Engaging Communication in Conflict: Systemic Practice


Stephen W. Littlejohn & Kathy Domenici

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Part I: Basic Commitments

    Part II: Conflict in Small Systems

    Part III: Moving to More Complex Systems

    Part IV: Toward Better Social Worlds

  • Dedication

    To the many conversation partners who made this book possible


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    We met one another in 1993. Stephen had been a communication professor in California and had been researching and writing about conflict and mediation. Having explored these topics academically, he was increasingly drawn to the practice of conflict intervention. He eventually left his longstanding career as a professor, moved to New Mexico, and became a mediator and facilitator. Retaining a love of teaching, he began working part-time at the University of New Mexico and met Kathy there.

    Kathy's first love was being a mother, and she had worked actively with others on parenting issues, teaching parents how to talk so children will listen and how to listen so children will talk. After returning to graduate school at the University of New Mexico in the early 1990s, Kathy learned about mediation and began an active practice. She taught regular courses in mediation, organized the Mediation Clinic at the University, and wrote a book on mediation.

    We got to know one another when Stephen was a student in Kathy's mediation class. Since then we have worked on many projects together. Stephen has brought to the partnership a rich background in communication theory and years of teaching experience, and Kathy has contributed practical experience, a keen ability to organize, and an amazing appreciation for relationships, and sensitivity to human need. Our partnership has been enriching because of the diversity of contributions each of us makes and the things we share in common. This book is an expression of the things we have learned from one another and the commitments that have come to guide our work.

    In our experience, human beings have trouble managing the very differences that make them human. This paradox intrigues us. The human condition is enriched by variation, and yet personal, group, and cultural differences make life a constant challenge. Our commitment to new, constructive methods of conflict management is one response to the struggle we see around us and, indeed, the struggle we ourselves experience in our own relationships and communities. Our work is dedicated to processes that can turn conflict from a destructive force into an enriching opportunity, and as mediators we have seen the power of careful, well-structured, and constructive forms of communication to transform potentially explosive situations.

    Conflict intervention work can occur in many places, and we are fortunate to have had opportunities to participate in a variety of settings. Several years ago, Stephen helped to found a group called the Public Dialogue Consortium, which is dedicated to developing ways that communities can explore significant issues productively. The PDC has been involved in several exciting projects and experimented with a number of interesting new techniques. At about the same time, Kathy was introduced to Prosperity Games™, a fascinating and powerful technology originating at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque. These Games are live, interactive, and collaborative strategic-planning events in which professionals negotiate and form partnerships. Kathy has since developed and facilitated many such Games.

    Our work—in private, group, organizational, and public settings—has taught us that the qualities of good intervention remain essentially the same from one situation to another. Whether mediating a private dispute, facilitating a larger group, or intervening in complex systems, basic communication principles apply. In this book we present a host of methods that are helpful in various settings, but we also include the core themes, values, ethics, principles, and skills common to all situations.

    One of our core themes is communication. Communication makes us who we are and shapes the worlds in which we live. In the academic literature, the theoretical orientation that guides our work is called systemic social constructionism, but we prefer the simpler moniker the communication perspective. This theory comes from a large and respectable body of literature in biology, sociology, communication, psychology, family therapy, and management. The communication perspective captures the idea that human beings are connected in complex webs of relationships, or patterns of interaction. The communication patterns that form our relationships, sometimes at home and sometimes across vast psychic and geographical territory, create our social worlds. Communication is the glue that holds the system together, and the character of communication determines the quality of these worlds.

    This perspective has much to contribute to conflict intervention work. Conflicts are made by communication patterns in a system. Where conflict is destructive, we want to look at the communication patterns that made it so. Where conflict leads to growth and life, we want to study the forms of interaction that led to such outcomes. When we intervene in a conflict, we want to think about what new forms of communication might be developed within the system.

    The title of this book. Engaging Communication in Conflict: Systemic Practice, reflects each of the above commitments. First, there is the commitment to practice, becoming directly involved with people in challenging situations. Second, there is the commitment to a systems view, the idea that conflicts are part of complex patterns of interaction among people, groups, and institutions. Third, there is the commitment to communication, which is the medium through which we work. Finally, there is commitment to working with conflict, the inevitable expression of human difference. We are certainly not alone in these commitments, and they will resonate with the experience of many readers.

