Search form

Section 6. Encouraging Involvement of Potential Opponents as Well as Allies

Learn how you can arrive at workable agreements with potential or actual opponents, as well as common actions you can take for mutual benefit.


  • What do we mean by involving opponents?

  • Why should you involve opponents?

  • When should you involve opponents?

  • How can you involve opponents?

What do we mean by involving opponents?

It seems obvious that you would want to involve your allies in your group's plans. However, you probably haven't considered involving your potential opponents as well. The idea may sound far-fetched, to say the least; it may even seem harmful to your group's goals.

But think again. Maybe your opponents can indeed help you, in unexpected ways. As you will find out, collaborating with people with different goals and values - at least partially different--can be beneficial to you, and also to them. Both of you can win.

Why should you want to involve an opponent?

Collaboration with people you might otherwise think of as opponents can give you and your group several advantages, such as:

  • You might be removing, or neutralizing, a potentially harmful critic.
  • You might gain insight into the workings of your opponent.
  • You might gain access to a group that has been previously closed to you.
  • You could acquire new resources to solve a common problem (to solve tough problems, the energy of many groups may be required).
  • You can find common values and beliefs you didn't know were there.
  • You can get to know your opponents as people.
  • You can build a base of trust that might be helpful to you in the future.
  • Involving your opponents can change the status quo and help you make progress.

Are they really my opponents? Some useful facts about opposition

  • Opponents come in varying degrees. Not everyone who might oppose you will defend his position until his dying breath. Those who are slightly or mildly opposed are potential targets for change. And some people may oppose you because they don't understand your issue, or simply out of habit--they're just not used to agreeing with you! When you talk with them further, you might find they are not your opponents at all.
  • Opposition depends upon the issue. Someone may be opposed to you on issue A; but that doesn't mean they will be opposed on issue B. On issue B, they could be your strongest ally. So be careful about making generalizations.
  • Opposition is not forever. Your opponents' position may change over time. Your position may change. This means that keeping polite (if not necessarily friendly) relations with your opponents is a good idea more often than not. You never know when it might pay off.

Here's a basic point to keep in mind: Someone who disagrees with you is not necessarily an opponent!

When should you involve opponents?

Three good indicators are:

  • When the lines of communication are still relatively open - and especially when you believe your opponent is willing to talk with you
  • When you see common values and opportunities - even if your opponent doesn't see them yet
  • When, from your opponent's point of view, the cost of getting involved with you is not too great

When not to involve opponents: Some red flags

But not every situation calls for collaboration. Sometimes involving your opponents would be very difficult, if not also damaging to your efforts. For example, when:

  • There is a history of distrust, or actual deception, between you and your opponent
  • Your respective positions on this particular issue are strongly held, deeply entrenched, and completely opposed to each other
  • Your opponents are unwilling to talk with you
  • The time and energy costs in collaborating with your opponent on this issue would be just too great

On some issues, it's certainly possible to "agree to disagree" in a respectful way. Remember, though: this doesn't mean you will be disagreeing the next time around.

How can you involve opponents?

Suppose you decide that it might not be such a bad idea to involve your opponents in your cause. It's good that you're open to the idea. But since you may be on unfamiliar territory, just how should you go about doing this? What do you do first?

We suggest you consider using the following steps as a guide:

  • Decide that you want to involve your opponents. This is the first and possibly most important step; you need to make that basic decision before you can proceed further.
  • Narrow your targets. Whom would you like to involve? Probably not all opponents, rather only certain ones. But which ones? Try these criteria:
    • Those who have the power to help you get what you want
    • Those who have cooperated with you in the past
    • Those who agree with at least some of what you stand for
    • Those who could sway other opponents
    • Those who seem approachable, and whom you feel comfortable approaching

Some careful thinking ahead here is worth your while.

Clarify your goals

What do you want to accomplish through your involvement attempt? What would you like to see happen as a result? You probably don't want to shoot for the moon, but you can aim for some closer target on earth. This could mean:

  • An agreement that your opponents will not oppose you publicly
  • An agreement to try your ideas for a limited time, followed by impartial review
  • An agreement to work together on a related issue

Or some other specific achievement you can count as a win - or, better yet, as a mutual win.

Make the commitment

Are you personally ready to work with your opponents? It may not be easy. It may be a bumpy ride. You may fail. So are you truly prepared to invest the real time and energy to make this outreach attempt? Take a pause here - because in a moment, you'll be plunging in.

Identify other stakeholders

That is, other people in the community will be affected by the issue or problem you care about - it's not just you and your opponent. We often call these people "stakeholders." For example, if the issue is the cleanup of a polluted river, there are many possible polluters, just as there are many river users. Both groups (and possibly others) are stakeholders in the condition of the river.

It's best to keep in touch with stakeholders and consult with them at the beginning. Why? Because (a) they may have sound insights into the problem, as well as good ideas for solutions; (b) if they aren't consulted, they can disrupt the process or the outcome; and also because (c) they will have to live with any solutions that are adopted - so they should legitimately have a voice. Therefore, ask: "Who else is involved? How can we learn about and utilize their ideas?"

Make the contact with your opponent

Get some discussion under way. But this will not be ordinary talk or casual conversation; it will be planned-in-advance talk, with specific goals in mind.

As you start, are there some basic techniques you can use? There certainly are. Each situation is different - and take a close look at yours - but some of the techniques below might apply:

Establish ground rules

These are agreements on how you and your opponents will interact, before any interaction actually takes place. Ground rules can remove some of the uncertainty of participants, and lower the chance of misunderstandings. Some common examples: the meeting site; the meeting time; the people attending. More possibilities: media relations; confidentiality; use of outside experts. And finally: setting an agenda.

Set an agenda

This is one of the most important ground rules, which can and usually should be done in advance, together. The agenda specifically includes the items you plan to discuss; but more broadly, it also implies the goals of the meeting and suggests the general spirit in which the meetings will be conducted.

Organize subgroups

If your issue is very broad or complex, it may help to create subgroups or task forces. This will take more time and effort -- but the advantage is that you can approach and deal with several distinct issues simultaneously. The subgroups can later report back to the main group. One key to effective subgroups is keeping them diverse, so that a wide range of input can be collected on an issue.

Search for information

More times than you'd think, groups oppose each other because they don't have access to the facts. Both groups think they know what the facts are - but both could be wrong. The "facts" could be incomplete, out-of-date, misinterpreted, or all of the above. So ask, "Do we have enough information to understand the issues and arrive at solutions?" You and your opponents might decide to review data together, or gather new data, perhaps using unbiased experts. This can give you a common basis for discussion.

Find a mediator

A mediator, facilitator, or other outside person can sometimes be helpful in your discussions. This is especially so if both sides really do want to talk, but when distrust has run high; when emotions might slip out of control; when you don't trust your own one-on-one communication skills; and when a good mediator is in fact available.

Involve other stakeholders

The most common discussion format is one-on-one, but that's not the only way to get the job done. Other concerned groups can get in on the discussions too. (A good mediator here can definitely make things easier.) A variation of this would be to have one-on-one discussions at the beginning, then to open things up to other groups as the discussions proceed or move to a conclusion.

Hold an exploratory meeting

If the issue is particularly difficult or complicated, you and your opponent can begin just by talking about the issue, and your feelings surrounding it--without making any requests, or any commitments whatsoever. Such an exploratory meeting can lay the groundwork for a more business-oriented meeting later on.

Meet more than once

Depending upon the people involved, your own goals, and the complexity of the issue, your discussions may take more than one meeting. It's fine to arrange another time to talk some more, especially if the matter is important to you and you sense signs of progress.

There's more to say about making the contact. Here are some more brief "talking points" that will apply to most situations you run across.

Talking points for dealing with possible opponents

  • Think in advance about your opponent's interests and values. You won't agree on everything; but look for areas where you have interests and values in common. You'll probably find some.
  • Go in with the expectation that you are going to get something done, that you can in fact do some business together.
  • Start slowly. Don't expect too much at the beginning.
  • Be cordial and polite. Treat the other person as you would like to be treated.
  • Begin with some small talk, to build rapport, and to set the tone for the more serious work ahead.
  • Engage in some informal conversation about the issue. Do some sounding out. This will give you a clearer idea of what strategies are likely to work.
  • Make some specific propositions. Don't be hesitant about saying what your interests are and what you want.
  • Show how your proposals will meet the other person's interests. Those others will think, or say, "What's in it for me?" You should have a good answer. So look for proposals where you both can win.
  • Listen very attentively to what the other person has to say - and how it gets said.
  • Be willing to compromise.
  • Have some back-up ideas in mind, in case your original proposals are rejected.
  • Make sure a variety of options have been explored before choosing any alternatives.

For more detail on these points, check out the classic book by Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes, especially the chapter, "Invent Options for Mutual Gain."

Close the deal

The last step in your discussions is to reach agreement and close the deal, if you have one. What kind of deal are we talking about?

  • The best kind is a commitment to a particular course of action. For example, your former opponent agrees to endorse your anti-violence program, or to lend its name to an ad in the paper, or simply not to take sides on an issue. These victories may be small in themselves (or maybe not so small), but they might also be precedent-setting.
  • If you can't get an action commitment, then you can agree on some general values and goals. Your former opponent says, "We will work toward reducing youth violence in our community." Or, "We support the expansion of affordable housing programs."
  • If you can't get that far just yet, another variation is to "agree in principle" on a general framework, from which details of agreement can be worked out later. For instance, "We agree that affordable housing is a real concern in our community, and we hope to be part of future discussions on how it can best come about." More talk will be necessary, but even getting this much agreement (in some cases) can mean you have come a long way.

The best way to express agreements, especially among people who have been opponents, is to put them in writing. The printed word lowers the chances of miscommunication. More than that: it gives both sides a sense of clarity and security. Your written agreement can be in the form of a one-paragraph note, or a longer "memorandum of understanding," or whatever name you both wish to give it. But both sides should sign it, with copies all around. Handshakes, too. Even a small bow.

If multiple issues are to be decided, you can use a "building block" approach where you make separate agreements (or commitments) on separate issues, tackling the easiest issues first.)

Now you've got the involvement of your opponent on paper, but your work is not quite over. This is because you have to persuade others that the involvement you have obtained--and any agreements you have reached--are good deals all around. And then you need to see that everyone (yourself included) lives up to their end of the bargain.

Sell the deal

The deal is made. Now you need to convince others to support you. This means three types of groups in particular:

  • First, your own supporters, particularly supporters not part of the earlier discussions. Of course, they should have been made aware that those discussions were going on. But now you need to show them that you got the best possible deal, and why. They need to know why trade-offs (if any) were made, and that any agreements made will be beneficial to everyone concerned. Otherwise, you run the risk of your supporters backing you grudgingly, or not at all -- and then you will truly be out on a limb.
  • Second, other stakeholders. Convincing your supporters -- or at least getting them to go along -- is probably the easy part. But others will be concerned too, such as the stakeholders. Are these stakeholders crucial to your success? Absolutely, because it's these people who will be implementing the agreements you have reached. They are on the front lines; they have to buy in.

Suppose you and corporation X agree on local minority hiring targets. Fine; but what about local businesses Y and Z down the road, who are next in line to be approached? In this case, they are stakeholders, whose support-in-principle (at the least) is very desirable before you knock at their door.

  • Third, the general public. They may naturally wonder why you and your opponents are now working together. They may be suspicious, and think something is up. (They are correct.) They deserve an explanation, on practical grounds if for no other reason. That is, the general public too will need to understand and live with any agreements you reach.

In building support for any agreement, clear communication is the key to success.

Structure the agreement

Now that you have a final plan, do you have a structure to support it, both in the short and long term? That is, how do you know the agreements won't fall through? What's going to prevent your former opponents from wiggling out at the last moment, or backing out altogether, or even opposing you all over again? To avoid these consequences, and to prevent your deal from collapsing, you need some kind of structure to keep it standing up. In other words, you want to "institutionalize the deal."

How to do it? You could have regular meetings every so often for a little while. Or possibly open meetings, with others involved. Or the involvement of a third party, if desired, upon request of either group. Or a formal review of the situation a few months later. These are examples of agreement-maintaining (or institutionalizing) structures, which can and should be built into the agreement during the time of the original discussions. Doing so can save you a lot of grief later on.

Monitor the agreement

That structure is good; but you've also got to check on events, and monitor the agreement to make sure things are going according to plan. Somebody has to use those structures to make sure things are heading in the right direction. Specifically: You need to watch your former opponent's actions, not just their words. Are their actions open for public inspection? Are they really doing what they said they would do? To verify this, you can keep notes and records - and this monitoring process can be built into the original agreement itself.

In Summary

If you've followed the above steps, chances are good that you can arrive at some agreement with your former opponent, and some common actions as well. The chances are good, too, that your former opponent will comply. (Of course, you need to comply just as diligently, and perhaps go the extra mile in showing good-faith effort.)

In that case, congratulations for doing good community work! -- work that may not only lead to good outcomes now, but which can build a foundation for other collaborative action together in the future.

Eric Wadud
Bill Berkowitz

Print Resources

Chrislip, D. (1994). Collaborative leadership: How citizens and civic leaders can make a difference. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Fisher, R., Ury, W., & Patton, B. (1991). Getting to yes: Negotiating agreement without giving in. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Penguin.

Gray, B. (1991). Collaborating: Finding common ground for multiparty problems. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Himmelman, A.T. (1992). Communities working collaboratively for a change. Minneapolis, MN: Himmelman Consulting Group.

Homan, M. (1994). Promoting community change: Making it happen in the real world. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Identifying Allies and Opponents. This advocacy planning model provides information on how to identify a group or individual as an ally, opponent, or neutral/unknown group.

Know Your Allies and Opponents – This article provides information on strategizing an advocacy campaign in a way that encourages involvement from allies and opponents alike.

Kretzmann, J., & McKnight, J. (1993). Building communities from the inside out: A path toward finding and mobilizing a community’s assets. ACTA publications. This book provides case studies of successful community-building initiatives across the U.S. In addition to this, it outlines how a community can move toward asset-based development.