Allow Your Opponents to "Save Face."

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

September, 2017

No one wants to be humiliated, and they tend to lash out and seek revenge when their self image is attacked.

If you can come up with a way for your opponent to compromise or even agree with you--without having to openly admit he or she was wrong before--they are much more likely to cooperate.

Other things you can do to help.

In addition to the substantive issues involved in any conflict or dispute, there are also relationship issues and identity issues.  A key example of the latter is "face," which defined simply as the public image of a person or group. 

"Face" means different things to different people and in different cultures, and is of varying degrees of importance.  Anthropologists assert that face is particularly important in what are called "high-context cultures," including Korea, China, and Japan, and many Middle Eastern and Latin American countries. These cultures, also referred to as "collectivistic" or "interdependent" cultures, tend to be quite traditional and hierarchical in organization, viewing the harmony of the group as of primary importance--far more important than the needs or interests of the individual.  So when an individual is humiliated, it is not just a personal problem, but an attack on and problem for the entire group (and hence much more serious).

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This post is also part of the
Constructive Conflict
MOOS Seminar's

exploration of the tough challenges posed by the
Constructive Conflict Initiative.


I assert that face also matters in low-context cultures, however.  Most people do not want to be embarrassed or humiliated--and they will do a lot to avoid that. A famous example of where this mattered was during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.  Leading face researcher, Stella Ting-Toomey observed that the two leaders (Kennedy and Khrushchev) "were trying to figure out how they could both retain personal and national honor in relation to each other and to the international arena." They concocted a solution to the crisis that made both men appear to their constituents that they had "won," and though the missiles were removed from Cuba, the U.S. also promised to remove missiles from Turkey. This was key to both leaders--even though they were from "low-context" societies. "Saving face" as it is commonly called, is important to "ordinary people" as well--not just leaders.

There are four aspects to face-saving in conflicts.

First is protecting, and second is repairing -- one's own self image.  The other two are protecting or repairing the other side's self image (or face). 

People in high-context cultures work to protect their self image by avoiding situations in which humiliation is likely. They do their research, and only engage in situations they deem "safe."  While people from low-context cultures are often not so careful, they do try to project an image of strength and competence in relationships--and try to regain the same should it be damaged.  At the same time, good negotiators or conflict resolvers take steps to avoid damaging the other sides' face, providing them a solution to their problem that makes them look good, and as if they "won," even if they had to concede on some demands.  It often helps to make sure that any concessions made are perceived as equitable--both sides are seen --by both sides -- as receiving as much as they gave up.  

For more information on this topic, see, 

Question for You:

HD6: Face: Have you done this in a particularly tricky or difficult conflict situation?  Tell us about what you did and how it worked out.  Did it help?  Or--did anyone else allow YOU to save face. Did that change the conflict dynamics?  (Answer below in the comment field, but in order to do that you need to be registered as a MBI Discussant.)

Laura Loescher's picture
Calling People "In" vs. Calling People "out"

I like the idea of calling people IN rather than calling people OUT. When we call people out and shame them, it can result in them contracting and not engaging anymore. I think this is particularly problematic in the context of movement building. If we humiliate people or make them feel so ashamed that they don't stay engaged, we lose an opportunity to support their learning and transformation - and our own. We also lose the potential of them being an ongoing part of the movement/organization/project. I happen to think that an environment of welcoming and invitation makes learning and transformation much more possible. 

In my own experience in conflict, and facilitating others who are in conflict, I find that it is extremely useful to focus on "being in rapport" - meeting the other where they are, connecting with respect, normalizing what's going on, and letting the others know my intention to engage respectfully and deepen connection, rather than sever connection. I might even say something like "we have all made mistakes like this" or "I don't want to shame you for this, but I need to let you know how xyz you did impacted me." 

Laura Loescher

Director, Conflict Transformation Fund