NONVIOLENCE: An Assertive Approach to Conflict

August 11, 2011

  In this interactive workshop, students explore what escalates and deescalates conflict, consider nonviolent action as an assertive response to conflict, and learn about Occupy Wall Street's use of nonviolence as a strategy.


Students will:

  • explore what escalates/deescalates conflict
  • look at the difference between aggressive, submissive and assertive responses to conflict
  • focus on nonviolent action as an assertive response to conflict
  • learn about Occupy Wall Street's use of nonviolence as a strategy

Social and Emotional Skills:

  • comparing approaches to conflict 
  • exploring assertiveness 
  • working together/alliance building
  • exploring feelings associated with assertiveness

Materials needed:

  • Today's agenda on chart paper or on the board
  • Chart paper and markers



Escalating and Deescalating Conflict 

(10 minutes)

Ask for a volunteer to help you model the following activity.

Stand facing the volunteer and explain that you'll start out saying the word "Yes" quietly. Your partner will say the opposite word "No" quietly in response. You'll then say "Yes" a little more forcefully. The response will follow a little more forcefully as well. You and your volunteer partner will repeat the words, responding to each other several times with an increased forcefulness, escalating the communication. Then you'll do the reverse, repeating the words less and less forcefully, de-escalating the communication, ending up quietly again.

Instruct students to pair up, face each other and choose who will start with "Yes" and who will respond with "No." On the count of three the pairs will begin to escalate and de-escalate their "Yes-No" responses. Consider doing the activity a few times, using other opposites like "Hot" and "Cold," "Long" and "Short," etc. After two or three rounds, bring the class back together for a quick debrief, asking questions like:

  • What was that activity like for you?
  • How do you think this relates to the idea of escalating and de-escalating conflict?
  • What about this activity escalated conflict?
  • What about this activity deescalated conflict?
  • What did it feel like to escalate/deescalate conflict using words? 

Check Agenda

(5 minutes)

Explain that in today's lesson you'll be exploring the idea of strategic nonviolent action and the potential power of nonviolent action. Nonviolence has been in the news a lot lately because that is the strategy of protest adopted by the "Occupy Wall Street" movement.

Ask students what they know about Occupy Wall Street and other Occupy protests around the country and world.

Elicit and explain that after months of planning, on September 17, 2011, a group of people, mostly young people, gathered in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan to "create real change from the bottom up" and to protest what they called "the greed and corruption" of the financial institutions, big corporations and the wealthiest 1% of Americans. "We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends and encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants," they declared. (The Arab spring is a series of popular pro-democracy movements in Arab countries that began in the spring of 2011.)

Since that day in September, a dedicated group of protesters has established an ongoing physical presence in Zuccotti Park, and organized many marches and other protests. Meanwhile, other "occupy" protests sprang up around the country and the world.

In the lesson that follows students will be asked to take a critical look at the methods of protest Occupy Wall Street has used.


Responses to Conflict: 

Aggressive, Submissive or Assertive 

(15 minutes)

Most people respond to conflict in one of two ways. They might respond by fighting (either verbally or physically), using aggressive means to try to get their rights respected or needs met. Or they might try to avoid the situation altogether, or just give in, so that they are unlikely to get their rights respected or needs met. This old survival mechanism is known as the "fight or flight response."

There is a third way, though: an assertive response, which means standing up for our rights and/or needs without using violence (and that's where nonviolent action comes in).

Not only is assertiveness a way to stand up for your rights or needs, it may also help you prevent or break what is known as the "cycle of violence."

  • Ask students if they know the saying "violence begets violence"? 
  • What does it mean?

Ask students to think back to the gathering:

  • What fueled "the conflict" in that activity? What helped escalate the activity?
  • When their partner raised their voice, what did it feel like? How did that affect their response? 
  • What helped deescalate the conflict? What was it like to switch from escalation to de-escalation? What did it feel like?


The Power of Nonviolent Action 

& Strategic Alliance Building 

(18 minutes)

Inspired by the nonviolent protests of the Arab Spring in places like Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year (see other lesson plans on these developments on TeachableMoment), people organized the Occupy Wall Street movement to protest some of the same issues that fueled the Arab Spring - growing inequality, corruption and unemployment.

One of the main slogans of the Occupy movement is: "We are the 99%."

  • Ask students what they know about this slogan. 
  • What does it mean? 
  • Why did a group that began as just a few hundred protesters claim to be the 99%?

Elicit and explain that Occupy Wall Street has tried to tap into the dissatisfaction felt by a large part of the American population struggling to keep its head above water in this sputtering economy. Their call to bring together the "99%" is a form of alliance-building, which is key to the power of nonviolent action. Ask students:

  • What does alliance building mean?
  • Why do students think it is important for a few hundreds protesters at Wall Street to build alliances?

Critics often argue that nonviolent approaches to conflict as passive and weak. Ask students, based on what they know about what Occupy Wall Street has been able to achieve so far and what has been discussed in today's lesson, what is it about assertiveness and nonviolent action that can be considered as strategic and strong (rather than passive and weak)?

Chart student answers.

Read the following out loud, or ask for a student volunteer to read it. It is adapted from an introduction to nonviolence by the group Nonviolence International. It describes some ways that nonviolence can be effective.


  • It is a "weapon" available to everyone.
  • It is the least likely method of protest to alienate opponents and third parties.
  • It breaks the cycle of violence and counter-violence.
  • It leaves open the possibility of conversion (changing people's minds).
  • It ensures that the media focus on the issue at hand rather than some tangential act of violence.
  • It is the surest way of achieving public sympathy.
  • It is more likely to produce a constructive rather than a destructive outcome.
  • It is a method of conflict resolution that may aim to arrive at the truth of a given situation (rather than mere victory for one side).
  • It is the only method of struggle that is consistent with the teachings of the major religions.

From "Nonviolence: An Introduction" at the website (



(2 minutes)

Ask students to stand up and show what assertiveness looks like. Ask them as they're standing assertively, what it feels like.

Have a few volunteers share what assertiveness feels like.


Homework assignment

Ask students to research strategic nonviolent tactics that have been used by Occupy Wall Street to bring attention to their cause.

The next day, ask students what they learned and chart their responses. They might include things we usually think of as "nonviolence," including:

  • Training people in nonviolent methods
  • Sitting down, linking arms and legs, to occupy a space as long as possible
  • Going limp when being arrested
  • Chaining themselves to a location

They might also include the protesters' use of other forms of nonviolent action, including:

  • Peaceful protest marches
  • Encouraging people to switch their money from big banks to credit unions
  • Parties 
  • Participation in the Halloween Parade 


This lesson was written for by Marieke van Woerkom. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: