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Learn how to identify your opponents, and to understand, anticipate, and defuse their opposition, in order to increase your chances of success.


Image of a checkerboard with opposing black and white game pieces.


Who are your opponents?

When you're moving toward your goal, it sometimes feels like everyone supports what you are doing. If you are raising money for a new wing of the hospital, or writing a grant for a new branch library, everyone in the community may sing praises to you. This is wonderful. But it is also relatively rare. Much of the time, you are likely to encounter some resistance or some open opposition to what you are doing.

There are several different forms of opposition that you may encounter. Sometimes your opponents are visible and public. These opponents are sometimes easier to deal with, because you know what you're up against. It can be a lot tougher when your opponents are less visible, because it's harder to be sure who your opponents are.

This is especially the case when people appear to support you but then withhold support, or even oppose you, when it really counts. The bottom line is, you need to become skilled at recognizing the type and degree of opposition in addition to simply identifying your opponents.

Who might your opponents be? Well, much like potential allies, the answer is just about anyone. It just depends on how much other people or groups stand to lose by your victory. In this section we'll take a closer look at the sources of that opposition, and how it can be overcome.

Why should you want to identify your opponents?

As with allies, there are opponents to just about every issue. If you stand for one thing, someone may challenge you and stand for something else. Here are two important reasons to identify opponents before you implement your campaign:

  • You can anticipate the type and degree of opposition or attack you will encounter
  • You can effectively direct your resources towards weakening or eliminating your opposition

In other words, identifying your opponents and anticipating their opposition should increase your chances of success.

How do you identify your opponents?

The first step in determining who your opponents might be is to again ask yourself "Who cares about your issue?". In this case, the best answer to your question is: "Anyone who might lose something from your success."

It will help to create a list of opponents, including all the people, groups of people, and organizations that may have something to lose, directly or indirectly, if you win. They will be the ones actively trying to stop you from winning. A simple example might be if your group was trying to get restaurants in your area to ban cigarette vending machines. One opponent would certainly be cigarette-makers, because they would be losing money from sales, and they would be losing an important marketing instrument. Other opponents might be restaurant owners or tavern keepers who might lose money if the machines are removed.

It stands to reason that the people with the most to lose are going to fight your group the hardest. You should ask yourself: What specifically will they lose? Money? Time? Prestige? Staff? The answer is likely to be several of these things.

How do you determine the power of your opponents?

Now that you've listed all the groups and individuals that might lose something if you win, you should probably start thinking about "What are they going to do to stop us?" Possibly everything within their power; so you need to find out what power they have. This is similar to determining the potential power of your allies - just develop a table listing your opponents and the types of power they may have.

By filling out a table of your opponents and their power, you can see the kind of strategies and tactics they might try to use against you. For example, they might try to tie you up in a legal battle, or try to portray you in the media as extremists who don't care about people's jobs.

How do you recognize your opponents' tactics?

So now you've identified your opponents, and you know what they are capable of doing to your group. You need to have some way of recognizing their tactics, and of responding.

Some tactics your opponents may use are:

  • Deflect - they could divert the issue to a lesser, side issue; or could "pass the buck" to a lower official who has no real power.
  • Delay - your opponent could make you think they are addressing the issue, when nothing is really being done. For example, forming a "study commission" that has no real power to give you the change you want.
  • Deny - your opponent may say your claims and your proposed solutions, or both, are invalid.
  • Discount - your opponent may try to minimize the importance of the problem, question your legitimacy as an agent of change or both.
  • Deceive - your opponent may deliberately try to make you and your group feel like they are taking meaningful action, when they in fact have not; they may never have had any real intention to consider your issues.
  • Divide - your opponent may sow the seeds of dissent into your group's ranks, and use a "Divide and Conquer" strategy.
  • Dulcify - your opponent may try to appease or pacify your group, or people who are undecided about the issue, through offers of jobs, services, and other benefits.
  • Discredit - your opponent may try to cast doubt on your group's motives and methods.
  • Destroy - your opponents may try to destabilize or eliminate your group through legal, economic, or scare tactics.
  • Deal - your opponent may decide to avoid conflict by offering a deal, working with your group towards a mutually acceptable solution.
  • Surrender - the opposition may agree to your demands. If this is the case, you should remember that the victory is not complete until the opposition follows through with its promises.

These are the most common tactics your opponents may use. But you can never be too sure of what they might do. In real life, people stall or waffle because they can't make up their minds. Sometimes they get intimidated by more powerful opponents, or they have some fear you have not yet identified. The next paragraph deals with some general approaches for neutralizing your opponents' tactics, whatever they may be.

How can you deal with opposition?

All right, you know that your opponents have several ways they can try to make your cause a tough one to achieve. Your opponents could use one of the previously mentioned tactics, or they could use a combination of several to thwart your efforts. The lingering question is: "What can you do about it?" Luckily, you have a lot of options to neutralize their attacks. In general, you don't want to use an "overkill" approach, as it may cause you to lose a chance for negotiation. What you do want to do is use a strategy that corresponds both to the type and level of resistance from your opponents.

Here are some very useful techniques for responding to your opponents:


One of the best ways to prevent opposition is to plan in advance what you're going to do, and convince potential opponents to either join you, or at least to not actively oppose you.

You and your group know that the local hospital won't like your group starting a new prenatal clinic in your community, but you could convince them that the hospital will benefit from it.

Meet with your opponent

Discuss your differences, it could be the opposition is caused by miscommunication or a lack of understanding about the issue.

 Some community members may oppose a sexuality education program at the local grade school because they think it's about teaching sexual techniques to the kids. You might explain that this is not the case, the class is about decision-making skills, refusal skills, life skills and relationships with family, friends and others in their lives.

Develop win-win solutions

You can focus on a solution that meets both of your shared interests.

 You might work with a local grocer to offer low fat food choices, while you promote a low-fat, heart-healthy diet.

Turn negatives into positives

Often times, what may at first be seen as a negative situation can be used to your advantage.

If your group is being sued, your group could counter sue. This would put your opponent on the defensive. Or, you may use their attack to gather sympathy with the community. For example, you can say your right to free speech is being suppressed.

Labeling your opponent's tactics

Your opponent's tactics lose power when those tactics are openly identified.

 Your opponent is trying to use the "divide and conquer" tactic on your group. If you recognize that this is what your opponent is doing, and label it openly, it may refocus your group and direct anger against your opponent instead.

Or, perhaps your opponent makes "token" concessions. If you publicly recognize them as "mere tokens" and reject them, it assures the public and your group that a better outcome is expected than what was offered.

Let others know about tactics your opponent is using at your meetings, through the media, etc.

Frame the debate on your terms

Convey the issue in terms of how your group thinks about it; you don't want to be constantly on the defensive, only responding to your opponent's arguments.

If the issue was banning smoking in indoor public places, you would want to say it protects the rights of people to breathe clean air rather than talking about the rights of people to smoke cigarettes.

Balance and Illusion

You should respond to your opponents' counterattacks with a variety of strategies, so they don't have time to anticipate and prepare for your moves. Similarly, if you can trick your opponent into wrongly guessing your intentions, it also gives you an advantage in keeping your opponent off-balance.

In one debate between the tobacco industry and a public health advocate, the advocate argued for the right of the smoker to sue tobacco companies for health damages, rather than arguing against smoker's rights, which is what usually occurs in these debates.

Consider your opponent's psychology

Your opponent may be seeking solutions to the problem; if so, your group may be able to join in the effort.

 A company may be aware that emissions from its factory are too high, but doesn't know how to reduce them. Perhaps your group has some expertise in industrial health and could help.

In these situations you can define the problem, but don't immediately suggest solutions. This way you let your opponent keep their autonomy. Eventually, your group might suggest solutions for a "trial period," so as to leave the opponents with other options.

Turning your opponent's assets into liabilities

Your group might be in a situation where your opponents' power greatly outweighs your own. Generally, this method involves your group persisting with nonviolent strategies until the opposition responds heavy-handedly out of frustration.

Eventually, this can result in a shift of support and sympathy towards your group and your cause. Previously uninvolved observers who see a group being severely repressed because of their belief in a principle may move toward that group. Usual supporters of your opponent may question the use of violence against your nonviolence and may begin to question your opponents' overall motivation.

 Your group has picketed for many months outside a company known for dumping toxic waste illegally. The company president got sick of you all, and decided to have everyone arrested for trespassing. This might gather support of uninterested people who thought you were harmlessly expressing your right to free speech.

Concentrate strengths against weaknesses

It's that obvious, use your strengths against your opponent's weaknesses.

 Anti-smoking advocates have substantial scientific and medical evidence supporting their claims of the dangers of cigarettes, while tobacco industry "scientific" data on the health hazards of smoking is shady at best.

Know when to negotiate

In most cases, when you settle your dispute with your opponent, there will be a compromise. Your group should be aware of signs that might indicate such a negotiation is possible. These signs are often hidden in statements by the opposition.

Let's suppose your opponent's spokesman was quoted referring to your group saying: "Since they are so irresponsible, I doubt they would consider meeting with us." In this case, your opponent may be offering an opportunity to meet, even though their language is somewhat negative.

On the other hand, you may not want to offer negotiations, as this can make your group appear weak.

In Summary

While many health and community building efforts may attract opposition, anticipating and analyzing that opposition can prepare you to deal with it successfully. The best ways to neutralize opponents involve turning them into allies by finding win-win alternatives to hard and fast positions. Even when this ideal isn't possible, however, you can counter opposition tactics by recognizing whom you have to deal with, the amount and nature of the power they can bring to bear, and how your own strengths and weaknesses might affect the conflict. If you analyze the situation carefully and accurately, and have some empathy for your adversaries, you should be able to overcome most opposition.

Eric Wadud

Print Resources

Altman, D., Balcazar, F., Fawcett, S., Seekins, T., & Young, J. (1994). Public health advocacy: creating community change to improve health. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention.

Bobo, K., Kendall, J., & Max, S.(1996). Organizing for social change: a manual for activists in the 1990s. Minneapolis, MN: Seven Locks.

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

Robinson, J. & Green, P. (2010). Introduction to community development: Theory, practice, and service-learning. SAGE Publications, Inc. This book provides both theoretical and practical approaches to community development, as well as case studies and supportive materials to develop community development skills.