    We know that this book will be used as a text in college classes, and we hope that its applied approach will be appealing to students. To enhance the book as a text, we have added a theory appendix to help students and other interested readers understand the theoretical background of our work. We encourage students to make use of the multi-level structure of the book, so that they might compare conflict management across contexts such as personal, group, organizational, and public venues.

    We have also written this book for practitioners and hope it will be of interest to anyone who faces the complex task of engaging conflict in a system. This certainly includes professionals in alternative dispute resolution, especially mediators and facilitators. The audience should also include individuals responsible for organizing and conducting meetings. Management and communication consultants are often called upon to work in conflict situations in organizations, and we hope these professionals will find our work informative. Because of our emphasis on method, we think Learning and Development and Organizational Development professionals and trainers may also find these pages helpful. Human Resources professionals and agencies concerned with such issues as equal employment opportunity may find here alternatives to the adversarial approaches common to employee relations systems. Any number of community organizations and agencies are interested in promoting constructive communication on difficult community issues, and we hope this book will be a reference for them as well.

    We have organized this book in four simple parts. In Part I, we address the basic processes we use in all of our work. In Chapter 1, we talk in more detail about the communication perspective and system thinking. We explain our way of working and present a set of goals we often pursue. In Chapter 2, we describe the kind of communication we try to follow and engender in others. The term dialogue captures a certain quality of human relationship that we have repeatedly found to be healthy and productive in even the most difficult situations.

    In Part II of the book, we begin to apply these basic ideas to small-system interventions. Chapter 3 addresses mediation in private settings, and Chapter 4 expands the purview to groups. In these chapters we present a number of techniques, some of which are relatively new to the field of conflict intervention.

    Part III continues the discussion in terms of larger systems, including organizations, economic and social sectors, and communities. Chapter 5 covers conflict system design, or creating ongoing places and ways within existing systems that allow conflict to be worked through productively. Systemic Mediation systems are featured in this chapter. Chapter 6 covers gaming methodology and its many uses and forms. Chapter 7 deals with public-issue management and summarizes the insights we have gained from our work in communities.

    Part IV is the conclusion. In Chapter 8 we present our vision of the world of communication as it might be. We entitled this chapter “Conversations with Friends” because it features the work and ideas of colleagues we greatly admire. We see this book as our “turn” in an ongoing “conversation,” and the final chapter brings additional voices into the conversation.

    We present this book as “our work,” but it is not. What we do is based on the wisdom of the academic research and theories generated over many years by people who care deeply about the quality of ideas. Our practice would be impossible without the creative work of other practitioners, from whom we borrow shamelessly. And we certainly could not have written this book without the support and encouragement of our colleagues in many organizations. In this regard, we have adopted a writer's convention: For simplicity in the text, when we refer to “our work” or to what “we” have done, you should read this as work done individually, together, or with other colleagues.

    A final note: We want this book to be easy and interesting to read, so we have limited our use of academic citations and references in the text itself. At the same time, we realize that you may wish to pursue our sources, so we have included in every chapter a list of resources you can use. Each list of references covers all of the citations in the chapter as well as additional sources of interest.

  • Appendix Principled Practice: On Theory-Based Intervention

    We have prepared this appendix for readers interested in the theoretical background of our work. Although this book was written from our experience, our practice is informed by a coherent set of theories well established in the academic literature. Our commitments have evolved from years of studying, teaching, and writing about communication theory (Littlejohn, 1999). Over time, we have come to employ a set of theories that provide us with a powerful way of understanding human communication and principles for working in the conflict management field.

    A theory is a consistent way of understanding human experience, and principled practice is based on the careful consideration of perspective and the desire to work consistently with an appropriate mode of thought. Although we use an eclectic set of tools, our choices in how to act in any situation are guided by certain ways of understanding the human condition that are well worked out by scholars devoted to research and theory building. Theory does not so much determine which tools we use as definitely provide guidelines on when and how to use those tools.

