Consensus Building for Environmental Advocates

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Guy Burgess, Ph.D. and Heidi Burgess, Ph.D. -- Co-Directors, Conflict Research Consortium

Copyright 1996 by Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess


We take an approach to consensus building which differs somewhat from the approach taken by most of our colleagues in the field. Rather than considering the topic from the perspective of neutral, "third party" intermediaries whose principal goal is "resolution," we approach the topic from the perspective of advocacy groups which may seek to apply consensus-building techniques as part of an overall strategy for advancing their interests. As such, our goal is not resolution for its own sake, but rather good decisions that support the interests of the advocates as well as the society (or the world) as a whole. If consensus resolution of an issue is not possible, then we advocate the pursuit of what we call "constructive confrontation," which is an approach to advocacy that uses many of the techniques of consensus building to address ongoing controversies in more effective ways.

Since we have spent the last eight years studying conflicts that are highly resolution resistant, we are more skeptical of the power of consensus building to achieve resolution than are some of our colleagues. While consensus building can be very effective in low-stakes disputes and as a coalition building tool, it does not work as well when the issues involve deep-rooted value differences, very high-stakes, or irreducible win-lose confrontations. These characteristics occur in many environmen tal disputes (including those relating to population control and resource depletion). Therefore, we do not see consensus building as a substitute for traditional legal, political, or other adversarial mechanisms for addressing such problems. Rather, we suggest it be explored as a supplement to such strategies which will yield significant benefits in particular circumstances, and fewer benefits in others. Learning to distinguish when conflicts are "ripe" for consensus resolution and when they are not, is one of the most critical skills advocates should have. This is one of the topics we will discuss in this paper and again in Wyoming.

In addition, many of the steps traditionally used in consensus building can be applied in advocacy efforts where continued confrontation, rather than a consensus resolution is more likely. Effective advocacy, we submit, is usually based on a three-pronged approach: persuasion, negotiation, and threat. Persuasion, of course, is the foundation of advocacy—if advocates cannot make strong persuasive arguments, they will not be able to build much support. Yet persuasion alone is seldom effective. It needs to be supplemented with forced-based strategies—litigation and political action being the two most commonly used in the environmental arena. But forced-based strategies do not always yield expected or desired results. They tend to generate a backlash among opponents, as people resent being forced to do things against their will. Thus effective advocacy tries to minimize the use of force, and relies as much as possible on persuasion, negotiation, and other consensus-based strategies. Rather than describing consensus building in a vacuum, this paper and our presentation in Wyoming will focus on consensus building as part of this three pronged approach—which we call a "confrontation strategy mix."

Since each conflict and advocacy effort is different, no ?one size fits all" approach is going to work. For this reason, we take an incremental approach to training which examines typical problems encountered in difficult conflicts, and then explores options for dealing with these challenges. We expect different people in different situations to pick and choose among available options to find ones that best meet their needs. In the short time available we cannot hope to provide detailed information on all of the choices you might face, but we can illustrate a different way of thinking about confrontation, advocacy, and consensus. Our presentation will focus upon three key issues: limitation of conflict overlay problems, combining persuasive and adversarial approaches to advocacy efforts, and pursuing opportunities for consensus agreement. We discuss each of these briefly below, and leave you with some things to think about before we talk further on the 24th.



We find it useful to distinguish between core issues and a series of "conflict overlay" problems—misunderstandings, fact-finding problems, procedural controversies, and escalation. These overlays are common conflict dynamics which, while not directly related to the core issues, frequently transform the conflict in very destructive ways and prevent constructive confrontation of the core issues. One of the great benefits of consensus-building processes are that they are usually structured in a way that minimize these overlay problems. For this reason, participation in consensus- type processes can be valuable, even when agreement is not expected.

Similar techniques can be used outside formal consensus-building processes to minimize the impact of these overlay problems, even in adversarial situations. While complete elimination of overlay problems is an unrealistic goal, they can usually be significantly reduced. In some cases, of course, the activities which produce these problems may have benefits which outweigh their costs. But this choice should be made intentionally, not by default.


Misunderstanding is ubiquitous in conflict for many reasons. Disputants seldom communicate clearly, and opponents tend not to listen effectively, preferring to rely on stereotypes and assumptions. Add to those factors differing values, languages, cultures, and lifestyles, words spoken in anger, and heard in fear—all of these problems contribute to communication errors which cause people to focus attention on illusory problems, and not the core issues or potential areas of agreement.

