Bages from the Noun Project; Permission: Attribution 3.0 United States (CC BY 3.0 US)

Slide 9: Thankgiving by Heidi Burgess

Slide 24: Cambridge analytica: Attribution:  CC by 2.0.  Trump:  Attribution: by Gage Skidmore. (CC BY-SA 2.0).  Putin: pixabay. Public domain.