Constructive Confrontation

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Constructive confrontation is an approach to dealing with intractable conflicts that is being developed by Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. This approach is based on the assumption that while conflict is inevitable in all societies, the destructive nature of most conflicts is avoidable. By using constructive confrontation, disputants and third parties can transform destructive conflicts into constructive ones--ones which are not necessarily resolved, but ones which lead to a growing and strengthening of the parties and the relationship between them.

This approach to conflict has several key elements. First is that many conflicts neither can be, nor should be, resolved. This is similar to Bush and Folger's view that settlement should not be the goal of transformative processes. Rather, constructive confrontation provides disputants and third parties with a set of tools to confront (i.e, engage in) conflict in a way that generates more benefits than it does costs. Benefits include a better understanding of one's own interests, values, and needs, and how to pursue them (Bush and Folger's empowerment) as well as a clearer understanding, of the interests, values, and needs of the other side (Bush and Folger's recognition).

A second key element of constructive confrontation is a distinction between the core conflict and "conflict overlay" problems. The core conflict is made up of the fundamental interests, values, and or needs which are in opposition to each other. Lying over this core conflict are usually a set of"conflict overlays" or complicating factors, which often obscure the core and make it difficult to deal with effectively. These overlays typically include framing problems, misunderstandings, procedural problems, technical/factual problems, and escalation. Constructive confrontation requires that all of these overlays be identified and limited as much as possible, in order to enhance constructive confrontation of the core issues.

While this is a more structured approach to dealing with deep-rooted conflicts than is transformative mediation, it is similar in that it takes a very broad view of what such conflicts are "about" and what aspects of those conflicts need to be dealt with. Unlike settlement-oriented processes that narrow in on specific negotiable interests, constructive confrontation urges analysis and management of relationship issues, emotional issues, value- and need-based issues as well as the traditional interests dealt with by problem solving mediation.

A third key element of constructive confrontation is what the Burgesses call the "incremental approach." Taken from Lindblom's concepts of remediality and "muddling through," constructive confrontation assumes that most intractable problems do not have simple win-win solutions that will result in complete and final resolution. These conflicts are complex, multi-party, multi-issue situations where the best that can be achieved is an incremental improvement in the parties' abilities to meet their own needs and/or their understanding of the interests, needs, and values of the other side(s). This is done by working to correct misunderstandings, reframe conflicts in more productive ways, find and effectively utilize mutually credible technical information, correct procedural errors, and/or limit escalation. This, then allows the transformation of a conflict from one which is highly destructive, to one which is much more constructive.

A fourth key element of constructive confrontation is integration of power strategies into what the Paul Wehr and the Burgesses call the power strategy mix. Drawing from Kenneth Boulding's Three Faces of Power, constructive confrontation suggests utilizing a combination threat or force, negotiation, and integrative approaches, or what Boulding refers to as "love." While not commonly thought of as a source of power, both negotiation and integrative strategies improve one's ability to get one's interests and needs met (which is, in essence "power). These strategies, when used in combination with a small amount of threat, are often far more successful in generating constructive change than are threat or force used alone. Used alone, threat-based strategies tend to cause escalation and backlash, not constructive change. Similarly, negotiation or integrative strategies often cannot be used alone either because the core aspect of the conflict is non-negotiable and the relationship between the parties is so weak that integrative strategies are considered or accepted. A combination of the three strategies, used sequentially or simultaneously can often lead to progress that one strategy alone could not.

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For More Information: Contact: Guy Burgess or Heidi Burgess, Co-Directors, Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, Campus Box 327, Boulder, Colorado, 80309-0327, E-mail: Phone: (303) 492-1635; Fax: (303)492-2154.

Copyright 1997 by Conflict Research Consortium