Conversation as a Tool of Conflict Transformation

Ann McBroom
Merwyn De Mello

April 2006

Editors' note: This was originally a larger essay entitled, "The Power and Risks of Conversation." The first part examined Merwyn's experience with the power and risks of conversations in Zimbabwe and then this part, which followed, looked at the broader theory of conversation and conflict transformation and reflected on why Merwyn's conversations were as successful as they were. We chose to split this paper into two to better match the structure of Beyond Intractability, but we urge readers to go on after reading this paper to read Merwyn's case study: The Power and Risks of Conversation in Zimbabwe.


The Power and Risks of Conversation

We cannot begin to do justice to the complexity and breadth of John Shotter's ideas, but will try to highlight some of their implications for peacemakers and peacebuilders. Shotter's view of conversation is counterintuitive for people steeped in Western culture.[1] He maintains that the primary role of conversation is not to convey information. Instead, conversation is primarily for negotiating relationships, glimpsing the reality of others, and revising our own reality. This is not the first time that people have been asked to accept a view of language that is counterintuitive. Chomsky's thesis that human beings are preprogrammed to process and generate language was considered revolutionary when first broached,[2] because it challenged the ingrained belief that language was entirely a learned skill.

Shotter believes that when people converse, they possess the capacity to glimpse what and how the other thinks and feels. This leads people in conversation to experience, experiment with, and question their realities and their relationships. What Shotter is drawing attention to is the transformative potential of conversation. Conversations involve "a complex but uncertain process of testing and checking, of negotiating the form of the relationship in terms of a whole range of, essentially, ethical issues - issues to do with matters of care, concern, and respect, about justice, entitlements, etc."[1]

The Nature Of The Interaction In Conversation

Conversation is an interaction, and from this stems its power and its uncertainty. Shotter uses the analogy of the ouija board. When two or more people have a finger on the glass, no one completely controls the movement of the glass. And so, no person can predict or completely control where the glass will move, and participants can never be certain how they contributed to the path the glass followed. When we converse, we cannot be certain where it will lead. We may not be able to trace why we said what we did, why the relationship changed, or why we changed how we thought or felt. And we may not be able to return to who we were before the encounter.

In a recent PBS NewsHour,[3] authors Studs Terkel and Alex Kotlowitz talked about recording the oral histories of ordinary people.

Studs Terkel: We play it back and she hears her voice and she says something, suddenly puts her hand to her mouth and says, "Oh, my God!"

I said, "What is it?"

She said, "I never knew I felt that way before."

Well, bingo, that's a star for her and for me. In other words, that interview helped her say something that revealed herself to herself.

Alex Kotlowitz: And stories are also the way we make sense of ourselves and make sense of the world.

The Power To Transform

Conversation allows us to hear our own thoughts and ask questions. Is that really what I think? Is that really what I feel? Is that really why? Conversation invites us to experiment with different explanations, brainstorm new ones, entertain new realities and relationships. And we are sometimes surprised where this leads us. In conversation, we glimpse how others think and feel, what they want and why, why they are hurting and why. And this too can spur fundamental shifts.

Steeped in an informational model of conversation, we have looked for logical reasons for people to change their minds. Shotter's analysis frees us from this limitation. And we may begin to make sense of some surprising outcomes. Why is it that when some victims converse with their offender, they end up forgiving them and wishing them well?[4] We have tended to look for logical benefits — such as victims escaping victimhood and moving to a more fulfilling role. Shotter's analysis provides another possibility: that glimpsing the hurt, helplessness, grief and the humanity of our perpetrator transform our reality, how we feel and think, and so what we want to do. If we begin looking for such instances, how many will we find? Is it rare for people to settle their disagreements when they have a chance to converse? How often do people give up more than seems reasonable or logical based on what they wanted before they conversed? How often does settlement involve not expanding the pie[5] but choosing a wholly different pie?

Conversation And Peacemaking

In Shotter's formulation, the essence of conversation is that people must take seriously what they do and say.[1] This is the cost of entering the other's reality, and why it can become a transforming experience for both parties. People seldom completely and immediately understand what the other is saying. People in conversation arrive at understanding by "testing and checking each other's talk, by them questioning and challenging it, reformulating and elaborating it, and so on."[1] It is clear that many of the groundrules we impose on mediation and negotiation do not fit Shotter's model of a conversation. These include bans on interruption and expressions of emotion, insisting on position statements and turn-taking.

In conversation, interruption signals that the listener does not understand. It gives the speaker an opportunity to clarify and add, and to glimpse why the listener is not following. Speakers sometimes decide that their statements were inconsistent. Sometimes, they decide this was not really what they thought, felt or wanted. Interruption can spur reflection, even a brainstorming of alternatives.

In his most recent book, Beyond Reason, Roger Fisher[6] argues that negotiators must confront emotions. Emotional needs can be vital parts of a conflict, and negotiations will be compromised if these are ignored. In Shotter's thesis, emotion is an integral part of conversation. Emotion provides a vital cue to what is important. Emotion demonstrates to our listener that we badly want something the listener may have considered trivial. Our realities and our relationships have important emotional components, and we must find ways for people to examine their own emotions and those of other people. Conversation provides this opportunity.

During professional negotiations, parties are often asked to state their positions at the beginning. This encourages a concentration on positions that can be readily and convincingly articulated. But what if the most vital interests are ones people have difficulty articulating or the other side genuinely does not understand? People need opportunities to learn what is vital to the other, and to find ways to express what is vital to themselves. In short, they need opportunities to converse.

