Small Scale Reconciliation – Part 2: Promote Effective Communication

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

March, 2021

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This is the second of five videos on small-scale, bottom up reconciliation.  This video discusses effective conflict communication, including I-messages and You-messages, active (empathic) listening, conciliatory gestures, and dialogues, problem-solving workshops as strategies that improve interpersonal communication, understanding, and mutual respect.

Full Transcript:

Slide 1:  Hi.  This is Heidi Burgess.  Today we are going to continue our discussion of small-scale reconciliation, this time talking about effective conflict communication.

Slide 2:  In the last video, I explained that small-scale bottom up peacebuilding and reconciliation needs to work on five different things, which are listed here.  Today we’re going to talk about #2—how to promote effective communication.

Slide 3:  Conflict communication often looks like this.

Slide 4:  Or like this.  People are either screaming at each other, or they aren’t communicating at all. 

Slide 5:   In both cases, they are likely developing and then clinging to extremely negative images of the other—seeing them as “stupid” or “misguided” at best, “evil” or “non-human” at worst.  And once they have such negative images of each other, if they have broken off all communication, they are very unlikely to change that.  And if they are screaming at each other (virtually or figuratively), they will likely continue to do that too—or even escalate to violence. 

Slide 6:  One of the necessary steps for reversing that escalation, and de-escalating toward reconciliation is what Guy and I (and probably others) call “de-escalatory communication.” This can be initiated by one side alone, or by both sides, with the help of a mediator or other type of “third party.”  Probably the two best-known and most taught forms of de-escalatory communication are “I-messages” and “Active Listening.”

Slide 7:   I messages express how one feels without placing the blame on the other.  For instance, one might say “ I’m disappointed we weren’t able to get together last week.”instead of “You never take the time to come visit me!” 

The second puts the other person on the defensive, and will likely provoke a hostile comeback or at least hard feelings.  The first lets the person know that you are disappointed, but invites them to solve the problem together.  They might even say something like “yeah, I was disappointed too.  Let’s see if we can figure out a date for next week” —moving toward collaborative problem solving instead of mutual hostility.

Slide 8:  I messages can backfire though, if you don’t do them right, or if the circumstances are inappropriate.  One way they don’t work, is if they are really “You messages in disguise.”  For instance “I’m disappointed YOU didn’t come visit me last week” is still placing the blame on the other person—it’s still, fundamentally, a “you message,” even though it starts with the word “I.” So the listener is still likely to get defensive.

Slide 9:  One can also get in trouble when there are significant power disparities between the speaker and the listener.  In these cases, for instance, when a parent is speaking to a child, the child might interpret the I message as suggesting that they are responsible for their parent’s happiness.  While equals would probably understand that they are not broadly responsible for another person’s state of mind, a child might not understand that.  That being said, though, being accusatory isn’t good either.  So a middle ground message might be best:  I see you haven’t been able to clean up your room yet.  (This starts with “I, but doesn’t have a feeling included.) “Could you please go and do that now?” That doesn’t place blame and isn’t likely to put the child on the defensive, or make them think that they are responsible for their parent’s unhappiness (if the parent is unhappy).  And, if they don’t have a good reason why they can’t do that, when treated respectfully, it is more likely they will actually comply with the request.  So it’s a win-win!

Slide 10:  When we were just starting to write Beyond Intractability, we asked Community Relations Service mediator Dick Salem to write two essays for us—one on listening and the other on empathy—because he talked about the importance of both those things all the time.   Dick suggested he write one article about both, asserting that they are, essentially, “the same thing”.  Thus his name “empathic listening,” although most people call the same process “active listening” or “reflective listening.”  But, Dick told us, if you do it right, you will develop empathy with the speaker—so “empathic listening” it is…on Beyond Intractability.

This kind of listening has all sorts of benefits that you can see listed here on this slide. It builds trust, interpersonal understanding, it engenders respect, reduces tension and misunderstanding, as well as surfacing important information and creating a safe environment for reconciliation or problem solving.  The empathy part is very important to reconciliation, as is trust building and respect.

