Linguistics of conflict

Professor Lesley Jeffries of Huddersfield University shared some useful insights into the linguistics of conflict at The London Community Mediation Council Conference on 8th October.  Whilst her colleague Dr Jim O’Driscoll had based his complementary workshop on the concept of ‘face’ in conflict, which relies to some extent on social interactions and cues, Lesley wanted delegates to focus on the actual words used in conflict scenarios. 


Lesley recognised that as mediators we may instinctively use techniques she labelled as negation and modality in our facilitation of dialogue between parties in conflict. She encouraged us to actively recognise these techniques and to use them more consciously to improve our practice. 


She started by exploring the power of naming and the human habit of creating word ‘packages’ to label concepts so that we can make sense of them.  The unavoidable contemporary example of this is ‘Brexit’ - a name for something that nobody can describe; a package that once opened, has nothing definite inside. But we do know that Brexit means Brexit, because we’ve been told so many times. Lesley explained that nominalisations allow parties to avoid specifics, whilst also making some aspects of what they say difficult to dispute. 


If someone says ‘Your horrible sister came around unannounced this morning,’ you are more likely to express surprise at the unexpected visit than to dispute the horrible descriptor. If the person says, ‘Your sister is horrible’ you are more likely to leap to your sibling’s defence.  Lesley quoted an ironic and possibly out of date example from the Conservative Party website, ‘We need to harness the aspirational spirit that so many immigrant communities exhibit’ as an example of packaging, where the existence of the aspirational spirit is not posited for debate, but only the necessity to harness it.


To argue with the point being made would involve deconstructing the package, and too often this does not happen, so the name, or ‘package’, is accepted as a given.  In this case, the discussion focusses on the merits or demerits and perhaps even the practicalities of harnessing the aspirational spirit.  But there are no ‘actors’ in this scenario - the discussion must by its nature remain abstract and impersonal and therefore difficult to argue and resolve. 


Taking this idea into an organisational context, the package could consist of ‘unavoidable downsizing due to the uncertainty arising from Brexit.’

No-one will dispute that uncertainty has arisen as a result of Brexit, (that undefined, empty package) but does this really constitute a business case for redundancies? In this scenario too, the actors, or decision makers, are invisible, and can avoid responding to a potential challenge.


Bill Marsh made the point at the All Party Parliamentary Group on Alternative Dispute Resolution on 5th September that in human conflict, issues are often distilled to their simplest form.  Acknowledging the multi-layered complexity of any conflict is critical to mediating a resolution.  As mediators we need to be alert for these ‘packages’ being used by parties in a dispute, and by taking the time to unwrap them and name the elements, we may help the parties to see things from new perspectives. 


Negation was identified by Lesley as a linguistic technique to paint a picture of something by describing what it is not - the sentence ‘this is not a deckchair’ immediately conjures an image of a striped canvas chair in most people’s minds.  Teenagers play a word game involving saying to each other, ‘I lost’ and when asked what is the purpose of the game, it is simply to annoy the other person by reminding them of the game.  Like Brexit, the concept of the game exists but on opening the package, there is nothing substantive inside.  Parties in dispute use negation all the time - ‘This is not about the money’ focuses the discussion back on the money, and the mediator’s role is to recognise the negation and help the parties to remember what the dispute is really about and focus on finding solutions that meet their needs.


Modality involves using subjective rather than a categorical statements, and can have two potential effects.  Someone who makes a statement such as, ‘I’m sure John has singled me out and is picking on me’ may appear to be more honest and authentic than if they categorically stated ‘John has singled me out and is picking on me,’ but they may also appear to be indecisive or weak, depending on the context.  As mediators we can creatively introduce modality to encourage parties to explore ‘what ifs.’  

‘You are being victimised,’ is very different to, ‘You’re sure you’re being victimised.’  Ironically, the very assertion of certainty introduces some possibility of an alternative.  In a mediation this could be the precursor to opening up new options for consideration. 


Lesley’s final concept was her self-declared favourite of the afternoon - the language of opposition.  She identified various kinds of opposition and suggested that when mediators ‘re-frame,’ they may be changing the category of opposition, as a way of enabling the parties to reach a resolution. 


If two oppositions are mutually exclusive, for example dead or alive, it is impossible to avoid a win/lose scenario for the parties in dispute.  The mediator can help the parties to move to a gradable opposition. Whilst being half-dead is not a desirable state, the reframing of the mutually exclusive opposites to hot and cold offer new possibilities of  warm and luke-warm.  If the extent of the opposition is redefined into degrees Celsius, the possible outcomes are myriad.  Indeed, if the mediator can help the parties to move beyond the original scale of the dispute, taking boiling water beyond 100 degrees and into steam, the properties of potential solutions can be as dramatically different from the starting state as are a liquid and a gas.


One of the icebreaker exercises I regularly use on a Prison Fellowship Restorative Justice programme challenges delegates to transform the word TAKE into the word GIVE, in three steps, changing just one letter at a time. There are a few routes, but one is TAKE to CAKE, to CAVE, to GAVE, to GIVE.  The lesson is about taking one step at a time, and that in three steps, the selfish TAKE can move to the generous GIVE.  This is also a useful tool in mediation - taking the parties one small step at a time from positions of apparent opposition, to a new perspective.  If oppositions are positioned as directional, there is always the option of changing direction - moving from breaking to mending can involve taking small steps in a new direction without explicitly conceding ground.


In the constantly evolving art and science that is mediation, where a successful resolution can sometimes hang on a single word, let’s listen to ourselves as much as we listen to the parties in dispute, and consciously draw on some of these linguistic concepts as additional arrows in our quiver, strings to our bow, treasures in our chest…