Menu Shortcut Page

Theoretical Framework

Our constructive confrontation approach assumes that intense, continuing confrontations over important and difficult issues are inevitable. What is avoidable is the destructiveness commonly associated with them. To limit such destructiveness, we suggest that parties and intermediaries involved in intractable conflicts should focus not on the unrealistic goal of resolution, but on how these conflicts can be conducted more constructively.

The Medical Model

Constructive confrontation follows a medical model in which destructive conflict processes are likened to diseases—pathological conditions that adversely affect people, organizations, and society as a whole. Sometimes these "diseases" can be completely cured; at other times, we can only limit their most troublesome symptoms. As in medicine, some pathological processes seem to resist all available treatment, though we hope that further research will yield effective remedies. (We must be clear that conflict processes are not, in themselves, pathological. Conflict plays an essential role in social evolution and human betterment. Our goal is to control the destructive conflict dynamics which can overwhelm these benefits.)

As does medicine, constructive confrontation takes an incremental approach. Rather than looking at conflict as a single problem and asking how it can be completely "resolved," constructive confrontation looks at each aspect of the conflict process, asking whether it is effective and constructive, and if not, how it might be improved.

While constructive confrontation differs considerably from current mediation practice, it builds upon that field's considerable experience by applying those skills in different settings. As such, we see constructive confrontation extending mediation's contributions to situations where the resolution and problem-solving models have not been as effective as we would all like.

Constructive Confrontation Steps

As in medicine, the first step in constructive confrontation is diagnosis. This process begins with preparation of a conflict map. Such a map identifies actual and potential adversary groups and intermediaries, along with their interests and positions. It also places the immediate dispute within the context of the long-term, underlying conflict.

The diagnosis then differentiates the core aspects of the conflict from what we call conflict overlays. Overlays are problems in the conflict process that get "laid over" the core issues, making them harder to see and address. Examples include escalation and polarization, misunderstandings, and problems with fact-finding, procedure, and framing (See Figure 2). After overlay problems are diagnosed, problems in the core confrontation process must also be identified. These include unidentified power options, inadequate assessment of the costs and benefits of various options, overlooking "ripe" moments, and needless pursuit of power struggles to the "bitter-end."

Identification, Selection, and Implementation of Treatment Options

After destructive conflict dynamics are diagnosed, constructive confrontation moves to identify and implement realistic, incremental steps to reduce as many of the overlay problems as possible. Some remedies involve easy "don't do its"—pitfalls which are easy to avoid once you see them (eg. gratuitous insults which unnecessarily promote hostility). Other steps require either the acquisition of new skills (eg., active listening), outside assistance from conflict professionals (eg., facilitation, transformative mediation, or structured dialogues), or risky hard choices such as pursuing a short-term victory that may provoke a damaging, long-term backlash.

While some remedies can be implemented unilaterally, others require the joint efforts of adversaries and intermediaries. Once specific options are selected and implemented, results should be monitored and needed adjustments made as the conflict changes over time. This approach is also important in treating core conflict pathologies.

Although constructive confrontation can be practiced unilaterally, third parties or advocacy advisors can help identify and assess alternative power options, and recognize or even create moments ripe for settlement. More information about how this can be done is included in "Constructive Confrontation: An Overview," in Appendix 7.