Constructive Confrontation Project

Constructive Conflict Initiative and the Constructive Conflict Project

Beyond Intractability has two similarly-named and closely-related projects. The newest one is the Constructive Conflict Initiative. That was preceded by the Constructive Confrontation Project (described on this page) which is a narrower framing of related ideas. Both share the basic idea that conflict is inevitable, but needs to be handled in more constructive ways if it is going to benefit us, not hurt us. The newer Constructive Conflict Initiative invites everyone to join in a dramatically expanded, long-term effort to pursue this goal.


by Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

July 28, 2020


The highly escalated, increasingly dehumanized, and deeply intractable nature of today's big (and little) conflicts threaten pretty much anything that we have ever really cared about.  By 2018 (and probably earlier) in the United States and far too many other places, these conflicts had reached the point where many people concluded that compromise was no longer a realistic option. They felt that, like it or not, they were involved in a win-lose confrontation that they simply could not afford to lose.  

Given this, in February, 2018, we started a new MBI project focused on bringing together what we knew about how to make these apparently inevitable confrontations as constructive as possible.  This focus on "constructive confrontation" was a significant departure from the work of many of our colleagues who were pursuing more traditional goals such as conflict resolution, compromise, and peacebuilding.

This "reframing" reflects a lesson that we learned early in the history of our Conflict Information Consortium program.  Most people see themselves as advocates on one side or the other of a conflict, not as neutral intermediaries who, by implication, see the validity of arguments on all sides of an issue.  Such advocates tend to be distrustful of "conflict resolution." They worry, for example, about being pressured to make unwanted compromises or, in the event they do decide to compromise, about being double-crossed.  Back in the early 1990s, we also learned that these same people tended to be deeply aware of the dangers of all-out confrontation and were very interested in limiting the destructiveness that they knew commonly accompanied their advocacy efforts.

We need to quit thinking of our conflicts in "us vs. them" terms and realize that we have a common enemy, destructive conflict dynamics, which we need to learn how to work together to limit.

In framing the Spring 2018 project in terms of "constructive confrontation," our goal was to show how applying a more sophisticated understanding of conflict dynamics could help advocates better defend and advance their interests. For example, conflict resolution skills are critical to building and maintaining strong alliances. Plus, the ability to empathize with your adversary allows you to more accurately identify how you might persuade them to agree to at least some of your wishes. Such empathy also helps identify the things that you may be doing that provoke unnecessary opposition. (Successful advocates don't make their adversaries any madder at them than they have to.)

We, of course, also wanted to show those interested in taking on "third side" roles how they could make critically-important contributions to deescalating our countries' and the world's "big problems" and we wanted to explore with professional colleagues how we can improve what our field offers to partisan advocates, as well as third parties. 

In 2019, we followed this initiative with the Constructive Conflict Initiative. The materials in the earlier Constructive Confrontation Project very much relate to the ideas were are pursuing in the Constructive Conflict Initiative because both efforts seek to help people learn to approach their difficult conflicts in constructive ways. The insights of the Constructive Confrontation Project, for example, are absolutely essential for addressing current (2020) struggles around topics such as racism, climate, and COVID. 

Given this, we are now expanding the original collection of Constructive Confrontation materials in an effort to show advocates how they can more constructively confront issues they care about, without creating such a strong backlash that they either fail to achieve their goals, or, as sometimes happens, fall backwards due to the strength of their opposition.

Given the intensity of many ongoing conflicts, it's clear that the continuation of "business-as-usual" approaches will yield a continuation of "destruction-as-usual" outcomes, with many trend lines pointing toward real catastrophe. The alternative is not an unrealistic grand compromise, but the promotion of much more constructive confrontation skills—the kind that harness conflict as an engine of social learning—one that helps produce a wiser and more equitable society over the long term. 

The following articles describe actions advocates might take to help make their confrontations more constructive. 