    Theory-driven practice is not a linear process. Indeed, the very theories we employ teach us that theory and practice have a reciprocal and circular relationship. Theory informs practice, but practice provides the basis for constructing theory. Consequently, the more work we do with individuals, groups, and communities, the more insight we gain into human experience, which affects our view of theory.

    We have organized this section around four important theoretical learnings. The theories presented in the following section are not really independent but actually quite connected with one another. In general, we group these theories under the rubric of systemic social constructionism, or the view that reality is constructed through patterns of interaction in human systems. In this text, we have referred to this more simply as the communication perspective (Pearce, 1994).

    Four Learnings

    From the theory of the Coordinated Management of

    Meaning, we have learned that there is a reflexive

    relationship between meaning and action.

    The theory of the Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) is a complex theory of communication going back to the 1970s. The theory was developed by W. Barnett Pearce, Vernon Cronen, and their colleagues at the University of Massachusetts (Pearce & Cronen, 1980) and still continues to evolve today (Pearce & Pearce, 2000). This theory is appealing because it integrates a variety of other work and presents a fresh and useful perspective. It is an especially useful theory because of its grounding in actual practice. Over the years, this theory has been refined and expanded by constant testing and application in the world of practice. For adherents to CMM, theory and practice cannot and should not be separated. The value of the theory is in its ability to help us work in practical situations, and that work in turn helps us to make better theory. For this reason, CMM has been called a practical theory (Cronen, 1995).

    In CMM, communication is seen as a process of coordination in which the parties must make sense of and mesh their respective actions into a coherent whole. Each communicator may understand what is happening very differently, but the parties feel successful to the extent that their actions are perceived as organized.

    When we human beings encounter any situation, we naturally assign meaning to what we experience. Objects, events, sounds, sights, images, and words are never just things in themselves. Rather, they represent, bring to mind, or elicit some second-order meaning. Meaning, however, is never singular; it is always multiple and continually embedded in context. In other words, any experience will have more than one possible meaning for us, and any given meaning arises from some context. The same word or action in a different context will have a different meaning.

    Meanings are never inherent in the symbol but are worked out socially between people through interaction. Our meanings arise out of interaction with others over a lifetime. Because communicators have different interactional histories, their meanings may be quite different. We constantly find this in our conflict intervention practice. Disputants understand what is happening differently and assign different meanings to particular events and words.

    CMM views contexts as hierarchical. In other words, one context is embedded in another, each context changing the meaning of other contexts. Take the case of an employee and manager involved in a conflict over a job reassignment. Within the context of self-image, the employee may see this action as rejection. We can better understand this reaction if we realize that the employee's self-image is affected by the context of relationship with the manager. The employee views the relationship as one of power in which the manager can make judgments and take action that can hurt people. If we take another step back, however, we can see something even bigger happening: The context of culture may be shaping the employees' view of relationship. Occurring in a rather egalitarian culture, a power relationship may be viewed quite negatively as inappropriate and potentially hurtful to persons.

    In the above example, we see a hierarchy of three contexts operating to influence the employee's meaning for the reassignment. Culture affects the employee's views of relationship; his views of relationship affect self-image; and his self-image affects his meaning for the job reassignment. You cannot fully explain the employee's reaction without understanding the hierarchy of contexts operating for him at this moment. Figure A.1 illustrates this relationship.

    Figure A.1. Employee's Hierarchy of Meaning

    It would come as no surprise that the manager would have an entirely different meaning for what happened. If you were to ask her why she reassigned the employee, she might say that he was not handling the stress very well and that his talents could be better used in a less stressful environment. Notice that the boss's meanings for what happened are embedded in a different set of contexts. For her, the employee's performance was understood within the context of a stressful situation. The reassignment was viewed within the manager's self-image as a caring person. Further, within a cultural context of personal responsibility, the manager feels that tough decisions need to be made to improve the organization. Thus, reassigning the employee was both a support act and a good management decision.

    In CMM, the object of attention is called the text and the frame within which the object is understood is the context. In the above example, the act of reassigning the employee is the text. For the employee, this text is understood within the context of a low self-image, a power relationship, and an egalitarian culture. For the manager, it is understood within the context of a stressful situation, a self-image of caring, and a culture of personal responsibility. Notice that text and context are not reflections of some verifiable reality but reflections of how the communicators understand and act on their experience. So we are not saying that in some psychological sense, the employee has a true trait of low self-esteem or that good management inherently involves tough decision making, but that these communicators enact their conflict with these meaning structures in mind.

    A person's meanings can be very powerful in determining how things are experienced. There seems to be a logical force that governs how a person will connect meaning and action in a particular situation. Sometimes, we do things out of a sense of prefigurative, or causal, force. Here, we see that our actions were forced, or caused, by previous events—sort of as in the statement, “My behavior was caused by things outside my control.” Sometimes, we view our actions as leading to desired outcomes. CMM calls this practicalforce, acting to accomplish something: “If I want to get X, I better do Y.” Other times, an individual may feel something called contextual force, a feeling that he or she must do something just because the context demands it, something like, “In situations like this, a person like me just must act in this way.” Finally, we sometimes understand our actions as an attempt to influence the context itself, implicative force. Here, the reasoning goes: I want to change the very context that controls what is happening (“I am not willing to accept a power relationship and will act to define our relationship in different terms”).

    CMM is a circular, rather than a linear, theory. In other words, it puts faith in reciprocal relationships among elements of a system. The relationship between text and context is a good example of the circular principle. A frame that may serve as context at one point in time may become the text at another point in time. Texts and contexts switch back and forth, each reproducing or changing the meaning of the other. Stated in slightly more sophisticated terms, the relationship is reflexive, each part forming the other.

    This is a difficult concept to grasp at first, so let's return to the example of the manager and employee. Having a low self-image makes it easier for the employee to feel that the reassignment was a personal attack, and being reassigned makes it easier for him to have a low self-image. Seeing herself as a caring person makes it easier for the manager to view the reassignment as a supportive act, and the act makes it easier for her to view herself as a supportive person.

    When they are self-reinforcing, these reciprocal relationships are called charmed loops, and when they are self-contradictory, they are called strange loops. The employee in our workplace case seems to be involved in a strong, self-reinforcing charmed loop. Perhaps the manager's position is a bit more complex. The manager may feel both caring and tough-minded. “As a caring manager, I will avoid hurting employees, but when I avoid hurting employees, I cannot make the tough decisions that will improve the organization. So I will make tough decisions like reassignment. Yet reassignment may hurt an employee.” Strange loops like this often happen as a person switches from one context or logic to another. The meanings for a particular act will shift along with the context, which explains why good, intelligent people sometimes become confused. In a complex world, strange loops are inevitable. They can actually be beneficial, because they can lead to new ways of understanding experience and to flexibility in thought and action. Charmed loops, in contrast, have the benefit of clarity and consistency, but they may seal a person off from productive change.

    If we think of ways of understanding as resources and ways of acting as practices, we can employ the text-context loop to connect the two. CMM says that there is an inextricable connection between resources and practices, that how we think affects how we act and how we act affects how we think. This idea has been immensely helpful in our conflict intervention work. People's stories reveal how they understand events in context. As we invite participants to expand and develop their stories, they become more aware of their own meanings and the multiple contexts in which actions might be understood. An action that once looked hateful within the confines of a particular context may come to have new, more constructive meanings as contexts expand. By scoping out and scoping in, participants can expand their awareness and change their behaviors and their ways of understanding events. As they behave in new ways, they may come to see actions differently. As horizons expand, resources grow, and positive system change becomes more likely. Even in single mediations, we have seen these kinds of changes happen many times. Dialogue is really a process of exploring the inevitable link between meaning and action.

    From system theory, we have learned that

    human experience consists of

    dynamic interactional patterns.

    System theory has been popular in one form or another throughout the 20th century. Although several variations of system theory exist (Bahg, 1990), they all share the idea that things work by virtue of dynamic interaction. Interactional patterns constitute forces above and beyond the characteristics of individual elements. In other words, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. A family is a good example. The dynamics of interaction within the family give the family itself a “character” that is more than and different from the “personalities” of the individual family members. We have often observed in our teaching that college classes differ significantly from one another, even sections of the same course, not only because they consist of different people but also because the class dynamics are always different. In our mediation trainings, we will divide the participants into several role-playing groups, give each group the same case, and have them play it out. Always, the results vary from group to group, even though the case is the same.