Position statements and a ban on interruption may well foster entrenchment — simply because statements go unchallenged by the listener. The groundrules for negotiations have evolved in part to protect against abuse, and this is very important. Our concern is that we may have forfeited the transformative potential of an honest, more messy, conversational format.

Representatives sometimes have difficulty selling negotiated settlements to their constituents. Using Shotter's analysis, this is not surprising. Representatives cannot simulate for their constituents the interaction effects of the negotiation. And even if they could, they cannot assume that constituents will be affected as they were. A similar problem arises for the go-between, who can convey the content of a conversation but not guarantee how it will be received. Any time conversation is restricted to just some of the parties — be it in preparatory talks, caucuses or break-out sessions — we risk how the excluded parties will receive the outcome.

Shotter views as effective leaders people who understand the mindset of their constituents. For this both enables them to read what movement is possible, and to formulate ideas and visions that will move constituents to where the leader has moved. This is a moral form of leadership because it addresses constituents' real needs. Constituents are not being duped by charisma or persuasion. Such leaders are the people we need at negotiations. People who can properly represent their constituents. People who are sensitive to how peace agreements will be received, because they can predict their constituents' uncertainties, confusions, reservations and fears. People who can verbalize a vision, a story that will resonate with constituents and move them to embrace the peace.

Peacemaking And Peacebuilding In Situations Of Intractable Conflict

From very different starting points, both Lederach[7] and Shotter[1] endorse the power of conversation to transform. Serious conversation occurs when both people trust enough to explore the other's reality, and help the other understand theirs. Describing effective peace dialogues in Colombia, Lederach states, "...they had to find a way to meet the human being, the real person…never giving up on dialogue."[7] Deep trust is not readily given in conditions of sustained conflict. "...survival depends on gut intuition, a sense of what things mean and who people really are beyond their words."[7] Shotter talks of the unpredictability of conversations - of not knowing where they will lead. And this is the clearly the risk for participants in peace talks - "Violence is known, peace is the mystery."[1] Peace agreements will hold only if they possess "authenticity"[1] for those affected. For people who have lived for years with violence, "If the proposed changes lack a serious account of complexity or a long-term commitment, then the proposed changes are dangerous."[1] Their experience has inculcated "...a high degree of respect for the regenerative capacity of violence, repeated patterns, and shifting ground filled with traps."[1] For all of these reasons, Lederach and Shotter caution against the quick fix, a cook-book approach, the imposed solution and oversimplification.

So Who Will Secure Peace In Situations Of Seemingly Intractable Conflict?

Lederach envisages a network of people with Moral Imagination representing the many competing constituencies in a conflict.[7] People with Moral Imagination possess the curiosity to explore alternatives, they are not dissuaded by complexity, and they are ready to take risks. Somehow, the network must embrace the majority, for the majority holds the key to an authentic and sustainable peace. People with Moral Imagination may serve as hubs — but their vital role is seriously to relay reactions to and from their links. We see conversation between people in the network as being vital. For conversation has the potential to transform how people view themselves, their enemies, the issues and the competing needs. The network is protean — as ideas travel, they will change. Some will be improved, some will be rebutted, some will find no resonance. As conversation flows within the network, it will become impossible to say who played what role. But if a consensus formula for peace emerges, it will represent a voluntary, corporate shift to embracing a sustainable peace.

Lederach's analogy of the web is very powerful, but it must not be taken too literally. There is nothing critical or fixed about any position in the web, people are in contact with others, and through them with the ideas of people they have never directly encountered. People are not leaders because they occupy the center or are at the periphery, people are influential because their ideas resonate, are judged "authentic" and passed on. In our view, a vital role for the peacebuilder is to encourage contact between people and provide opportunities for serious conversation. The task is to crisscross society, not concentrate on the current centers of power. This may well be a very slow process, and one that depends on practitioners first acquiring the knowledge, insight and reputation to be trusted by the communities in conflict. Authenticity comes from relationships built.

A multitude of different webs can cover the same space. Some webs will sustain the status quo, blocking messages and corrupting ideas for peace. Peacebuilders have no control over the architecture of the webs, or what messages will flow; they are not spiders! All that they can do is to try to connect people, and trust that eventually talk of peace, and effective solutions, will follow.

As an example of how this can occur, please continue on to read the partner piece to this one, The Power and Risks of Conversation in Zimbabwe.

Our experience and analysis are extremely limited. Our purpose in sharing them is simply to trigger feedback from practitioners, and perhaps encourage further experimentation.



1. Shotter, J. (1993) Conversational Realities: Constructing Life Through Language. London: Sage Publication.

2. Chomsky, N. (1972) Language and Mind. 2nd Edition.

3. Online NewsHour (2005) Conversation: Oral Histories. August 3rd. 2005.

4. Johnstone, G. (2002) Restorative Justice. Portland: Willan Publishing.

5. Fisher, R. & W. Ury (1981) Getting to Yes. New York: Penguin.

6. Fisher, R. & D. Shapiro (2005) Beyond Reason. New York: Penguin.

7. Lederach J.P (2005) The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. New York: Oxford University Press.

Use the following to cite this article:
McBroom, Ann and Merwyn De Mello. "Conversation as a Tool of Conflict Transformation." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: April 2006 <>.

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