See the Complexity

Conflicts are almost never simple "us-versus-them" stories—they are much more complex.  It is impossible to confront a conflict constructively if you don't accurately understand what is going on.  BI and MBI have a number of resources that help advocates develop a better understanding of the conflict they are involved in. For example, we suggest people read or watch the following: 

  • See the Complexity It's not Just "Us versus Them"— Parties, issues, dynamics, power, and relationships are among the conflict elements one must clearly understand. 
  • Map the Basic Conflict Elements — Conflict mapping lets you see what's going on in a conflict, so you can figure out how to engage to have the most positive impact. 
  • Conflict Assessment — Conflict assessment is the first stage in the process of conflict management and resolution that begins by clarifying participants' interests, needs, positions, and issues and then engages stakeholders to find solutions.  This is something that advocates as well as intermediaries need to do.
  • Conflict Mapping — Conflict mapping is one approach to conflict assessment. Originally developed in the 1970s by Paul Wehr, it has been adapted and used by many scholars and practitioners since. Many others have developed their own conflict assessment "tools," with 100s of different categories. But Wehr's approach to complex mapping is one of the simpler and easier to use tools and is a good example of the kinds of things people should look at as they become engaged in or start to study a particular conflict.
  • Graphical Conflict Mapping Using PowerPoint, Prezi, and Websites —  An explanation with examples of different fairly widely known programs that can be used for effective conflict mapping.
  • Systems Modeling — One of the central challenges of deciding how to address intractable conflict is to understand how to respond to their dynamics and complexity. Systems modeling is one tool to help you do that.  This article explains systems modeling and gives several examples of how it can be used to design effective interventions in intractable conflicts.
  • Identify the Core Issues — Wonder why conflict mapping matters?  This video shows how it can totally change your approach to a conflict. 
  • Identify the Overlay Issues — This, too, shows why conflict mapping matters as it helps explain why simple, quick "solutions," never work in intractable conflicts.  At the same time it explores what DOES need to happen to tackle such conflicts effectively.

Determine Your Goals

I frequently tell my students that you can't get to your destination if you don't know where you are going.  To do that, you need to identify your goals in a conflict in a more sophisticated way than a simple, "I want to win!" The following videos and articles all get at the notion of goals in a variety of different ways.

  • Setting Goals -- Just as you cannot walk to a destination if you do not know where it is, you cannot achieve your goals if you do not know what they are. For this reason, goal setting is an important part of conflict management and resolution.
  • Interests, Positions, Needs, and Values — Interests are people's desires-—the things they want to achieve in a conflict or dispute. In their best-selling book, Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury assert that almost all adversaries have negotiable interests; it is only when the conflict becomes about rights, values, or power that it become intractable.
  • Justice: Many intractable conflicts are described as being struggles for "justice." Determining what "justice" means, or how to get it, however, is not straightforward.
    • Principles of Justice and Fairness — It's common sense that justice is central to any well-functioning society. However, the question of what justice is and how to achieve it are more difficult matters. This essay begins to explore the conundrum.
    • Types of Justice — Different spheres of society approach justice differently. This essay breaks justice down into four types: distributive, procedural, retributive, and restorative and briefly explains the meaning of each as an introduction to the more detailed essays that follow. 
      • Retributive Justice — Retributive justice promises punishment or "retribution" for wrongdoing.
      • Procedural Justice — Procedural justice describes approaches that define justice not by a fair outcome but by a fair process (e.g. "due process").
      • Distributive Justice — When people believe that they are not receiving their fair share of the goods and services produced by a society they feel a sense of injustice. Distributive justice is the attempt to create a fair and equitable division of society's wealth and status.
      • Restorative Justice -— Restorative justice is justice that is not designed to punish the wrong-doer, but rather to restore the victim and his or her relationship with the larger society to the way they were before the offense. Thus, restorative justice requires an apology from the offender, restitution for the victim, and forgiveness of the offender by the victim.

Imagine the Future

Sometimes people don't even really know what they want, at least over the long term. BI has the following guides for visioning processes:

  • Envisioning -- Envisioning is a process in which people try to see into the future—not only what they expect to happen, but what they would like to happen. In order to attain "peace," people must have an image of what a "peaceful," long-term relationship with their adversaries would look like. Obviously, this has to be more than an "I win and the other side loses" vision.  It has to be something that everyone can accept. Only then can they figure out what they need to do to get there.
  • Elise Boulding's Imaging Workshops: Elise Boulding was one of the founders of the field of peace and conflict studies.  BI has an interview with her where she talks about her imaging workshops, and George Mason University also has an article that she wrote about them.  (The formatting is not great, but it is available for free, so we are including it here.) 

Consider Response Options

One of the virtues of conflict mapping (particularly graphical conflict mapping (or what Andrew Peterson calls "systems modeling") is that it enables you to see where the problem elements in a conflict are that are preventing you from reaching your goals, and what needs to be changed to influence those problem elements in the desired way.  (We call these "ripe places for action.").  The following videos and essays suggest things to consider when planning a conflict response.