    Systems by nature are constantly moving and therefore shifting from one state to another. In complex systems, the parts interact with one another within a network of relationships, and there may be many pathways from any one point to any other point in the system. Therefore, the ways in which one part of a system interacts with another part can change from moment to moment. However, systems are not chaotic. They have a set of self-organizing forces that keep the system on track, and there is usually sufficient redundancy so that if one stabilizing force fails, another takes over. For this reason, systems tend to have staying power.

    Cybernetics is that feature of systems leading to self-influence. If you imagine a system as a complex set of interactions, you can see many “loops” from one element to another. The loops are lines of effect, such that when one thing happens at point A, events are triggered at point B, and what happens at B comes back to affect A again. This is feedback. Some feedback loops are positive, meaning that they accelerate a tendency: The more the boss gives orders, the more the employee withdraws, and the more the employee withdraws, the more the boss gives orders. Other feedback loops are negative, or self-correcting, and perpetuate a steady state: The boss sees that an employee needs direction and gives an order; the employee complies with the order, and the boss, seeing no need for further direction, stops giving orders.

    In the realm of human life, systems are open, meaning that there is an interchange with the environment. The system takes in input from outside and discharges output into the environment. Open systems must constantly adapt to their environment and do so by feedback loops with the environment. Inputs provide new resources for the system to change, and the system is able to gauge the effects of its output. In order to maintain structure and stability, then, a system must have some balance, or homeostasis, which is achieved by self-correction, but it must also have the ability to change, or undergo morphogenesis. Both stability and change are made possible by the patterns of interaction within the system and between the system and other systems.

    In old-style system theory (e.g., Buckley, 1968), it is believed possible for someone outside a system to observe it objectively. The observer sees the boundaries of the system, sees how the system interacts with its environment, and watches the internal adjustments that the system makes. Using classical system theory, for example, a mediator might treat the disputants as a system, diagnose what is going on between them, and intervene to fix the problem.

    In order for system theory to work for us, however, we must incorporate a more recent generation of work, known as second-order cybernetics(von Foerster, 1981). Here, the boundary between system and environment is highly permeable, perhaps even nonexistent. As we observe a system interacting with its “environment,” we are really just scoping out into a larger system. As we focus on “internal” patterns, we are scoping in to a smaller one. We come to realize when we do this kind of context shifting that the system is not really anything in and of itself, but that we as observers are actually defining what we wish to treat as a system.

    If this is the case—if we as mediators, for example, construct or create boundaries for useful purposes—then we must acknowledge our own involvement with this system—the system-as-defined-by-us. In other words, we become part of a system whenever we act on or even just “observe” it. Observing is a kind of interaction. You cannot not be part of the system you are looking at. This does not mean that a family therapist becomes part of the family, but he or she does become part of the system of “family-in-therapy.”

    For this reason, we never view our work as benign. Indeed, how and when we interact with the system assumes major importance. We must take every intervention seriously, from the moment of first contact to the final goodbye. Using this perspective, too, we never view ourselves as doing something to the system but rather as interacting with the system.

    Second-order system theory teaches us not to use an objectivist model of intervention: (1) diagnose, (2) prescribe, (3) evaluate. We are not confident in this method because it would lead us to push against the force of the system. We know that when that happens, homeostatic loops will push back, or resist. In other words, the system's desire for balance will cause it to resist forces of change from outside. This is why we are extremely reluctant to make suggestions in a mediation. Even though we are part of the mediation system, we are still outsiders to the ongoing system of the disputants.

    System theory encourages us to view the system as a complex set of interactional patterns and a rich fund of resources with which the system can change. Intervention is essentially a perturbation of the system that can elicit new forms of interaction and a restructuring. When clients ask us to intervene, they are really asking for some kind of expanded cybernetic mechanism that will help them overcome a stuck spot or achieve some set of desired goals. Our role in the newly established loop is to ask certain kinds of questions that help participants reflect on their system of interaction and to say what we see so that they might adjust or create new avenues and patterns.

