Focus on Fixing the Problem, Not Attacking People

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

September, 2017

When people are personally attacked, they tend to lash back and get defensive. 

 But if you offer to team up with them to work to solve a problem they are concerned about--they are much more likely to be responsive.

Other things you can do to help.

In their best-selling negotiation book, Getting to Yes, Fisher, Ury, and in the Second Edition, Bruce Patton list the five "principles" of a negotiation strategy they call "Principled Negotiation." This strategy, they argue, can solve essentially any conflict.  We are not quite that optimistic—we think intractable conflicts take more than principled negotiation to be resolved. But several of the principles of this approach are still highly useful in intractable conflict situations. This first principle is one of them. 

Fisher, Ury, and Patton describe their principle a bit differently (they say "separate the people from the problem.") but they mean the same thing—instead of attacking the people on the other side(s), as the problem, attack the real problem you are both concerned about.  (That's why I suggest that one imagine both disputants sitting on one side of the table, addressing the problem which is on the other side.)  It suggests that the two disputants unite as one, and work together against "the problem."

Things You Can Do To Help
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This post is also part of the
Constructive Conflict
MOOS Seminar's

exploration of the tough challenges posed by the
Constructive Conflict Initiative.


Fisher, Ury and Patton explain that people in conflict tend to become personally involved with the issues and their side's positions.  So they tend to take negative responses to those issues and positions as personal attacks. Plus, if someone disagrees with their chosen solution, they tend to see the other person as the problem ("they won't let us do what's right!") so they, too, attack the people.

Yet when people feel attacked, they tend to get defensive--and they lash back.  So each side defines "the other" as the problem, they square off arguing their respective positions, they refuse to listen to or cooperate with the other side, the conflict escalates, and often becomes even more difficult to solve. 

Often this can be avoided by focusing on the problem instead.

Fisher, Ury, and Patton point out that conflicts are usually made up of two kinds of problems: substantive problems and "people problems."  Both need to be addressed, but they need to be kept separate.  People problems, they say, are of three kinds--and all three tend to result in attacks on people instead of the problem.  These are (1) differing perceptions, (2) strong emotions, and (3) miscommunication.

  • Differing Perceptions:  
    • Rather than dismissing someone as "stupid" because they perceive the world (or the problem) differently, try to find out why they perceive it as they do.  Often their reason for having a different "take" on the situation is legitimate, and makes sense if one starts with a different set of circumstances or assumptions. For example, why might the other side be "pro-choice" or "pro-life"?  People who participate in abortion dialogues usually learn that each side has a sensible reason for taking the position they do.  
    • Rather than arguing over whose facts are right (perceptions)--find an unbiased source to resolve factual disagreements. The left and the right argue continuously, for example, about whether illegal immigrants are taking American citizens' jobs.  This is a question which is empirically testable.  Test it--or find a test that has been already done, and study the findings to resolve that aspect of the conflict.
  •  Emotions:
    • ​Emotions must be recognized, named, and dealt with directly--not ignored or attacked.  So if one side is afraid or angry, rather than telling them "you shouldn't feel that way," or acting in ways that reinforce that anger or fear—use active listening to acknowledge how they are feeling and try to address negative emotions in a constructive way.  After Donald Trump was elected president, many people of color were overcome with fear of what might befall them as a result.  Rather than trying to reassure them or protect them, Trump continued to attack them in tweets and policy.  Similarly, though, liberals continued to attack Trump voters, calling them "haters," "racists," and "idiots," and advocating policies that would hurt Trump voters even more--thus further escalating their fears and driving them more securely into the Trump's camp.
  • Miscommunication:
    • Lastly, conflict communication is fraught with misunderstanding, escalatory language, propaganda, and other destructive patterns.  By recognizing and addressing communication problems, the path toward resolution of the substantive conflicts becomes much easier. As an example, a friend of mine on Facebook implored his readers to use civility when they talked about U.S. political conflicts.  Yet his post was filled with four-letter invectives! (I don't think he even realized it!)

      Two common and simple strategies for more effective conflict communication are active listening and I-messages. Information about these, and other communication strategies are found below.

For more about these ideas, see:

Question for You:

Fixing the Problem: Have you done this in a particularly tricky or difficult conflict situation?  Tell us about what you did and how it worked out.  Did it help?  Did that change the conflict dynamics?  (Send your comments to us and we'll post them here!