Slide 11:  Empathic listening lets the speaker know that you are interested in what they have to say, that you understand their problem—and how they feel about it.  And, very importantly, you are not judging them.  And indeed, it is important that you DO NOT judge them—you need to be open to what they are saying without judgment, though you do not need to agree with what they are saying or pretend that you do.

Slide 12:   Active listening encourages the speaker to express themselves openly and freely, without fearing interruption, criticism, or unwanted advice.

Slide 13:  When I was teaching an undergraduate conflict skills class at the University of Colorado, the University’s ombudsman, Tom Sebok, always came to my class each semester and gave a workshop on effective conflict communication.  He explained that active listening is a two-part process.  The first part is hearing what the other person is saying and the second part is demonstrating to the speaker that they have been heard and understood correctly.  Tom described four skills that are necessary to do this: attending, paraphrasing, summarizing, and asking open-ended questions.

Slide 14:  Attending skills, he pointed out, differ from culture to culture.  In Western cultures, paying close attention to someone usually means facing them, making eye contact, having attentive, open body language (for instance, not crossing one’s arms or looking at other things or people), and making affirming sounds such as uh-huh, hmm, wow, tell me more… and so on.  One should take care to avoid negative signals—frowning, rolling one’s eyes, yawning etc.

Slide 15:  Once the speaker pauses, the active listener will paraphrase or summarize in their own words what they heard the speaker say.  This shouldn’t be a complete parroting of the speaker—Tom always played a tape of someone who repeated every word back to the speaker word-for-word, and as you can imagine, this elicited a very negative response. 

But if you start with some of the conversation starters listed on the right, such as, “ so, it sounds like you feel that you weren’t treated fairly…using similar but not identical words to indicate that you heard and understood what they said and meant, it usually either elicits a confirmation that you have it right, or further clarification is you got it wrong. 

The only difference between paraphrasing and summarizing is that paraphrasing is done after a short period of time (a few sentences or less), while summarizing is a short summary of a long statement—useful if the speaker goes on for quite a long time without a pause.

Slide 16:  Lastly, Tom recommended listeners ask open ended questions—questions that can’t be answered with a yes or a no.  These tend to draw out more information, encouraging the speaker to elaborate about their concerns, feelings and perceptions.  They often start with a “what” or a “how”– “oh my gosh, what did you do then?” or “How did that seem to you?”  Sometimes they can begin with “why” but you have to be careful with “whys” that they aren’t seen as accusatory as in “why [in the world] did you do that?” which can easily be interpreted as an accusation that whatever the person did was dumb.

Slide 17:  Tom also listed a number of other active listening “banana peels”—things that can slip you up.  These include 1) reacting defensively (I didn’t say that!), 2) debating (well, yeah, but if you had your facts straight…), 3) blaming the speaker (you’re jumping to conclusions!), 4) making judgments (even privately) “what an idiot he is!” 5) thinking up your comeback while you are ostensibly listening, and 6 interrupting before the speaker has paused.

Slide 18:  One more important thing to say that people often misunderstand—active listening and empathic listening does not require that you agree with what the other person is saying.  You can disagree—even strongly.  But you can’t say that, you can’t argue.  You need to listen and confirm that you understood what they said well enough that you both agree on what the speaker said, and what the speaker meant.  Once this agreement is reached, then you can go on to explain how you may see the situation differently.  But even then, one should do so in a respective, informative way, not in the sense of a debate which you are trying to win.

Slide 19:  Another important thing to do to improve conflict communication is to learn about and work to overcome our cognitive biases.  We all have cognitive biases that distort both the way we take in information and how we interpret the information that we get.  This “Cognitive Bias Codex” is an amazing chart that lists 188 different known cognitive biases.

The article describing the chart explains that these biases arise from five sources: 1) information processing shortcuts, 2) the limited processing ability of the brain, 3) emotional and moral motivations, 4) distortions in storing and retrieving memories, and 5) social influences. 

One of the best known (and perhaps one of the most important) biases that relates to the profound polarization of the current political environment is the “confirmation bias”—the tendency to interpret all new information as confirming that which we already know.  If it actually does, we believe it and privilege it in our personal “data bank” If it really doesn’t, we twist it around in our minds so as to make it confirm what we already believe, or we dismiss it as having come from an unreliable source, or for other reasons to be misguided.

Another example is the self-attribution bias.  When things are going well for us, we tend to believe it is our own hard work, ingenuity, and brilliance.  When they are going badly, though, we tend to blame other people for our problems. Similarly, the fundamental attribution error attributes blame to others when they appear to do something wrong, but if we do something wrong, we blame outside extraneous factors that caused us to make the mistake due to no fault of our own.

Slide 20:  Although such biases are ubiquitous, we can address them successfully.  The most important step is to know such biases exist.  If we know all humans tend to distort information, we should challenge ourselves to think differently.  When we receive new information that confirms our beliefs, look more closely—does it really?  If it disputes those beliefs, don’t dismiss it outright—examine it to see if it might be valid. 

Go further—see out information that goes against your pre-existing beliefs.  Rather than jumping to conclusions about who is at fault for a problem, assume (as we discussed in the earlier video on de-escalation) that everyone contributed at least something, and then try to adjust what we are all doing to prevent the problem from happening again.  Or give the other the benefit of the doubt, and at least listen openly to their explanation about what went wrong and how to make it right.

Since there are 188 cognitive biases, there are at least 376 (188x2) ways to adjust to or counter them.  We can’t go into them all here, obviously, but the bottom line for all of them is don’t be too sure of yourself!  Ask questions and seek more information from a diversity of sources before you make important decisions and before you spread information further that might just contribute to our fake-fact storm.

Slide 21:   At the same time, though, this interesting article from the New York Times argues that we shouldn’t go down the “rabbit hole” of critical thinking. He argues that “ the way we’re taught from a young age to evaluate and think critically about information is fundamentally flawed and out of step with the chaos of the current Internet. … It’s often counterproductive to engage directly with content from an unknown source, and people can be led astray by false information. … The goal of disinformation is to capture attention, and critical thinking is deep attention.

He goes on by quoting a digital literacy expert, Michael Caulfield “That natural human mind-set is a liability in an attention economy. It allows grifters, conspiracy theorists, trolls and savvy attention hijackers to take advantage of us and steal our focus. “Whenever you give your attention to a bad actor, you allow them to steal your attention from better treatments of an issue, and give them the opportunity to warp your perspective.”…

The best way to learn about a source of information is to leave it and look elsewhere, a concept called lateral reading.

Slide 22:  Caulfield developed the strategy he called “SIFTing”:  Stop, investigate the source, find better coverage, and trace claims, quotes, and media to the original context.  So, whenever you read something from a source you are unsure about, he says you should stop, google the source of the information, see what the Internet says about it, read other sources on the same topic, and consider the consensus opinion before you come to a conclusion.

So he’s not really advocating we follow our cognitive biases without question, rather he’s arguing that we check our sources by reading elsewhere, rather than digging deeper into that original source.

Slide 23:  A related communication problem is the difficulty in distinguishing whether something that a person says is fact, or simply their opinion.  Very often people state things that are facts—but they actually are not.  And even more often now, it seems, both sides of the political spectrum are accusing the other side of spewing “fake facts”—they don’t believe anything that the other side says, regardless of whether it is true or not.

Slide 24:  Indeed, differentiating between true facts, fake facts, and opinions has become increasingly difficult and some say it is impossible.  The argument that there is no such thing as “fact” or “truth” and that each person’s “truth” is as good as the next person’s “truth” is widespread, particularly in university humanities and social science departments that believe in “postmodernism.”  Although I haven’t read deeply on this topic, it seems to me that my own Ph.D. field, sociology, along with philosophy, hold considerable responsibility for this idea, as we sociologists eagerly embraced postmodern philosophy as our theory of “truth” and “objectivity.”

