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Conflict Management in Higher Ed Report
Volume 3, Number 3, May 2003

Dealing With an Angry Public:
The Mutual Gains Approach
to Resolving Disputes

"There are many reasons for the public to be angry. Business and government leaders have covered up mistakes, concealed evidence of potential risks, made misleading statements, and often lied." Such opening words from Susskind & Field's book, Dealing with an Angry Public: The Mutual Gains Approach to Resolving Disputes, will undoubtedly peak one's curiousity as to the nature of this book.

The public does have a right to be angry and skeptical of government and private sector initiatives. However, the typical approach to handle and appease the public's outrage has always followed a public relations model relying on obfuscation and concealment. According to the authors, techniques such as stonewalling, whitewashing, as well as blocking and blaming have done nothing but fuel the public's anger even more.

Susskind and Field have recognized that a different, more practical approach is needed. By implementing a mutual-gains approach to dealing with the public, the authors offer a lot of practical advice on building cooperative solutions in which people of all personalities can create effective out-reach campaigns. The book suggests that there exists a method for "government agencies and private interests to approach risks that depends neither on independent experts alone, nor on final legislative decision-making...Decision-making about acceptable levels and the distribution of risks should involve all stakeholders who will bear the costs of the risky decisions that must be made" (p.115).

The mutual-gains approach advocates six principles to deal with an angry public:

  • acknowledge the concerns of the other side.
  • encourage joint fact finding.
  • offer contingent commitments to minimize impacts if they do occur, and promise to compensate knowable but unintended impacts.
  • accept responsibility, admit mistakes, and share power.
  • act in a trustworthy fashion at all times.
  • focus on building long-term relationships.

The book serves as a great practical tool because it seems to bridge the theory of conflict resolution as a win-win experience with real-life scenarios. Besides the public relations employees in the government and private sector, scholars of communication as well as conflict resolution will benefit from this new way of responding to public anger.

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Page last updated 04/27/2004

The CMHER is a project of
Campus Conflict Resolution Resources
with support from a FIPSE grant from the US Department
of Education and initial seed money from the
Hewlett Foundation-funded CRInfo project.


Correspondence to CMHE Report c/o
Campus Conflict Resolution Resources Project
Department of Communication (Attn: Bill Warters)
Wayne State University
585 Manoogian Hall, Detroit, MI 48201.

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