Breaking Double-Bind Intractable Conflict Relationships – Dialogue or Deliberation

Imagine the following double-bind relationship of an intractable conflict: An Israeli Jew feels so victimized by historical discrimination and anti-Semitism that the state of Israel was created as a consequence of the Holocaust. Moreover, he now feels doubly victimized by Palestinians who refuse to recognize Jewish cultural and historical rights and blame the Zionist entity for their oppression. At the same time a Palestinian feels victimized by Jews and Zionism. Each denies that he is the oppressor and they continue a pattern of accusation-counter-accusation that often leads to violence. Each considers the other responsible for its lived experience. And each time one group denies the claims of the other the denial is heard as additional oppression providing additional evidence for the truth of the claim in the first place. Every defense is an offense and thought to justify additional offenses. This is a classical double bind logic that cannot be escaped within its own system but must be redefined. What kind of communication helps the redefinition – is it dialogue or deliberation? Can you debate your way out of this problem? Is dialogue a special form of communication that allows for solutions to these double-bind conflicts?

Click here and take a look at debate-dialogue table.

The table is a nice distillation of the differences between dialogue and debate. It is reprinted from the book “Moral Conflict” by Pearce and Littlejohn. I take differences like the one described above as a given; that is, resources, skills, perceptions, and ideas are not equally distributed amongst people and this makes for the politics of difference. Hence the goal of communication and problem solution in general is to manage these differences – whether they are political, ideological, commercial, or ethnic – and communication is the primary mechanism for managing these differences, for reaching across the divides that separate people. Some form of communication has to be capable of breaking double-bind conflicts.

Traditionally, the type of communication most conducive to closing gaps between people has been termed “dialogue.” I tend not to use the word dialogue in my own writing very much because it carries a certain baggage. That baggage is mostly centered on a sense of unachievable authenticity and openness that includes deep engagement, attentive listening, empathy, and a host of other idealistic abstractions. I’ve resisted the word and you will not find it very often in anything that I’ve written. Moreover, there is sometimes the expectation that “dialogic” communication is of the highest form and most desirable, when in fact debate that it is contrasted with is an equally important and useful pattern of communication.

But over time I have become increasingly unable to distinguish dialogue as it is usually written about from other types of engaged interaction, namely, deliberation. As I write about deliberation (see my recent book here), which is a more controlled discussion, the lines that once separated dialogue and deliberation are blurring. Oh, distinctions can be made, and we will save those for another time, but those distinctions are less clear. I think the table that distinguishes debate from dialogue is a very good presentation of two types of communication. Certainly the presidential debates in the United States are more “debate like.” Nobody would call the exchanges between Romney and Obama a dialogue. Most discussions between international actors contain more of the qualities of debate rather than dialogue. The two participants (a) prepare cases designed to be presented, (b) represent positions that they want to force on the other, (c) present a dominating persona, (d) speak as representatives of groups (political parties, constituencies) rather than for themselves, (e) try to “win” rather than solve problems, (f) offer little new information, and (g) work to defeat the other side by winning argument strategies.

Deliberation is more “debate like.” It is concerned with evidentiary credibility, reasoning, consistency, and a tenacious concern for inclusion in legitimacy. But deliberationists recognize the limits of debate and that alternative forms of communication are often called for. Moreover, deliberation must still confront culturally grounded rhetorical forms of communication that do not meet standards of reason and rationality. Language and meaning are situated and designed to direct attention toward selected portions of reality. So deliberation, like dialogue, must confront talk that is required to transform how one understands others and themselves. If two competing groups or individuals seek to transform the other or develop new realities more shared between them then there must be a willingness to risk change. This is certainly true if any progress is to be made on double-bind conflicts

Deliberation turns out to require some of the same assumptions as dialogue. For example the recognition that communication is not linear but multifaceted. Or that deliberation always bumps into tangential issues of identity, emotions, and incommensurate attitudes and beliefs. This is perhaps the thorniest issue that deliberation and dialogue share. If problem-solving were automated and purely rational then cultural rhetoric’s and peripheral issues would not interfere and therefore not be a problem. But even the strictest deliberation practitioner runs into “real” people whose communication and lifeworlds must be accommodated.

An important point pertaining to dialogue, and one often overlooked or misunderstood, is that requirements such as finding “common ground” or “resolving differences” are not necessarily the central goals of dialogue. Rather, dialogue recognizes the maintenance of differences and that conflict and contradiction are natural enough such that a goal of unity or problem resolution is typically elusive. Deliberation is very grounded in its epistemic function such that deliberation results in new knowledge and new ways of seeing problems. This epistemic function can also apply to traditional notions of dialogue. Both deliberation and dialogue except that individuals or groups can hold their ground and defend a position, but only require them to remain open to engagement with the other. Both dialogue and deliberation also have a critical stance one that refuses to privilege a single perspective or ideology or at least insists on a serious confrontation with such a perspective or ideology. Although I do not want to completely conflate dialogue and deliberation they share more space than not. The role of each in solving double bind conflicts remains an empirical question.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on October 22, 2012, in Communication and Conflict Resolution and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Breaking Double-Bind Intractable Conflict Relationships – Dialogue or Deliberation.

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