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Section 1. Overview of Opposition Tactics: Recognizing the Ten D's

Learn the different forms of opposition one may face, and options for countering them, including the “Ten D’s,” ranging from “deflection” to “discrediting.”


  • What are attacks?

  • Why should you respond to attacks?

  • When should you respond to them?

  • How can you recognize these tactics?


Photo of brick wall with multi-colored paint on it.


Some days, it seems like you can't win: almost any time your organization is successful in making an impact on the community, someone is sure to dislike the results you have worked so hard to bring about. These "grinches" may launch an attack against your organization or its members. Based on Public health advocacy: Creating community change to improve health, this section provides a basic overview of attacks from opposition and how to respond to them.

What are attacks?

Attacks are actions taken by opposition to oppose or intimidate your group - in short, to reduce its effectiveness. Perhaps your group is working to reduce teen pregnancy, and has succeeded in making condoms more widely available through a school-linked clinic. A local religious group that opposes the use of birth control may launch an assault on this school policy, against the clinic director, or against your organization as a whole. Such an attack, in this or any other situation, may take a variety of forms, such as trying to discredit your organization, denying there is a teen pregnancy problem in your area, or causing conflict among your members.

Why should you respond to attacks?

  • Sometimes, a tempting response to an attack is to take the high road and ignore the criticisms or actions of those working against you. It's important to remember, though, that anything you do - or don't do - will be seen as a type of response. In short, you should at the very least decide on your strategy in the face of these attacks, because your organization will be perceived as having a plan whether you do or not.
  • Responding to attacks will also help you learn from any relevant points that are brought up by the opposition. In doing so, you can strengthen your organization, and make it harder for the opposition to succeed.
  • Responding to attacks in an intelligent, rational manner will increase the view by the general public's perception that your group is a professional, capable organization.

When should you respond to them?

You should respond to attacks as they occur. However, don't spend all of your time and resources responding directly to one group of people. For example, if a group has an ongoing campaign against what you are doing, be aware of their efforts, but respond only when they have done something unusual or outstanding such as sponsoring a bill in the local legislature.

How can you recognize these opposition tactics? The Ten "D's"

The first step in responding to attacks is recognizing them. Your opponents may choose from a variety of possible assaults. The following list includes ten of the more common attacks that your opponents may use. Each of these tactics is then discussed more thoroughly in subsequent sections of this chapter. You can use your understanding from these readings to help you determine the best way to respond.


Your opponents may try to deflect you in two different ways. First, they might try to turn the debate to other issues, instead of focusing on the real problem. For example, when your group is trying to increase access to contraceptives for community youth, the opposition may deflect the argument into a drawn-out discussion of family values. Alternatively, your opponents may try to "pass the buck" to a group with little or no authority - for example, to a department within their agency, such as the "community relations" department, or to a different organization altogether.

For example, a local anti-tobacco group challenges area businesses to begin a policy of carding everyone who looks like they are under 26 when they try to buy cigarettes. Instead of dealing with the issue head on, however, the local business bureau says they will ask their lawyers to study the issue at future meetings and make a recommendation. Months may go by before the recommendations are actually made, and even then, opposition leaders are under no requirement to follow them. The anti-tobacco group has been successfully deflected.


Delays are one of the more common responses that a community initiative may face. With delays, the opposition may say it is working on the problem, when the reality is that nothing is being done. They may also suggest that more information is needed (and form committees to gather it, as evidence of good faith) when there is already plenty of information on the problem. One of the worst consequences of the delay tactic is that it can hurt the momentum of a strong organization, and it can cause community members to lose heart and give up.


Denial is used when your opponent refuses to admit there is any truth to either:

  • The problem you say exists (e.g., "We don't have a problem with teen pregnancy in our community")
  • The solution that you propose (e.g., "Giving kids condoms won't reduce the pregnancy rate, it will just make them more likely to have intercourse")

A second kind of denial is when an official or other opponent says they would like to help, but don't have the resources or clout necessary to actually make a change.


Discounting occurs by suggesting that the problem you are working on isn't really that important ("Our community is basically a healthy place"), or by questioning the legitimacy of your organization or its efforts. In its most extreme form, the latter can take the form of lies, mud slinging, and accusations: "That group is just a bunch of liberals, conservatives, communists... just fill in the blank?."

For example, members of the local chapter of the Rape and Incest Prevention Network wanted to give talks to students at all of the area high schools on rape prevention. One administrator questioned the necessity of talking to all of the students. "Why would you want talk with the boys?" he wondered. "After all, it's just a women's problem."


Deception is the act of intentionally misleading someone by lying or by "forgetting" to tell the whole story. Deceptions may be carried out in a variety of ways, such as trying to confuse your organization with bureaucratic nonsense and red tape, misrepresenting statistics, or making suggestions that in reality have nothing to do with what you are trying to accomplish.