    In many ways, the idea of collaboration is an application of second-order cybernetics. Rather than prescribe what a system should do, we invite parties into an interaction that may allow the system to restructure itself to some extent. This is why we are so intent on concentrating on and asking questions about interactional patterns rather than individual characteristics. A system in distress is one in which the patterns are not working very well, and good intervention merely invites new patterns that in turn can lead to new outcomes and new, more functional, cybernetic loops.

    From social constructionism,

    we have learned that reality is

    co-constructed through communication.

    Social constructionism, popular today in many social sciences, is a body of theory based on the premise that our experience of reality is a product of social interaction (Gergen, 1985, 1999). More literally, reality is formed or created by persons-in-interaction.

    This line of thought goes back to the old philosophies of American pragmatism (Cronen & Lang, 1994) and symbolic interactionism (Lal, 1995). Pragmatism builds on the idea that understanding is tied to action—What we do determines how we think. Symbolic interactionism, a long-standing school of thought still very much alive today in sociology, teaches that our personal meanings for objects, persons, and the self are developed through a process of interaction with other people: We internalize meanings worked out over a lifetime of social relations. Contemporary social constructionism probably owes its most recent and direct debt to the well-known works The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1966) and The Phenomenology of the Social World by Alfred Schutz (1967). Over the past 20 years, constructionism has undergone considerable development on several fronts (Pearce, 1995).

    Constructionism imagines that we are primarily social creatures and that communication, more than a tool for transmitting information, is the very medium in which we construct reality as we know it (Pearce, 1989). This is a radical idea. Most people think that reality is objective, that it is separate from the observer; but constructionism teaches that reality is actually made in communication and that it changes from community to community, from time to time, and from situation to situation (Gergen, 1973). This theory does not deny material fact, but it does show that human beings have no way of knowing other than through the categories or meaning structures built within social communities. From the time we are born, our worlds are structured through talk, words, and gestures. We can sense the materiality of a thing, but we can never conceive of it outside of social categories. For all intents and purposes, then, reality is socially constructed.

    Eschewing an individualistic focus, constructionists take interaction as the basic unit of analysis. The questions are always

    What is being made within a particular interaction?

    Over time, what is being made through a series of interactions?

    And on the macro level, what is being made within any entire community?

    Even on the widest level of society, broadly shared realities are nothing more or less than institutionalized ways of packaging experience.

    As a result of this orientation, constructionists are not very interested in what any one person says or does in isolation. Instead, they want to look at how others respond to what is said and done, to look at the pattern that develops between actions over time, and to question what meanings are being created within those patterns. The meaning of an act is negotiated or worked out by a kind of back-and-forth “conversation.” We construct our meanings in the process of talking about things, and often those meanings come clear only retrospectively. When a person confronts a situation or object, he or she will assign certain meanings to the experience based on what has been in previous interactions with others.

    Our connections between things, our concepts, the rules we employ to relate one object or category to another, and the logic we use to “reason” our way through a series of thoughts are all social arrangements. These ways of structuring reality work to the extent that they have led to a coherent pattern of action or understanding in the past. As people encounter new conversational partners, new communities, and new contexts, their meanings of experience migrate and often change. Other aspects of our reality remain essentially unchanged because those ways of understanding are highly cultural, widespread, institutionalized, durable, and workable. These realities are socially constructed nonetheless.

    This theory has sensitized us to important dynamics of conflict. We know that disputants approach a conflict with rich social realities that arise from their experience over a lifetime. Although disputants themselves may dismiss an “opponent's” view, we know that each person's views are part of a complex set of social arrangements and must be taken seriously. What may appear misguided, uninformed, immoral, or downright stupid to one party is the essence of another party's experience. People are so serious about their positions, interests, values, goals, and feelings because these seem so very real to them. And they are real, socially real. As our friend Anne Kass the judge has told us, two parties with categorically opposing views can both be right.