In our workshop on the 24th, we will briefly review common sources of misunderstanding and will discuss ways in which consensus-building processes can be used to remedy many of these problems. Questions to be thinking about before then include:

1)Are you communicating your interests as well as your positions clearly?

2)Has your message been heard correctly?

3)Do you know what your opponents think of your position?

4)Do you really know what their position—and underlying interests—are?

5)Do you know why they feel this way?

6)What is your source of information for these answers?

7)What could you do to improve communication with your opponents and the population as a whole?

Fact-Finding Problems

While environmental problems often involve a great deal of scientific uncertainty, there is still a core of real, verifiable knowledge which can usually be brought to bear upon an issue. Often, however, each side presents its own scientists who dispute the findings of the opponents' scientists. This contradictory-experts problem then leaves decision makers and the public unable to identify and use valid scientific judgements. In frustration, they often ignore all the scientific evidence, deciding on the basis of emotions, not facts. Consensus building can help the parties engage in joint fact finding in an effort to develop answers to factual questions which are credible to all parties. Things you might want to consider regarding your own advocacy efforts include:

1)Are your technical analyses believed by your opponents and/or the general public? Do you believe their's?

2)What can be done to encourage analyses which are worthy of the public's trust? How might this trustworthiness be verified?

3)Are your technical studies presented in ways the general public can understand?

4)What can be done to enhance public understanding of key technical issues?

Procedural Issues

In democratic societies, people don't always expect to win, but they do expect to be treated fairly. If decision-making procedures are seen to be unfair, people quickly assume that their vital interests are being threatened. Angry confrontations over procedural problems can quickly supplant a discussion of substantive issues as the principal focus of debate. Questions to consider regarding procedural problems include:

1)Is the decision-making process widely seen as fair?

2)If not, what could be done to make it more fair?

3)Has anyone taken advantage of loopholes or exploited the system unfairly? If so, what was the result?


The most destructive of the overlay problems, escalation, feeds upon the above three problems while adding some perverse dynamics of its own. The basic mechanism begins with a relatively minor intentional or accidental provocation. This, in turn, provokes a more forceful response, which begets an even greater provocation. The result is an explosive cycle that can transform honest differences over important substantive issues into highly personalized confrontations, where distrust and hostility replace all substantive debate. Not only can this process make voluntary agreements impossible, it can transform adversarial situations into long-term enmities with a continuing series of expensive and destructive confrontations which no one ever really wins.

Of particular concern is the fact that escalation is often deliberately initiated as a strategy for mobilizing support. However, this strategy also tends to mobilize support for opponents. The result is a more intense conflict, but often little change in the relative power balance. For this reason, we feel that escalation should be limited wherever possible. Mobilization efforts need to be based on an honest presentation of the facts, rather than inflammatory and misleading efforts to paint opponents in the worst possible light.


Questions to consider before the workshop on consensus building include:

1)What conflicts that you have been involved in have escalated destructively? Why? How might this escalation have been limited?

2)How can support be mobilized without fostering a destructive escalation of the conflict?

While there are cases where correction of the above problems will, by itself, make consensus possible, there are a great many other situations in which differences over core issues are so deeply felt that continuing confrontations will be inevitable. In these cases limitation of the overlay problems will still serve a very constructive role by helping to focus debate upon the core issues.

EXERCISE: As part of this session we will ask small groups of participants to identify overlay problems that they have encountered in their advocacy work along with steps which have been (or might have been) taken to deal with these problems.


Advocacy groups should only participate in collaborative processes when these processes are likely to offer them better results than traditional adversarial and persuasive approaches. In order to make such a judgement, advocates need to understand the costs and benefits of alternative approaches. They should also consider how all three approaches can be combined to yield the best of each. Factors to consider in assessing alternative advocacy strategies include the following.

The Backlash Effect

The biggest problem with adversarial or force-based approaches is that they attempt to force people to do things against their will. This often provokes a great deal of resentment, which often breeds a powerful backlash effect. This backlash then leads opponents to devote considerable resources to finding ways to reverse the situation at the earliest opportunity. This creates a paradoxical situation in which a short-term ability to impose your will on an opponent may actually undermine prospects for long-term success.

