The Peacebuilding / Constructive Confrontation Synthesis

Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

July, 2018

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This post illustrates why applying conflict dynamics and conflict resolution skills to advocacy roles is so important, and how that can be done in a way that broadens the "market share" of the dispute resolution and peacebuilding fields.

Full Transcript:

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.
Slide 1. This is Guy Burgess. In this post, I'd like to explore the relationship between the work of peacebuilders (who approach conflict from intermediary or third-party perspectives) and advocates interested in constructive and more effective confrontation strategies (who approach conflict from an adversarial perspective).

Slide 2. I would like to start by first telling you a bit about the history of the Conflict Information Consortium (CIC) here at the University of Colorado. 

Slide 3. CIC began life in the late 1980s under a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation's Conflict Resolution Program which was funding University-based theory building centers focused on conflict and conflict resolution. They wound up providing major support to our program for over 15 years, during which time Beyond Intractability was initially created.  When we got our first big grant from Hewlett, we called our program the "Conflict Resolution Consortium," because that's what Hewlett called their program. 

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Slide 4. However, when we started organizing public events, we encountered a surprising amount of pushback from our environmental and social justice friends. They had come to see conflict resolution and mediation as a time and resource wasting process. They were also afraid that they would be forced into unwanted compromises. While they didn't use the phrase at the time, their concerns were later given the catchy name, "the sugarcoating of injustice." When we would ask people in the advocacy community to participate in events, we would get something like a 95% rejection rate-- which was pretty demoralizing. 

Slide 5. Then we got the bright idea to reframe what we were doing from a third-party, intermediary perspective to a first-party, advocacy perspective. We started asking the question "how can we handle the inevitable confrontations that we have over our deeply held beliefs in more constructive ways?" We found that people who weren't interested in talking about compromise were very interested in how they could confront one another more constructively. We literally went from our 95% rejection rate to something like a 95% acceptance rate. The lesson was pretty clear. Reframing the conflict field from third party to first party perspective was key to reaching the broader audience of advocates who are the principal drivers behind most conflicts. 

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Slide 6. For years, we taught in the Peace And Conflict Studies Program here at the University of Colorado and at similar programs at the University of Denver and George Mason University. Not counting students who were specifically studying to be intermediaries, we found that the vast majority of students in our Peace and Conflict Studies classes were not interested in becoming intermediaries. Instead, they were interested in advancing causes like social justice or environmental protection and they understood that understanding conflict dynamics was important to understanding how to be effective advocates.

Slide 7. All of this reflects an inherent tension between the interests of an intermediary and the interests of the parties. 

Slide 8. This is something that has been lurking in the background of the conflict and peacebuilding field for a long time and is reflected in the use of the word "neutral." For a long time, the word "neutral" was considered synonymous with mediators and other intermediaries. After a while, it became increasingly clear that nobody could really quite be neutral, and intermediaries have to have some sort of goal with respect to the wise and equitable outcomes that they want to facilitate. 

Slide 9. This public skepticism about intermediary motives is also reflected in what you might see as market share – the proportion of conflict interactions that are handled in destructive-conflict-as-usual, all-out confrontation ways and the proportion that are handled using peacebuilding, conflict resolution, and dispute-resolution strategies. This figure portrays an admittedly wild estimate that I think is overly charitable and gives peacebuilders maybe 10% market share. I doubt we even have that. So, part of what we need to do is to figure out how to expand that market share. We think that reframing some of the field's work in terms of constructive confrontation is one way to do that. 

Slide 10. As we think about this, it is important to remember that instinctual, all-out, let's-fight-it-out confrontation strategies are really very destructive. Many people, I think, recognize this (even when they're engaged in the heat of the conflict). They have a sense that they don't really want to be doing this, but that they don't see a way out.

Slide 11. There are certainly terrible costs to no-holds-barred confrontation. Depending on the nature of the conflict, people are killed; they suffer physical and psychological injuries; and property damage.  They incur the cost of deterrence and, where necessary, fighting. They lose the ability to pursue mutually beneficial opportunities and they damaged or completely destroy relationships. 

Slide 12. What we need to do, and what we are trying to do with the Constructive Confrontation Initiative and Massively Parallel Peacebuilding, is show folks how a more sophisticated understanding of the insights of the conflict and peacebuilding fields can help them be better advocates.

