Small Scale Reconciliation – Part 5: Take Advantage of Opportunities for Mutually-Beneficial Joint Actions

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

March, 2021

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This is the fifth of five videos on small-scale, bottom up reconciliation.  This video discusses how small groups can take advantage of opportunities for mutually-beneficial joint actions, even when other aspects of the conflict seem to be deadlocked.

Full Transcript:

Slide 1: Hi.  This is Heidi Burgess.  This is the last of the five videos on Small Scale Reconciliation. 

Slide 2:  This one focuses on ways to take advantage of opportunities for mutually-beneficial joint actions, even when some or even most of the conflict remains stalemated.

Slide 3:  When people are embroiled in a deep-rooted, intractable conflict, and they’ve over-simplified their narrative to a simple “us-versus-them” scenario, they usually assume that there is no point in negotiating with or listening to or working with the other side. 

But it is almost always the case that each side will share at least some interests and concerns with the other side, and collaborating on fixing those (sometimes minor) problems, or simply playing together and enjoying time together, can often build interpersonal and intergroup trust and understanding, which will then allow for more successful collaborations on other problems—including more central problems—in the future.

Slide 4:   As I discussed in the earlier Reconciliation Part 2 video, there are many varieties of “joint projects.” Some examples I know about are several Arab/Israeli bilingual schools, a bilingual/bicultural Sesame Street that, unfortunately, no longer exists, a Philippine bakery that employs Muslims and Christians, a project to rebuild Albanian mosques in Kosovo by Jews, Protestants, Serb Orthodox, and Albanian Muslims, and the JAMAA project in Burundi, which encourages soccer games with teams composed of both Hutus and Tutsis.

Slide 5:   There are lots of joint projects in the United States as well, which bring Conservatives and Progressive together to improve communities.  Two well-known such efforts are Teach for America and Americorps (the latter of which seems now to be called “Service Year”). These programs place young people—recent high school and college graduates--in service jobs around the country.  While Teach for America only places graduates in schools (though they don’t need teacher training beforehand), Service Year positions are available in education, the environment, disaster relief, health, homelessness, public safety, and many other areas.  Both of these programs tend to bring together people with very different backgrounds—the volunteers differ from the people they are working with.  But all can learn a lot about each other and get to understand that difference is enlightening, not frightening.

Slide 6:  Once the other actions discussed earlier have been started (de-escalation, improved communication, visioning, leveling), the situation is likely to become more “ripe” for negotiation.  Often, however, in difficult and intractable conflicts, it helps to have a mediator who can help disputants come up with an agenda, keep conversations respectful and focused on the goal.

Slide 7:  One of the helpful things a mediator can do is to help the disputants figure out what aspects of their conflict are “ripe” for negotiation, and which are not.  They then can start working on the “low-hanging, ripe, fruit,” and if successful there, they can move on to more challenging issues.  But creating a track record of success can be very helpful in improving trust and relationships overall.

Slide 8:  The mediator can also help the disputants reframe as we discussed earlier—from a simple “us-versus-them” situation to a collaborative situation where they are all working together to trying to solve a mutual problem. 

Slide 9: When we are in conflict, we have a tendency to blame the other for all our problems.  I even found myself doing that earlier today, while I was working on a post for BI, and couldn’t make it work and I blamed Guy!  Heavens sake! Fortunately, I quickly figured out that the problem was my own making, I shouldn’t have blamed Guy regardless, but rather should have worked with him, as I eventually did, to problem solve.  And then a light-bulb came on in my head, and I realized that reframing from blame to problem solving relates to what are are talking about here too.

As I discussed in one of the first Conflict Frontiers Seminar Videos, entitled “The Blame Game,” while we usually blame the other person for our problems, most often if we are honest about it, we have contributed to the problem too.  We maybe haven’t contributed as much as the other person did, but it is rare one side is completely blameless.  And even if they are, pointing fingers and assigning blame is unlikely to help the victim.  Rather, it is likely to make the accused feel attacked and vulnerable, and rather than becoming cooperative, they are likely to become hostile and vindictive.

A much better approach is to explore problem solving—alone, if necessary, or preferably jointly with the other side.  The term “problem solving” is used in the Conflict Resolution field in two very different ways.  It refers to reconciling interests as in interest-based bargaining or collaborative problem-solving.  And it refers to identifying and fulfilling human needs—what Ron Fisher called Interactive Problem Solving.

Slide 10:  Interest-based or integrative negotiation or problem solving basically follows the four steps popularized in the best-selling book, Getting to Yes. They are 1: Separate the people from the problem. 2: Focus on interests, not positions, 3: Generate options for mutual gain, and 4: Use objective criteria to evaluate options.  This strategy usually works pretty well when the issues in contention are interests—things that can be compromised, or expanded, to give everyone what they want.  But this strategy is not sufficient when the things in contention are not compromisable—if they involve fundamental values or basic human needs such as identity, security, or recognition.

Slide 11:  When the conflict involves fundamental needs, John Burton (first) and many other “human needs theorists” who followed his lead argued that conflict resolution scholars should hold “problem-solving workshops” with disputants in deep-rooted conflicts to investigate whether those conflicts were being driven by the denial of human needs.  If they were (which was usually the case), the scholars would work with workshop participants to identify the missing needs and come up with ideas of how those needs could be provided, which, he expected would go a long way (if not all the way) toward resolving the conflict.

As I think I have pointed out before, needs are not like interest for two reasons.  One is they are not compromised.  People don’t take partial security or partial identity.  They want it all.  But needs also aren’t zero sum, they are, more often positive sum. That means the more secure one side feels, the more the other side will likely feel secure as well, because the first side won’t be threatening them so much.  That leaves open a wide range of options for conflict resolution, if people can just simply be brought to the table and encouraged to talk to each other honestly and in good faith. 

Problem-solving workshops that do that are also called “integrative problem solving”—so that’s what I mean by “needs-based problem solving—and it is another way to take advantage of opportunities for mutual gain.

Slide 12: So taking all five of these steps together, de-escalating destructive, us-versus-them framing, improving conflict communication, forming a joint vision of a desirable future, leveling the pllaying field, and taking advantage of possibilities of mutual gain, are all ways that small scale, local, bottom up reconcilers and peacebuilders can work towards reconciliation.  Thanks!



Slide 4: Chris McMorran “Joint Projects” Beyond Intractability. 2003.

Slide 9: Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess "Business as Usual Part 3: The Blame Game"

Slide 10: R. Fisher, W. Ury, and for the Revised Editions, B. Patton. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In. See also, the BI summary:

Photo Credits:

Slide 4: Burundi soccer player: Jabelnshimirimana, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 5: and

Slide 6: By Gilbert Bages, from the noun project. CC.

Slide 7: Cherries: by Mark Hasseltine. CC BY-ND 2.0.  Mediation: By Gilbert Bages, from the noun project. CC.

Slide 8: Pictures from Microsoft Powerpoint

Slide 10:  Photo:

Slide 11: Pictures from Microsoft Powerpoint and User:Factoryjoe, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons