Volume I Number 1 Spring 2014

 

“Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say infinitely when you mean very; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”

― C.S. Lewis

 

 Board of Reviewers

Karen Asaro

Mediator, Trainer, Consultant. Karen Asaro Mediation Services.
Advanced Practitioner Member, Association for Conflict
Resolution. Former President of Virginia Mediation Network.
Currently a Board Member of the Virginia Mediation Network.

Dr. Dale Bagshaw

Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Psychology, Social Work
& Social Policy, University of South Australia; Visiting
Professor and Examiner, Mediation and Conflict Intervention
Programs, National University of Ireland; President, Asia
Pacific Mediation Forum.

Patricia Bragg

Owner at Changes, South Winnipeg, Canada Area, Individual and
Family Mediation.

Dr. Isabella Buzzi

Owner, Studio TdL della Dott.sa Buzzi Isabella, Milan, IT.
President of Steering Committee, European Forum Training and
Research in Family Mediation.

Sandra Clemons, MA

The HLC Group – Mediation Services. Florida Supreme Court
Certified Mediator. Mediation practice areas include: managed
and pre-suit foreclosure, financial services, employment
discrimination.

Jeffrey M. Cohen, Esq.

Nationwide practitioner based in Albany, NY. Mediates and
facilitates in many practice areas including, family, estate
matters, partnerships, and corporation disputes. He is
chairman of the ACR Ethics committee.

Dr. Larry Fong

Psychologist, Mediator, Arbitrator at Fong Ailon, Calgary
Canada. He has been in practice for over 30 years. Past
President of four mediation organizations
throughout Canada and the United States. Author of numerous
publications.

Ericka Gray, MS

Principal of DisputEd. Adjunct Professor at Boston College Law
School and Suffolk University. Member of American Bar
Association, Section on Dispute Resolution and the Association
for Conflict Resolution. Provides mediation
training throughout the United States.

Merri Hanson, MA

Director at Peninsula Mediation and ADR. A communication
professional who provides ADR services for government agencies,
corporations, and non-profits as well as private individuals
and groups. Holds certification for all levels of
mediation by the Supreme Court of Virginia.

Dr. Margaret Hermann

Margaret Hermann, LLC (Doc Peg) is located in Athens GA. She
trains across North America and internationally. Her
specialties include conflict coaching, facilitation for
dialogues and planning, and mediation. She is the author of
numerous publications.

Anju Jessani, MBA

Owner, Divorce with Dignity Mediation Services located in the
Greater NY City area. Accredited Professional Mediator with the
New Jersey Association of Professional Mediators.

Carolyn Laredo, Esq.

Owner, Law and Mediation Offices of Carolyn M. Laredo. She is a
mediator with the State of New York Public Employment Relations
Board. Her specialities include collaborative law, mediation,
and arbitration. Member of the Association for Conflict
Resolution and New York State, Council on Divorce Mediation.

Dr. Kenneth Neumann

A child psychologist and family therapist. He was a founder of
the Center for Family and Divorce Mediation. He is also a
founding member of the Association of Professional Family
Mediators. He has been a practicing mediator for more
than 30 years. He is an active trainer and frequent presenter
at conferences.

Alessandra Passerini, Esq.

In Rome, IT, a specialist in mediation training, conflict
management, and conflict transformation. She has an interest
in gender and intercultural issues.

Margaret S. Powers, MA, MSW

Greater Chicago Area.  The Chicago School of Professional Psychology,
Northwestern University, M.S. Powers and Associates, Inc.
Her specialties include divorce,custody,family mediation,
family and individual therapy, mediation training,
collaborative law practice and workplace disputes.

Domingo Ramoncito Salviejo

At Vancouver Community College, Vancouver British Columbia,
Canada. Has a sound knowledge of educational standards. His
strength includes excellent writing skills. He has been
trained in mediation, negotiation, conflict resolution,
and counseling.

Dr. Donald T. Saposnek

Is a clinical-child psychologist, a child custody mediator, and
family therapist. He is the author of Mediating Child Custody
Disputes and Splitting America: How Politicians, Super PACs and
the News Media Mirror High Conflict Divorce. He
was the past editor of the International Academy of Family
Mediator’s News. His extensive mediation trainings include
workshops on “parenting skills”.

Paula Trout, MBA, MPA, JD

President and CEO at Alternative Dispute Resolution Forums. She
has been an Adjunct Professor at DeVry University. She has
taught graduate level courses at the Keller Graduate School of
Management. She was a Board Member of the
Association for Conflict Resolution. She provides mediation
and investigative services for federal agencies.

Dr. Maria Volpe

Professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Her
specialties include conflict and dispute resolution, mediation,
facilitation, sociology, and criminal justice. Dr. Volpe is
recognized as a world leader in promoting conflict resolution.
Her accomplishments include leadership in dispute resolution
organizations. She is also the author of numerous
publications.

Alex Yaroslavsky, MBA

Founding Principal of the Yaro Group. A mediation professional
affiliated with the arbitration and mediation panels of the New
York Stock Exchange, the National Association of Securities
Dealers and the New York City’s Civilian Complaint
Review Board. Currently he is on a Returnship at Goldman Sachs.

Nancy Yeend, Esq.

Managing Partner with Y & D Programs, LLC, San Francisco, CA.
She has been a mediator for over 30 years. Her specialities
have been, real estate, workplace, and partnership issues.
Nancy has worked with all levels of conflict;
presuit, trial, and appellate.

Gabrielle Jones, Editorial Assistant

 

 

Introduction

Welcome to the first issue of Constructing Communication: A Journal.  The purpose of the journal is to explore the many ways in which we communicate in resolving conflict.  Specifically, we hope that the manuscripts selected for publication in this on-line journal represent the many ways that people in conflict have learned that to communicate in their disagreements with one another. Also, do the ideas espoused in this journal add to our understanding of how we can resolve conflict?  We hope the common theme of the journal is to give the reader a sampling of the myriad ways in which we can understand communication patterns in human societies.  From pre-infancy to senior status, from one type of interaction to others that are typical of specific events in human life what will provide models for conflict resolution?

Theorists, for example social psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, have posited many models of communication.  Those who are interested in dispute resolution suggest that certain models of communication learned in childhood in any community are passed from generation to generation.  These approaches represent models with different names, dynamics and outcomes.   In the contemporary world scene theorists have had to rethink what happens to traditional ways of communication as factions within countries and between countries are generating new ways of thinking about how citizens communicate with one another as they are destroying one another’s culture.

Perhaps conflict is a major distraction from naming the dynamics of communication.  What are children throughout the world learning about how to communicate with those with whom they are having conflict? Is the model of communication one to be called the communication of annihilation?  For example, what is at stake in the minds of the children of Syria or, antiwar adolescents in Israel?  What are they learning about how to communicate?  Do adults actually think about what children need to know about communication?   For that matter, do adults and children throughout the rest of the world organize their thinking into styles of communication?  Will there be new theories of communication or will applying old models of communication suffice to explain how human societies communicate while in conflict?

The author of the first article in the journal posits how conflict is an opportunity for the community rather than a crisis. As a reader, paying attention to how the author develops his theme is an important window to future developments in understanding how people communicate while is conflict.  What is new about this approach is a question the reader should ask.

Would a larger or smaller context help the reader capture what is useful about the model the author gives us?  Would a social psychological approach yield a more useful outcome than a broader approach?  What is the advantage of examining communication from a group perspective rather than small group or individual?  It seems that a global or group perspective is an excellent place to begin.

-Dr. Peter Maida

 

 

Lunch Meeting

Communities, Conflict and Communication: the Inexorable Affiliation between People and How They Converse

ISSN 2327-5243

 

Dr. Samuel Peleg

The Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program (NECR)

Columbia University

 

Abstract

 This paper illustrates the indispensability of communication to the formation, viability and durability of human communities. Its point of departure as well as its end conclusion is that the survivability of the community depends on the quality of communication among its members. The potency of communication is examined in the context of conflict in the community–a contingency that tests the tolerance and resilience of disparate identities sharing the same living space. However, unlike the classical tradition of liberal democracy, this paper takes issue with the conventional wisdom that conflict threatens the stability of the community and aims to tear it apart. The popular modern-society-in-rapture theme (Bellah et al., 1985, MacIntyre, 1985; Putnam, 2000; Boumann, 2000, 2001, 2002) assumes the dwindling human bonds and weakening social solidarity in the age of PC’s, Home Entertainment Systems, iPads, Kindles and tablets. People are doing without the attractions once offered in public places because they can access them at the comfort and security of their private domiciles. Technology poses a threat to the sustainability of community in the post-modern age and undermines the premise of community as closeness and reciprocal commitment. However, in spite of these dire scenarios of impending predicament, modern societies still stand and communal life is yet to be obliterated by the lure of hi-tech innovative isolation. Furthermore, it might even be that the impending threat revived the spirit of solidarity and pulled the community together rather than ripping it apart.

The goal here is to approach the community-conflict relationship from the opposite direction and claim that conflict is an opportunity rather than a crisis for the community to consolidate and move forward beyond its infancy stages. Conflict is a necessary maturation stage for the group to overcome, and if it wasn’t so prevalent and accessible, it would have to be invented. The way to grapple and cope with conflicts is by developing and mastering constructive communication and mechanisms of conflict management such as CMM- Coordinated management of meaning, and normative dialogue to channel and transform the energies and vitalities released during contention toward beneficial ends.

Typology of Communities

It is no coincidence that the three protagonists of this paper, community, conflict and communication have a similar, if not identical prefix. It denotes togetherness, or jointed as in the original Latin work cum meaning “with”. Com as in “combination” or “compilation” becomes con before consonants other than b, p, or m as in confederate or conform. Community, conflict and communication are etymologically close since they only make sense in a social setting when people are together and rely on each other in their common quest for security and wellbeing.

There are close to one hundred definitions of the term community. They are generated by different cultures, contexts and disciplines. However, in most of them, two elements reappear: social bonds and social interactions (Hillery, 1955; Keller, 2003). This clearly marks the human quest for closeness, intimacy and attachment as a central motivation to form communities and to maintain them. Emotional commitment and sentimental attachment, therefore, signify the meaning of community more than historical circumstances, physical exigencies or lofty ideologies and grand schemes. The emotional component has been a decisive factor in various taxonomies and distinctions among types of communities lasting from the classic Tonnies’ gemeischaft and geselschaft dichotomy to some modern classifications such as Mason’s distinction between the ordinary concept of community and the moralized concept (2000:13-14), Edyvane’s three paradigms of consumer, citizenship and friendship communities (2007:126), and Mandelbaum’s undeserving and deserving communities (2000:17-19) to name a few of the more thought-provoking ones. Peleg (2010) captures the overall proclivity of these categorizations by juxtaposing the instrumental and the substantive types of community and then adding the imagined one. This is a basic but illuminating division which highlights the role and significance of communication as the yardstick of diversity.

Both instrumental and substantive communities are fundamental building blocks of human civilization: collectivities to which individuals adhere for various reasons, and under different circumstances they both act as a single human entity. An instrumental community is a calculated arrangement of individuals gathering together to achieve goals they failed to accomplish separately. Instrumental communities are inherently functional and flexible: they are established in order to perform a function or specific task, and they endure or disband according to emerging needs and to whether or not they have achieved their purpose. When instrumental communities split and go their separate ways, they do it without much compunction or regret since there are hardly any emotional bonds or moral commitments to sever. The group’s formation serves as an instrument or as means to obtain a certain purpose with no declared intention to remain together after realizing their objective. An instrumental community can dissolve even before realizing its objective if its members conclude that their alliance is unsuccessful, unpleasant or too costly.

Substantive communities are not aimed to be provisional and conditional upon an external goal. They are formed with the prospect of being long-lasting, intrinsically self-sustaining and self-fulfilling. The primary ambition of the members is the existence and prosperity of the community itself. It can be claimed that substantive communities satisfy needs of their founders and therefore they are also instrumental. The difference between instrumental and substantive however is that substantive communities answer internal and persistent needs such as identity, solidarity and sense of belonging, and these last as long as the community stands. Moreover, these essential needs become more attainable the more cohesive and interconnected the community. The solid community is the embodiment of these socio-psychological needs. Consequently, it is in their own particular interest that the participant members of the community endeavor to keep their union alive and well and to continuously invest in cultivating the group spirit.

Communication and Community

A useful perspective to compare the two types of community is by their internal patterns of communication. As Karl Deutsch so articulately put it, communication is the nerve system of every human organization (1957, 1961). The more the network of social communication, as he called it, is spread out, well entrenched and efficiently used, communities will prosper, grow and survive. Accordingly, in order to better discern how one community differs from another, it is fitting to examine the nature of interaction between its members.

In an instrumental community, interaction will flow predominantly in one single channel—that which led the group be formed in the first place, the coveted external goal. Members will commune and consult with one another regarding coordination of specific faculties and capabilities and how to collaboratively optimize them. Additional topics of discussion will only seldom arise and other mutual interests will be purely coincidental, if they exist at all.  This type of communication is one-dimensional and haphazard, requiring no special effort or attempt to establish a new language of communication as a bridge to understanding. To employ this channel of functional discourse the two sides will require mere simplistic means of communication or basic and unsophisticated messages in their own language, accompanied by awkward hand-motions and extra-cultural facial expressions. No party will endeavor to develop a new language just for the sake of a partnership which will in any case disband upon realizing its objective.

In a substantive community, where the objective is to establish and cultivate the newly established collective identity, the invested input and effort will be momentous. Since communication in this case is multi-channeled, and the interest in understanding the other is significant and spans various topics, both sides assume the responsibility of creating a new language. An erratic patchwork of piecemeal communication on the basis of two distinct languages will not suffice.  Success of the new hybrid channel is dependent on the mutual flow of information along with the consequent understanding of the others’ needs. The new language, created by both sides and upon which mutual accommodation and adaptation occur, helps to surmount initial obstacles to forming the partnership.

But how is the transition made from one community to the next and at what point and under what circumstances does the change occur? One way to explore this question is to adhere to a developmental timeline viewpoint. From an evolutionary perspective, it can be claimed that every community begins as instrumental and is thereafter faced with an option of becoming substantive. Since any initial acquaintance with another person is, in essence, rudimentary and unripe, obligations and promises are not typically exchanged. Similarly in community-building, the preliminary contact with other members or groups is sketchy and unreliable for a long-time commitment; hence, it is unlikely that substantive community would emerge at that stage. Accumulated time and shared experience are necessary to build trust and establish dependency.  An impending exigency might accelerate attempts to form an alliance but this would most probably be of an ad-hoc and expedient nature and focusing on an immediate and in most cases external need that requires attention.  Such an evolving transition is optional rather than immanent and it is not inherently unidirectional: following an experimental period as a substantive community, the group might reverse to being instrumental or even split up to form alternative combinations. Such adverse corollary can emanate from realization of irreconcilable differences or lack of attractive bonding such as attachment and loyalty (Fisher, 2006).

The dichotomy of instrumental and substantive communities is reminiscent of the classic sociological distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft originally made by sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies[i]. The comparison, however, is not identical, and certain important distinctions exist between Tonnies’ social groups and instrumental and substantive communities. These distinctions are worthy of examination since within them lay the foundations of the third community—the imagined community.

Gemeinschaft is a primordial grouping of individuals whose connection is based primarily on family and tribal ties. Its members are born into the group, and their range of social maneuvering, if it exists at all, is extremely limited.  This cohesive group is generally stratified, with a fixed division of labor and responsibilities for its members. Along the developmental timeline, this group is a pre- or post-modern one. The central understanding of each of the group’s members is that he exists for the sake of the collective, and in order to further the group’s common goals.

Gesellschaft, on the other hand, is a modern, multi-dimensional society. Its members belong to it temporarily, within one of its numerous spheres of association—work, study, friendship, hobbies, group activities, etc. Many more options exist in terms of identity and purpose, however, than in Gemeinschaft, the central motivation for activity in this group is personal advancement: in what way can association with one sphere or another benefit me? The group is merely a means to an end, and choosing from social, professional, or educational spheres occurs as part of a calculation of advancement opportunities. Correlations thus exist between Gemeinschaft and instrumental communities, and between Gesellschaft and substantive ones. The connection between the two is illustrated in two polar dynamics: a transition from Gemeinschaft to instrumentalism requires expansion, whereas a transformation from Gesellschaft to substantive calls for contraction, as illustrated in figure 1. These two processes are by no means simple, and if undertaken improperly, can lead to the community’s collapse.

 

figure 1

 

The transition from Gemeinschaft to an instrumental community is problematic with regard to issues of status and hierarchy in the new social unit. Within the preliminary family cell, social order is clear and no individual’s role is challenged. Its patriarchal hierarchy establishes the father as its head, with all others in the group subservient to his authority. This is the natural order, with no alternative to it ever posed or considered by the group’s members. Every son or daughter in the family understands and is familiar with their intended roles as a fact of nature. However, when need arises to join a different primal cell in order to cope with external difficulties, the initial problem that threatens the union is who will head the joint hierarchy. Which father, having grown accustomed to compliance to his axiomatic authority, will agree to surrender it? Joint leadership is one possible option, but may prove inefficient in anticipated encounters with external challenges. At the moment of truth, whose directives will be followed and whose authority heeded? Relinquishing the benefits of authority, and especially authority understood as a given, is not easy, and at times, blurs the overarching consideration of the advantage of combined power in the face of vexing tribulations. Communication is also tested as it shifts from the almost automatic and close-knit intra-community to an inter-community, in which even the rudimentary circumstances of instrumental gathering still require accommodation   between different sets of meanings.

The Need for an Imagined Community

The second transformation, the contraction from Gesellschaft to a substantial community is even more complicated. Can the intimate sense of affiliation and belonging to a distinctive community be preserved in a world composed of vast amalgamations of human groupings? In other words, how could we possibly contemplate the conversion of a mass, anonymous, impersonal society into one of concrete as well as symbolic significance, with common identity and purpose? How does the contraction of mass societies into substantive communities occur? What enables the transition from anonymous, gigantic and mostly accidental human constellations into self-aware, unique natured, collectively organized groups? This is where the challenging and ambitious idea of an imagined community comes into play: a concept that bridges between the chance assemblage of masses residing within the same metropolis, and those who constitute a peoples, nation, religion, or share any other common denominator that cultivates a sense of belonging to a specific collective, “a deep, horizontal comradesheep” (Anderson, 1991:7). Anderson defines “a people” as “an imagined political community characterized as both limited and sovereign” (Ibid, 7).

The community is an imagined one in that its members are not acquainted with one another personally as are members of a tribe or nuclear family. Thus, they must imagine a larger community with whom they create a bond. The fact that such a community is imagined in this respect does not necessarily imply its diminished significance or value. To imagine does not mean to fabricate, manipulate, or lie, but rather, it is a creative act which builds and unites. It is imagined community, not imaginary, as Mason points out, and he adds “Imagined communities are real enough, but their existence depends upon people conceiving of themselves as related to one another” (2000:40). Every large community whose members would be hard pressed to fit into a single room and meet in person is forced to imagine the group’s outer perimeter. Such imagination attests to ingenuity, vitality, and a desire to unite and preserve the community’s structure. The more imagined a community, therefore, the stronger and more substantive it will be. Hence the paradoxical term: substantive-imagined community. This is the single means of transforming a large aimless conglomerate into a substantive community. In mass societies of modern times, it is impossible to convene all members of a community in a cave or field and take attendance. We must believe in and conjure for ourselves the group to which we belong. The more spirited and creative our imagination, the better able we will be to preserve and cultivate our community, as large as it may be. Charles Taylor concurs by relating the solidarity of community to the ways people “imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows [and] the expectations that are normally met…” (2004:23). Communication is again central in this transition because it is transformed from a tower-of-Babel lingual hodge-podge to a coherent and tight set of meanings, values and symbols in the attempt of a substantive community to crystallize its collective identity around a durable and trustworthy discourse. Stretching the imagination to conjure identity and bonds beyond physical acquaintance is applicable to communication as well: various images, signs, codes and emblems can be concocted to enliven and consolidate the imagined into real. In the formation of a made-up entity the bounds of communication are the boundaries of creativity and ingenuity.

The operative question of how such an imagination works and how it develops is carefully crafted by Anderson in the final chapter of his book. There he presents a fascinating comparison between the life of an infant and that of a nation, or in his own words: “personal biographies versus national biographies.” (Anderson, 1991:204-205). When we look through a childhood photo album, we see a small child in a yellowing photograph. This sweet child, our parents say, is us. Is such a thing possible? What connection could we possibly have with this creature that we look nothing like? Yet we have no option of meeting with the infant and encountering it in person. We must believe the accounts of those who were there the time the picture was taken and imagine that in fact the infant is us. Our imagination compensates for and bridges across the span of time and space, connecting us with experiences of belonging to a single coherent human grouping.

In the life of a nation, the narrative, or “personal story,” is replaced by a national narrative or—history. How is one to know whether there is, for example, a French nation? There is no practical way to gather the French nation in one room and shake all its members’ hands. Imagination is the only viable manner to conceive of a nation and it is built and maintained on historical narrative, cultural habits and custom, folk tales, dance routines, symbols, rituals, foods, clothing and jokes, all the while assuming the authenticity of the sources that feed your consciousness. The connecting theme that holds all these artifacts together is communication: a specific, habituated and gradually ingrained, based on a vernacular spoken and non-spoken language that is unique to the members of that particular group.

Imagination creates a substantive community in a world of mass societies devoid of visible boundaries. Just as the individual who invents her life story from fragments of anecdotes and experiences, so too does the collective—the family, the tribe, the nation, the race, the civilization—any alignment of people who seek ‘evidence’ in founding, solidifying and perpetuating their collective and personal identity. Imagination is the connector between the adult and the diapered baby in the fading photograph or between the modern Israeli citizen, for example, and the ancient twelve tribes of Israel. When imagination is defective or uninspired, the connection is disrupted. Conversely, rich and unabated imagination expedites and validates collective self-affirmation and solidarity.  Here lies the essence of community: it “resides in the way in which we describe and conceptualize our shared existence” (Edyvane, 2007:37).

The role of imagined community is, therefore, to cultivate this process of tapering, or contraction, from a mass human aggregate devoid of shared criteria save for time and place, towards deliberate and meaningful congregation of communal existence. It was not by chance that the great Albert Einstein proclaimed that imagination is more important than knowledge[ii]. Imagination holds astonishing power to overcome physical obstacles and limitations of the here and now. It guides us to break through limits of the obvious and to rise to new and exciting peaks. Similarly, communication is less abated by the noise and vagaries of the mundane as it is able to lift itself to higher levels of inspiration and intent to protect the vision of togetherness.    Shakespeare wrote in A Midnight Summers Dream that the lunatic, the lover, and the poet are the most exceptional of all people in efficient and productive use of the power of imagination.[iii] Unfortunately, throughout human history, the process of imagining national mythologies as a dynamic force of community building has attracted many lunatics and fewer poets or lovers although the latter two categories were by no means absent.

Conflict, Conflict Resolution and Community

The process of imagining a community cannot occur in a vacuum. One cannot invent tales of glory and merely hope they would catch up. Establishing imagined communities requires coordination, collaboration and mutual consent. For that, conversation among the different factions which compose the community must take place because everyone has a story and contending myths might hamper the goal of living together. All the premises of an effective community spirit building have one common denominator which is communication. It plays a critical role in enabling a shared living experience by raising and voicing priorities, sensitivities, weaknesses, desires, and hopes of participants to this forming experimental entity. It can be inarguably claimed that the strength and durability of a community depends on the quality of the communication between its members.

This statement does not change the fact that every community is an amalgamation of various subgroups congregating together for a myriad of reasons to constitute a new existential arrangement. With each faction having different priorities, habits and sensitivities, conflicts abound. But unlike the conventional wisdom of seeing conflict as a menace to community, as a destabilization capable of rupturing the delicate coexistence of various factions within the contour of a makeshift human association, conflict here is greeted as an opportunity to demonstrate the resilience and perseverance of the community. Conflict is to be expected in a multitude of perceptions, opinions and agendas vying for public attention. This is the essence of politics, and politics, as E.E. Shattschneider, the past president of the American Political Science Association once wrote, “has its origin in strife” (1957:935). In the same token, conflict resolution is not perceived as the remedy for the disruption of conflict. It is the corresponding process or the consequent step that is born out of the initial incongruity; without the former, the latter is redundant. More specifically, conflict and its resolution can be depicted as mirror image of each other: they both traverse the same path from inception to realization only in opposite directions. In both processes communication is the catalyst and together they preserve a sustainable community (Doherty and de Geus, 1996;  Prugh, Costanza and Daly, 2000)[iv].

Conflict suffers from an unfavorable image in most social science theories, especially the post-modern era, when it was mostly depicted as a threat to the solidarity and sustainability of human communities. However, other scholars were trying to account for the obvious tension between liberal theory and its emphasis on individualism and “freedom-from tendencies” (Berlin, 1969) and group-based theories amongst them communitarianism was merely one of many (Taylor, 1992; Etzioni, 1996; Sandel, 1998; Barzilai, 2003). In their endeavor to reconcile between these two seemingly opposing tendencies, theorists began probing conflict as an opportunity rather than a peril to the community. Due to the contending volitions of individuals, conflicts are inevitable. In order to accommodate the divergent interests within the given framework of the community, managing and steering conflict to invigorating and unifying directions becomes the maturation test for the community, especially when solidarity stems from friendship and caring rather than a meeting of interests, legal agreements or ideologies (Hollis, 1996:153; Edyvane,2007:131).

Let us try to comprehend better the nexus between conflict and communication. Conflict, even the most hostile and abrasive, is still a pattern of communication. Parties communicate to each other their differences and their intention of pursuing their interest in spite opposition of the other sides. Communication continues in various guises throughout the conflict and during de-escalation and declining stages when participants signal their readiness to wind down the dispute. Conflict cannot take place without communication or interaction. There are plenty of conflict definitions but few underline communication as a decisive component.

Communication in the context of conflict means that there is recognition or mutual awareness of the other’s plans. There is not much sense in opening up a channel of communication if there is no-one on the other side or if messages are transmitted or received in a void. This is the setting of the communication-based definition of conflict. It is composed of four components and a full-fledge conflict materializes only with the coexistence of all four[v]: Conflict requires participation of more than one entity[vi], that perceive incompatible interests between them, to which all parties are aware and consequently choose to initiate or join a confrontation. These four components or aspects of conflict—plurality of entities, contending intentions, consciousness and decision—are valid and relevant to every conflict wherever and whenever it happens, which makes it a unitary phenomenon (Mitchell, 1981:4).

Conflict is not guaranteed without the awareness of the participants to their opposing interests. This recognition generates the choice to engage in conflict, a decision based on usefulness, efficacy and the extent of preparedness. These do not always stem from rational calculations: psychological, cultural, spiritual and emotional estimates frequently intervene. In many incidents, it is not even a thorough and well explained process because limited time, unfriendly arena and fleeting circumstances don’t allow it. But ultimately, it is the agent’s selection whether to be involved in a conflict or not. Conflicts do not just happen: they are a corollary of human choices and they are born in our minds. The choice however, must be conveyed to the other parties for conflict to actually break out. Hence it is communication that activates and galvanizes potential, incipient and latent conflict into a manifest one, as Figure 2 shows:

 

figure 2

 

Potential conflict is habitually present due to the basic variance and discrepancies among disparate individuals or groups. When incompatible interests are added to the myriad of diverse entities which compose a human body, a zero-sum game emerges and an incipient conflict is born (Ibid, 7). When awareness to the opposing stands is built up, it elicits readiness and determination to advocate and promote an end in the face of the opposition. Conflict is still latent though and waiting for the decision to mobilize, argue, and convince, or as Hannah Arendt wrote “conflict has to be seen” (1968:9). When the ultimate choice to operate is made, conflict becomes manifest. The necessity of cooperation stems from the situation of interdependence as the basic setting for conflict (Rapoport, 1975; Axelrod, 2006), or as Deutch referred to it “they seem or sink together” (1975). The conflictuants need each other to deal with their differences as there must be more than one entity to enable its occurrence. This is where the reciprocal need is born: There are no contenders if nothing is being contended. Incompatible interests and awareness also assume relationships because otherwise, how would they know that their interests collide? The ultimate decision to act upon the disagreement needs to be transmitted to the other side. This is how communication sets the structural relationship in motion.

Actors are dependent on one another in conflict resolution as well: no disagreement can be solved unilaterally. One could supposedly get up and leave and thus not being involved any more. But this is avoidance, not resolution. If the interests remain incongruent, the dispute will resurface and with more vigor than before. Interdependence plays the same role here: the disputants need each other to resolve their differences and they must communicate to do it right. If they have difficulties communicating, they recruit the skills of a third side to help them (Ury, 2000; Ramsbotham, Woodhouse and Miall 2011; Lewicki and Saunders, 2000).

If the conflict path ended with choice, conflict resolution starts with it: an understanding that conflict has been exhausted and that this is time to invest effort in a different undertaking. This might be tricky at times as participants accustomed themselves to argue and debate and now they must change gear to another kind of interaction[vii]. However once the decision has been made, it should be conveyed to the other side otherwise the conflict might continue due to lack of cooperation[viii]. Communication sets the ground for a possible resolution and brings to the attention of the parties the willingness to try a different route to settle their discrepancy. Once awareness to this possibility is invoked and incipient resolution becomes an option, the incompatible interests, which triggered the conflict in the first place, are reconsidered. Each party works out ways to reframe the incompatible interests and a latent resolution is being prepared. Finally, working bilaterally and in coordination, a full-fledge agreement is reached by rendering the two disparate entities wholesome again.

 

figure 3

 

The Merits of Constructive Communication

Constructive communication as the backbone of community’s stability and sustainability can take place in several forms provoked and incited by conflict. Many extolled the merits of conflict as a positive phenomenon encouraging creativity and rejuvenation. John Dewey praised conflict as “the gadfly of thought…[which] instigates to invention. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving” (1922:300). Coser (1956) points out the favorable functions conflict produces including group bonding, dexterous leadership and excitement and Schattschneider, as already mentioned, observed that “at the root of all politics is the universal language of conflict” (1975:2), or in other words, conflict is the engine for collaborative public decisions. In this section two new models of constructive communication are introduced as methods or approaches to dispute resolution and thereby as strengthening the community: a) CMM-Coordinated Management of Meaning and b) normative dialogue.

a) CMM- Coordinated Management of Meaning

In an attempt to comprehend how such constructive and beneficial communication works and what it is capable of doing, it is worthwhile to adopt the communication perspective, which duly redirects the attention from communication as means to communication as substance[ix]. To put it differently, conversation is not merely a channel to send messages or a medium to enable meaning and understanding; it is the substance of the interaction. The style and format, the circumstances, the pace, the mood, the location and timing, everything that engulfs the discussants has a bearing on the meaning. All these factors are relevant to the amount of trust, the extent of caring, listening and understanding one another, and ultimately the proximity and affinity that emerge. In contrast to the classical and more familiar model of communication–the transmission model–in which one side transmits messages to a receiving side[x], the CMM model contends that the kind of communication chosen shapes and affects the value and fortitude of human community (Steinberg, 2007:53-54; McQuail, 2010). The logic of CMM postulates that the contours of the social universe participants share depend on the manner in which their talk is conducted. Communication is decisive in molding and modeling people’s lives (Pearce and Littlejohn, 1997). The emphasis should be put on the character and pace communication forms, the trust and mutual respect it promotes, and the affinity it cultivates between those immersed in the conversation. CMM relies on three important faculties: coordination, meaning and mystery.

     Coordination: To comprehend the meaning of coordination, Pearce compares grains of sand to a pack of wolves to human behavior (2007:80-81). Consider, for starters, grains of sand steadily trickling on the same spot for an extended period of time and creating a pile. The keen observer would notice a consistent and importunate regularity in the pile’s outlines: by keeping a permanent ratio between height and steeps, the continuing trickle will surely swell into a mound. With the accumulation of the sand grains, the height of the heap will grow while the steeps will moderate in a coordinated manner. It seems like the little particles of sand are meticulously synchronized with regard to their role and function in the general scheme of things.

A pack of wolves practices coordination in a similar fashion: every wolf knows its place, position and significance to the group. Until the pack takes shape there are altercations and clashes that include declarations of intent with regard to status and rank. These are transmitted through an assorted array of communication techniques: scents, howls, even bites and scratches to add credibility to the initial growl. Human coordination is more elaborate: people experience life in concurrent circles and they do not fanatically adhere to the same sand heap or the same circle of friends. They juggle between family and work, friends, hobbies, little league and church. In each of these life cycles there are different communication patterns and one endeavors to adjust simultaneously to this sundry of dissimilar activities.

Here is the point: sand grains pile up in natural and systematic diligence. They don’t ask “where is my place?” and certainly not “what do I need to do now?” The wolves’ coordination is more developed but it relies on submission and conformism educed by the Alfa wolf. Human coordination on the other hand, is potentially less bounded by axioms or conformism and is built not through communication but within communication; not by connecting two dissimilar opinions and wants but by connecting two styles, or two modes of discussion. Coordination takes place while communication occurs and not subsequently and it thrives precisely because it is carried out during and not after discourse. It is dialogue itself which enables the understanding and the openness toward the other and it is dialogue which permits the identification of critical moments where judgment of what to say next is employed to produce a more attentive and more meaningful dialogue. Each conversation with its explicit timing and distinctive circumstances, binds its participants in a shared experience in which a specific universe is formed and exclusive norms and values are created.

     Meaning: Such understanding of coordination requires a high degree of ingenuity. It cultivates a spirit of creativity to invent and design relations while communicating, and thus, invokes adaptability, flexibility and tolerance for the relationship to linger. Communication creates an opportunity or space for speakers to interact. They nurture and inspire each other to share an affluence of diverse perceptions, convictions and images, which together compose a universe. Unlike the ‘objective’ reality which is supposedly just hanging in out there, the participants collaboratively construct subjective reality contingent upon the vocabulary, the opulence of imagery and the variance of topics. In this fashion, the participants or the contributors to the discussion assign meaning to each other’s existence. Interpretations and explanations to the world around them are culled from what they hear and understand from others. This is how language constructs relationships: it defines, directs and portrays the meaning and the intention of the speakers as a consequence of their reciprocal give-and-take rather than their relation to a constant and arbitrary environment which engulfs them[xi].

     Mystery: Culture is one of the formative factors of that environment. Culture is intrinsically dynamic: some norms and fashions run out and others are greeted in. It cannot afford stagnation lest it would perish.  The fluidity of culture supplies also an opportunity to avoid acquiescence and conformity. Pearce and Littlejohn generally refer to these escape hatches as mystery (1997:45). Every culture has blurred edges of secrets, rituals, rites and fuzzy stories; they supply indistinct curves and alleyways to break away from the onus of social conventions. Mystery therefore is a breather; it provides margins for misgiving and revelation. The mysterious side of communication is expressed in a slew of ceremonious and ritualistic gestures, enigmatic intimations and ambivalent allusions that can be differently interpreted by different people, thus allowing some leeway for diverse interpretation.

Joseph Campbell, the pioneer of mythology research wrote that the strength of a community is measured not by the depth and scope of its rational thought but by the mythologies it developed (Campbell, 1949:6). These mythologies and mysteries are the settings whereby spontaneous, unrehearsed, imaginative, inspired and seditious conversations are weaved. These are the occasions for people to converse with partners, colleagues, acquaintances, lovers, and passengers on a bus and create a unique and unfettered little universe. Each encounter is an exceptional amalgamation of views, opinions and sensitivities, and thus an exclusive social construction experiment for the specific members of that meeting. Each individual might be constrained by familiar social and cultural conventions but the mutual influences of dialogue emancipate them toward new possibilities. These three building-blocks—coordination, meaning and mystery–compose the practical theory of CMM- coordinated management of meaning, a theory which purports to capture communication as a process that helps to create and manage social reality (Pearce and Cronen, 1980; Cronen and Pearce, 1982; Pearce, 2005).

b) Normative dialogue

In essence, cohesion and interconnectedness of community is more robust for the long-run when it is established from within, or in a bottom-up process rather than from outside or in a top-down process. The latter is the attempt to construct the community on the premise of an a-priori agreement such as a social contract or a binding ideology or due to external circumstances. It is a top-bottom manner since the structure or a guiding principle precedes and determines membership. This is a recipe for complications because the stipulated conditions might not be interpreted or understood equally by all, especially in heterogeneous societies accommodating disparate groups or liberal democratic societies which attempt to reconcile beliefs and values of dissimilar individuals. Substantial community aspiring for longevity, which rests on mutual dignity and trust, is better off relying on normative dialogue. This is a bottom-up process of a mutual habituation in which various factions or individuals comprising a community ‘feel each other out’, and learn as they go, about each other’s sensitivities, preferences and goals. This gradual evolvement peaks in a deliberation on the common basis shared by all.

A community that desires substantiality must develop a shared understanding of the good and a normative system to support such agreement. This is the definitive premise upon which a substantive community aspires to prosper. The significance of the good as the quintessence of coexistence may be variously perceived in a heterogenic context. To confer meaning on the abstract ideal of the good, establishing an agreed and esteemed set of norms and values, shared by the majority in the community, is imperative. This is an entirely different basis for community building than other motivations for assembling together such as social contract, economic calculations or political and administrative coercion. The latter is predicated on rational consent calculated by practical assessments and tactical procedures whether to join or exit[xii].

Reconciliation of individual or factional interest with those of the collective is a serious challenge. In the top-bottom approach, joining a community is pending upon certain beneficial circumstances and conditions in a certain point in time. Groups and individuals cohere due to procedural or technical processes ranging from uniformly enforced rules to voting or deliberating regulations. Eventually, such a community survives owing to the meticulous and delicate synergy of individual interpretations to the idea of the good. What takes place is an intricate process of accumulated individual priorities adding up into one single collective scale. This arrangement endures as long as members feel that their interests are rewarded[xiii].  This is essentially a procedural dialogue, which is incapable of holding the community together in case disagreements occur. It falls short of generating a profound commitment and mutual obligation to the survivability of the community. Conflicts are not contained in a setting of procedural dialogue and in most cases, cannot be managed and transformed from destructive to constructive.

In a substantive community, affiliation relies on collective identity rather than on a temporal convergence of needs. This identity is crafted by normative precepts members willingly accept. The more the overall value system is credible and cherished, the less necessity there is to uphold it by laws and sanctions. This normative bedrock of shared life is not easy to come by since a description of the good is inherently abstract and hence, essentially contested[xiv]. Several operational dilemmas arise: how can such a normative order be successfully fashioned to resonate with all the various groups that make up a community? How are different belief systems settled into one solid framework encompassing all members? Surely, each group would rather practice its own familiar set of values and let other groups undergo a transition and adjust. These genuine concerns are mitigated by the idea of a normative core, which is a basic moral platform consisting of essential values that each founding member group can embrace without imposition or forgoing any of its original principles. A normative core can be reached at by normative dialogue as opposed to the procedural one.

The distinction between normative dialogue and procedural dialogue is in many ways akin to physicist and dialogue scholar David Bohm’s dichotomy between discussion and dialogue. In the former, deliberators gather and try in various ways to influence and steer the process toward a specific favored outcome. The deliberation is only a means to accomplish that pre-planned objective. Dialogue, in Bohm’s innovative analysis, suspends all partisan interests, motivations, impulses, and judgments to enable an open and uninhibited space for collaborative and unbiased thinking (1992). This clean slate approach of dialogue allows inspecting and isolating the detrimental effect of prejudice, conformism and unshaken beliefs. The emphasis is on the process of deliberating together and being candid with one another before reaching an agreement[xv]. Hence the ‘Bohmenian’ dialogue is a propitious environment for examining values, principles and beliefs. But in order to become more meaningful gateway to improved life, normative dialogue must be practiced along open and constructive communication channels and realized in context of substantive human communities in accordance of agreed rules.

One of such rules takes heed of the fact that a normative core is not formed instantly or automatically; it requires a long-term scrupulous and rigorous effort. Every participant clings on to their original values and beliefs for they epitomize their unique identity and therefore they are reluctant to forego them. However, the gist of the normative core idea is that no faction would be able to retain all of its principles. A facilitating factor in trying to cope with the demanding task of establishing a normative core might be to change the unit of analysis in understanding the process of community building from the individual to the collective. The classical theories of integration and community formation are based on individual calculations: is it worthwhile for me to join or whether I would get along in the new environment. This logic leads to contractual commitment of each individual to the group and every new member is provisional: once he or she disobeys the rules of the community, they might be ostracized and vice versa, if the community reneges on its promise, there is a pretext for the individual to leave (Rawls 1971; 1993). But relying solidly on individual judgments as stipulating unison and concord, and entrusting community moral strength on ad-hoc consent would lead to a situation whereby “half the society would be lawyers drafting contracts (or trying to wriggle out of them)” (Etzioni, 1996:94). Social stability as a precondition for fairness must therefore be based on shared norms endorsed by the majority and commitment of individuals rests not on the validity of contract or fear of sanction but on the power of identifying with collective values.

Another prudent rule is to employ a super-ordinate value to reconcile between incompatible values of contending arguments. It is of essence especially when the negotiating sides are stuck in a cyclical argumentation of contending values. Goodin demonstrates how super-ordinate value can work in a normative dialogue in his study of disagreement on smoking in a community (1989). At first it seemed that the conflict is insolvable: each group was entrenched in its position for and against smoking.  But when the value of liberty was introduced to the equation and the principle that the freedom of one cannot supersede the freedom of the other, a settlement emerged. Agreeing on liberty as an overarching value enabled the negotiators to move from the abstract to the practical and save their community.

An additional ground rule of normative dialogue is the realization that all discussants equally belong to the community, and hence, any dispute regardless of severity, scope or duration should not be allowed to undermine the foundations of the coexistence. The overarching objective is to reaffirm the viability of the community and that dissolution is not an option. If this stipulation is clarified in advance, it affects not only the possible results but also the atmosphere and the process leading to the outcome. From this principle, attitude and conduct ensue: avoid hurting core values and beliefs and disparaging others’ positions or opinions.

One crucial asset of a normative dialogue is that it changes the nature of interaction between members, and consequently, in the spirit of the community as a whole: it introduces honesty and transparency. The simplistic funnel visions and arguments formed in absolute terms are mitigated. More complicated attitudes are expressed and more sophisticated perspectives are employed when empathy and a keen curiosity toward the other exist. Participants in normative dialogue cease employing narrow ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomies and begin considering relative viewpoints which weigh some values in relation to other values (Tannen, 1999). This is a shift which involves kindness and openness to others and it leads to one more rule of normative dialogue: at times, it is advisable to leave certain topics outside of the discussion. They might be too tender and too painful to discuss and their mentioning might adversely affect the proceedings. It would be advantageous to accentuate commonalities and shared goals than procrastinate on the divisible. The congenial atmosphere of the normative dialogue inspires terminology and images as well. They are less belligerent and antagonistic and more sympathetic to grievances and concerns (Glendon, 1991).

 

Conclusion: Communication and Human Communities

An individual who is incapable of becoming or doesn’t need to become a part of society is either a beast or a god writes Aristotle in Politics. Assuming that no-one fancies being a beast and nobody is competent enough to play god, the only cogent alternative to live a fulfilling and gratifying life is to immerse in a human community, albeit with intermittent escapes for individual relief and soul-searching. But it needs to be remembered that entering and assimilating in a human community, let alone taking root and prosper, does not come naturally. It requires a thorough mental preparation and adjustment and a profound shift of priorities. A person must get used to the idea that some of his or her precedence must give way to accommodate those of the community. This might be a rude realization in an individualistic and aggressive culture of a post-modern world. William Shakespeare writes in his play Cymbeline that “Society is no comfort to one not sociable”. A sociable man is he who adopts a social orientation; a person that is willing to invest in constructive communication with colleagues and is aware that she should participate in a multicultural normative dialogue to create something new, beyond what she previously knew or got used to.

This paper has underscored communication as the indicator and seismograph for the strength of the community. Different types of communities—instrumental, substantial or imaginative—are characterized by unique paths of communication. Every community is an amalgamation of disparate groups and individuals and hence, conflicts are abounding when such incompatible interests meet. But such contending motivations need not damage the stability of the community if communication is constructive, i.e.- creative, honest, and is based on mutual trust and dignity.

The adjustment process or the shift from solitary to sociable is not necessarily from noble and admirable living in nature as fantasized by the likes of Rousseau in the Social Contract, Whitman in Leaves of Grass or Thoreau in Walden. The conversion is not naïve and idealistic as was depicted by so many romanticists and transcendentalists from Byron and Shelley to Lowell and Emerson. It is not moving from the vast open spaces of “life in the woods” to the choking metropolitan scene nor is it a leap from the exhilarating experience of ‘le bon sauvage’ to the savagery of urban estrangement. More aptly, it is a change from the elemental phase into which we are born and from the first unchosen affiliation circle (immediate family, relatives and neighbors) to the affiliation-of-choice in which we come of age (friends, colleagues and lovers). It is the road from exclusive distinctiveness to merging with the collective, from the specific conscience to the togetherness conscience, from ego to super-ego. Communication is the bridge from the former to the latter.

In his solemn and compelling film Into the Wild (2007), actor-director Sean Penn tells the story of Christopher McCandless, a talented young student who decides to depart from human society and flee to the wild. He despises the competitive materialism of modern life and the relentless strive for social status symbolized by his parents’ perpetual struggle for economic stability. The morning after his college graduation, he sells all his possessions, burns his money and sets out for the great outdoors. His ultimate destination is the enormous uncharted territories of Alaska. When he finally made it to a deserted bus in the middle of the vast Alaskan nowhere, he is elated. He has reached his dreamland: roaming around with deers and rabbits, cultivating wild berries and exploring the infinite kingdom of bare snow with no humans in sight. But after several months of staggering isolation amidst awe-inspiring sceneries, his enthusiasm begins to evaporate. Hunger and boredom take over and he starts hallucinating and conversing with imaginary figures. Finally his health deteriorates as a result of poisonous mushrooms he had erroneously eaten. As he lies dying he writes in his diary that there is no meaning to happiness in seclusion and the only way to experience it is by sharing it with other human-beings.

But to arrive at such a conclusion does not oblige long-drawn-out torment and affliction. We all occasionally daydream about roving the nomadic distances with a knapsack, a book and a knife. We imagine the call of nature and we rush home to pack some sandwiches, box of matches, and of course, the obligatory cell phone. We often mistake the psychological inclination for spouts of freedom for an actual urge to a solitary excursion to the out-of-doors. However for most people, several days as noble savages are sufficient before mosquito bites, pressure-less showers and paucity of wireless access would hurry us back to civilization. But when we’re back from our self-imposed solitude in the wilderness, we realize that what we missed the most was the company of other freedom-searches like us who misinterpreted footloose and fancy free as being liberated. Our retreat home does not mean that we gave up on the ambition of freedom, which is and should be a permanent aspiration. But our return to the community heralds the understanding and the endeavor to accomplish, cultivate and preserve our freedom within and together with our community members. Communication is the golden path to freedom within the community and communication skills prolong and endure the experience of coexistence.

 

 

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Endnotes:

i.  Tönnies F. Community and Civil Society. (ed. Jose Harris), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Tonnies is remembered predominantly due to his famous distinction between Gemeinschaft and Geselschsft which he made in his 1887 book by the same name. However, he was a prolific and involved scholar who published many other studies. The most common translation of these two German concepts is community and society respectively. Unlike in this book, Tonnies’ community does represent size and scope of activity which are relatively small and limited compared to the large stratified modern society.

ii.  This famous quote was originally said by Einstein in an interview with journalist George Sylvester Viereck published in the Philadelphia Saturday Evening Post, October 26th, 1929 (cited in Taylor K. “Is imagination more important than knowledge?”, TSL Education Ltd, 2002, p. 1).

iii. In  Shakespeare’s words: “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact”, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Originally believed to be written between 1590 and 1596, this sentence is uttered by King Theseus in Act v scene I when he discounts the night events in the forest.

iv. Sustainability is a very popular worldview or ideology in the ecological post-modern world. This is essentially a broad democratic outlook, which highlights human dignity and freedom as a part of a holistic approach of life on this planet. Accordingly, concern for the elderly, cultivated environment, care for clean air and promoting free education are all pillar of social sustainability in tune with individual liberties and tolerance for the other. The ultimate goal is a more secured and stable society, where prosperity is not depended on consumption, affluence or defense but rather on mutual support, trust and social involvement. The last two decades have witnessed the growth and expansion of the sustainability movement into global and cross-national bringing together under one roof members from various cultures and nationalities.

 v. There are numerous definitions to conflict. For example, competition for scarce resources, violation of rules, disruption of regularities or threatening needs and goals (Miller and Simon, 1974; Pruitt and Rubin, 1986; Lulofs and Kahn, 2000) to mention a few. I chose a generic, multi-disciplinarian and inclusive definition which consists of four components, each of them representing general approaches to understanding conflicts—.structural, conceptual, cognitive and behavioral respectively.

  vi. The more-than-one-entity component allows for the term internal conflict to be understood. This is the psychologists’ contribution to the study of conflict and they refer to internal conflict as an inside tension within the original unit: inside the individual, the family, or the organization. There is collision of wills there as well, for example, between the spiritual and the visceral, between what one is and what one would like to be, or conversely, a gloomy present compares with a golden age of the past. The use of the term entity rather than a person is therefore perceptively selected because conflicts frequently occur within a single personality.

vii. If it is an enforced pressure from outside to terminate the conflict and switch to negotiations but some actors are still reluctant or half-hearted about it, the process could run into difficulties very soon after. The point of departure therefore, from belligerency to settlement is the sentient determination that the options we engaged so far were unsatisfactory and they do not bring us closer to our goal whereas resolving the dispute is preferable. But between the recognition that this is the right option and its actual implementation lies a large distance laden with pitfalls- psychological, strategic and political, which hamper what may look like a pretty obvious and simple step: ending an inefficient and fruitless contention, shorten suffering and waist and set out on a new phase, improved and beneficial to all.

viii. The first snag on the road to resolution can be termed the “who-blinks-first” dilemma. This difficulty can be characterized as follows: even if the rivals are at their lowest ebb and they are absolutely cognizant of the fact that conflicts leads them nowhere, neither is ready to budge fearing that such a move would be interpreted by the other as a sign of weakness. In a conflict mindset the temptation to win relentlessly prowls. Each wave of a white flag signals surrender and admission of defeat. The opponent, even if equally devastated and hopeless, would cling on to such indication as a miraculous opening for a possible victory after all. This zeal to persist and conquer is urged by the need to convalesce and restore one’s investment and sacrifices in a protracted campaign of attrition. Hence, every glimpse of capitulation from the other side, any blink of submission generates hope in the non-blinking side for an approaching triumph. Since the fear of blinking is mutual, and the concern that such gesture would only augment the rival’s tenacity, both parties are reluctant to initiate. Therefore, despite their common misery they remain locked in an ongoing predicament they share. This is a tragic absurdity whereby all sides realize they would be better off ceasing hostilities but yet they all knowingly prefer to hold out. The only way out of this irrational paralysis is if all parties simultaneously proclaim their intention to terminate the contentious interaction and embark on a new path of reconciliation and dialogue. Only one quality is able to guarantee the success of such a plan and it is the one which is most absent during conflict, the precious trait of mutual trust.

ix. The late Barnett Pearce has used this term, the Communication Perspective, as a whole worldview, a Gestalt to look at the world through people conversing and constructing and reconstructing their social context by the way they talk to each other. See Pearce B. Communication and the Human Condition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989; Pearce B. and K. Pearce “Taking a Communication Perspective on Dialogue” in Anderson R., L. Baxter and K. Cissna (eds.) Dialogue: Theorizing Difference in Communication Studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2004.

x. The transmission or injection model of communication, or the uni-directional pattern of communication from the sender to the receiver, was for many decades the mainstream explanation of how communication works. It professed that the disseminators of messages dictate and determine the agenda and the receivers of idea follow and obey them. Messages penetrate the target population like injection spreading its material under the skin and into the body. This was an anachronistic, elitist, and mostly erroneous understanding of communication.

xi. The first snag on the road to resolution can be termed the “who-blinks-first” dilemma. This difficulty can be characterized as follows: even if the rivals are at their lowest ebb and they are absolutely cognizant of the fact that conflicts leads them nowhere, neither is ready to budge fearing that such a move would be interpreted by the other as a sign of weakness. In a conflict mindset the temptation to win relentlessly prowls. Each wave of a white flag signals surrender and admission of defeat. The opponent, even if equally devastated and hopeless, would cling on to such indication as a miraculous opening for a possible victory after all. This zeal to persist and conquer is urged by the need to convalesce and restore one’s investment and sacrifices in a protracted campaign of attrition. Hence, every glimpse of capitulation from the other side, any blink of submission generates hope in the non-blinking side for an approaching triumph. Since the fear of blinking is mutual, and the concern that such gesture would only augment the rival’s tenacity, both parties are reluctant to initiate. Therefore, despite their common misery they remain locked in an ongoing predicament they share. This is a tragic absurdity whereby all sides realize they would be better off ceasing hostilities but yet they all knowingly prefer to hold out. The only way out of this irrational paralysis is if all parties simultaneously proclaim their intention to terminate the contentious interaction and embark on a new path of reconciliation and dialogue. Only one quality is able to guarantee the success of such a plan and it is the one which is most absent during conflict, the precious trait of mutual trust.

xii. Many writers are affiliated with the Social Contract school, albeit with major differences in emphasis and nuance. From Locke, Rousseau and Hobbes to Olson, Habermas and Rowls and many others between them, the notion of amassing into a civil society as a result of rational accordance was and remained popular not as an actual historic event but as a theoretical concept. The principles and merits of the social contract were changing from writer to writer according to the time and socio-political context of each thinker.

xiii. This approach is drastically shaken by the Arrow Paradox, in which Nobel Prize winner, economist Kenneth Arrow mathematically demonstrates that priorities of disparate individuals cannot linearly add up even though these priorities may be totally consistent and rational. Thus, in public decision-making, it is impossible to ordinarily tally the interests and volitions of all the people into a coherent general will. Arrow’s conclusions are still controversial in part but were pioneers in topics such as voting behavior, decision-making and welfare policy. For more details see Arrow. K.-Social Choice and Individual Values (1951, 2nd ed., 1963).

xiv. Values are mostly abstract and subjective. They are also by their nature essentially contested concepts (Gallie, 1956; Connolly, 1983), or in other words, highly ambivalent and potentially divisive and conflict-ridden. For example, one’s notion of justice is another’s injustice and my understanding of equality may disturb yours, whereas others’ perception of freedom might spell suppression to me.  Conceivably, these are culture and circumstance-bound ideas. They are being shaped and stipulated by contingencies and transient needs. When a new community is established, each member group approaches the newly formed assembly with its existing and familiar normative package hoping to maintain and cultivate them under the new arrangement. If the moral dowry blends well with other normative legacies of founding members, the community is up to a smooth start and the convergence process will be relatively uncomplicated. However, such a scenario is rare because values form identities and create unique and exclusive meaning to each group and thus, compromising them or adjusting to others’ moral principles becomes incredibly unlikely.

xv. There are other theoretical perceptions and terminologies with regard to the distinction between procedural and normative dialogue. Etzioni has an additional distinction within normative dialogue, the one between process normative and value normative (1996:228). The former, much like procedural dialogue, focuses on the way the parties congregate and how they communicate with one another in their attempts to reach a common ground. But unlike the procedural models of the social contract vein which are rational and individual in their nature, the normative process dialogue is about moral principles but it underlines means, not goals. Habermas, like other philosophers who for ages explored and debated the meaning of the good as the quintessential normative precept of the community, defines it as the normative rightness. To reach an agreement on the full meaning of this term participants of the deliberation should abide by several rules: nobody is excluded from participating; every argument is refutable; any value-laden issue can be raised provided that the speaker honestly believes in that value and none of these rules can be arbitrarily annulled (1990:24). This is, therefore, a dialogue which concerns normative ends but its essence is the techniques employed to accomplish those objectives. Similarly, Ackerman (1989) advocates normative accommodation by calling for conversational restraint in practicing normative dialogue. By that he means that it is more important to underscore style and attitude in discourse rather than content. Furthermore, he suggests that what is not said is far more valuable than what is verbally expressed because in sensitive matters of value or creed, people might get hurt and relationships severed simply due to miscommunication.

 

Samuel (Muli) Peleg- Bio

 Dr. Samuel (Muli) Peleg is a professor and researcher who specializes in conflict analysis and conflict resolution, negotiation, decision making, leadership and intercultural/inter-organizational communication. He is a faculty member at the negotiation and conflict resolution program (NECR) at Columbia University. In 2009 he was invited by the Jewish Studies Department at Rutgers University as a Schusterman Visiting Professor and since 2010 he has been teaching at the Political Science department as well. Dr. Peleg is a research fellow at the Stanford Center for International Conflict resolution and negotiation (SCICN). He is the author of several books and articles about his areas of expertise. Among his publications are Spreading the Wrath of God: From Gush Emunim to Rabin Square (1997, Hebrew), Zealotry and Vengeance- quest of Religious Identity Group (2002, Lexington Books); If Words Could Kill: the Failure of Public Discourse in Israel (2003, Hebrew University Press), and Fighting Terrorism in the Liberal State (2006, IOS Press).

 

Business Discussion

Communicating Effectively With Yourself and Others through Conflict

By Mark A. Adams

 

Everyone experiences conflict from time to time and how we respond to it can not only determine its outcome, it can build trust and respect with others, or it can end in ruin.  Conflict is not easy and it often triggers high emotions, egotism, and strong opinions.  We commonly resort to treating conflict as win or lose or we may consider someone’s differing position as a personal threat to our knowledge or belief system.  Unfortunately, we typically become defensive and fail to look for the merit in where the other side is coming from or what they have to offer.  This happens in part because we believe our self-esteem and egos are being challenged and we do not like points of view, new or counter information that is beyond our existing comfort zone or area of knowledge.  Sometimes the subject matter is threatening to our belief system, sense of identity, or we deem it as a threat to something we want to accomplish or do not want to lose.  Having a firm grasp of what is at stake, other than the issue at hand, can help us better see additional issues we may be bringing to the conflict, which may not be fair, relevant or helpful.  Sometimes the issue is far less important than we think it is, compared to bigger loss or problems we might create by pursuing it.

Not Listening to Another’s Point of View

It takes a strong person to be able to lower his or her defenses in order to develop a better understanding from whence the other side is coming, as well as to look at the bigger picture of what is going on beyond the issue in question.  This requires us to examine the issue beyond the immediate outcome we desire in order to see how it might play out, especially in regard to long term ramifications and maybe more importantly, what it might do to the relationship, teamwork, trust, and respect.

Once we engage in a conflict, we often begin to view the other side as an enemy or opponent to defeat.  This very approach, while understandable, is the very thing that impedes our ability to work toward resolving the issue.  It is far more helpful to enter the conversation with the best interests of everyone involved, as well as to have respect for the merits of the issue itself.  The mere mindset that the person we are in conflict with is an “enemy”or“is ignorant”creates a disconnect, and then we have a harder time viewing the other side in a favorable light without bias.  We might treat the other’s contributions to the conflict as an attack or view the other person as wrong instead of viewing the input as a tool to help us move the discussion forward.  If we view the other party(ies) as the enemy, we are going to treat them as such . They will be less receptive to us as a result.

Moving Away From Reacting, Anger and Emotionality

It is common in conflict to act in defensive ways or allow our emotions to get out of control to the point we cannot or choose not to think clearly and objectively.  This creates a self-justified belief which can easily be reinforced with data supporting our position while ignoring data to the contrary.  This is often called a confirmation bias  and while we may believe we are aware of our biases, it is not until we consciously take the time to examine them that we realize how easily we overlook things that might not allow us to see the issue objectively.  The stronger our bias, the less willing we are to want to challenge it.  This can be a helpful revelation as well as a strong indicator of the resistance the other side might be experiencing.  Challenging our position and biases can be incredibly emotional and threatening and we need to recognize our position might be creating the same type of dissonance in others.

Learning to become more aware of our highly charged emotions such as anger, negativity, fear or anxiety is critical to becoming more proficient in working effectively with conflict.  This is not always an easy task especially the closer we are to the issue and our investment in it.  One of the first steps is to becoming aware of our emotions is to be aware of how our emotions escalate before in order to break the pattern whereby we might allow them to spiral out of control.  When we are in a conflict, our reasoning and higher thinking skills often become compromised if we are unpracticed in emotional self-regulation or (EQ) emotional intelligence skills.

Everyone has a point where their passions and emotions run high. This is only human. However, if we look to those who are the most effective in conflict situations we will discover they have learned how to remain focused on the issue and work to create solutions rather than giving in to defensiveness, anger, or reactivity.  Learning to take a few deep breaths, center and focus on the elements of the conflict will help us stay on task, and help others involved do the same.

If we allow our emotions to escalate, we invite the other side to follow suit.  Neurologists have discovered a phenomenon known as“mirror neurons”in which those around us respond (often unconsciously) to our emotional state.  We have all probably entered a room and sensed there was tension or glee without a word being said.  The more adaptive we are at working with our emotions, the better we can remain grounded when others are upset or are unleashing their emotions.  This does not mean we should tolerate physical or verbal abuse. In conflict it is natural for emotions to run high and helpful for everyone involved in the conflict to reduce destructive energy instead of reacting or otherwise escalating it.  One of the most helpful things is to remember that strong emotion is an indicator that people care about the issue at hand.  While we might not agree, respecting that the problem is just as important to others as it is to us can help us view others in a more respectful fashion.

Guard against judgment and superiority

Another factor that limits good communication and respect is avoiding judging others or assuming an air of superiority.  While we may have a certain amount of confidence in our knowledge we may fail to see important indicators of problems due to our arrogance.  Aside from the issue, our very attitude may be contributing to distrust or even creating disharmony and conflict.  When communicating with others it is best to check our attitude and be open and inquisitive to the needs and concerns of others.

Be clear within

We may enter into conflicts before we have had a chance to learn as much as we should about the issue.  Sometimes, out of sheer pride, we may continue to argue over something we otherwise would agree with, but do not want to concede.   Other times we might be unsure of our stance on a particular topic and are searching for evidence from both sides to reach a decision.  Engaging in a conflict in which we are unsure where we stand, can be futile and create frustration.  If we are unsure of where we stand, we should not necessarily enter into a conflict about the topic, but instead use the opportunity to dialog about the issue, seeking clarification when needed along the way.

Think it through –when we are in conflict we typically concentrate our efforts on getting our way, winning or otherwise proving our point.  Rarely do we focus on the needs, interests and concerns of the other person, let alone think about how the results of the conflict may impact us.  The common analogy is winning the battle only to lose the war and we see this type of approach to conflict too often.  Instead, we need to learn how to surrender our position and ego long enough to examine the issue with as little judgment or bias as possible in order to understand what is going on.  Only when we have a clear sense of the issue beyond just our frame of reference, can we begin to effectively address the needs and concerns of everyone involved.  In the process we need to examine questions such as:

  • What do we want out of the situation and why?
  • What does the other side want and why?
  • Who will benefit? How? and Why?
  • Who will suffer?  How? and Why?

Move to discovery

It may be difficult to view the other side as a partner, so the question becomes, how do we engage in meaningful dialog about the issue?  To begin, it may help to internally move from positions toward discovery and from problems toward solutions.  By remaining open and striving to look at the issue anew, we enter into discovery whereby we work to gain as much information as possible while keeping our judgments, beliefs and biases in check.  The power of discovery can help us see aspects of the issue we may not have been aware of or to even see new implications.  Moving from positions to discovery can help us look for and be open to co-creating new solutions or understanding the issue in a manner that can help us get to resolution where it might otherwise have been met with anger or resentment. That is the gift of open communication.

Solution focused

In some cases, we might benefit from taking some time to think about and digest the new information that presents itself before proceeding.  From that point, we should move forward with a solution focused mindset whereby we engage in dialog that focuses on solutions and working through the issues rather than remaining stuck on differences.  The differences might remain. Our increased understanding of them from multiple angles will help in working to create new and creative solutions.  Too often we can remain stuck on little details while missing a larger opportunity or way to resolve the smaller points.

Post conflict recovery

When a conflict ends it is important to do what I call “post conflict recovery”whereby we take some time to decompress and reflect on what just transpired.  Often, after a conflict people walk away thinking about what they should have said or focus on elements where they felt wronged.  In our emotionally charged state of mind it can be easy to go down this negative self-justifying cycle only to feel slighted or to become upset all over again.  Our perspective can be tainted and it is important to discipline ourselves to remain as objective about what transpired as possible.  In some cases it might be helpful to think about how a neutral third-person might view the issue.  It can also be extremely helpful to ask ourselves questions related to looking at things from outside our existing frame of reference.  Allowing ourselves to remain upset by asking self-defeating questions like “How could they?”or “Who do they think they are?”only fuels our position and keeps us locked into our existing mindset about the issue.  Communicating these negative emotions to others will also erode any goodwill that has been built up.

Tend to the relationship

Once the conflict has been resolved, we need to make sure to tend to the relationship.  Conflicts can have a strong negative influence on relationships and we should communicate how we will make reparations for any misunderstanding to demonstrate our respect for those involved.  This should be done at a later time to follow up on the issue and to add value to the people involved in order to build and maintain trust.  Leaving a conflict without communicating follow-up often results in creating a disconnect or distance between the parties and can foster a lack of respect making future interactions much more challenging.  Fostering honest communication is important and it must be authentic.  We might be angry or upset and approaching the other person in this state can be seen as fake or manipulative.  Once we have cooled off and gained perspective we will be much more receptive to connecting and rebuilding the relationship.

Lessons Learned

As a final step, it is valuable to take the time to reflect on lessons learned about how to communicate during the conflict process.  Too often we walk away from a conflict or difficult conversation and put it out of our mind.  Other times we create a judgment where we resolve never to do something again or develop an erroneous assumption about the other person or what happened.  We might walk away angry or hurt when it was merely a matter of misunderstanding or personalizing the issue. Therefore, it is extremely important to be attentive to what we have learned about how to communicate while in conflict rather than what our emotions or ego wants us to take away.   Our reflection on lessons learned should include an objective analysis not only of the end result but of the process to reach resolution.  We should ask ourselves, what, if anything, we could have done or said differently or what we would do differently if presented with a similar situation in the future.  Only objective reflection about how to communicate in conflict will reveal the true lessons learned.  Our goal should be to learn and grow from any conflict situation and not necessarily judge or feel negatively about the manner in which we handled it.  Growth can only occur from admitting that there are many ways to handle a situation and just because we thought or acted in one way does not mean it was the only way to respond to the situation.

We also learn from others’reactions toward us.  Opening ourselves up to looking at how others respond and recognizing there are different approaches can help us grow in our repertoire of responses.  We should think through the result and examine how using a different approach might have yielded a different reaction from those involved.  Often, we do or say things that we regret later.  Part of our examination of lessons learned is a reflection on the experience.  Only through experience can we grow.  The more experience we have either succeeding or failing in conflict and communication with others, the more we will grow and gain confidence that will help us in future conflicts.  Learning and growth come from within but also can be learned from observations of what others do and say in conflict situations.  We may learn what not to do from observing others.  We may learn better ways of saying or acting that we can apply to future situations.  Be open to admitting that we may not always act in our own or others’best interests and that we are not perfect.  We are human and as such we make mistakes.  It is how we handle those mistakes that causes us to grow or stagnate and be perceived by others as positive or negative.

Summary

The process of communicating when in conflict may take many avenues and requires a great deal of patience and commitment.  There may be setbacks and periods of high tension, however, if we discipline ourselves to stay the course while encouraging communication, we will all come out ahead.

 

Mark A. Adams- Bio

Mark A. Adams is an accomplished professional with experience in business, education, and coaching. Mark is the Owner of Achievement Edge, LLC, a consulting practice focused on coaching leaders, groups and individuals develop more effective methods for working with conflict. As a certified mediator, Mark is also available for group facilitation and conflict coaching. His experience includes team building, communication, and leadership development. His primary focus is always about helping people learn better ways to think about, learn from and resolve conflicts while challenging limiting beliefs. Mark lives in Colorado with his wife, two children, three dogs and three cats where he enjoys kayaking, hiking, camping, and photography.

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