Pursuing a Third Way

August 30, 2023 – Approximate Read Time: ~10 minutes

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by Tom Klaus

The Takeaway: Leadership is essential to settling cultural conflict and leadership can be practiced by anyone, regardless of position or title. The Culture War has benefits for both “winners” and “losers” and they are barriers to settling cultural conflict. Pursuing a Third Way asks combatants to consider a different approach to engaging one another in the Culture War. A Third Way requires the courage and will to take the risk of following another path that can lead to changing both minds and hearts and opening a door to conflict settlement.

This cycle was wearisome, frustrating, and disheartening to principal leaders in this study – on all sides of the conflicts. It is still wearisome, frustrating, and disheartening for those practicing leadership today in the fog of Culture War. It can also feel incredibly hopeless.

If it hasn’t been clear, let me make it so now: Leaders are not defined by their role, position, title, status, or authority. Leading is an activity or practice that can be done by anyone (Raelin, 2016). This is true even when people are assigned a follower role or position (Chaleff, 2009). When we “democratize leadership” (Chrislip & 0’Malley, 2013) then we understand leading is an activity which is accessible to anyone.

John Kotter, writing in Leading Change, wrote, “Only leadership can motivate the actions needed to alter behavior in any significant way. Only leadership can get change to stick by anchoring it in the very culture of an organization” (1996, p. 30). People acting as leaders can bring change to an organization, a community, and a whole nation. When facing controversy and conflict, the courage and will to lead are key.

A lack of will and courage can be a self-imposed barrier to Pursuing a Third Way. Courage and will can be difficult to find when it is not clear what will happen when one acts as a leader and whether the outcome will be successful. The study showed that principal leaders of sexual health organizations in the midst of the sex ed Culture War seemed to be holding back from Pursuing a Third Way even when they realized what they had been doing previously wasn’t working. In some cases, their wounds were too deep, and they felt too mistrustful of their opponents to try something different. In other cases, they held onto misinterpretations and misrepresentations of their opponents. In the end, they didn’t hold much hope that anything could be different.

However, it was not clear whether the conflict had brought leaders to the point of experiencing a “hurting stalemate” (Brahm, 2003). A “hurting stalemate” is a state in which neither side is taking any ground and each only expends energy and resources in a battle that isn’t being successful. A hurting stalemate is often necessary, though, to push combatants into de-escalation, negotiation, and conflict settlement. At the time of the study, it appeared the benefits to engaging in conflict still outweighed the costs, especially for leaders who were on the winning side at that moment.

In fact, the Culture War rages today because there are still more benefits to fighting than settling for both sides. For example, a major benefit for those “winning” is vindication of their ideology through its domination. A major benefit for those “losing” is successful fundraising off the threat of losing the war. Because the benefits are significant, it can take a while to reach the state of hurting stalemate.

While a hurting stalemate can provide a unique opportunity to bring settlement, it is not the only way. For example, change can be facilitated by funders. Principal leaders in this study identified the pursuit of funding as a crucial factor in driving the intractable conflict. Funders, such as government agencies and foundations, often provide funding on a competitive basis. Their requests for application are also developed to reflect the funder’s approach or ideology related to a problem. As a result, organizations receiving funding not only need to be aligned with the funder’s ideology, but they also need to compete with other organizations. Therefore, many funders already require evidence of collaboration with like-minded colleague organizations. However, funders might affect meaningful change in the conflict if they would require evidence of collaboration with ideologically incompatible organizations as a condition for funding. Obviously, given the context described by the study participants, and the experience of current day Culture War combatants, this would represent a radical shift and a very bold step for funders. Once again, we are reminded that the will to change is a pre-condition for the potential for change.

Unlike the funder-driven change described above, Pursuing a Third Way does not ask leaders with divergent ideologies on Culture War issues to come together to find common ground, build consensus, share limited funding and other resources, or similarly try to work together. These outcomes ask opposing parties to deal with specific needs and resource-based interests. To achieve them they require negotiation of specifics related to Culture War issues. However, this negotiation is not possible until the battling parties have successfully addressed the dynamics of the relationship and the patterns of interaction between them that keeps them in conflict (Coleman et al., 2007).

Managing ideological differences and intractable conflict needs each party to change both their cognitive and affective responses to their opponent. Cognitively this means allowing your beliefs about another to be changed, and then adopting a different perspective toward the other (Campbell & Docherty, 2004; Coleman et al., 2007; Gray et al., 2007). This belief changing is what Schein (1999, p. 61) refers to as “cognitive restructuring” and involves learning that:

  1. Words mean something different than what one assumed (“semantic redefinition”).
  2. Concepts can be more broadly interpreted than what one assumed (“cognitive broadening”).
  3. The measures by which one evaluates another are not absolute and if another measure is used the evaluation changes (“new standards of judgment or evaluation”).

