Project Areas
The Field of Public Dispute Resolution
Learning Opportunites
Teaching Resources
Best Practice
About PDP
Contact Us
Breaking Robert's Rules
Using Dispute Resolution Techniques...
Transboundary Environmental Negotiation
Consensus Building Handbook
Negotiating Environmental Agreements
Dealing with an Angry Public
Breaking the Impasse
International Environmental Negotiation
Land-Use Planning in the Doldrums: Growth Management in Massachusetts' I-495 Region

Dealing with an Angry Public:
The Mutual Gains Approach to Resolving Disputes

by Lawrence Susskind and Patrick Field
New York: The Free Press, 1996

Patrick Field on Dealing With An Angry Public (from CBI Reports, Fall 1996, vol. 1, issue 2)

There are many reasons for the public to be angry. Business and governmental leaders have consistently covered up mistakes, concealed evidence of potential risks, made misleading statements, and out and out lied. Our leaders have fueled a rising tide of public distrust of both business and government by behaving in these ways. But beneath these wrong-headed actions is bad advice. Whether by public relations experts or attorneys, decision-makers are often told to commit to nothing and admit nothing, to obscure and conceal rather than to clarify and reveal. The public is treated like an angry mob. Their concerns are brushed aside in order to maintain a good organizational image, regardless of the substance beneath the veneer.

Fortunately, over the last several years, the Consensus Building Institute has had the opportunity to offer better advice to decision makers. In the last 3 years, CBI has reached over 1,500 corporate executives, non-profit managers, and government officials through a training program entitled "Dealing with an Angry Public." This training is held twice annually in Cambridge and also brought to many corporate clients and public agencies.

Earlier this year, the training course culminated in the publication of Dealing with an Angry Public. President Lawrence Susskind and Senior Associate Patrick Field, who both have direct experience in numerous consensus building and conflict resolution efforts, spent most of 1995 gathering case study materials, reflecting on past trainings, and honing arguments to complete the book. The book is constructed around six key elements of the "mutual gains approach" to dealing with the public:

  • Acknowledge the concerns of the other side.
  • Encourage joint fact-finding.
  • Offer contingent commitments to minimize impacts if they do occur, and promise to compensate unintended (but knowable)
  • effects.
  • Accept responsibility, admit mistakes, and share power.
  • Act in a trustworthy fashion at all times.
  • Focus on building long-term relationships.

It focuses in detail on five particular cases to emphasize both the conventional responses to an angry public and an alternative the authors call the mutual gains approach. Events at Three Mile Island and the Exxon Valdez oil spill are used to highlight points about dealing with public outcry in the aftermath of serious accidents. The Dow Corning silicone breast implant controversy is fertile ground for exploring corporate response to potential human health risks. Finally, the James Bay hydroelectric development project and the animal rights controversy provide means to discuss how best to deal with the public when fundamental values are at stake.

While deceptively simple in print, the six principles are not easy to put in practice. The complexities of each situation, the lack of full information, the rapidity of unfolding events and the immediate decisions required to respond, as well as the numerous opinions offered by advisors, all make implementing these valuable ideas challenging. However, as one reviewer in Planning remarked: "Susskind and Field don't claim that this approach is easy or that it will always work. They do claim that it beats the alternatives." The book is available at most local bookstores in the business section, or can be ordered with the form on the back of this issue of CBI Reports.

Related Links: