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  • What are some general ways to fight these tactics?

  • What are the ten D's?

  • Specific strategies for responding to opposition tactics

In community work, there's almost always someone opposed to whatever it is you're doing. Even if your goal is something everyone can agree on, there will be those who disagree with your methods for achieving it. When your opposition starts fighting your efforts, it's best to be familiar with what tactics they might use to do so and how your group might most effectively respond.

What are some general ways to fight these tactics?

There are a variety of tactic-specific ways to deal with each of these forms of attack. Some strategies that apply no matter what tactic is being used include:

Understand your opponent and his/her/their strategy

If knowledge is power, ignorance is weakness. An opponent you understand is much weaker than an opponent whose every move baffles you. Understand your foe's beliefs, background, and position. This will put you in a stronger position to respond to attacks. It can also increase your organization's image as an intelligent, rational group. What does your opponent believe and want? Does your opponent come from a cultural or ethnic group different from your own; and if so how might this affect dealings with your organization? Does your opponent have a history of acting (or reacting) in a certain way? You may be able to determine some of these things from your own history with the person or organization in question, from the experiences and personal knowledge of friends and colleagues, from newspaper articles, from corporate PR materials (if you're dealing with a company), or from campaign literature (if you're dealing with a candidate or elected official).

Turn negatives into positives

As the saying goes, when the opposition gives you lemons, make lemonade. The ability to turn any negatives you are given into positive situations is a very powerful ability for your organization to have. For example, you might use the utility company's opposition to a program to provide heat subsidies to poor people as an excuse to set up a review of the company's records of utility shut-offs to heighten awareness of the problem.

Set the agenda

If you are meeting with the opposition, your organization should establish or influence the agenda. This way, it will be your group that controls the meeting; you, and not the opposition, will have the chance to be on the offensive, which is always the stronger position to be coming from. Further, if you allow the opposition to set the agenda, chances are good that some of the important points you wanted to discuss won't even be brought up.The opposition will naturally use their "home court advantage" to talk about their strengths, rather than points they may be weaker on.

Publicly state the opponent's strategy

This makes the opposition's tactics seem clearer to all of the members in your group (and therefore easier to fight). It is also a great way to win sympathy and respect from the general public. This is particularly true if you are a relatively small group fighting a larger agency or corporation in a just cause. Everyone wants to root for the underdog; giving your battle a "David and Goliath" image can do a great deal to further your cause.

Some of the information you should consider making public:

  • What your opponent has said or done
  • Why it is untrue or unjust
  • What is true and/or equitable
  • How the truth affects you and your opponent

For example, a fair employment practices committee meets with directors of their company about the small number of minorities hired by the organization. However, in the meeting they find themselves sidetracked by a talk on the new "cultural competence" seminars being given. At the end of the meeting, the directors leave saying that by meeting with the committee, they have done their job - even though nothing was really accomplished. Instead of dropping the matter, however, the members of the committee let the directors - and the press - know that the company was doing nothing to address the issue.

Be judicious when it comes to going public. You shouldn't do this every time; it can make your group look reactionary and whiny.

Keep your opponents off balance

Don't rely on the same approaches all of the time. Instead, constantly take the opposition by surprise. This can not only can help in your current battle, it will help your group avoid stagnation. If you tried to privately negotiate a solution last time you butted heads with the opposition, this time you might go public with the situation. Or, you might ask for a third party to act as a facilitator. Be creative, and don't be afraid to try something new. Leaving your opponent in a cloud of uncertainty of what your tactics will be this time is a powerful strategy on it's own, and gives you an advantage over the opposition before you even start.

Learn from the past

If an organization has a history of responding in a certain manner, chances are that's how they will respond again. Know the history including the preferred tactics of the people you are battling - and know how your organization has traditionally responded. That way, you'll be thoroughly prepared for what is likely to happen, and you'll be more likely to avoid any pitfalls you've fallen into in the past.

For example, an organization was trying to reduce the number of billboards advertising beer in a low-income area of the city. When advocates for the group did their research, they found that every time anyone had complained about the number of billboards in their community for any product (beer, hard liquor, tobacco, or anything else), the marketers invoked their right of free speech. Knowing that in advance, the advocates were able to formulate a strong response to the beer company's free speech argument before they met the opposition, and were eventually successful in limiting the number of alcohol-related billboards in the community.

