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Destructive Confrontation

Abortion, race, sexual orientation, endangered species, taxes, entitlements--in socially, religiously, and politically diverse societies such as ours, continuing conflict over such complex and deep-rooted issues is inevitable. Unfortunately, these conflicts are often extremely destructive. They breed distrust, hostility, and too often, violence. Even at lower levels of intensity, intractable conflicts are time consuming and expensive. They can quickly escalate to the point where thoughtful debate is lost amid rampant misunderstanding, fear, and threat. These dynamics not only undermine advocates' pursuit of justice and wise decisions, they also prevent the development of any collaborative, "win-win" opportunities that might exist.

Often people involved in these conflicts recognize their destructiveness, yet they view their cause as so important, or compromise as so unconscionable, that they continue to pursue the conflict even in the face of enormous costs and limited prospects for success. Stalemates, in which critical issues remain unresolved for protracted periods, are common. The result is often the continuation of status quo policies which everyone views as highly undesirable.

Even when decisions are made, destructive conflict dynamics can cause them to be poorly conceived and ineffective. Decisions may fail to balance competing interests fairly, or they may be so technically, economically, socially, or politically flawed that they cannot be implemented as intended or are unable to achieve desired results. In order to better deal with our most pressing social problems, we, as individuals, as communities, and as societies must learn how to confront our conflicts in more constructive ways.

Conflict Resolution and Constructive Confrontation

Given the destructiveness of these confrontations, it is easy to conclude that conflict itself is the problem. Many think that if the parties could be shown win-win solutions, then the conflicts could be resolved and the heavy costs of confrontation could be avoided. This belief that win-win solutions can be found to almost any conflict has spurred the enormous growth and institutionalization of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) processes over the last twenty years. While ADR has proven remarkably successful in dealing with tractable conflicts—those in which "win-win" opportunities really do exist— it has not been nearly as effective in handling intractable conflicts, which seem to stubbornly resist even the best consensus-based approaches.

Parties to intractable conflict often view efforts to negotiate a compromise "resolution" with considerable skepticism or even outright hostility. In these situations, even the best conflict resolution strategies are usually unsuccessful. Given these failures and the apparent lack of an alternative approach, many people conclude that there are no viable alternatives to destructive, all-out confrontation.

This problem has led the Consortium to pursue an alternative to the resolution-based model for handling difficult conflicts. Our approach is predicated on the assumption that intense, long-term conflicts over difficult moral and distributional issues are inevitable. What is not inevitable is the destructiveness which commonly characterizes these confrontations. The primary goal of our program is not, therefore, the negotiation of mutually agreeable resolutions. Instead, it is the identification of realistic steps which can increase the constructiveness of these confrontations. We believe that this reframing of the conflict problem can substantially increase the ability of the field to limit the destructive aspects of resolution-resistant conflicts, while accentuating the positive functions of conflict for the parties and for society as a whole.

NOTE: There has been considerable debate within the Consortium regarding the appropriate name for the difficult conflicts with which we are concerned. To some, the dictionary definition of the term "intractable" sums it up nicely—difficult but not necessarily impossible. To others, the term seems too hopeless. There is also concern that intractable may be interpreted as implying that the parties somehow failed to adequately fulfill their responsibilities. For this reason, some of us prefer the term "long-term, continuing conflict." Still others like the term, "resolution-resistant conflict." In Consortium publications all of these terms are used.