Affectively it is to “imagine others’ hurt and to relate it to the hurt we would experience if we were in their place”(Forni, 2002). The importance of and need for managing ideological differences in the conflict over sexuality education was punctuated by the frequent misunderstanding and misrepresentation of opponents’ beliefs and values observed during the study interviews. This was common among participants regardless of their ideology and was most recognizable in the frequent use of stereotyping to characterize their opposition.

The recommendation of Pursuing a Third Way does ask leaders, organizations, funders, and other stakeholders in conflict to try, willingly and boldly, something different when managing cultural conflict.

The fourth and final insight and recommendation, which we will consider next week, suggests a strategy for doing this.

Do you have a question about something you are reading in this series? Send it to us at info@tenaciouschange.us. We’ll address it at the end of the series. Thanks!

  • Brahm, E. (2003, September). Conflict Stages. Beyond Intractability. G. Burgess & H. Burgess (Eds.). Retrieved from http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/conflict_stages/
  • Campbell, M. C. & Docherty, J. S. (2004). What’s in a frame (that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet). Marquette Law Review, 87(4),769-781.
  • Chaleff, I. (2009). The courageous follower: Standing up to and for our leaders (3rdedition). Berrett-Koehler. (Original work published 1995).
  • Chrislip, D. D., & O’Malley, E. (2013). For the common good: Redefining civic leadership. Kansas Leadership Institute.
  • Coleman, P. T., Vallacher, R. R., Nowak, A., & Bui-Wrzosinska, L. Intractable conflict as an attractor: A dynamical systems approach to conflict escalation and intractability. American Behavioral Scientist, 50(11), 1454-1474. doi: 10.1177/0002764207302463
  • Forni, P. M. (2002). Choosing civility: The twenty-five rules of considerate conduct. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin.
  • Gray, B., Coleman, P. T., & Putnam, L. L. (2007). Introduction: Intractable conflict: New perspectives on the causes and conditions for change. American Behavioral Scientist, 50, 1415-1429. doi:10.1177/0002764207302459
  • Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading change. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
  • Raelin, J. A. (2016). It’s not about the leaders: It’s about the practice of leadership. Organizational Dynamics, 45(2).
  • Schein, E. H. (1999). Kurt Lewin’s change theory in the field and in the classroom: Notes toward a model of managed learning. Reflections: The Sol Journal, 1(1), 59-74.
  • Third Way. (2023). Oxford English dictionary online. Retrieved from https://www.oed.com/

Tenacious Change is Moving to Substack…Soon!

We are about ready to make the move to Substack with our weekly newsletter, Change It Up! We will be putting a couple of more test posts on Substack to learn their system. We are using older posts that we ran earlier in the year for that test. We invite you to check them out at this link to see what you think.

Scheduling for Fall 2023 and Winter 2024

We are currently scheduling consultations, workshops, and training events for late summer and early Fall as well as for this upcoming Winter. Visit our website to learn more about everything we offer. You can even download and share this handout with your colleagues. Then schedule a time to talk to us.

Now Available!

Preparing for Controversy in the Fog of (Culture) War does not hold all the answers but it has some that will be helpful. It will help you understand:

  • the difference between a controversy and a conflict
  • the stages of conflict
  • the cycle of intractable conflict
  • the value and importance of Strategic Controversy Management
  • when to intervene so that a controversy does not become a conflict
  • how to slow or stop a controversy, even a conflict, when it occurs

Ninety-one percent (91%) of people completing the evaluation after the live April 2023 seminar told us they felt more confident in their ability to manage controversy as a result of participating in the seminar. Specifically, here’s what they told us how they benefited most from it:

  • Five big steps in controversy management.
  • The rules of civil conversation.
  • Understanding how controversy and conflict are different now from the 90’s and understanding where and how conflict can be deterred.
  • Learning about when more people are likely to “get on-board” with your issue. This helped me think about where my energy and efforts can be used more effectively.
  • Tom’s historical observations about the Culture War and how things have changed…or not changed.
  • The cycle of intractable conflict.

In addition to the video, there are downloadable PDF resources. All are available at no cost, though you will be asked to sign a guest book before accessing the video and downloads.

Click on the link below to see a brief trailer video and then access the full video and all resources.

What Controversy Could be Brewing In Your World?

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Please follow this link (or click on the button below) to complete a brief Google form where you can tell us.

  • What controversies are emerging that you might be able to head off?
  • What controversies are you actually facing at this time?
  • Can you share a situation with us that we can turn into an anonymous “case study” and explore in an upcoming blog?
  • What specific questions do you have about getting prepared for controversy or managing controversy?

Remember, you can also access our video Preparing for Controversy inthe Fog of (Culture) War on our website and we also offer a day-long training event on managing controversy – on-site or online.

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