Small Scale Reconciliation – Part 1: De-escalate Destructive Us-versus-Them Confrontations

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

March, 2021

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This is the first of five videos examining the steps that can be taken, often by individuals working at the local, small-scale level to help achieve interpersonal, inter-group or community reconciliation. This first video looks at ways to de-escalate destructive us-versus-them conflict framing, and replacing it with the notion that the real "villain" is conflict escalation and the resulting destructive dynamics, which the disputants can challenge best by working together.


Full Transcript:

Slide 1:  Hi!  This is Heidi Burgess.  Today I’m going to start talking about small scale, bottom-up, reconciliation processes.

Slide 2:  Former Speaker of the U.S. House or Representatives, Tip O’Neill, was famous for his line “All politics is local.” By that he meant that a politician’s success depends on the degree to which he can keep his local constituents happy. They are much more concerned about local, sometimes mundane issues, he said, than they are about national or global “big picture” issues. So the key to a Congressperson’s success, in O’Neill’s view (who held that position for 34 years)  is their ability to help their constituents deal with their day-to-day challenges.

Slide 3:  In a sense, all reconciliation is local too.  In 1993, Yasir Arafat and Yizhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords, putting into place a peace process that was to result in the creation of two independent states: Israel and Palestine.  Of course, this didn’t happen, in part because the people “on the ground” at the grassroots level did not accept the agreement or the deals made within it.  Although the peace process stumbled along for seven years before it firmly died with the onset of the Second Intifada, lack of enthusiasm among the people on both sides sealed its fate. So while top level (what is called “Track I” among peacebuilders) negotiations are essential for formal cessation of hostilities, and top-level involvement in reconciliatory processes such as Truth Commissions is very important, I would argue that widespread local participation in reconciliatory activities is at least as important, if not more important, than top level involvement.

Slide 4:  The local arena is also where most of us have “agency.” Many conflict resolution students I’ve taught have gone through a period of depression—not clinical depression in most cases, but just discouragement, because the conflicts they are studying all seem so hopeless.  That’s particularly true in my courses because I teach about “intractable conflicts,” which, while I earnestly point out are NOT hopeless, they are very difficult to transform or resolve.  So when I drone on and on about all the terrible things that have and are going on, it can get quite overwhelming. 

One of my current students, Marin Hollingsworth, posted on our open discussion board –and I’m quoting her now: “I get overwhelmed and sad and I don’t really know what to do with that besides “cry.” Ah, my first response was going to be “that’s common, many people feel that way.”

But before I responded, she continued on to say that she was pulled out of her depression by John Paul Lederach’s book The Moral Imagination.  In it, Lederach follows four people who, individually, made a huge difference in bringing peace to their communities.  They were not leaders, they were not trained conflict resolution specialists.  They were simply people who had the “moral imagination” to bring about change.

Slide 5:   Lederach’s moral imagination has for components.  They are:

1.  The capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships—even with our “enemies.”

2.It requires the ability to embrace complexity without getting caught up in “social schism.”

3.It requires a commitment to the creative act.

4.It requires an acceptance of risk.

Let’s talk about each of those in turn.

Slide 6:  First, he asks us to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships—even, he says, with our enemies.  This is the same thing that Ebrahim Rasool told us at PeaceCon2020, where he said that one key step towards South African reconciliation was determining that both Blacks and Whites were there to stay and South Africa “belonged to all who live there.”  Peacebuilders must understand that we are all in this web of relationships—some people are closer to us than others, but we are connected to everyone – sometimes with surprisingly few “degrees of separation.” We are in a relationship with our estranged relatives, even if we don’t want to be.  Family is there forever—whether we like them or not. We are in a relationships with our neighbors, our co-workers, our classmates—both the ones we like and the ones we don’t like so much or at all.  We are all caught up in this “thing” called life and school and community together.

Slide 7:  Second, Lederach says, “embrace complexity.” In 2018 I created a video for Beyond Intractability entitled “See the Complexity: It’s not Just “Us versus Them.”  When we are in a heated conflict, most of us simplify it down to a very comfortable story—”we’re good, they are bad” and the solution is either to “get rid of them,” “punish them,” or “force them to see it our way.”  For minor conflicts, that sometimes works, although it often costs us a relationship that might have been a good one, had we dealt with the situation differently.  But in big conflicts—these big, societal level “intractable conflicts” that I study, simplifying it down to “us versus them” is hardly ever correct, and it certainly destroys any hope we have of coming to resolution—or reconciliation.  Rather, I completely agree with John Paul—we need to embrace the complexity of the conflicts that we are in—and understand that the “evil other” probably isn’t as “evil” as we think, and maybe they had a good reason to do what they did.  Or maybe they were just ignorant, and, if more informed, they’ll do something different next time.  So try to figure out what is really going on, don’t just explain it away with the us versus them assumption.