Slide 13. This is, in many ways, is nothing really very new. If you go back and you look at the list of famous Nobel Peace Prize winners, you will find people like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi (who should have but didn't win the prize). What you find is that very few of them acted as intermediaries. They were advocates for social justice in particularly difficult circumstances. They were able to bring together the principles of nonviolence and the insights of the conflict and peacebuilding field in ways that made them much more effective.

Slide 14. All of this means that we will be integrating our Massively Parallel Peacebuilding effort with Moving Beyond Intractability's Constructive Confrontation Initiative. 

Slide 15. There are a lot of different goals implicit in all of this. The first goal of constructive confrontation is to help advocates limit opposition in a sustainable way.  The focus is not on some trick that gives you a short-term tactical victory (at the expense of producing a backlash that may lead to future defeats). Rather, the goal is avoiding the things that unnecessarily antagonize opponents while simultaneously building support. 

There are all sorts of actions that might be undertaken in this context, here are just a few examples (we have identified over 100 as part of the Massively Parallel Peacebuilding effort). One thing to do is frame your aspirations in widely supported ways (e.g. Martin Luther King's plea for Americans to "live out the true meaning of their creed.") It's also worth minimizing the use of force, which tends to generate a backlash. Instead, rely on persuasion and exchange to the maximum extent possible. You should also be respectful, even of folks with whom you deeply disagree. Find ways to ratchet down, rather than up, tensions. 

Slide 16. There are lots more ideas of things that could be done in the context of Constructive Confrontation which we will get to subsequent sideshows.

Slide 17. Having said all of this, I don't want leave you with the impression that neutrals and intermediaries don't have an important role to play--because that's just not true. Years ago I spent a lot of time doing mountain rescue in Colorado and I understand that there are times when people need to be rescued. In this sense, third-party intermediaries are rescuers. Conflict situations can deteriorate to the point where the parties really are not capable of digging themselves out alone. They need help--and that's what a really good facilitator or mediator can do. 

Slide 18. In order to help adversaries understand the potential benefits of intermediaries, a comprehensive constructive confrontation approach needs to include something like a Consumer Reports for intermediary services that independently explains to advocates what intermediaries can do to help them and how to take advantage of their services. 

Slide 19. Another way in which traditional intermediaries can help promote more constructive confrontations is through capacity building. Those in conflict and peace fields have extensive experience in teaching people about conflict dynamics and how to navigate conflicts and disputes more constructively. All that is needed is to reframe a lot of these presentations in terms of "constructive confrontation," and more effective and sustainable advocacy. There is a huge need and, hopefully, something of a market for people who can do this. 

Slide 20. The bottom line is that an important key to promoting Massively Parallel Peacebuilding and more constructive approaches to conflict is showing the people who are fighting--the advocates--that it is in their enlightened self-interest to take advantage of these ideas and techniques.

Photo Credits: 

Slide 6:  Peace, Conflict and Security Program:

Slide 7: Mediation Silhouettes – Source:; by Gilbert Bages from the Noun Project; Permission: Attribution 3.0 United States (CC BY 3.0 US)

Slide 8: Balanced Scale of Justice – Source:; By: WikimediaImages; Permission: CC0 Creative Commons.  Unbalanced Scale of Justice – Source:; By: OpenClipart Vectors; Permission: CC0 Creative Commons

Slide 10: Fist – Source:; By: OpenClipart-Vectors; Permission: CC0 Creative Commons

Slide 11: Car Bomb – Source:; By: Peta_de_Aztlan; Permission: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Slide 12: Source:

Slide 13:  Mahatma Gandhi – Source:; Permission: Public Domain.  Martin Luther King – Source: Permission: Public Domain.  Nelson Mandela –; By:; Permission: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Slide 17: Mountain Rescue Helicopter – Source:; Permission: Public Domain

Slide 18: Mediation Silhouettes – Source:; by Gilbert Bages from the Noun Project; Permission: Attribution 3.0 United States (CC BY 3.0 US)

Slide 19: Seminar – Source: By: Dedy Dahlan; Permission: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Slide 20: Mediation Silhouettes – Source:; by Gilbert Bages from the Noun Project; Permission: Attribution 3.0 United States (CC BY 3.0 US)