Be willing to compromise

Your opponents may be willing to work with you in good faith, particularly if you have run a good advocacy campaign. Keep an eye open for situations that might turn into a chance to work together. Be careful that by saying cooperation, your opponents don't really mean capitulation to their interests. But be careful, too, that you are open to any legitimate possibilities for making a deal that come your way. If an opposition leader states publicly that some of your ideas have merit, that could be the olive branch you've been waiting for to achieve peace, and also reach some of your goals.

What are the ten D's?

The ten D's of opposition tactics are:

  • Deflect
  • Delay
  • Deny
  • Discount
  • Deceive
  • Divide
  • Dulcify
  • Discredit
  • Destroy
  • Deal

Specific strategies for responding to opposition tactics

Some of these tactics can be dealt with in similar ways; these are grouped together.

Deflect and Delay

Deflection happens when your opponents try to shift the focus of the debate from the real problem to other issues, or when they try to "pass the buck" to a group with little or no authority. Delays occur when the opposition says it is working on the problem, when the reality is that nothing has been done. Sometimes they do this by claiming that they don't yet have enough information to move on the problem, when there is already plenty of information. Often the opposition will form a committee or commission to study the problem, putting things off for as long as possible. Your opponent is most likely hoping that the public will lose interest if the issue can be put off indefinitely.

  • Deflect: Clean Our River, a citizens' group in Riverville, releases a study showing that SludgeCo, a large chemical manufacturing company, has been dumping toxins into the river upstream from the town. The community is outraged and Clean Our River begins pressuring SludgeCo to stop dumping into the river and to clean up what they've done so far. SludgeCo counters by releasing its own study about Riverville residents littering along the river.
  • Delay: A consumer safety group has been lobbying for national legislation to require all furniture manufacturers to treat all furniture upholstery with flame-retardant chemicals, because several studies have shown flammable upholstery to be the cause for a high percentage of home fires. A Congress member from a state with several furniture factories, under pressure from furniture manufacturers in his district, is opposed to doing this. He introduces a bill that calls for the legislation to be put off for another year so that a study can be done by the Consumer Product Safety Division, in spite of numerous studies cited by the consumer group. This is a classic example of the delay tactic.

Responding to deflection and delays

Be persistent! If you feel you must address whatever other issue your opponent may have thrown out, do so, but try not to spend too much time on it, and always bring the focus back to your primary issue.

  • Know your opponents and understand their strategies. In the above example of delaying, the consumer group was familiar with their opponent's ties to furniture manufacturers, and pointed that out in all their press materials and appearances.
  • Be as familiar as possible with your opponent's decision-making process, including who has what responsibilities. This will help you make a reasoned and well-informed objection if your opponent tries to shift responsibility to someone else.
  • If necessary, briefly address the issue your opponent has thrown out. If you feel the public has really been "sucked in" by the opposition's tactic, go ahead and address it, but it's important that you only do so briefly. If you appear to be giving it a lot of weight, the public will perceive it as being as important as the real issue.
  • Always bring the focus back to your key issue or problem. Be ready to bring out more evidence that your problem or issue is the main one that your opponent and the public should be concerned with. You may need to be repetitive, or you might have to come up with new ways to get the issue into the public eye. Whatever the case, persistence is key.

The consumer group in the above delay example provided the press with numerous studies and reports backing up their claims about the danger of flammable furniture upholstery. They also provided television stations with dramatic footage of safety tests in which an untreated sofa quickly burst completely into flames, while a treated one only smoldered.

If your opponent is stalling, claiming that more information is needed, consider using some unusual publicity-grabbing tactics. For example, something the consumer group in the above example could do is set up a mock cemetery in a public place, with fake gravestones representing the number of people who will die in fires caused by flammable furniture over the next year.

Deny and Discount

When your opponents use denial tactics, they try to say either that the problem doesn't exist (e.g., "AIDS is not a problem in our community"), or that your proposed solution won't work.

Discounting is very similar to denial; the only difference is that the opponent isn't saying the problem doesn't exist - they're just saying it isn't important, or it isn't as big a problem as you know it really is.

  • Deny: A teen pregnancy prevention group is trying to get the public schools to require a sex education course for all high school students in Suburbandale. Enraged, members of the PTA claim that Suburbandale high school kids aren't having sex.
  • Discount: Members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community in your city are asking the city council to pass a law outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment and housing. The city council counters by saying that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people make up such a small portion of the community that such a law is unnecessary.

Responding to denial and discounting

When your opponent tries to say the problem isn't real or isn't that important, you'd better be prepared to prove to the public that it is indeed real and that it is indeed significant.

  • Know your opponents and understand their strategies. Why would your opponent want the public to think the problem doesn't exist? As with other opposition tactics, knowing your opposition's motives will help you figure out how to best deal with them.
  • Be prepared to provide the necessary information and to be persistent about it. If you can hand over loads of evidence that there is indeed a problem and that it really is important, your opposition won't be able to keep denying or discounting it for long. They'll start to look pretty bad in the public eye if they continue to deny the problem after you've shown ample evidence to the contrary.
  • Publicly state the opponent's strategy. If presenting evidence that the problem is real doesn't get anywhere with the opposition, it's time to go public. Fact sheets, reports, surveys, expert opinions, and other materials can be presented to the public and the press to prove your point.

Deceive

Your opponents may intentionally mislead or confuse your organization or the public by lying or by "forgetting" to tell the whole story. Deception is low-minded; it is also, unfortunately, an all-too-common occurrence in the lives of both people and organizations.

For example, the National Audabon Society, which has long been battling logging companies, recently encountered a deception tactic from a Congress member with ties to the logging industry who sponsored a bill. The bill, attempting to promote increased logging as a cure -all for insect and disease infestations in our National Forests, would have allowed logging companies to cut big, healthy trees instead of the small, fire-prone trees they are supposed to cut. The National Audabon society countered by pointing out that insects, disease, and fire were at relatively normal levels, while logging and grazing cause the most damage to our forests.

Responding to deception

Respond immediately - don't wait until things have cooled down and people have forgotten what has happened, or accepted your opposition's deceit as truth. Refute their statements quickly, clearly, and forcefully, and then get on with the rest of your work.

Know your opponents and understand their strategies. Deception may be carried out in a variety of ways, and some of them are more difficult to discern than others.

Common types of deception to be on the lookout for include:

  • "Forgetting" to tell the whole truth. This may include leaving out important information, facts, or details that would change the way others would view the situation.
  • Misusing or misrepresenting statistics. As Mark Twain once said, "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics." Statistics may sound impressive and give weight to your opponent's arguments, but they are also very easily manipulated. For example, the phrase, "Two-thirds of those surveyed believe condoms should not be made available to area youth" may sound impressive, but find out who was surveyed, who conducted the survey (an unbiased third party? your opposition?) when the survey was done (is it outdated?) and how the survey was done (was it done in such a way as to minimize the possibility of bias?). The above statement becomes much less convincing when you find that "those surveyed" included only the leader of your opposition, her husband, and their dog (the dog, being hungry at the time, had no opinion, thus creating the one-third dissension).
  • "Fogging" the issue with unrelated information, bureaucratic nonsense, or just incomprehensible gibberish. An example of fogging the issue would be the politician who claims, "The papers misquoted me!" More than likely, what she means is, "I really wish I hadn't said that publicly!" Fogging can also occur when you are given a long -winded answer complete with so much technical jargon and gobbledygook that you have no idea what (if anything) has been said, or when your opposition brings up a totally unrelated issue, and tries to steer the conversation onto different, safer (for them) ground.
  • Telling half-truths. With a half-truth, your opposition takes something that has occurred or a fact that they have uncovered and discusses only the parts that hurt you and help them. An example of this might be a quote on the cover of a book from a famous reviewer saying, "[I]ncredible... definitely a novel worth picking up." The quote, used here to help sell the book, actually said in its entirety, "What an incredible bore! If you have problems with insomnia, this is definitely a novel worth picking up."
  • Telling flat-out lies. People don't play fair a lot of the time, and for our organizations to survive, we have to be ready to defend ourselves. If you have any doubt in the truth of what your opposition is saying, insist that they back up what they said with facts.

Let the public know what has occurred. There are two reasons for this: first, the deceit of the opposition may be better known than you think, and by going public, you are helping the public get a positive, clearer view of your organization as well as a negative view of your opposition. Second, such a situation can only help your group and hurt your opposition in the eyes of the public.