Slide 8:  Lederach’s third requirement for the moral imagination is creativity. If a conflict needs to be reconciled, it is because the disputing parties are at odds, and they maybe have been for quite some time.  Their conflict narratives can be deeply entrenched, as we are learning now in the United States, their worldviews, their “facts (what they believe to be “true”), their values (what they believe to be “good”) can be totally different. If people or groups are going to be able to reconcile, they are going to have to create something new—a new vision of the past, the present, and the future—one that has people in better relationships than they are currently in.  Creating this new vision takes creativity. It requires the belief that people can change.  That people can learn.  That people can change hate and fear into love.  That takes creativity!

Slide 9:  And finally, Lederach says, the moral imagination requires an acceptance of risk.  Whatever we do, we might fail.  We have to be willing to accept that.  But if we are skilled, if we have the knowledge and creativity we need, we also might succeed.  And if we don’t try, we definitely cannot succeed!

Slide 10:  My student, Marin, explained that Lederach helped her see that she could “change “things in her own life that could make a big difference to a lot of people. In her words:

I can create artful change in the simplest tasks as a daughter, mother, and friend to work towards the imagined future that I desire. I think there is a lot to be said about the changes we can make in our own home and how much our simple peace practicing can influence the world in ways we will not even know. Being mindful of our moral imagination can give us the strength to be artful in our peacebuilding opportunities to better the world in our families and throughout. I guess what I am simply trying to say is that what I do matters. And that is powerful enough to make me want to keep trying to creatively cultivate peace.

Slide 11:  Guy and I are putting together a new massive open online seminar (MOOS) of which this will be a part, what argues that local, bottom up, small-scale peacebuilding needs to accomplish at least five things.  These are:

1.De-escalate destructive us-versus-them confrontations

2.Promote effective intergroup communication

3.  Develop a unifying vision and a path to get there.

4.  Level the “playing field” if wealth, income, power is unequal.

5.Take advantage of opportunities for mutually-beneficial joint actions.

Slide 12:  The first step is to de-escalate destructive us-versus-them confrontations.  There are many ways to do this, but among the most important are: recognizing that “the other” isn’t the only problem, depolarizing society away from us-vs-them confrontations toward collaboration on addressing the real problem—escalation and other destructive conflict dynamics.

Slide 13:   So a first step is recognizing that the situation is probably more complicated than you think it is.  For a start, it probably isn’t entirely their fault.  It is likely you even had some part of making the situation as bad as it is.  So a good way to start is examining your own contribution to the situation—though the other side may be more wrong than you are, most often everybody has contributed to the situation in some way, for instance by over-reacting to a small problem, assuming worse intentions than were appropriate, saying things we shouldn’t have said. If we acknowledge our errors and apologize for them, that can help start a de-escalatory process.  (I am not suggesting, however, that we take responsibility for or apologize for things that were not our doing, or things we did that we still think are appropriate or justified.) I talk more about this in an earlier BI video entitled “Business As Usual Pt. 3: "The Blame Game.” 

Slide 14:  Another way to start de-escalation is to make a conciliatory gesture (also called de-escalating or disarming gestures.)  This is when you do something that is “nicer” than what the other side expects you to do.  Acknowledging one’s contribution to a situation is, actually a conciliatory gesture.  So, too, is acknowledging the pain that the other side is feeling, indicating a willingness to hear their side of the story, reaching out in some way, human to human.  One of the best high profile examples of such a gesture was Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977.  Sadat was the President of Egypt at the time, and in 1977 he offered to visit Israel—the first Arab leader ever to do so.  He met with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and spoke at the Knesset about his thoughts on how to achieve Arab-Israeli peace.  Israelis were very positively moved by Sadat’s gesture of openness and this trip paved the way to the negotiation of the Camp David Accords a year later—the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt which has held to this day.

Slide 15:   Another example of a conciliatory gesture was the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) assertion that “South Africa belongs to everyone who lives there, Black and White.” As I exampled in the earlier “Ingredients of Reconciliation” Video, Ebrahim Rasool, the former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa explained that the statement that South Africa belonged to everyone who lived there was “not only a statement of vision, it [was] an extension of friendship.  It [was] an act of generosity." Even as Whites continued to dis-empower (and often kill) Blacks in South Africa, the Blacks had the "supreme humanity to say that South Africa even belong[ed] to everyone. That disrupt[ed] the little pictures [the Whites had] constructed in [their] minds [of the animalistic Blacks]" and allowed people to open themselves up to new ideas. ”

That’s the key to the effectiveness of conciliatory gestures—it changes the enemy images people have in their minds about “the other.”  Israelis learned that Sadat was a friendly, intelligent, thoughtful, caring, likable person—not the devil they had imagined him to be.  White South Africans were taken aback by the ANC’s generosity, and began to see Blacks as more human that they had envisioned them previously.

