Try Collaboration First!


Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

November 2018


Our penchant for wanting to vanquish the other side is more likely to vanquish us all. 

Better to figure out our commonalities and collaborate with the other side to attain benefits for everyone--

and in the process thwart the divide-and-conquer "tyrant-wannabes" who want nothing more than to keep us bickering so they can take over power.


Other things you can do to help.


WHY:  Our penchant for wanting to vanquish the other side is deeply ingrained in American culture.  We see it in sports and in politics. Political reporting is all about who is winning and who is losing--only rarely is it about leaders working together to advance the common good.

But working together is what enabled us to build this great society.  And our current refusal to do so is preventing us from solving any of our most pressing problems--be it climate change, immigration, inequality, health care, or education.  Refusal to cooperate won't vanquish the enemy--more likely it will harm us all.

The alternative is to figure out our commonalities and collaborate with the other side to attain benefits that help everyone. This approach is often more successful, and is less costly than is force--which not only takes resources to use, but has to constantly be defended, as people tend to lash back at those who hurt them or who forced them to act against their will.

By using collaboration we can also thwart the divide-and-conquer "tyrant-wannabes" who are trying hard to keep us fighting, distracting our attention from their many power-grabbing, democracy-destroying moves that they are taking while we fight among ourselves.

Although people often assume otherwise, most conflicts are not win-lose--meaning it is not necessary for the other side to lose for us to win.  In fact, it is often easier to win if we try to find a way to allow the other side to win too. 

This was the fundamental message of the only best-selling book in the conflict resolution field: Getting to Yes, first published in 1981, and still selling well. It's premise is that people tend to focus on "positions" -- for or against immigration, higher taxes, single-payer health care, etc.. 

But if you dig below these positions to ask "why" someone is for or against these things, you will often find out that peoples' interests and needs are similar. Most people want security for themselves and their families; they want to be treated with respect; they want to be treated fairly. 

It should be noted that John Burton and other "human needs theorists" would point out that the things I just listed are not actually "interests," but "needs" because they are both fundamental, and generally held by all people.  Two particularly interesting and important things about needs are (1) they are so important that they usually aren't compromised, BUT (2) they are still win-win in nature.  That's because the more security one side feels, the less they are likely to threaten the security of the other side.  The more one side feels its identity is respected, the more it will likely treat the other side with respect. The more one side feels it is being treated fairly, the more likely it is to treat the other side fairly. But if one feels one's security, identity or just treatment are threatened, one is likely to lash back--often threatening the security, identity, or just treatment of the other.  Instead of being win-lose, needs are either win-win or lose-lose.  So why not go for the double win?

Unfortunately, in America's ultra-polarized political climate, however, both sides are convinced that the other side will not allow them to have those things. So anything one side is for, the other side is against.  Win-lose. And since losing is unthinkable, we do all that we possibly can to win--even things that we would normally consider immoral or illegal.  Unscrupulous politicians take advantage of this attitude, suggesting if that you vote for them, and your side wins, then you won't have to compromise,--you can have it all!

The result is that "win-lose" is more often becoming "lose-lose," as no progress is made on solving any of the significant social, economic, and environmental problems currently facing the U.S and the rest of the world. So everyone's security, respect, and fair treatment is being threatened.  To fix this, we need to change our win-lose assumptions and look for ways to collaborate with the other side.

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HOW:  The key to collaboration is figuring out what both sides have in common--what shared interests and needs you actually have.  To do that, you need to talk with and listen to each other, as we discussed in an earlier post. Once you do that, if you find that you share some interests and needs (which, most likely you do, if you look underneath the visible positions), you can try to figure out how to pursue some of those interests and needs together.

This is more easily done, most often, at the interpersonal or community level.  If you are just working with one or a few people, it is fairly easy to sit down with them, active listen with the goal of really trying to understand what they want and need, and figure out areas in which you share concerns, and areas on which you differ.  Instead of writing people off who differ from you, try to investigate how you could collaborate to pursue your areas of agreement.  As you do that, and trust grows, you might even be able to figure out how to collaboratively approach your differences as well.

The same thing can be done in larger groups--community groups or workplace groups.  With larger groups, it often helps to have a facilitator run meetings.  This person can consult with the participants and on the basis of their input, recruit other participants (if appropriate to make sure all stakeholders are represented) , set agendas, and run the meeting so that progress is made, people are treated respectfully, and the agenda is followed. 

By setting ground rules and controlling communication, a facilitator can assure that everyone is heard and understood, their ideas are recorded, and progress is made toward desired goals. Typically ground rules constrain participant behavior (insisting, for instance, that people treat each other with respect), define procedures (stating, for instance, how decisions will be made), and constrain the agenda (by saying, for instance, what topics will be open to discussion, and which not.

Facilitators ask questions for clarification and to encourage deeper thinking, and they reframe statements to enhance understanding.  By drawing out quiet people and constraining overly-talkative people, and drawing attention to areas of consensus and things that still need to be worked on, the facilitator can help groups stay on task, be more creative, efficient, and productive than they would be without such help. Often such processes enable groups which, on the surface, appeared to completely oppose each other, come to mutually-acceptable agreements--at least on their shared concerns.

Such collaboration is even possible at the highest levels of social organization--the national or international level.  However, the challenge increases the higher one goes, as the constituencies are much larger, hence the interests and concerns are much more varied.  Plus, stereotypes, social media, and fear-mongering politicians who are trying to sow divisiveness instead of harmony, make trust-building and collaboration between groups at the highest levels particularly difficult to attain.  Examples of national and international collaborations exist, nevertheless.  The Kyoto and Paris Climate agreements are two examples, as are many other international laws and treaties.  

However, in the context of things YOU can do to help reduce intractable conflict, the key is to look for collaboration possibilities in your personal family and workplace conflicts, and develop the skills to pursue those. You might also want to explore how to hold "living room conversations" or "dialogues" with family or neighbors to explore collaborative possibilities.  You can also encourage the groups you work with to try collaboration--both with their internal decision making, and externally as well. 

Collaboration isn't always possible--sometimes your allies won't "play," sometimes your adversaries will refuse, and sometimes when you try it, you will fail to reach an agreement.  In that case you'll need to decide if the conflict is worth confronting (many are not) and how you are going to confront it, if you decide you want to do that.  The next two posts  (Pick Your Fights and Constructive Confrontation) address those issues.

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