  • Can a solution be reached through negotiation?

    • Ripeness -- A conflict is said to be ripe once both parties realize they cannot win, and the conflict is costing them too much to continue. This tends to be a good time to open negotiations.
    • Ripeness-Promoting Strategies -- It is common for parties to want to continue a conflict even though their prospects for victory are essentially nonexistent and the costs of continuing conflict are substantial. For these cases, there are a variety of ripeness-promoting strategies.
    • Zone of Possible Agreement (ZOPA) -- The ZOPA is the common ground between two disputing parties. The ZOPA is critical to the successful outcome of negotiation, but it may take some time to determine whether a ZOPA exists.
    • Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA) -- BATNA is a term invented by Roger Fisher and William Ury which stands for "best alternative to a negotiated agreement." Any negotiator should determine his or her BATNA before agreeing to any negotiated settlement.
    • Focusing on Commonalities -- Negotiation—and agreement—become possible when one looks for commonalities, rather than just differences.
  • If you (or your side) or the other side is not willing to negotiate, what are the options?

In their book Getting Disputes Resolved, Ury, Brett, and Goldberg suggest that there are two options when the other side will not negotiate: sue on the basis of rights, or engage in a power struggle. They argue that assertion of rights should be the second step, and power struggles should only be used as a last resort, because they are so costly.  But Kenneth Boulding, in Three Faces of Power points out that there are three forms of power: integrative power, exchange power, and coercive power, and not all are costly.  Paul Wehr built on Boulding's idea of three faces of power to add what he called the "power strategy mix."  His notion is that one should "mix and match" all three power strategies to meet the particular nature of your opponents. So this approach yields many alternative options for achieving one's goals, even when the other side will (at first, at least) not negotiate. The following articles and videos explain some of these options.

Rights-Based Options

  • Rights -- The expansion of human rights recognized by the international community has helped fulfill basic human needs and reduce suffering. However, framing disputes in terms of absolute rights that cannot be compromised can contribute to a conflict's intractability.
  • Adjudication -- Adjudication is a judicial procedure for resolving rights-based disputes. In the context of alternative dispute resolution, it usually means traditional court-based processes.

Power-Based Options

  • Power -- If power were one-dimensional, we could agree who has more and who has less. However, we are often surprised when a seemingly less powerful party holds a more powerful party at bay. This essay discusses both potential and actual power, the forms power can take, and its role in causing and solving intractable conflicts.

  • Power and the Power Strategy Mix -- What is power? The ability to get things done? The ability to push other people around? Which is right? (Actually, they both are.) 

  • Self-Limiting Conflict: The Gandhian Style -- An description of how Gandhi used the power strategy mix (though he didn't call it that) to produce change. 

Coercive Power

  • Coercive Power -- Huey Newton wrote, "Politics is war without bloodshed. War is politics with bloodshed." Though not all politics is coercive, it is certainly one way to force people to do what you want. This essay discusses the pros and cons of coercive power—violent, nonviolent, political, military, and more.

  • Revenge and the Backlash Effect -- Most people hate to be forced to do things against their will. Using threats often produces such a large backlash that they cause more problems than they solve, which is one of the big reasons one shouldn't use threats or coercive power unless one absolutely has to.  

  • Nonviolence and Nonviolent Direct Action -- Nonviolent direct action is action, usually undertaken by a group of people, to persuade someone else to change their behavior. Examples include strikes, boycotts, marches, and demonstrations—social, economic, or political acts that are intended to both force and persuade an opponent to change their behavior without using violence.