Importance of Taking a Long-Term View

One key to the success of any type of adversarial (or advocacy) process is an understanding of the long-term nature of most conflicts. It is important to resist the common illusion that this battle (this court case, this election, etc.) will resolve an issue once and for all. While siting decisions (over the construction of a ski areas, for example) are relatively final there will always be future debates concerning the next development. Decisions to protect a habitat, to clean the water or the air, or to establish a growth control policy can all be reversed at some future time.

Thus, it is important that advocates be able to anticipate and plan for a continuing series of confrontations. This means that they need to evaluate their strategies in terms of their effects on the immediate confrontation and on future disputes as well.

Legitimacy: the Key to Limiting Backlash

The backlash effect is likely to be much more powerful if there is a widespread impression that force is being employed for purely selfish purposes or in illegitimate ways. To combat this problem, it is important that the use of force be minimized as much as possible and that its use be justified with persuasive arguments.

Part of such legitimization includes a demonstration that there are no less divisive and threatening methods for protecting a group's vital interests. For example, it should be clear that advocacy groups are only pursuing litigation because all other avenues of appeal (including negotiation or consensus building) have failed. If threat-based strategies are done for legitimate reasons using accepted procedures, backlash is likely to be much less severe than it is if people feel not only defeated, but unfairly treated as well.


The backbone of effective advocacy is persuasion. To the extent that an advocate's motives are seen as selfish, the level of resentment and opposition can be expected to increase. To the extent they are seen as being legitimate—in other words—based on logical arguments and commonly held values, the more effective they are likely to be.


When designing any collaborative or confrontation strategy, advocates should consider the following questions:

1)What force-based (i.e. adversarial) strategies are available? What are the likely outcomes of each? What are the likely costs (financial, environmental, personal, relationship-related, short- term, and long-term)?

2)What persuasive opportunities exist? What are the likely outcomes of such efforts? What are the costs?

3)How can persuasion be used to justify the use of force?

EXERCISE: As part of this session we will ask the small groups to forecast the series of adversarial power contests (or disputes) which future efforts to pursue their advocacy efforts are likely to entail. The groups will also be asked to suggest ways in which public perceptions of the legitimacy of these efforts might be enhanced and the risk of backlash reduced.


Adversarial approaches are generally expensive and divisive processes which often produce relatively crude results that fail to achieve potential win/win trade-offs. The ability to avoid these problems and develop solutions that meet everyone's needs constitutes the principal allure of consensus-building approaches. There are several keys to realizing this potential:

Understanding EATNAs and Ripeness

As suggested above, it is unreasonable to expect the parties to voluntarily accept any type of negotiated agreement if their EATNA (Expected Alternative To A Negotiated Agreement) is better. Conversely, if a settlement can be drafted which all the parties feel provides them with a better alternative, then the incentive is to settle.

Prospects for crafting such a settlement rest upon the ability of the parties to accurately assess their alternatives. If the parties have similar images of the likely results of adversarial processes, then the incentive is to craft a settlement which closely parallels the expected outcome while avoiding the often considerable transaction costs associated with the pursuit of adversarial contests to the bitter-end.

Such a negotiated settlement is also likely to be able to achieve numerous win/win trade-offs that would not have resulted from the adversarial process itself. (This is because simple adversarial approaches often give parties things that they don't really want while failing to give them things that they do want and their opponent doesn't really care about.)

In evaluating their EATNAs, it is important that the parties realistically assess the full transaction costs associated with each adversarial option. It is important to avoid the ?this is going to be a picnic" trap in which the parties reach an erroneous conclusion that the costs of confrontation are going to be relatively minor and affordable, while prospects for success are very good. Such a trap can lead the parties to forsake a settlement which is really in their best interests.

This whole process is much more likely to succeed when applied on a short-term basis, because it is relatively easy for the parties to assess their immediate options. Over the long term, however, relative power relationships are much less certain and people don't want to give up the chance of getting a better deal should the opportunity arise.

