When to Talk and When to Fight

The Strategic Choice Between Dialogue and Resistance

This short and impactful book outlines a concise and clear strategic framework for choosing whether to negotiate, to build power, or to vanquish your opponents. The text is aimed at movement leaders and organizations, but I found all of it relevant to workplaces, and instantly wished it was something I’d read with my teams. So much of our collective discourse about conflict is anemic, ironically sending us down paths where we either avoid it or escalate it, inevitably deferring resolution and increasing the likelihood of harm. Subar weaves her own story throughout the book, demonstrating both the vulnerability and power in acknowledging conflict and approaching it with curiosity and a thoughtful attention to power. Highly recommended.

Reading notes

To build power

A unilateral nonconsensual action—as in, say, when a group of people demand a union, go on strike, occupy a park, or even refuse to attend a meeting—is, as the language suggests, an action taken to benefit one side of a conflict, and without the consent of the other side. That much is, I think, probably clear to most people. What’s easier to lose sight of is why these actions are useful, and what they are for. Rebecca Subar writes:

Whether armed or nonviolent, what is the purpose of this unilateral nonconsensual action? It is to build power, not to resolve the demand that the group is protesting about.

Subar, When to Talk and When to Fight, page 40

Emphasis mine. What’s important about this, I think, is that it shifts expectations: the desired outcome of the action isn’t, say, a new contract or new leadership or a changed workplace culture. The desired outcome is a more level playing field—level enough that true negotiation can take place. Earlier in the book, Subar quotes Nelson Mandela remarking, “Only free men can negotiate; prisoners can’t enter into contracts.”

This matters because we’re wont to dismiss unilateral actions as failures when they don’t immediately bring about the change they reached for. But that’s a misreading of the intentions. Whichever side we find ourselves on (and many of us will end up on many different sides, at various points in our lives), it’s useful to evaluate the action on its own terms, rather than by whether or not it tried to achieve something it never set out to do.