Opponents may try to divide a group over controversial issues. By doing so, they hope to reduce the overall effectiveness of your organization or coalition. At the most extreme point, opponents may try to "buy off" members with offers of jobs or other incentives.

For example, two different environmental groups, one working for cleaner rivers and the other working to protect area wildlife, join forces against a local business that is dumping toxic chemicals in the river upstream of a local wildlife preserve. Privately, executives promise each group financial and vocal support on other important projects if they will end the advocacy campaign and drop the subject of this particular river.

Dulcifying, or appeasing

To dulcify an organization is to try to appease or pacify members with small, meaningless concessions. This tactic is particularly tricky because it may be difficult to determine the line between compromise (which your group may find helpful) and allowances that turn out to be meaningless.


Discrediting is similar in many ways to discounting. When a member of the opposition tries to discredit an organization, (s)he may attempt to make your group look incompetent (unreasonable, unnecessary, et cetera) to the community at large. Your motives and ways of accomplishing your goals are both called into question.


The destroy tactic has the simple, clear goal of trying to ruin your organization or initiative in any way possible. This method may use one or more of the other tactics as a means to achieve the ends. The threat of a lawsuit is often used in this case (for example, by saying that you have committed slander against an organization); it's important to realize that these threats are usually only words. Make sure you know your rights and have access to legal assistance, and you will be able to contend with even these serious methods of intimidation.

For example, leaders of the local lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community decided to start a peer-counseling program for LGBT youth. Members of a local church, decrying homosexuality as a sin, did everything in their power to destroy the organization. They discredited the organization, saying that homosexuality was a sin, and that members were trying to "recruit" youth; they denied there was such a need in the community; they deceived the press and citizen's groups with fake reports charging that such programs lead to child molestation; they forced a delay in the vote for funding by the city council; and they tried to convince Board members of the LGBT rights' organization to try to fire the director and cut off funding.


To "deal" with a group often means to achieve a compromise. In some situations, this can be a major victory for your group. It's important when dealing with the opposition, though, to make sure that what you get is equal to what you give; this isn't the time to be charitable. Make sure that your group's overarching principles are always foremost in your mind when making a deal with a foe.

In Summary

When you are working for change in your community, it's certain that you'll run into problems. There will always be people who benefit from the status quo, people who are afraid of change, or people who just don't want to see you succeed. As former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren once said, "Everything I did in my life that was worthwhile I caught hell for." Understanding all of the different ways you can "catch hell" from your opponents, as well as knowing how to respond to those attacks, makes you a very strong adversary. What's more, it gives you a good shot at truly making the difference you set out to make.

Jenette Nagy
Chris Hampton

Online Resources

The ABCs of Negotiation is an advocate’s guide to negotiating with providers to improve access to healthcare services. 

Advocacy Skills: Tips for Selecting a Good Mediator provides a variety of criteria that need to be taken into consideration when selecting a mediator for an advocacy campaign.

The Advocate's Mediation Checklist is an excellent resource with detailed information on mediation and advocacy.  

Gathering Support and Neutralizing Opposition is a module on the World Animal website with the intention of providing information for understanding the opposition’s weaknesses and neutralizing opposition.  

Responding to Opposition and Criticism: Dealing with Disagreement - Advocates for Youth is an article with extensive information on sources of opposition and strategies for addressing opposition.

Print Resources

Angelica, M. (1999). Resolving conflict in nonprofit organizations: The leader’s guide to finding constructive solutions. Fieldstone Alliance. This book provides conflict resolution advice within nonprofits for recognizing conflict before it becomes destructive. 

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.

Beer, J., Packard, C., & Stief, C. (2012). The Mediator’s Handbook: Revised and Expanded Fourth Edition. New Society Publishers. This book provides a time-tested, adaptable model for helping people deal with conflict.

Bisno, H. (1988). Managing conflict. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Brown, L. (1983). Managing conflict at organizational interfaces. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Evarts, W., et al. (1983). Winning through accommodation: The mediator's handbook. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

Fisher, R., & Sharp, A. (1998). Getting it Done: How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge. Harper Business. Fisher and Sharp provide an explanation as to why collaboration with others is difficult, and they suggest a new strategy to working with others.

Rybacki, K., & Rybacki, J. (2011). Advocacy and opposition: An introduction to argumentation. This book provides a comprehensive approach to argumentation for individuals who need to construct and present arguments. 

Spence, G. (1996). How to Argue & Win Every Time: At Home, At Work, In Court, Everywhere, Every Day. St. Martin’s Griffin. Spence offers advice on optimizing oral presentation of an argument through use of story-telling and visual imagery.

Weeks, D. (1992). The eight essential steps to conflict resolution: Preserving relationships at work, at home, and in the community. Los Angeles, CA: Tarcher, Inc.