Exchange Power

  • Exchange Power -- Simply, exchange power means that I do something for you in order to get you to do something for me. However, this simple concept has formed the basis for very complex human interactions, including, most obviously, our economic system.
  • Negotiation -- Negotiation is bargaining -- it is the process of discussion and give-and-take between two or more disputants, who seek to find a solution to a common problem. This overview essay discusses basic strategies and tactics of negotiation.
  • Win-Win / Win-Lose / Lose-Lose Situations -- The terms, "Win-Win," "Win-Lose," and "Lose-Lose" are basic concepts in dispute resolution. They are game theory terms that refer to the possible outcomes of a game or dispute involving two sides, and more importantly, what the implications of those outcomes are.
  • Positive-Sum / Zero-Sum / Negative-Sum Situations -- The three terms refer to possible ways resources can be divided. They relate closely (but are not equivalent to) win-win, win-lose, and lose-lose conflicts.
  • Integrative or Interest-Based Bargaining -- In integrative bargaining, the parties attempt to "enlarge the pie" or allocate resources in a way that everyone gets what they want.
  • Distributive Bargaining -- In distributive bargaining the parties assume that there is not enough to go around. Thus, the more one side gets, the less the other side gets.
  • Positional Bargaining -- This type of bargaining negotiates from positions, rather than interests. It is more typical in situations where there is a "fixed pie" to be divided up, or where both sides cannot possibly win, hence an integrative approach is not possible.
  • Creating and Claiming Value -- In any negotiation, the parties decide whether to be competitive or cooperative. However, some theorists argue that this is a false dichotomy--that all negotiations involve both.

Integrative Power

  • Integrative Power -- Integrative power is the power that binds humans together. Kenneth Boulding called it "love" or, "if that is too strong," he said, "call it respect." Integrative power is an attempt to persuade people to do something because it is "the right thing to do." Though seldom studied or discussed, Boulding argues that it is the strongest form of power, especially because the other two forms (exchange and coercive power) cannot operate without integrative power too.
  • Persuasion -- Persuasion is the ability to change people's attitudes largely through the skillful use of language and appeal to shared values. Martin Luther King's letter from a Birmingham Jail is a classic example of persuasion.
  • Nonviolence and Nonviolent Direct Action -- As noted above, the strength of nonviolence is that it combines force, exchange, and persuasive integrative appeals. 

Building power

  • Empowerment -- Saul Alinsky wrote, "I tell people to hell with charity, the only thing you'll get is what you're strong enough to get." This essay discusses what empowerment is, how it can be accomplished, who should do it, when, and what the outcomes might be.
  • Voice -- Those whose voices are most often silenced include women, children, minority groups, indigenous peoples, and the poor. This article explains the importance of having a voice, whether it is through voting, holding office, or having a seat at the negotiating table.
  • Capacity Building -- In order to negotiate effectively, parties sometimes need to build their own or others' capacity to respond to their situation effectively by building knowledge, providing resources, or both.
  • Networking -- This essay describes how networking can be used to build relationships and empower individuals and groups to confront difficult conflicts more effectively.
  • Coalition Building -- Coalition building is the making of alliances or coalitions between individuals, groups, or countries who cooperatively work together to reach a common goal.

As can be seen by exploring the articles in the Power section above, power is a complex concept that involves much more than simply the ability to force somebody else to do what you demand.  Power is the ability to defend and advance your interests.  It starts with the wisdom to be reasonable in one's aspirations by offering one's fellow citizens a livable space in society. and forsaking material aspirations that cross the line into genuine greed. 

This provides a basis for first type of power, integrative appeals, where people are convinced to change their behavior because they come to realize that it is "the right thing to do."  Such appeals are based on common values that transcend the many cultural differences that exist within any diverse society. With respect to the less fortunate and disempowered communities within a society, these common values provide a basis for compassionate appeals to equalize the playing field. Such common values also lay the groundwork for the second type of power, the cultivation of mutually-beneficial exchanges.  

For those cases where these types of power are unable to curb anti-social behavior, there is, of course, the third type of power—coercion. Coercion is dangerous because it tends to make people angry and seek revenge.  But, coercive power is much more likely to be viewed as legitimate and less likely to generate a counterproductive backlash if it is backed up by and used in the service of the above common values (i.e., integrative power). It's also more likely to be effective if it is confined to nonviolent forms of coercion. The resort to violent measures should be reserved for those few cases that represent serious threats to the community and where other forms of power —including nonviolent coercion—have proven to be ineffective.

A good example of how all three forms of power can be used together to create change was the way Gandhi designed "self-limiting" conflicts, which "stepped back" from coercive (though always nonviolent) confrontations to negotiation, all the while treating his opponents with the utmost respect, which built his integrative power.

Martin Luther King took the same approach, always treating his opponents with respect, and preaching to his followers that they should "love their enemy," which he did, even immediately after learning that his house had been bombed, and a riot was about to break out outside his home. After checking on his wife and newborn baby (and finding them okay), King went to his front porch to address the assembled crowd.