Slide 16:  So these two tools can help you reframe escalation to be the enemy more than “the other” is the enemy.  This enable you to collaborate with “the other” to beat “the real enemy”—conflict escalation and other destructive conflict dynamics (such as enemy imaging, hate-mongering, spreading “fake facts” about the other, and so on) so that together you can work to de-escalate the conflict, making it  more “ripe” for reconciliation.

Slide 17:  Another important way to de-escalate a conflict, making it more “ripe for mediation” is to diminish the use of coercive power as much as possible.  Paul Wehr a peace scholar at the University of Colorado,  adopted Kenneth Boulding’s notion of The Three Faces of Power (a title of one of Boulding’s many seminal conflict resolution books) to develop what Paul called “the power strategy mix.”  The notion is that Boulding’s three power strategies (coercion, exchange (i.e. negotiation), and integrative power) should not be used alone, but in various combinations, depending on who the actor is trying to influence.

Guy added the notion that there are four basic types of people that you might want to influence.  He called them “persuadables,” reluctant persuadables,” “traders,” and “incorrigibles.”  “Persuadables” are just like they sound.  They are people who are willing to listen to people who disagree with them, and are open to being persuaded to change their opinion, if given a good explanation of why they might do so.  People like this should approached gently and respectfully, with little if any coercion.  You might offer them something in exchange for their support, but mostly you rely on effective persuasion to get them to do what you want them to do.

The next group of people are those who are not so easily persuaded, but still are willing to listen to and consider your arguments.  You might need a little more incentive to get them to change than you need on the first group, but to the extent possible, this should be carrots (exchange power) rather than sticks (coercion) because coercion tends to anger people and lead to a backlash.  So as much as possible, the incentive should be a reward for doing what you want them to do, not a punishment if they do not.

The third group of people are those who aren’t particularly hung up on principle, or even interested in it.  They have their interests, and if you can meet them, they’ll be willing to meet yours.  For folks like this,  interest-based negotiation is clearly the primary strategy one should use, combined, perhaps with some integrative power (showing how they will benefit from working together with you for the good of everyone), and again, only if absolutely necessary, a little bit of coercion to get their attention and get them moving.

The fourth group, farthest to the right, is what Guy calls the “incorrigibles.”  These are the people who are totally set in their beliefs and their demands.  They are not going to listen to arguments, they are not going to respond to offers to trade.  They know they are right, you are wrong, and they are going to do everything they can to force you to behave and think in the way they want you to behave and think.  For people like this, the only way to get them to change is to use coercion—and stronger coercion than they are using on you.  But this is a dangerous game, so it should only be done as a last resort, and one should try to add in a little bit of integrative power and exchange power, if there is any opportunity to do so, in order to give your use of coercion as much legitimacy as possible.  (Laws, for instance, are legitimate forms of coercion, at least for people who believe in the rule of law.)  Note that the right column is much narrower than the other three columns.  That’s because Guy and I assert that most people are actually not “incorrigibles.”  They may present that way because that’s all they’ve been taught, but if gently helped along, most people will usually turn out to be one of the three types to the left, all of whom can be worked with successfully if you use what Paul Wehr called the “optimal power strategy mix.”

So the key idea here is to consider who you are trying to influence, and don’t use any more coercion than is absolutely necessary.  Rather, rely as much as possible on persuasion and integrative power (attempts to help people see that “we’re all in this together”) along with interest-based negotiation to get them to do what you want them to do.

Slide 18:  I’m going to end this video here, and cover the other four strategies of bottom-up, small scale peacebuilding in another (or two or three) videos to come.


Slides 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. : Lederach, John Paul. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford, MA: Oxford University Press, 2005. Also, Beyond Intractability has two summaries of this book, which are surprisingly different!  Moral Imagination Summary 1, and Summary 2, and an audio of Lederach talking about the book at a plenary speech at the Association for Conflict Resolution.

Slide 6: Ebrahim Rasool on What America Might Learn From South Africa's 300+ Years of Struggle -

Slide 7: Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess. See the Complexity  It's not Just "Us versus Them.“ Beyond Intractability, July 2020. See the Complexity  It's not Just "Us versus Them"

Slide 13: “Business As Usual Pt. 3: "The Blame Game".”  (

Slide 17: Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess "Business as Usual Part 4: Power and the Power Strategy Mix" and Maire Dugan "Power."


Photo Credits:

Slide 6:Unsplash. Open Source:

Slide 8:  Unsplash. open source

Slide 9:  Unsplash. Open source.

Slide 10: both Unsplash, both open source.  Earth.  Family:

Slide 11: Unsplash:  open source.

Slide 12: :  CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Slide 14: Library of Congress, open source.

Slide 15: Public domain.

Slide 16: Graphics from Microsoft Powerpoint icons.