Peaceful Change Strategies

Máire A. Dugan

(Originally published July 2003, Current Implications added by Heidi Burgess in September, 2020

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This article examines the interplay between negotiation (and collaborative processes more generally) and nonviolent direct action. As the author, Maire Dugan, wrote in 2003, most theorists and practitioners thought of these strategies as being separate and even, quite often, in conflict or at least in competition with each other.  This is still largely true.  More...

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To Negotiate or Not to Negotiate: That is the [False] Question

Parties in conflict, as well as conflict scholars, often perceive a dilemma about when to negotiate and when to confront their opponent in an adversarial or even coercive way. Moderates often advocate a "soft path" of conciliation and negotiation, while hardliners advocate using force, either nonviolent or violent, to try to prevail. These approaches are often seen as completely incompatible; they are not perceived as linked or sequential, but as either/or choices.

Negotiation and Direct Action Together

Despite this image, negotiation and coercive action can actually be paired together very successfully. Both Gandhi[1] and Martin Luther King, Jr.[2] specify the use of negotiation in their steps for addressing injustice. In fact, both advocate attempting to resolve issues through direct talks with the adversary prior to planning a nonviolent action. Since their philosophies do not treat their adversaries as enemies, there is no intention to harm the adversary. Rather, if the adversary is given an opportunity to respond to the grievance, there may be no need to mount a nonviolent action.

Nonviolent action is undertaken only if the negotiation is unsuccessful at bringing a solution that is acceptable to the aggrieved party. Gandhi and King do not even advocate extensive preparation for the action prior to the negotiation stage. Some nonviolent activists might be concerned that this approach gives the adversary an unfair preparatory advantage. Gandhi and King's focus on converting the adversary takes precedence over this strategic concern in most of their writings. They prefer a process that leaves open the possibility of the adversary's change of heart to one which presumes the worst.

Negotiation, a standard conflict-resolution process, was therefore an integral part of the nonviolent-action campaigns that have set the standard in the development of nonviolent action. Nonetheless, there is little discussion of negotiation skills or practice in the nonviolence literature.

Nonviolent action is given even less attention in the literature on conflict resolution. Conflict-resolution practitioners are often uncomfortable with the confrontational nature of some nonviolent action. Beyond this, conflict-resolution professionals are concerned with getting the parties to the table, and tend to be less concerned with what happens before the negotiation or mediation than what can be done once the discussions begin.

Given all of this, it is hardly surprising that study of how the two processes interact is scant. Few have looked into how nonviolent action and conflict resolution might work best as part of the same effort to address injustice or power inequity. When addressing intractable conflict and persistent injustice, this oversight is unfortunate. Combining the particular strengths of these two approaches can likely further enhance possibilities for peace. Adam Curle outlines such a combined approach.

Curle's Model

Adam Curle is an English Quaker and peacemaker. He has worked around the world, helping people find just and peaceful resolutions to a broad array of conflicts, from familial to international. Reflecting on his wealth of experience, he developed a model for proper sequencing of conflict-resolution and nonviolent-action processes.

Curle considers two variables: awareness and balance. Awareness refers to the degree to which relevant actors are aware of the conflict, its sources, and viable solutions. Relevant parties include the membership of the aggrieved group, the adversary, and possible allies.

It may seem obvious that the aggrieved group has a high level of conflict awareness, but this may not be the case. Certainly, the aggrieved group members live with the negative consequences of the grievance and are intimately aware of them. That does not, however, mean that members are cognizant of the sources of the conflict, or that they know what can be done to address the problem. In an extreme case, they may consider their lot part of the natural order of things and/or presume there is nothing that can be done (or, at least, nothing that they can do) to improve the situation. Further, they may fear the possible consequences of challenging the status quo. In the extreme case, they may be barely subsisting, and fear that any challenge they make will be greeted with violence. In such situations, while it may be true that "when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose," the little that one has may be too precious to put at risk.

Curle avoids the word "power" and names his other key variable "balance." This distinction has the advantage of avoiding the many conscious and subconscious connotations of the word power. It also helps us to focus more fully on the relationship between the parties and on the resources they bring to bear on the particular issue(s) in contention. In a balanced relationship, neither party is able to impose its will on the other. This does not mean that they are identical in their sources of power. The resources which each bring to the relationship may be different. Parties may vary substantially in levels of control over any given commodity (e.g., wealth, arms, popular support). In relation to the issues in contention, however, the sums of their individual assets are relatively equal when weighed against each other. Neither side is likely to be successful in acting on the issue without the support or at least acquiescence of the other.

Four processes are integral to Curle's model: education, confrontation, bargaining, and conciliation.

Education: Education involves efforts to increase the awareness of parties relevant to the conflict. Education is likely to take different forms, depending on the nature of the party. In the case of members of the aggrieved group, people may need further information on the sources of the conflict as well as training in the discipline of nonviolence. Potential allies need to be clear about both the strength of the aggrieved's case and ways in which they can support it. Adversaries may need to understand the ways in which their own actions create or exacerbate the injustice and the possible impact on themselves, should people organize to redress it.[3]

Confrontation: While education is geared to all groups with any stake or interest in a conflict, confrontation is directed only at the adversary. Confrontation tactics are designed to make it uncomfortable, if not impossible, for the adversary to proceed with business as usual. They highlight and help build the strength of the aggrieved group, so that any power imbalance begins to be equalized. Since the strength of the aggrieved group is more likely to have its base in numbers than in wealth or control of resources, that strength may only become apparent to the adversary group in the confrontation stage.[4]

Bargaining: Bargaining refers to efforts between parties to work out a resolution to the conflict which both find acceptable. In some cases, the parties may be able to fashion an agreement with no external assistance through negotiation. More likely, they may need a third party to help them reach a mediated resolution. In either case, it is important that parties do more than simply reach an agreement.

[Re]conciliation: During the course of the conflict, parties tend to develop negative, mistrustful feelings toward one other. This is particularly likely if the conflict has lasted for a long time and if people have died or been irreparably injured as a result of it. Curle underscores the importance of conciliation, which is a technique through which parties overcome feelings of antipathy, hatred, distrust, and resentment.[5] Without overcoming these feelings and building a new base for a relationship, the agreement may not be durable or dependable. It is important that the parties work together to re-knit their frayed relationship. It is conciliation that sets the stage for moving toward what Curle calls development, "the restructuring of unpeaceful relations to create a situation, a society, or a community in which individuals are enabled to develop and use to the full their capacities for creativity, service, and enjoyment."[6]

Figure 1: Sequencing Strategies in Social Conflict

Modified from Curle and Dugan, p. 24

The sequencing of the peaceful change strategies is depicted in Figure 1. When both balance and awareness are low, the appropriate focus for the aggrieved group is education. However, if increased awareness does not prompt the adversary to make changes, the aggrieved group needs to adopt more confrontational tactics. This does not necessarily mean that educational efforts should be stopped. Previously unreached parties may be potential allies. Also, members of the adversarial party may not have complete information, and outreach is needed to contact additional aggrieved group members who have yet to become involved. Additionally, newly uncovered information should be shared.

As confrontation tactics address the imbalance between the parties, negotiations and mediations may begin. Once again, this does not mean that the nonviolent actions are entirely called off. The protest group may decide to wait until an agreement is reached before calling off the action.

In other words, while the arrows indicate the general path of the different strategies, this does not mean that the stages cannot overlap. More than one class of action may be taking place at the same time. The important thing is to avoid moving into a given stage before necessary preparatory work has been done.

When to Start Negotiating

You may have noticed a disparity between Gandhi and King's steps and Curle's model. As indicated above and in the section on nonviolent action, both leaders advocated negotiating before mounting nonviolent action campaigns. In Curle's model, all forms of nonviolent action precede negotiation and mediation.

This discrepancy is less significant than it may seem. Gandhi and King were leaders of broad social movements. When Gandhi went to speak to a British governor, or King to a Southern mayor, their reputations preceded them. The officials knew of their capacity to draw large numbers of apparently unorganized people together and engage them in activities that challenged the power of the establishment. They also knew of the leaders' commitment to their cause and their capacity to generate similar levels of commitment on the part of their followers.

We can look at Curle's model as starting at the very beginning of an attempt to address a disagreement. In this case, it may still be desirable to contact the adversary and attempt to discuss the matter. But this is unlikely to result in productive negotiations. Without the nonviolent action campaign, or at least the education component thereof, the more powerful adversary is very unlikely to agree to a negotiation or to bargain seriously. This does not mean that the protest group should refuse to come to the table, only that it must be wary not to agree to an unacceptable solution simply because the other party has more power. It is better to go back to constituents and begin nonviolent actions, culminating in an effort to equalize the power imbalance. Then negotiations can begin anew.

What About Legislative and Judicial Remedies?