  • Refute the deception. If you can prove in a clear, logical manner why your opposition is wrong, you are sure to win supporters for your cause. At its best, refutation is a three step process:
    • Analyzing your opponent's argument. What, exactly, is wrong with what your foe has said?
    • Attacking the weaknesses in your opponent's argument. If there are many weaknesses, list all or at least most of them. Show the factual errors in each case. List the major weaknesses first and last, then summarize those weaknesses at the end.
    • Establishing a contrary argument. Don't just explain that the opposition is wrong; be sure to make clear what the truth of the matter is. If you simply refute the argument, it may still stick in people's minds if they have nothing to replace it with.

Going back to the example of contraceptives for teenagers, an example of how you might want to publicly refute your opponent might be phrased in the following manner:

"Our opponents have stated that two-thirds of those surveyed in our community were against allowing access to contraception for our youth. Upon scrutiny of this survey, however, we have learned that it had only three respondents, and that they were all linked by very close ties to our opponents. However, a second survey of 2500 residents, conducted by the independent research group XYZ, reports that in truth, over 80% of our community is actually in favor of increased contraceptive access for our youth. Therefore, it must be realized that our opponent's views are not held by the majority of community members, and it should be remembered that they are only a very small, if vocal, voice in our area."

Divide

If your group is working on a controversial issue, you may find your opponents try to split your group over such issues.

For example, a community coalition in a predominantly African American neighborhood in Los Angeles has been battling manufacturers of malt beverages for some time. The manufacturers have decided to try a new approach - offering to build a youth center in the neighborhood. The offer effectively divides the group - some members feel that the offer should be accepted, and others feel that the group shouldn't accept any gift from a longtime foe.

Responding to dividing tactics

  • Know your opponents and their strategies
  • Keep the lines of communication open within your group. Provide opportunities so that the members of your organization are able to discuss concerns with each other on a regular basis. This can be done by holding regular discussion groups, setting up an email discussion list, or sponsoring social gatherings for your group. Encourage your members to talk about any problems or concerns they might have. You may want to facilitate the discussions to a degree just to keep things orderly, but give everyone a chance to speak their mind and try not to steer the discussion too much. Knowing what's on the minds of people in your organization and encouraging open dialogue will help you find out early on when another group may be trying to divide you, and it fosters a sense of unity to combat such attempts.
  • Take steps to ensure team feeling and group morale. When people in your organization feel like a part of a team, they're less likely to be vulnerable to outside attempts at dividing them, and they're more likely to inform you when such attempts are being made. Open lines of communication, as mentioned before, are the key. Team-building activities, staff retreats, and social activities are also good ways to make everyone involved feel like a part of the group and, therefore, make the group less likely to be divided.
  • Find ways to achieve compromise within the group. When your group does become divided over a particular issue, find a compromise so that you can move on and continue your work as soon as possible. This holds true whether the division is coming from an outside element or from within the group. Read on - the information on deal tactics later in this section give some good tips on ways to reach a satisfactory compromise.

Dulcify

To dulcify an organization is to try to appease or pacify members with small, meaningless concessions.

For example, one of the goals of the New Haven AIDS Task Force is teen HIV prevention, and they've been trying to get the school district to create an effective HIV prevention program in the high schools. The school district attempts to dulcify the task force by saying they do have an HIV prevention program. The school district's program, as it turns out, is largely meaningless - a voluntary, after-school program that students get no class credit or extracurricular credit for taking part in. The task force counters by publicizing evidence of the ineffectiveness of such voluntary programs in similar communities and by publicizing a rise in teen HIV infection in the community. The community as a whole starts pressuring the school district for a more meaningful response, and a mandatory course during school hours.

