Confront Constructively

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

November, 2017

If we try to collaborate first, but fail, then we have a choice. We can "let it go," or we can fight.

If we decide to fight, we should do so in a way that is most likely to succeed in attaining what we want--at the least cost. We call that "Constructive Confrontation."

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WHY: In an earlier post, we argued that people in conflict should "try collaboration first," since many conflicts that appear to be win-lose can actually become win-win situations.  But that isn't always true.  If it is impossible to find a mutually-acceptable solution, then one must first, decide if the conflict is worth pursuing, and if it is, one needs to decide HOW to pursue it. HOW is the topic of this post.

Constructive confrontation is an idea that we developed over twenty years ago, but it still makes good sense.  It is based on the notion that when you confront people on the other side of a conflict in ways that just make them angrier than they were before, they are likely to try to resist you more than they did before. And that leads to escalation and a worsening (and perhaps more destructive) standoff.  We saw this in the run up to the 2016 elections in the United States; we are certainly still seeing it in the aftermath.  While it is true that the Democrats made signficiant electoral gains in the 2018 election, this win is just setting up an even greater escalation of the Left/Right-Trump conflict than we saw before.  If we want to reduce the polarization, hatred, and fear in this country, we need to find another way to do it!  Constructive confrontation is an approach that can be used by disputants themselves--it doesn't take third party mediators--to make conflicts more constructive, and ultimately to get what you want--or at least some of it, and certainly more than you would get with "business-as-usual" confrontation.  

HOW: Constructive confrontation involves several steps, that follow, essentially, the steps we are advocating in the Conflict Frontiers Seminar.  At the most superficial level, the steps are:

  1. Mapping the conflict so one understands its real nature - beyond simple "us-versus-them,"
  2. Distinguishing between "core issues" and "conflict overlays,"
  3. Reducing the overlay factors as much as possible, and 
  4. Using an optimal "power strategy mix" to address the core issues.

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Since the detailed "how to" takes the entire Frontiers Seminar to explain, we can only give a brief summary here. 

The key to the first step is to unpack what is really going on--identifying all the major parties, their issues, interests, needs, values, and relationships, and identifying how they relate to each other and what conflict dynamics are driving the inevitable feedback loops that create escalation spirals.

The conflict dynamics often involve what we call conflict overlays.  These are destructive dynamics that "lie over" the core issues, often obscuring them and making them even more difficult to resolve. These overlay factors include the way conflicts are framed (which is often in "us versus them" terms), poor (or no) communication, disagreements over facts (which overlaps with framing), procedural problems, and escalation.

In order to confront a conflict constructively, one has to first peel away as many of these overlay factors as possible.  That means one needs to look at the way one is framing the conflict, understanding that it is most likely not a case of "us" being right and "them" being wrong--but is likely a much more complex situation that needs to be unraveled carefully.  This is done through conflict mapping, and effective communication with the other side.

Then one should examine the areas in which you disagree with the other side and determine which of these are facts that can be objectively determined, and which are values that are at the core of the conflict.  (In this era of "fake facts" coming to agreement about actual facts is more difficult than ever, but we submit there ARE such things and that they CAN be empirically verified, if disputants are serious about wanting to confront conflicts constructively.)

One then needs to examine the dispute resolution procedures to assure that they are fair and give all sides an opportunity to make their case.  And lastly, de-escalation efforts must be made in order to allow for constructive confrontation of the core.  Once one "clears away" as many of these overlay factors as possible, then one can address the core conflict.

The core conflict elements are what the conflict is really about -- and they tend to cluster around very high-stakes distributional conflicts (where there is no win-win solution and it really matters who gets what), fundamental moral or value differences, status conflicts (over who's on top) and closely linked to that, identity and security conflicts. All of these are things that are rarely compromised, which makes finding win-win solutions difficult. (That is not necessarily true for identity and security, however, as the more security and respect for one's identity one side feels, the more likely they are to grant such to the other side.) But that is often not recognized or acted upon.

When confronting the core of the conflict, rather than relying on threat and force--which is usually costly, very often fails, and even when it "succeeds," causes long-term problems, we suggest that disputants use what we refer to as "the power strategy mix."  This is an idea developed by Kenneth Boulding, who said that power has "three faces"--in his words "threats, exchange, and love."  He went on to say "if love is too strong a word, you can substitute respect." Seldom, however, are any of these power strategies used alone--they are best mixed, much like a recipe. 

So if you are dealing with somebody who is extremely intransigent, you may have to use a fair amount of threat or force, but that should be tempered, as much as possible, with offers of trades and respect.  Martin Luther King's approach to civil rights was an excellent example of this approach.  He always was respectful of his white opponents. He dressed in suits, he talked respectfully, he always took the moral high ground.  Yet he was firm in his statements and actions, using the force of civil disobedience and other forms of nonviolent direct action to make his point.  He also was ready to negotiate if possible.  To my surprise, I learned in Taylor Branch's book Parting of the Waters that King was actually ready to negotiate where the line would be drawn on busses (designating how far back in the bus blacks had to sit).  It was the White's refusal to negotiate that caused the elimination of the line entirely, and the de-segregation of busses in Montgomery and soon nationwide. 

When one is dealing with a less intransigent opposition, one can use less force and more exchange and integrative action (another approach to "respect") that is consistent with Boulding's notion of "love." The key, overall, is to keep threats and force as minimal as possible, as that approach almost always causes backlash and insecurity, even when it "succeeds."  And when it fails, it leads to significant conflict escalation.  That is the antithesis of "constructive confrontation."

For more information on this topic, see: