6 min read
24 Aug

Keeping our conflict masks in place

Why is face so important? Face represents one’s self-esteem, reputation, status, and dignity. Face is social currency. 

Maya Hu-Chan


In Western conflict studies and practice the tremendous importance and impact of face saving (see definition section below) has often been ignored, minimized or ineffectively applied. Recent research, case studies and real world application have however started to give this crucial conflict tool its proper place. This is often the missing piece of the conflict puzzle. Failing to properly assess and assimilate this dynamic concept in conflict planning and execution simply causes frustration, a lack of confidence in processes and people, and cyclical conflicts that escalate due to a lack of perceived progress.   


The concept of “face”, or face saving, can be traced back to the honour-based Chinese society of some 2500 years ago. It is used in a variety of fields and disciplines, and defined in different ways that may have nuances in emphasis, if not essence. In conflict studies face has to do with identity needs. People have public personas or identities that they want others to share. They want to, for example, be seen as fair, or tough, as competent, or successful, honest, ethical, kind and so on. This identity, this face, becomes crucial in how people see themselves, how their careers and personal lives are structured, and it becomes, in a very real sense, who they are. This public face can of course change over time and depends on circumstances and context. People are forever positioning themselves in public interaction in order to establish or maintain that identity. Face then can be viewed as the communicator’s claim to be seen as a particular type and calibre of person. 


To various degrees, face saving can be seen as being important across all cultures. Cultures that value and promote the individual interests and prosperity over the collective will value and treat face differently to cultures where group or community values are held to be more important than individual rights and interests. This has important implications for the practical assessment and application of conflict management (both individual and group based) across such cultures. This applies also of course to the South African environment, with its general preference for community and group based interests over that of the individual. 


While face is a very human characteristic, there is less commonality as to the exact nature of these face wants and needs that people bring to their conflicts. There is fairly general consensus though on one important distinction that further helps us to understand this concept of face, and that is the differentiation between positive face, which is our need for approval from others, and negative face, which is mainly our need for personal autonomy and independence. This important self-perception and identity needs are threatened by much of our social interaction. A dismissive comment directed at someone may threaten how people view his ability to defend himself, and a demand that a report be filed by tomorrow may threaten a person’s negative face, or insistence on personal autonomy. Our need for approval, for recognition, to be respected and so on all play an immensely important role in our conflicts, often on a very subtle or even unacknowledged level. This is of great practical significance for conflict management, as research and practice show that parties are willing to retaliate and sacrifice rewards, often at great costs, when they perceive the threat of humiliation and the loss of face. Where conflict management strategies simply work with factors such as objective reasonableness, rules-based enforcement and hierarchies, this essential conflict tool is not applied, leading to negative results, a lack of confidence in processes and distrust amongst people. This is often seen in practice with conflicts that have been seemingly resolved by other standards (for example, a fair and affordable wage increase) but which process has failed to implement, respect and apply the principles of face saving, and which then leads to escalation and a perpetuation of such conflict, despite such seemingly “fair” criteria having been applied. With this then in mind, it becomes apparent that face saving in conflict is often an attempt to protect or repair relational damage, whether as perceived or in objective reality. 


Threats to these identities that people construct (which, coincidentally, may have very little to do with how they really are) can be seen in various practical results, and they have to be factored in to our planning and conflict strategies. Any perceived threat to a person’s face needs may manifest in their reaction as defensiveness, anger, sarcasm, fear, disengagement, improper concessions, and this of course affects their ability to clearly deal with the conflict at hand. These face saving concerns are often more important to the parties than the apparent issue of the conflict itself. This further complicates the conflict when these face saving fears, needs and wants are not understood by the person herself, and not applied properly by anyone trying to resolve the conflict. Face saving makes parties feel and act more rigid and inflexible, it increases the likelihood of escalation and an impasse in the conflict, and it quickly leads to an abrasive, all-or-nothing approach to resolution. 

Most importantly, this process now leads to a secondary conflict, for example an important and complex wage negotiation now also has these crucial, underlying and possibly unacknowledged face saving concerns to contend with. Conflict practitioners or anyone interested in resolving the conflict who, without duly and effectively applying this important sub-context, more often than not end up making matters worse, as a lack of understanding or an avoidance of face issues in a conflict is simply perceived as disregard or disrespect towards such identity concerns. This secondary conflict often becomes more important to at least one of the parties than the original cause of the conflict, and it of course deflects attention and resources from the original conflict cause. In cyclical conflicts (for example annual wage negotiations, marital disputes, school disputes, community violence) these identity needs not being assimilated into these conflicts inevitably lead to escalating distrust and a belief that other, more violent or less constructive methods should be considered as solutions. 

While these face saving concerns remain as high priorities between parties it is often difficult to proceed with the original conflict, and the resolution, or at least de-escalation of such concerns should be focused upon. Face saving also has a very dynamic and volatile potential when group conflicts are involved. A person and a group’s identities may not be the same, and this could lead to different conflict interactions, expectations and strategies required. Some of these individual or group identities are in the process of being formed, repaired or are fragile as a result of recent conflicts and perceptions, leading to a need to manage face saving concerns even where such interests have not been overtly threatened. There are three main face saving frames used by participants in conflict interactions, each with their own remedies and strategies. They are, in generalized form: 

  • Resisting unjust intimidation – people do not want to be seen to be tolerant of bullying or unfair processes, as easy targets, or as being unable to protect themselves in conflicts.
  • Refusing to step back from a position - this often creates unexpected difficulties in conflicts, with people often being reluctant to be seen to step back from a previously assumed position, as they fear that this could be perceived as weakness and that it could prejudice them in future conflict. This reluctance often remains even after they have privately changed their mind on that issue.
  • Suppressing conflict issues – some communities, groups or workplace cultures may be critical of raising or causing conflicts, or being seen to be so involved, leading to the face saving strategy of a denial of the problem, a refusal to plainly discuss the situation, or to be involved in any part thereof.



Given the importance of face saving in our interactions, research also shows a variety of face giving strategies, even in conflict situations. People often help each other to save, or restore, face in the midst of conflict. This is why we see reactions and explanations such as statements of support, understanding or joint experience during conflict situations or embarrassing interchanges (“Don’t worry about it, it happens to all of us”). Face saving strategies can be important tools in conflict management. 


It should be apparent by now that the management of disputants’ face concerns can often be as important, if not more important, than simply focusing on the primary conflict issue(s). While there are of course conflicts where the other parties’ identity concerns need not trouble us, these are relatively rare events. Workplaces, families, friendships and other important relationships often require resolutions where the other party can continue to maintain that important face saving goals in essence. This need of course not require an unreasonable pandering to those concerns, or a dereliction of your own interests, but it should change the conflict tool from a hammer to a scalpel. One of the easiest remedies for this situation is a reminder that disagreement is normal and potentially healthy, but that the manner in which we disagree with each other is often the problem. 

People are often less troubled by the fact that they were wrong on an issue, than the manner in which this was pointed out to them. Face saving skills can leave the other party aware that you disagree with his opinion, but that you respect his right to hold such an opinion, or that you understand the emotions or thought processes that led to such conclusion. Making other views acceptable does not, of course mean that you endorse them. It is simply an important, respectful and effective way of disagreeing. Research, as well as our own experiences and even a quick read of some social media conversations, remind us that some people simply enjoy being aggressive and unpleasant. They believe that they are entitled to act in this manner, and in a practical sense this becomes the public face which they want to project and protect. How you approach such behaviour will of course depend on your goals and strategies in that particular conflict. Further strategies in dealing with these face saving challenges may include the use of questions to carry criticism (as opposed to direct statements), for example “Did you understand our company goals here?” as opposed to a more blunt accusation. By carefully crafting our advice and our criticism we can convey the necessary criticism, maintain operational or family concerns but also save the other party’s identity concerns. Face saving complaints raised by parties to a conflict often also give us helpful indications as to what concerns they may have, and an accurate assessment and managing of such concerns can clear the air so that the primary conflict can be addressed. These are often misunderstandings, biases, historical remnants, past and projected experiences and some time spent on these concerns in a conflict is often a very constructive exercise. 

Interventions that treat face saving as a negotiation process have the best chance of successful resolution. Avoiding or dismissing such signals and concerns simply digs the hole deeper. An effective handling of face saving issues during a conflict can also lead to an improvement of trust and an increased openness to resolving the conflict. In this way, what seemed to be an additional problem in the beginning, can serve as a bridge to resolving both these identity concerns and the substantive, original conflict. 


The effective management of the involved identities (faces) of the involved parties is not a concession, it is not an extra consideration, it is in most conflicts as important, if not more so, than the surface conflict cause. This crucial conflict skill is not a compromise or a sign of weakness, it is a skillful acknowledgement of the psychological levers and triggers that move people, and if you need to effectively resolve a conflict, for whatever motivation, you will make this an indispensable part of your conflict tool kit.                         

  • Full references, further reading material, courses, coaching and study material are available on request.

   (Andre Vlok can be contacted on andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za for any further information) Andre Vlok August 2022

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