Responding to dulcify tactics

  • Know your opponents and their strategies
  • Explain why the concessions made by your opponent are unsatisfactory. Remember, you don't want to come off sounding ungrateful or hostile at this stage. Your opposition may very well think that they are really making an effort to meet your requests; then again, they may fully realize that what they're offering is meaningless. Play it safe at first - act as if they really are trying even if you suspect they may be not be. Try to be appreciative and respectful of what they've offered, but firm in explaining why it won't work: "We applaud your efforts to make a difference in this, but we're afraid that a voluntary after-school program won't do enough to prevent teens in New Haven from risk behaviors. Here's why..." The AIDS task force in the example above had to back up their claim about the ineffectiveness of voluntary, after-school education programs with statistics from communities similar to their own.
  • Explain why whatever it is you're asking for is more reasonable. Again, be ready to back up your argument with facts and figures.
  • Let the public know what has occurred. If you're unable to get any more concessions out of your opponent, you may want to go public at this point. Be careful to do this only if you feel fairly certain that the public will view the concessions made by the opposition to be as meaningless as you do! If people perceive you as ungrateful or unreasonable, it will hurt your cause.

Discredit

When the opposition tries to discredit an organization, they call your motives and methods into question to try to make your group look incompetent (unreasonable, unnecessary, dishonest, et cetera), to the community. This can get nasty - discrediting can even go so far as to include personal attacks.

Responding to discrediting

Handle this like you would handle deception. Your opponent is trying to make you look bad.

For example, let's go back to the consumer safety group working to require flame-retardant upholstery in furniture again. The Congress member who was opposed to their efforts also attempted to discredit the group by saying that they couldn't possibly speak to the potential harm of flame-retardant chemicals because they don't have a toxicologist on staff. The consumer group countered by listing the credentials of the various scientists that they do have on staff and presenting the press with several reports and studies showing flame-retardant chemicals to be harmless.

Destroy

If your opponents are trying to ruin your organization or initiative in any way possible - which can include using a combination of two or more of the other tactics - they are trying to destroy you.

Responding to destroy tactics

Your response should be swift and intensive. Respond - and respond forcefully - as soon as you recognize your opponent's tactics. Consider the following five steps as a possible strategy for defeating your opponent:

  • Know your opponents and their strategies
  • Realize that threats are only threats. The use of fear is one of your opponent's greatest weapons. Threats of lawsuits, of curtailing funding sources, and even of violent attacks or arrest may be used. It's important to realize, however, that groups usually have no intent on going through with their threats; they are often just bluffing to make you back down with as little trouble as possible.
  • Know your rights. In the face of such threats, your best defense is a full understanding of whether the opposition can actually do what they say they are going to. Perhaps a local company has threatened to sue you for defamation, but a quick check with legal counsel can show you that they simply don't have a case. Knowing your rights can help you call your opposition's bluff. You can also can turn the situation to your advantage and put him back on the defensive if your opponent does step over his legal boundaries.
  • Keep the lines of communication open within your group. It can hardly be emphasized enough: when trying to destroy you, one of your opponent's main weapons is the use of fear. By keeping all of the members of your organization up to date on what is happening, you can minimize that fear, as well as avoid any dividing tactics your opponent may be trying to use. Communication within your group may be kept up with phone calls, notes in the agency newsletter, memos, letters, electronic mail, updates at meetings, and any other way you currently communicate news.
  • Go public with your opponent's tactics. There are two good reasons to do this. First, if your opponent has been trying to discredit you in the eyes of the community, doing so can help clear up potentially ruinous notice in the press. Second, exposing your opposition's attempts to destroy you can help your group gain sympathy and support. This is particularly true if the group you're up against is very powerful in comparison to your group, because the confrontation may take on a "David and Goliath" aspect, and people love to root for an underdog.

Deal

Occasionally, your opponent may offer to make a deal. Positively speaking, to deal with an opponent means to negotiate an agreement that is acceptable to everyone involved. Sometimes, however, deal tactics may be used negatively as a ploy to lure your organization away from your true goal. This may be done by offering your organization concessions that turn out to be almost meaningless in exchange for "give-backs" on your part that bring you no closer to your ultimate goal (see the suggestions on dulcifying earlier in this section).

If you play your cards carefully, a deal can work to your advantage. You might gain increased understanding of your opponent and his/her position, and vice versa. It can also show your organization to be a legitimate, powerful organization that's not afraid to "sit across the table" - especially important for small or new organizations trying to gain credibility in the community. Finally, in a best case scenario, effective negotiation may bring about your goal in its entirety: you might just get exactly what you want!

Times when you might not want to deal include:

  • When your opponent is seen as having a long-term negative relationship with your community and your negotiation might be viewed as betrayal
  • When your opponent has a history of meeting with community groups in bad faith
  • When your opponent has had recent, publicly proven financial or other serious misconduct

For example, the teen pregnancy prevention coalition in the small, closely-knit town Somewhereville wanted to have all high school students fill out a survey regarding sexual activity. A parents' group, opposed to the survey because of its explicit nature, started organizing against the coalition. Luckily, both sides were able to strike a satisfactory compromise when the teen pregnancy coalition agreed to use a different survey that still asked about sexuality issues but also asked questions about nutrition, drug and alcohol abuse, and other teen social issues. The parents' group was happy to have a survey that didn't focus only on sex, the coalition still got the information it needed, and information needed by other community groups was gathered at the same time.

Responding to deal tactics

The above example could have turned out much differently - the teen pregnancy prevention coalition might not have been able to do a survey at all, or the parents group might have been rebuffed completely, making them resentful and unwilling to be helpful to the coalition. Striking a compromise that is acceptable to all parties is crucial, and there are a variety of ways you can make sure you get the best possible compromise.

Know your opponents and understand their strategies.

  • Set the stage for a successful meeting. Schedule your meeting for the time and place where you will feel most comfortable and confident. If possible, meet on your own "home turf", or pick a neutral site for your meeting. Avoid going over to your opponent's playing field. Also, consider what time of day to hold the negotiations - e.g., if you're a morning person, don't schedule the meeting for 9:00 at night.
  • For your negotiation team, try to pick people with different personality types and responsibilities in your group. Remember, you have the responsibility of representing the interests of your group, so a balanced negotiation team is important.
  • Determine ahead of time what you want most to achieve, what's most important to your group, and what you won't compromise on. Think about what you'll do if negotiations fail - there's always the chance that negotiations will fall apart, so have a "plan B" cooked up well in advance.
  • Negotiate with the people with the power. Speaking with the people who actually have the power to enact a change will reduce the chance that you will be misunderstood and increase the chance that something will actually happen. Insist that the real "decision makers" are there. There's nothing that's more frustrating than negotiating with folks who say, "Well, we'll get back to you after we confer with our director."

While you are negotiating, you should:

  • Be careful about how you communicate your ideas.
  • Let your opponent make the first offer. This will let you get a better idea of what your opponent is thinking, while revealing none of your own ideas. It's also possible that their first offer will be significantly better than you'd hoped for.
  • Explain the basis of your offer. Explain why you are making this offer, and why you believe it to be fair. Always ask your opponent to do the same.
  • Make your offer flexible. If you are too rigid with your demands, you may discourage your opponent away from the bargaining table.
  • Stay cool! As the commercial says, "Don't ever let them see you sweat." If you feel yourself beginning to get upset, or you are worried you will give in on an important point, call a recess and get your wits back in order.
  • Avoid ultimatums. Ultimatums can often lead to an abrupt, ugly end to a meeting, leaving both sides in a worse situation than before. Only use them when you feel you have no choice; even then, leave an escape clause open if possible. For example, you might say, "Unless we receive some new information that changes things, we'll have to..."
  • Remember what is most important to your organization. This can't be emphasized enough.

After a deal has been agreed upon, be sure to:

  • Restate the agreement and document everything. You might finish a meeting with a statement such as, "Then we have agreed that..." Restating your agreement confirms everything that has been decided and helps you make sure there have been no misunderstandings. Also, put it in writing. Unfortunately, oral agreements are broken all the time, so until the deal has been put down on paper, you're not finished.
  • Don't let your opponent reopen a deal or agreement that has been closed.
  • Establish a process to make sure everyone sticks to the terms of the deal. It's in your common interest to ensure that both parties do what they said they would do. This "monitoring process" is an important part of most good negotiations.

In Summary

Knowing how to handle counterattacks and preparing yourself for them as much as possible will greatly increase your confidence in dealing with the many skirmishes you're likely to experience in community organizing. Keep in mind that you'll probably often find your opposition using a combination of two or more of the ten D's, so you may have to adapt some of these strategies somewhat to better fit your own situation. As activist and educator Effie Jones once said, "Failing to plan is planning to fail." Think about what you might expect from your opponents and how to best respond to them, and you'll be prepared and confident when counterattacks come.

Contributor 
Chris Hampton
Jenette Nagy
Eric Wadud
Aimee Whitman

Print Resources

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