 Don't get panicky.  Don't do anything panicky.  Don't get your weapons.  If you have weapons, take them home.  He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.  Remember that is what Jesus said.  We are not advocating violence.  We want to love our enemies.  I want you to love our enemies.  Be good to them.  This is what we must live by.  We must meet hate with love." (Branch, p. 166)

Also like Gandhi, King negotiated with his opponents when the opportunity presented itself.  For instance, King was actually willing to negotiate an altered seating arrangement on the busses that would have maintained segregation.  His opponents, however, The White Citizens' Council, refused all of his suggestions. The bus boycott continued, and as we all know now, it ended with the complete desegregation of the busses. [1]

Consider the Role(s) You Might Play

In his 2000 book The Third Side Bill Ury describes ten different roles that "regular people" can play to try to bring conflicts to an end or to make them more constructive.  Bill also created a website about the Third Side and graciously allowed us to republish much of that material on BI.  The introductory essay on BI describes each of the ten roles briefly. The following essays describe each one individually.

  • Prevention Roles:
    • Providers -- Conflict usually arises in the first place from frustrated needs, like safety, identity, love and respect. Providers are those who help others attain such needs.
    • Educators -- Educators play a critical role in preventing or de-escalating conflict. Teaching tolerance and critical thinking and helping to break down stereotypes can help disputants manage their own conflicts more constructively.
    • Bridge Builders -- A relationship operates like savings in the bank; whenever an issue arises, the parties can dip into their account of goodwill to help deal with it. Bridge building, or the act of building relationships, takes place all around us, sometimes without us even perceiving it.
    • Facilitators -- Facilitators are neutrals who help a group work together more effectively. They have no decision-making authority, nor do they contribute to the substance of the discussion. Good facilitators can help groups stay on task and be more creative, efficient, and productive. (Note: facilitators were not on Bill's original list of ten roles, but they do help prevent conflicts, so we have added them here.)
  • Resolution Roles:
    • Mediators -- Mediators get involved in a dispute in order to help the parties resolve it. Unlike arbitrators or judges, mediators have no power to define or enforce an agreement, but they can help the parties to voluntarily reach agreement.
    • Arbitrators -- Arbitrators listen to the arguments of both sides in a dispute and issue a final and binding decision. Arbitration is used for cases that either cannot be negotiated, or where negotiation has failed.
    • Healers -- Conflict often leaves deep wounds. Even if a conflict appears resolved, the wounds may remain and, with them, the danger that the conflict could recur. The role of the healer is to restore injured relationships.
    • Equalizers -- Stronger parties often refuse to negotiate with weaker parties. This is where the equalizer comes in. Each of us is capable of empowering the weak and the unrepresented. This essay discusses the role of the equalizer in intractable conflicts.
  • Containment Roles:
    • Witnesses -- In Bloomington, Indiana, a group called "Moms on Patrol" walks the streets with cell phones, looking out for dangerous gang activity, and reporting it to the police. By watching carefully, witnesses like Moms on Patrol can prevent escalation of conflict and even save lives. This essay describes what witnesses can do and how they can do it.
    • Peacekeepers -- When violence breaks out, the community needs to employ measures to stop harmful conflict in its tracks. The police and UN peacekeepers can act as peacekeepers, but it is a community function too. Parents, teachers, co-workers all can be peacekeepers in their own domains, as is described in this essay.
    • Referees -- If and when people do fight, it is important to reduce the harm. Referees set limits on fighting.

Guidelines for all responses

Things YOU Can Do to Help  ALL of the things you can do posts describe relatively "simple," or "easy" things anyone can do to help make conflicts more constructive.  These include, for example,

The Conflict Frontiers Post on the Blame Game shows how the use of the concept of "contribution," rather than blame can improve the effectiveness of conflict resolution efforts.

The fundamental idea behind the notion of constructive confrontation is that some conflicts, and some wrongs, must be confronted and settled, if not resolved. But success in doing so requires that the confrontation strategies used produce changes that are wanted, rather than just entrenching the conflict more and more, as coercive, escalatory strategies tend to do.  This suggests that disputants should carefully examine the conflict to determine its real causes (not just blaming "the other guy") , and designing a response strategy that will 1) address the actual problems, 2) treat the opponents with respect, and 3) when possible, work with those opponents to craft solutions that will improve the situation for everyone involved.



[1] Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, pp. 143-205.