I tried to get a definition of postmodernism from some philosophy sources, and about the only thing I understood of what I read was that there was no agreement among philosophers about what the term meant.  That’s fitting, isn’t it?

So I turned to the much more readable source, Wikipedia.  It says “Postmodern philosophy questions the importance of power relationships, personalization, and discourse in the ‘construction’ of truth and world views. Many postmodernists appear to deny that an objective reality exists, and appear to deny that there are objective moral values.”

Slide 25:  Despite graduating from a field that believed that at the time, I have always rejected that notion.  I do believe there are objective facts—for instance, Biden did win the election, and statements that Trump won are not equally valid.  Likewise, I believe that Covid is a serious disease that has likely killed close to 500,000 people so far in the U.S., and statements that it is “fake, ” I believe, are demonstrably not true.  I’m guessing that most of my postmodern friends would agree with those assertions, and would accept that those are, indeed, empirically knowable facts. 

Slide 26:  I was trying to find a parallel example of a “fact” that the right believes that the left doesn’t—but which is empirically demonstrable– and I have to admit, I had trouble (though I didn’t spend too much time trying).  Maybe one of the more conservative members of my class can help me. 

The closest I came is what has been popularly called “the Success Sequence” which is the assertion, commonly made by conservatives, that one can pull oneself out of poverty if one “simply” graduates from high school, gets a job, and only then gets married, and last of all has kids.  The data are pretty clear—IF one manages to do these things in that order, your chances of living in poverty is much lower.  And that makes sense—success in one area makes it easier to succeed in the next, and if you do it out of order, there are all sorts of extra problems—it is hard to get a good job without a degree, it is hard to finish school and/or hold down a job if you are a single mom without money for childcare. 

The problem with the success sequence, of course, is that it doesn’t examine the reasons why people (particularly people of color) can’t accomplish things in that order, and is thought to imply blame where blame is not due.

Slide 27:  That takes us back to the importance of differentiating fact from values and opinions, and also correlation from causality.  From all that I read (and I did “read laterally,” following my own instructions above), there does seem to be undeniable correlation between following the “success sequence” and moving out of poverty.  But is that “causation?” Or are there other things going on?  For instance are people able to move out of poverty for other reasons (being white, growing up in a two-parent household, having good teachers, etc.). And then, because of those factors, are they more likely to be able to follow the “success sequence.”  If that’s the cause the success sequence has the causality order wrong.

It is also frequently argued that the importance of the “success sequence” is an opinion held by many conservatives, as they value its argument—they value hard work, marriage, and family—but it isn’t a fact, critics will argue, that those are the factors that lead to success.

I would have to do more personal research to be able to confirm whether the success sequence is, indeed, a fact or an opinion, simple correlation or causation.  But if one is going to advocate policies based on such beliefs, one should do their “homework” first.  And if one is to teach “the success sequence” as true (as opposed to an example of disputed “facts,”) one should also do more “homework” than I did here.

Slide 28:  All of the effective communication strategies described so far can be used by individuals themselves, without help of a third party facilitator or mediator. (Although it should be noted that mediators use empathic listening all the time—it is one of their primary tools to improve destructive conflict communication.)

The last small scale communication strategy I want to talk about is dialogue groups—groups which are led by facilitators to talk in depth about a controversial issue. 

Slide 29:  I learned about dialogue from an organization that is now called Essential Partners, but they started out as the “Public Conversations Project” and many people still know of them under that name.  Early on, they explained to me that in their view, dialogue is a structured conversation or series of conversations intended to create, deepen, and build human relationships and mutual understanding. 

PCP started out doing dialogues about abortion in Boston, after an abortion doctor was killed and many people on both sides of the issue thought that things had gone too far, that there had to be a better way to advocate for either side.  They did many dialogues with “regular people,” and also did one very high profile dialogue with Boston leaders of the pro-life and pro-choice movements, who met privately over the course of five years before then finally “went public” in an article in the Boston globe talking about their experiences and how they came to much better understand and respect the other side.  Unfortunately, that article doesn’t seem to be available on the Internet anymore, but in the resources section of this page, you can find several interviews with PCP/EP facilitators who talk more about those early dialogues.