Advocates should also remember that consensus-building processes do virtually nothing to address power inequities. The more powerful will get a better deal in consensus-based processes, just as they would have in an adversarial process. The only way to redress this imbalance is for the less powerful to find some adversarial or persuasive process which clearly boosts their power. Once they do this, they can re-enter the consensus-building process with greater clout. (Many proponents of consensus building claim that everyone is an equal at the table because "power is left at the door." But it is not. The most powerful groups are the ones with the most options—and if they don't like the agreement obtained through consensus, they can utilize one of their many alternatives, thereby scuttling the agreement. This threat gives them leverage that parties without such options simply don't have.)

Power Contest Shortcuts

There are two ways in which agreement on probable outcome of adversarial power contests can be achieved. First, the power contests can be pursued to the bitter end, leaving negotiators the task of working out the terms of surrender. The alternative is for the parties to use some type of power-contest shortcut to better predict the outcome of likely adversarial processes. For example, contending parties might present their cases in a minitrial or similar procedure to assess the probable outcome of a litigation process. This opinion could then be used as a basis for a negotiated settlement. Similarly, well crafted opinion polls could be used to forecast the results of elections, and test votes could be used to test prospects for legislative success.

When feasible, power-contest shortcuts allow advocates to ascertain likely outcomes of power contests without incurring all the costs. Once relative levels of power are defined, settling disputes through negotiation is usually much easier.

This approach cannot, however, be expected to work in every case. There will be times when the outcome is highly uncertain and the only way to find out who is more powerful is to pursue things to the bitter end. For example, there are precedent-setting cases that really should be appealed to the Supreme Court and there are issues which really should be put to a vote of the people.

Pursuing Negotiable Sub-Issues

Social life involves a great many complex and overlapping relationships. Even in cases where these relationships involve deep disagreements on fundamental moral issues, there are likely to be other aspects of the relationship in which opportunities for cooperation still exist. To the extent that opponents can negotiate or cooperate on sub-issues or unrelated issues, the more they can build interpersonal trust and understanding, thereby improving prospects for effective persuasion and increasing the chances of future agreements.

Using Effective Negotiation Processes

The existence of win/win opportunities does not mean that the parties will automatically take advantage of them. To do so, they must be able to recognize the existence of potential opportunities and then move through some type of negotiation, mediation, or consensus-building process to actually craft an agreement. This requires that the overlay problems (especially escalation) be controlled to the point where a working relationship exists in spite of the deep underlying conflict.


Questions to consider relating to consensus opportunities include the following:

1)Under what circumstances would the conflict (or a part of the conflict) that you are involved in be ripe for consensus resolution?

2)Could power contest short-cuts be used to minimize the cost and time involved in determining relative levels of power and speed the ripening process? How?

3)How can a consensus process be started once the balance of power is known?

4)Can cooperative approaches be developed for any sub-issues or nonrelated issues?

5)Are procedures in place to take advantage of "ripe moments" when they do occur?

EXERCISE: For this session the small groups will be asked to identify issues which are "ripe" for agreement and suggest how power shortcuts could be used to accelerate the ripening process. (These opportunities may involve negotiable sub-issues as well as core issues which are "ripe" for settlement.)


The promise of consensus building between adversaries is limited by the inherent win/lose nature of the relationship. The application of these techniques on a "within coalition" basis is, however, much more likely to succeed, since the ability of coalition members to advance their interests will be greatly enhanced by the development of a successful strategic consensus.

While advocacy groups often have a professional staff, they are still fundamentally voluntary organizations whose power depends upon their ability to persuade people that they are providing an effective mechanism for advancing their interests. As such, the use of consensus-building strategies on an intra-organizational and intra-coalition basis can be extremely helpful.

Intra-coalition consensus-building efforts require the effective control of the same four overlay problems discussed above. For example, miscommunication can easily undermine the coordination and effectiveness of advocacy efforts. An inability to obtain and use of technical facts can lead to the pursuit of unworkable goals. When inevitable conflicts arise concerning an advocacy group's strategic choices, it is important that these conflicts be resolved using a process which is generally recognized as fair. Above all, escalation processes need to be controlled before relatively minor disagreements escalate to the point where they can split the coalition.

While the use of consensus techniques to make strategic choices is certainly desirable, it may not always be workable. As a result, some type of alternative process must be in place for making decisions when coalition members cannot agree. Here again, it is important that the decision making process be viewed as legitimate. Once divisive issues have been settled, it is also important to extend an olive branch to the losers, assuring them that they still have a valued of place in the organization and will be fully involved in discussions concerning how best to proceed.