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Volume 2, Number 1, Oct 2001

Student Protests, Negotiation,
and Constructive Confrontation
(page 3 of 3)

Principles of Constructive Confrontation

Emphasize Persuasion, Not Force: The first step towards more constructive confrontation is a commitment by the parties to use persuasion and moral argument as the primary component of their strategy. All too often parties conclude that the other side will never seriously consider arguments which challenge their position. Therefore, they abandon persuasive arguments in favor of force-based strategies designed to compel opponents to make concessions. (Students will try to use demonstrations or threats of disruption or violence to force the administration to comply with their demands, while the administration will try to use administrative or police force to compel the students to stop their power tactics without getting anything in exchange, or to accept less than they otherwise wanted in exchange for an end to the protest action.)

In all of these cases, the conflict’s focus becomes administrative, legal, political, or even violence based power strategies, rather than moral argument. However, the administration usually has more power, so such strategies, when used by students, usually fail. While the administration is generally more successful when it relies on power, the over-use of such strategies can leave the administration and the institution in a weak position publically if it is seen as being unreasonable or on shaky moral grounds. Thus, if the administration stonewalls students whose demands are seen as reasonable by the regents, the community, or the university's funders (the state legislature, for example, for public universities), then such power ploys can harm the administration as well. In addition, the legitimacy of the overall process is eroded, since no one is really making the case that what they are advocating is the "right thing to do," but rather they are relying on the dictum that "might makes right."

A generally superior approach for all parties, we believe, is a commitment to research, analysis, debate, and dialogue. The University needs to provide many opportunities to help its community grapple with the difficult moral issues of the time. This is especially important for higher education communities which traditionally value reasoned argument so highly. It should also be clear that this commitment to persuasion also involves the willingness to be open to persuasion. Rather than rejecting student concerns or belittling the importance of an issue, transforming a protest into an educational opportunity for students, faculty, staff, and administrators alike can have far-reaching positive effects. This might be done by structuring study groups to examine the problem or even by proposing new classes to look at the issue. Even if a solution does not result from this process, considerable learning is likely to take place and the parties may develop more respect for the other side and a better understanding of why this is a more difficult issue than it originally appeared to be.

Use of Constructive Mobilization: Also important for student protest groups is a clear distinction between destructive escalation and constructive mobilization of interest on an issue. Advocacy groups must be able to mobilize supporters and stimulate public interest in and support for their cause. Unfortunately, this is often done using destructive escalation which unfairly characterizes the positions and actions of opponents as dangerous, unjustified, and requiring immediate opposition. Disinformation and inflammatory sound-bites are common. In political terms, this is commonly referred to as "negative campaigning".

Far more beneficial is a commitment by all the parties to abandon destructive escalation tactics in favor of "positive campaigning" and constructive mobilization. (Although university administrators seldom use such overtly negative tactics, they sometimes make disparaging remarks in private which may be "leaked" or overheard and made public. In addition, just by making the pronouncement that they will agree to address the issue in a positive way, without resorting to negative or misleading advertising, they put pressure on the student group to do the same.)

For the protest group, such tactics can still include demonstrations and other actions designed to force the university administration to address the tough issues and confront injustice. Still, this needs to be done in ways which are truthful and leave open opportunities for debate and a mutual reappraisal of positions. Also required is a commitment to oppose personal attacks, avoid the destruction of private or public property, and repudiate all acts of violence. (This helps advocates as well as their targets, as violence usually diminishes a group's credibility significantly.)

It is also highly desirable for University administrators, police, and protest groups to work out protest plans ahead of time, to prevent inflammatory and potentially dangerous surprises.

Allow the Opponent to Save Face: One of the common errors made by student protest groups is to put the University administration in a position where they cannot agree with the students' position even if they want to. When the students' interests are stated in terms of non-negotiable "demands," it is very difficult for the administration to meet those demands without looking like it is completely caving in to unruly students. Even worse, students may threaten violence if they don't get their way. This makes it even more difficult for the administration to comply, or even to open negotiations, for fear of being charged with caving in to threats. If students want to be taken seriously, they need to state their case in a way that can be taken seriously. They must make it possible for the administration to work with them without losing credibility or public support. As Ury says in his sequel to Getting to Yes called Getting Past No, both sides should try to "make it easy for their opponents to say 'yes', " while making it equally hard for them to say 'no."

Negotiation "Loop-Backs": Another useful concept taken from conflict theory is that of "negotiation loopbacks." This idea is based on the notion that there many different ways to resolve disputes: negotiation, adjudication, or power contests of various sorts (for example political power contests, military contests, or nonviolent force.) Negotiation is the least costly in terms of money, time, and broken relationships. For this reason, it should always been tried first. If it fails, or if parties won't enter into negotiations because of the reasons listed above, they should generally consider the least expensive alternative. If this fails, they can go to more expensive options–typically force-based options are the most expensive in terms of relationship especially, but also often time, money, and property.

The term negotiation loopbacks refers to the importance of returning (or "looping back to") negotiation as soon as possible after the alternatives have been pursued long enough to clarify each side's BATNAs or EATNAs. As soon as it is clear who is going to prevail in a legal or political contest, or most importantly a contest of force, it is usually beneficial to both sides to stop the costly dispute resolution process and return to negotiation to work out the details. This, most often, will result in the same outcome, but at much lower cost to all concerned.

What this means in terms of constructive confrontation is that even if negotiation is not possible at one time, disputants should work to build their power and clarify their alternatives until they have a good idea of where they stand and what they are likely to get through a continued rights based or power struggle. Then, instead of continuing these costly power contests, they should revert to negotiation and try to work out an agreement that satisfies both sides interests and needs now that they know what their EATNAs are.

An Ongoing Process

A final important lesson to keep in mind is that justice conflicts seldom, if ever, are completely resolved. Disputes can be settled, new policies can be set, and sometimes, justice is, indeed, achieved. But sooner or later another group will come along, challenging the decision that was made earlier. Or a different issue will develop. The key for both protest groups and university administrators is to recognize what is negotiable and what is not, and to use constructive confrontation strategies both within the context of negotiation (along with principled negotiation) and outside of the negotiation process to assure that the confrontation is constructive and educational, rather than destructive and divisive for the university community.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Azar, Edward. The Management of Protracted Social Conflict. Hampshire, England: Dartmouth, 1990.

Burgess, Heidi and Burgess, Guy. "Constructive Confrontation: A Transformative Approach to Intractable Conflict." Mediation Quarterly, 1996, 13, 305-322.

Burton, John. Resolving Deep-Rooted Conflict: A Handbook. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987.

Coleman, Peter. "Redefining Ripeness: A Social Psychological Perspective." Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 1997, 3, 81-103.

Coleman, Peter. "Intractable Conflict." In Deutsch and Coleman (eds.) The Handbook of Conflict Resolution. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 2000.

Deutsch, Morton. The Resolution of Conflict: Constructive and Destructive Processes. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1977.

Fisher, Roger, Ury, William, and Patton, Bruce. Getting to Yes., Second Edition. New York: Penguin Books. 1991.

Pruitt, Dean, and Olczak, P. "Beyond Hope: Approaches to Resolving Seemingly Intractable Conflict." In Bunker and Rubin (eds.) Cooperation, Conflict, and Justice; Essays Inspired by the Work of Morton Deutsch. Thousands Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995.

Ross, Marc. The Management of Conflict: Constructive and Destructive Processes. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1993.

Ury, William. Getting Past No. New York: Bantam. 1991.

Ury, William, Brett, Jeanne, and Goldberg, Stephen. Getting Disputes Resolved. San Francisco: Jossey Bass. 1988.

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