    Social constructionism moves us to place value on stories as the essential material in conflict interventions. This is why we think good dialogue is a process of sharing and hearing stories. Stories reveal not only what a communicator believes to be important but also the contextual reality within which that position, idea, or feeling assumes importance. If we can help parties listen deeply to one another's stories, a new level of understanding may begin to develop. We are not so concerned that parties understand literally what others want but that parties develop a coherent idea of the story as lived by that person (Pearce, 1994). Hearing stories told and stories lived is not meant to change minds but to broaden perspective and open up the potential for new patterns of communication and, thereby, new and better social realities.

    It should come as no surprise, then, that language assumes immense importance in social constructionism. To constructionists, language is more than a medium for the expression of meaning. It is the medium in which reality is made. Words and grammar determine how experience is packaged and therefore understood. At the same time, however, language is not an external, immutable structure. By itself, language is not reality; rather by using language, we mold the ways of connecting things, labeling things, and thereby understanding things. Language is inherently malleable. It is true that basic language structure comes to us culturally, perhaps even biologically, but the myriad ways in which we can modify, adapt, and use it make language a natural means for making social worlds.

    Interaction, especially in language, enables people and groups to establish difference. Human beings use language in ways that establish distinctions, and these distinctions define a person's orientation toward conflict. We might call these orientations conflict patterns. Such patterns define how we understand and react to people different from ourselves. Constructionism, understood in these terms, makes the work of conflict intervention extremely important, for intervention engages a “reality-in-the-making.” Done awkwardly and without an awareness of co-construction, intervention can contribute to, even strengthen, inhumane and destructive notions of difference. Done wisely and skillfully in the spirit of making a better world, interventions can invite new patterns that may lead to understanding conflict as a positive resource. If it is hard for parties in conflict to change the realities they are making, perhaps third parties invited into the conversation can move it to new visions and vistas.

    From the theory of transcendent discourse,

    we have learned the value of changing

    contexts of communication.

    When people are communicating, they generally have a clear idea of what they are doing. They see themselves as explaining, persuading, or perhaps negotiating. They will feel satisfied or disappointed in their performance as a speaker, their effectiveness in influencing others, or their skill in fending off an enemy. The study of discourse is the study of what people do when they communicate. Different discourses do different kinds of things (Ellis & Donohue, 1986).

    Over the past two decades or so, Stephen Littlejohn and Barnett Pearce have done considerable research on conflict. This work is explained in their book Moral Conflict: When Social Worlds Collide (1997). In this book, Pearce and Littlejohn present the makings of a theory of discourse in conflict. Actually, this work is firmly embedded in the tradition of the theory of the Coordinated Management of Meaning, and it incorporates a good dose of system theory and constructionism as well.

    In their case studies, Pearce and Littlejohn observed a variety of discourses of conflict. Ordinarily, people in conflict are struggling to prevail, perhaps to win a point, meet an interest, or achieve a goal. Here, disputants tend to use discourses of persuasion and influence. The parties to ordinary disputes gather their best arguments and evidence to show the truth and value of what they believe and want. Occasionally, one party prevails by persuading others that they are wrong. More often, the appeal is won with a third-party decision maker such as a judge, manager, arbitrator, policy officer, or parent or a decision-making body such as a legislature, board of directors, jury, or electorate.

    Often, too, disputants settle their differences through a discourse of negotiation. Here, they compromise or even collaborate to solve problems and make decisions. Indeed, society is able to maintain order largely through a highly developed system of dispute resolution that relies on persuasion, negotiation, adjudication, and decision making.

    Often, however, these forms of ordinary discourse fail. They fail because the parties cannot agree to a method of resolution, a standard of argument, or a rule of decision. They fail because basic identities are at issue. They fail also because the social realities of the parties clash on a very deep level and reflect incommensurate moral orders. In these cases, normal appeals to persuasion and negotiation lead only to frustration and ultimately degrade to the discourses of diatribe and violence.

    Yet, as many of the examples from the previous chapters show, it is possible to get past some of these most difficult conflicts. They are hard but not impossible, especially if the participants are willing to redefine their discourse, or what they believe they are doing when they communicate. For this reason, Pearce and Littlejohn identify a different form of communication, which they call transcendent discourse.

