Countering Opposition

… a core concept in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109

VikingsConcept description

Countering opposition (particularly in a community setting) includes identifying opponents, determining their power, anticipating their tactics, and selecting the appropriate techniques to deal with them.

Ed Wadud’s article in Community Tool Box  (reference below) notes that, as with allies, there are opponents to just about every issue, and suggests that there 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.

Wadud’s advice need not be restricted to community organizations. It can be applied to strategic planning in a wide variety of public management contexts.

Identifying opponents and determining their power

Wadud suggests that the first step in determining who your opponents might be is to 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. 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.

“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.”

Recognizing opponents tactics

Wadud lists, rather alliteratively, a number of tactics that opponents might use:

  • 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.
Dealing with opposition

Wadud provides a list of techniques for responding to opposition:

  • Prevention – 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.
  • Meet with your opponent – Discuss your differences, it could be the opposition is caused by miscommunication or a lack of understanding about the issue.
  • Develop win-win solutions – You can focus on a solution that meets both of your shared interests.
  • Turn negatives into positives – Often times, what may at first be seen as a negative situation can be used to your advantage.
  • Labeling your opponent’s tactics – Your opponent’s tactics lose power when those tactics are openly identified.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Consider your opponents’ psychology – Your opponent may be seeking solutions to the problem; if so, your group may be able to join in the effort.
  • 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.
  • Concentrate strengths against weaknesses – It’s that obvious, use your strengths against your opponent’s weaknesses.
  • 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.

Wadud concludes his article with the following 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.”


Ed Wadud, Identifying Opponents, Community Toolbox, at, accessed 29 February 2016.

Atlas topic and subject

Strategizing (core topic) in Leadership Skills.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 24 March 2016.

Image: FabWeb, at, accessed 29 February 2016.