One things that stood out vividly for me when I talked with the PCP folks was that they explained that no one changed their minds about abortion in these dialogues, but they did change their minds a lot about the nature of the people on the other side. PCP founder Laura Chasin told me, for instance, that one of her pro-choice participants called her up a year or so after her dialogue to Laura that she’d gotten pregnant unexpectedly and was trying to decide what to do about it.  She wanted to talk to some people before she decided, and among those she wanted to call were the pro-life people she met at the PCP dialogue!  She still was very much pro-choice, but she was turning to pro-life advocates before making her personal choice about what to do because she now valued their opinions.

Slide 30:  EP now calls their process “reflective structured dialogues” which they say, are designed to disrupt destructive communication patterns and “hold open honest constructive conversations about potentially divisive topics.” 

To do this, they use what seems to some to be a very structured process where people are encouraged to talk openly, in turn, and listen actively to what others are saying.  They are asked to reflect before speaking in order to avoid knee-jerk or defensive reactions, and they are encouraged to ask questions out of genuine curiosity—to learn more about what a person was saying or thinking.  (This, of course, is simply good active listening, but it is hard to do when one is talking about such a highly emotional topic.)

It is necessary, they point out, to be willing to be uncomfortable, confused, and suffer “cognitive dissonance”—another of those “cognitive biases” which means having two dissonant ideas in your head.  That tends to be psychologically uncomfortable, and most of us avoid cognitive dissonance by twisting what we hear to make it match what we already think ( the “confirmation bias” we discussed before.)  But the EP process tries hard to prevent people from doing that—with their facilitation and their own questions, they help participants process what each participant has said enough to really understand it, and understand why each person feels the way they do.

That’s PCP/EP’s goal – to discover what they call “the heart of the matter”—what the topic really means to all the participants and why they feel the way they do.  The result of such understanding is the development of  respect for and trust of people with different views, even when their own views are opposites. 

Slide 31:   In the early days, PCP used to stop there.  They used to stress that they did not try to push people towards “common ground” because they thought that the idea of “common ground” would scare people away.  But they often did, indeed, find common ground during their dialogues.  And now, as I read some of EP’s newer materials, while they don’t push for common ground at the start, they do seem more open to encouraging its development, and to go even further, to helping the participants begin to develop plans for working together collaboratively to enact those commonly held goals and ideas.

Lots of other organizations now do dialogues too, although PCP/EP was one of the first. But it is now an essential tool for almost all peacebuilding and reconciliation work.  

Slide 32:   This video, too, is running long, so I’m going to stop here. Much more information about effective conflict communication is available on BI and on other places on the Internet.  I encourage you to explore them further!


Slide 10: Richard Salem "Empathic Listening." 

Slide 19 and 20: https://www.visualcapitalist/.com/every-single-cognitive-bias

Slide 21 and 22 Charlie Warzel "Don't Go Down the Rabbit Hole" New York Times Feb. 18, 2021.

Slide 25:

Slide 26: Michael Tanner "Is There a Sequence for Success?" Cato Unbound.

Slide 29: Essential Partners home page:


Photo Credits:

Slide 2 and 32: Unsplash:  open source.

Slide 3:  CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Slides 4 and 5:, Female devil:  by Marie van den Broeck, BE (cc) Male ogre: by Gregory Montigny, FR, (cc) 

Slide 6: Constructed from Microsoft icons.

Slide 7: Fighting couple: Photo credit:  CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.  Sad girl: Open Source.

Slide 8: Sad girl: Open Source. Mask from Microsoft icon set.

Slide 9:  Open Source.

Slide 11: CC0.

Slide 12: - open source

Slide 14:

Slide 17:  Open Source

Slides 18: open source

Slides 23 and 24: (CC) Open source.

Slide 28: by Portland Seminary.  CC BY-SA 2.0