Curle's model considers only nonviolent action and conflict-resolution strategies. There is in fact, another category of peaceable means of approaching conflict. Sharp calls this category "traditional institutional mechanisms"[7] which includes enacting legislation and filing court cases.

To see where these mechanisms might best fit in the model, it might be helpful to use a familiar case: the Montgomery bus boycott.

In Jim Crow -- racially segregated -- Alabama and elsewhere in the American South, African-Americans were not provided the same facilities as their European-American neighbors. Sometimes this segregation took the form of totally separate facilities, as was typically the case with public waiting rooms, bathrooms, schools, and water fountains. In the case of public transportation, separate trains and buses were not provided, but space on them was segregated by race. On the city buses of Montgomery, as elsewhere in the South, blacks were required to sit in the back of the bus. If whites filled the seats at the front of the bus, black passengers were expected to give up their seats to furnish more seating for white riders. To make matters worse, if one white was in need of a seat, all black passengers in the row had to get up and make way.

Rosa Parks, secretary of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was returning from work on the evening of December 1, 1955 . She was sitting in a row at the front of the section reserved for blacks. When additional white riders boarded the bus, she and the three other black passengers in her row were asked to get up and move to the rear. The others did as requested. Rosa Parks refused.

Mrs. Parks was arrested. She was quickly bailed out, but the NAACP and local ministers decided to call for a one-day boycott of the bus on the day of her trial. The initial boycott was successful, and group leaders chose to continue the boycott.

Meanwhile, Rosa Parks' case went through the courts, ending up with a Supreme Court decision handed down on Nov. 13, 1956, that ruled intrastate bus segregation unconstitutional. When the decision became operative on Dec. 21, Martin Luther King Jr. boarded a bus with a white colleague, and blacks began using the buses again, now on a desegregated basis.

Traditional institutional mechanisms, challenging an unfair practice in the courts, were the way through which bus segregation became illegal. This would have been an important victory in itself. But the impact was much larger than the legal case could have achieved. In the course of the boycott, a movement was born. Civil-rights leaders gained experience and credibility. Masses of people discovered that they had the power to undermine centuries of oppression.

Throughout the civil-rights movement, all categories of peaceful-change processes were used. Sometimes, as with school desegregation, the struggle was fought largely in the courts. More often, the changes were the direct result of massive acts of nonviolence, up to and including civil disobedience. Enactment of new legislation, particularly the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 and the Voting Rights Act were also important, but it is unlikely that they could have been achieved without the awakening of the American conscience accomplished by the prolonged nonviolent-action struggle.

The case would suggest that traditional mechanisms can also be incorporated into Curle's model. Challenging unjust laws can begin when balance and awareness are both low. Campaigns to enact new legislation that addresses existing injustices are unlikely to be successful until awareness, at least, has been heightened. This would suggest a slight revision of Figure 1.

Figure 2: Revised Sequencing Strategies in Social Conflict

Modified from Curle and Dugan, p. 24

Before closing the discussion of how different sets of strategies can be appropriately sequenced, I need to mention one caveat regarding my inclusion of legislative and judicial mechanisms. The case I used occurred in a democracy. While it is certainly true that U.S. law has failed people of color in various ways from the writing of the U.S. Constitution with its 3/5 Compromise onward, U.S institutions nonetheless seek to provide "government of the people, by the people, and for the people," to use Abraham Lincoln's phrase.

If the site of the conflict to be addressed is a more authoritarian form of government, a dictatorship, for example, I think it would be best to adhere to Figure 1.


Combining classes of strategies in the service of bringing intractable conflicts to just and constructive conclusions is a challenge. Those who have expertise in conflict resolution are not likely to have expertise in nonviolent action or legislative and judicial processes. People who have devoted their whole lives to one set of mechanisms may have difficulty seeing its limits. Some may be reluctant to combine methods.

Nonetheless, each method of peaceful change has its strengths and its limits. A movement to resolve intractable conflict will be empowered by bringing different types of actors into the planning and strategy sessions and by casting the widest net possible for participation. In all probability, conflict-resolution processes will also be helpful in the planning processes rather than simply with opponents.

Current Implications

This article examines the interplay between negotiation (and collaborative processes more generally) and nonviolent direct action. As the author, Maire Dugan, wrote in 2003, most theorists and practitioners thought of these strategies as being separate and even, quite often, in conflict or at least in competition with each other.  This is still largely true.  

For example, in a webinar held in July of 2020, about 6 weeks after protests erupted over the police killing of a Black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis, Bernie Mayer, a leading conflict resolution practitioner and author noted that

... over the many years I have been practicing in the field of conflict resolution, most of my peers have focused on finding the elements of a conflict that could be resolved and focused on them, leaving the "harder" elements on the table.  This tends to lead to much more shallow and less "important" resolutions.  It also tends to reinforce the status quo.  

This has happened repeatedly, he suggested, in conflicts over police-community relations, where simple solutions were found that brought immediate "peace," but left the underlying, deeper issues of systemic racism unaddressed.  Deep change, he argued, requires "disruption."  "Ideally," he said, it will be what he calls "strategic disruption." 

But it often has to start with what is a more chaotic and frightening disruption.  Or to put it differently, to engage conflict at the most important level, we often have to start by escalating. Now, hopefully we can do this without making long-term progress more difficult, but that really is a very fine line. [8]

So, Bernie was suggesting that conflict resolution professionals not work to find elements of this conflict that could be resolved, but rather, escalate the conflict further in an effort to produce meaningful change. But as this article points out (and I think it is correct), negotiation of agreements and direct action are not an either-or choice.  One can—and indeed, should—do both.  As Dugan describes, Gandhi and King both used negotiation and direct action together, and nonviolence theorist Adam Curle explained how they both contributed to bringing about social change, along with education and relationship building.  Dugan adds to that mix legislative and judicial action, at least in democracies. 

The combination of negotiation and direct action also makes sense in the context of classic negotiation theory. What activists are doing with nonviolent direct action is raising the cost of some unconscionable behavior by promoting an associated public condemnation. In doing so, they also threaten to raise the costs higher by continuing and even increasing their nonviolent protests.  For the party committing the unconscionable behavior, this changes their BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement). Where they might have previously thought that they could continue to "get away with" the contested behavior, they will now realize that that is not a very attractive option and that some sort of an agreement that would mitigate that behavior would be a better choice.  This is where the power of negotiation comes in: you can use it to get binding commitments for positive change. If you don't get those commitments in a timely manner, however, public interest in the issue can wane, along with the pressure to make the needed changes.  If you insist on too much, your adversary might decide that they will just suffer through the bad publicity. In short, for nonviolence to work, it needs to be combined with negoitation and the knowledge, on both sides, of when to back off the direct action and accept a deal. 

Right now, in the early fall of 2020, almost all of the energy that is being expended in the work for racial justice after the George Floyd killing is taking the form of direct action.  Most of it is nonviolent, while a small fraction of it is violent.  There is some discussion of education in the form of anti-racism training, but the efficacy of such training is mixed at best. [9] Dugan's article argues that education needs to be used in combination with direct action, relationship building and negotiation—the order of each being determined by the particular circumstances.  This suggestion is consistent with The Conversation article I just referred to on bias training.  It argues, on the basis of a review of many studies, that bias training needs to be part of a more robust package of actions: "bias training is only effective if it is designed as one component of a larger multi-pronged approach." {9]  Dugan's article suggests what that multi-pronged approach might look like.

-- Heidi Burgess. September, 2020.

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[1] Paul Wehr, Conflict Regulation, (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1979).

[2] The King Center, "Six Steps for Nonviolent Social Change" (Atlanta: The King Center, 2002, accessed 1 July 2003); available from; Internet. Note: This link is no longer good.  However, a similar article from the King Center can be found at

[3] Gene Sharp, the leading scholar of nonviolent direct action lists many "persuasion" techniques, which are likely to bring about education in his treatise The Methods of Nonviolent Action (Part II of The Politics of Nonviolent Action), (Boston, MA: Porter Sargent Publishers, 1973).

[4] The confrontation stage draws primarily on techniques classified by Sharp as non-cooperation or nonviolent intervention.

[5] Others call this reconciliation. The term "conciliation" usually specifies informal mediation.

[6] Adam Curle and Ma'ire A. Dugan."Peacemaking: Stages and Sequence," Peace and Change, Vol. 8, (Summer 1982) 19-28. See page 22 specifically.

[7] Gene Sharp, op. cit 1973.

[8] "Staying with Conflict" in Leaning in to Conflict: Creative Conflict Engagement for Learning and Cooperation See also,

[9] Javeed Sukhera. "Beware of bias training: Addressing systemic racism is not an easy fix." The Conversation.  

Use the following to cite this article:
Dugan, Máire A. and Heidi Burgess. "Peaceful Change Strategies." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: Sept. 2020 <>.