    A transcendent discourse acknowledges the failure to achieve first-order change; the parties understand that they will not change one another's views on the subject at hand. Instead, they go for second-order change (Littlejohn, 2000), or a realignment of their orientation toward one another and toward communication itself. The question is this: Can we find a frame in which to make a positive social reality within which we can (and should) disagree? Or can we make something bigger and better than a polarizing dispute? Or again, can we redefine the meaning of winning?

    Such discourse is transcendent because it breaks free from and transforms old unworkable patterns of communication. It is transcendent because it employs new categories of conversation in which the parties can find constructive collaboration. It is transcendent because it overcomes polarized debate. There are many potential forms, but, in general, transcendent discourse embodies the values of dialogue outlined in Chapter 2 and has two important qualities.

    First, it creates new frames in which old differences can be transformed. Using a metaphor from language, transcendent discourse establishes a new grammar that enables parties to reconceptualize their differences while finding an area of common ground. The new categories of conversation constitute a creole of sorts, making it possible for parties to have a coherent dialogue across otherwise incommensurate worldviews (Stout, 1988). You have heard the expression “I don't want to go there,” meaning “I don't want to get into that subject.” In transcendent discourse, the parties agree to take the stand “We don't want to go there.” If parties are unable to talk constructively and respectfully within a particular context, perhaps they can find a context of dialogue by going somewhere else.

    Second, transcendent discourse is a form of communication that redefines the relationship between the parties. Instead of viewing one another as enemies on an issue, they define themselves as fellow travelers in search of a context for productive conversation. Instead of viewing the relationship as one of struggle, they redefine it as a relationship of creative collaboration, and what they create together are transcendent contexts in which new frontiers can be co-constructed. The participants decide mutually to transcend old patterns of simple polarization and commit jointly to explore complexity. In the process, they learn that we live in a multivalued world, that every value or position—even their own—has both powers and limits, and that new fusions are possible.

    The theory of transcendent discourse has made us aware of the need for creativity in conflict intervention. Rarely do traditional methods of dispute resolution lead to the kind of discourse that can transcend. Indeed, disputants and third parties interested in transforming old patterns of communication must search for new ways of doing so. Engaging in discourses that transcend is a foray into new territory and is inherently creative. There is no canon of transformative methods. They are worked out anew whenever and wherever the challenge is experienced. We hope our practice as described in this book provides some measure of how this work might proceed.

    Resources You Can Use
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    About the Authors

    Stephen W. Littlejohn is a mediator and communication consultant in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He has been a professor of communication for 30 years and has written widely on communication and conflict. His book Moral Conflict: When Social Worlds Collide, co-authored with Barnett Pearce, presents a groundbreaking theory of social conflict based on ten years of research. His textbook Theories of Human Communication is now in its sixth edition. He is President of the Public Dialogue Consortium. He received his Ph.D. in communication from the University of Utah.

    Kathy Domenici is the manager of Communication Services and an Associate of the Public Dialogue Consortium. As a conflict management consultant, mediator, facilitator, and trainer, she founded the Mediation Clinic at the University of New Mexico. She has helped design and facilitate high-level strategy and leadership games for such clients as Eastman Kodak, the President's Commission on Critical Infrastructure, Sandia National Laboratories, and Lockheed Martin. She is the author of Mediation: Empowerment in Conflict Management (1996) and coauthor of “Mediation Practices in Knowledge-Based Teams,” in Product Developement Teams: Vol. 5. Advances in Interdisciplinary Studies of Work Teams (2000). With 10 years of academic work in conflict and communication and 15 years' experience in mediation and public issue management, She concentrates on conflict system design and innovative methods in alternative dispute resolution. She received her master's degree in communication from the University of New Mexico.

    Kathy Domenici and Stephen Littlejohn are co-principals in Domenici Littlejohn, Inc., an organization dedicated to planning and facilitating processes involving high-quality communication. They work with individuals, groups, organizations, and communities throughout the United States and abroad to promote constructive conflict management. Dedicated to improving human relationships, they use a systems approach and emphasize communication in their work. They regularly offer trainings in mediation, public issue facilitation, and conflict management. Among their recent clients are the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, New Mexico Human Rights Division, Advanced Micro Devices, U.S. Postal Service, and the White House Initiative on Tribal Colleges and Universities.

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