OTPIC Officially Retired

As of December 2, 2005, the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflict (OTPIC) has been officially retired, and is no longer open to new registrations.

The successor to OTPIC is a course called Dealing Constructively with Intractable Conflicts (DCIC). The new curriculum is built around one of our major projects, Beyond Intractability, and offers a much more extensive and informative set of learning materials than that available through OTPIC.

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International Online Training Program On Intractable Conflict

Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, USA

Constructive Confrontation

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To better deal with intractable conflicts, we have been developing an approach which we call constructive confrontation. This approach is based on the assumption that intense, long-term confrontations over important and difficult issues are inevitable. What is not inevitable, however, is the destructiveness commonly associated with these conflicts. (Consider, for example, the deaths in Bosnia and the Middle East,, or the racial tension resulting from misunderstood and poorly-applied affirmative-action programs in the United States.) To limit such destructiveness, we suggest that the parties and intermediaries involved in intractable conflicts should move away from the unrealistic goal of resolution, and focus, instead, on how these conflicts can be conducted more constructively.

The constructive confrontation approach follows a medical model in which destructive conflict processes (but not conflicts themselves) are likened to diseases—pathological processes that adversely affect people, organizations, and societies as a whole.   Sometimes these "diseases" can be completely cured; at other times, we can only limit the most troublesome symptoms. As in medicine, prevention often works better than a cure.  For that reason constructive confrontation advocates utilizing constructive strategies at the start of a conflict, not just at the end when the situation is grim.

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


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 should include the identification of active and potential adversary groups and intermediaries, along with their interests and positions. It should also place the immediate dispute into the context of the long-term, underlying conflict.

The next part of the diagnosis involves differentiating the core aspects of the conflict from what we call complicating factors. These are problems in the conflict process that get "laid over" the core, making the core issues harder to see and address. Examples include the categories examined in this training program: escalation and polarization, misunderstandings, fact-finding problems, procedural problems, and framing problems.

After diagnosing complicating factors, problems in the core confrontation process must also be identified. These include the inadequate identification of power options, the inadequate assessment of the costs and benefits of various options, overlooking ripe moments, and reliance on bitter end power struggles.


Identification, Selection, and Implementation of Treatment Options

After destructive conflict dynamics are diagnosed, the next step in constructive confrontation is the identification and implementation of realistic, incremental steps for reducing as many of the complicating factors as possible. In some cases these remedies involve easy "don't do its"—pitfalls which are easy to avoid once you see them.  Other steps require either the acquisition of new skills, outside assistance from conflict professionals, or the making of hard choices for which there are no clear answers (deciding whether to pursue a short-term victory even though it is likely to provoke a damaging, long-term backlash, for example.)

While some remedies can be implemented unilaterally, others require the joint efforts of adversaries, intermediaries, or both. Once specific options are selected and implemented, results should be monitored and adjustments made when needed as the conflict continues and changes over time.

The sections of this website list many pathologies and possible treatments, yet this is still not an exhaustive list of the things that could go wrong. It does, however, illustrate what one looks for when using the constructive confrontation approach. Once one starts to look at confrontations in this way, a great many other opportunities for transforming conflicts in constructive ways appear.


The Constructive Confrontation Cycle

Traditional problem-solving mediation is linear. It goes through a predetermined series of steps, in a prescribed order. Although different mediators list different steps, most correspond rather closely to those set out by Chris Moore (1986).  First, the parties are contacted, background information is collected, a strategy is developed, and the parties' agreement to participate is obtained. Then the mediation session commences--opening statements are made, issues are defined, interests are elicited, options for settlement are developed and assessed, and agreement is reached. A settlement document is drawn up and signed, the mediation is over, and the parties go home.

Constructive confrontation is very different. There is no established beginning point, and usually no end. Rather, parties begin when and where they want to, usually when they have decided (or recognized) that the conflict they are involved in is more destructive than constructive, and that they need to develop a more effective way of managing it. To do this, they do begin with a diagnosis process (this is necessary), but then they can choose any of many different approach to treating the pathologies they discover. They can try to tackle all the problems at once, or they can take them one at a time. They can deal with misunderstandings first, and then procedural difficulties, or they can go the other way around. They can start down one path, and switch to another path as the need develops. Constructive confrontation is very flexible and adaptable to the problem at hand.

Constructive confrontation is also cyclical. After treatments are undertaken, results are monitored, and strategies adjusted if the treatments did not work. It is expected that the underlying conflict will continue, so in order to keep that conflict productive, parties must continue to monitor the changes in core issues and the development of complicating problems over time. Things that were "fixed" a few months or years ago may spring up again and need further attention. So constructive confrontation is an ongoing process, not a one-time event plopped in the middle (or at the end) of a protracted conflict.


Links to Examples of and Further Information about Constructive Confrontation

Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess--Constructive Confrontation Theoretical Framework
This is a longer paper on the theoretical underpinnings of constructive confrontation.   The material above was drawn from this paper, so there is some overlap, but there is more information in this essay than is given above.
Joan Broder -- Mediation in Ireland: The Impact of Small Beginnings
This is a short essay which the situation in Northern Ireland in 1989, when the parties were just beginning to realize that there would not be a military solution to this problem.  Broder advocates giving people on all sides of the conflict mediation training so that they can change their attitude toward conflicts and learn ways to confront the conflict constructively, rather than avoiding it, or confronting it with force.
W. Barnett Pearce and Stephen Littlejohn -- Moral Conflict
Pearce and Littlejohn present an approach to moral conflict which they call transcendent discourse.  It shares many ideas with that of constructive confrontation, most especially that the goal is to find better ways of engaging in and managing moral conflicts--not avoiding or resolving them.
Ann Marie Clark and James A. McCann --  Enforcing International Standards of Justice: Amnesty International's Constructive Conflict Expansion
This is a description of Amnesty International's approach to intractable conflicts.   Although they do not call it constructive confrontation, it shares many elements with that approach.  As the authors explain, Amnesty International uses "constructive conflict expansion" as both a threat-based and an integrative approach to human rights and justice conflicts.
John Paul Lederach -- Process: The Dynamics and Progression of Conflict
Lederach's theory of conflict (drawn from Adam Curle) also reflects ideas that resonate closely with the concepts of constructive confrontation.
John Paul Lederach -- Building Peace, Introduction and Framework
In this summary, Lederach explains how bringing up and confronting latent conflict is part of the peacemaking process.
Aspen Institute--Conflict Prevention: Strategies to Sustain Peace in the Post-Cold War World
This article discusses the concept of "constructive engagement"--a very similar concept to constructive confrontation.
Paul Wehr--Gandhian Satyagraha: An Example of Controlled Confrontation
Controlled confrontation is also similar to the concept of constructive confrontation.
Paul Wehr--Civil Disobedience
Though the word "constructive confrontation" is not used, this is an example of that process in action.
Louis Kriesberg--Constructive Conflict: From Escalation to Resolution
This book, also contains many ideas similar to those of constructive confrontation.

Links to Related Approaches

Conflict Transformation

Identify Sources of Power / Power Strategy Mix



Conflict Mapping


Links to Related Problems

All of the problems in this program can be addressed by constructive confrontation.

Copyright 1998 Conflict Research Consortium  -- Contact: crc@colorado.edu