The Conditions of “Difficult Conversations.”
Below are the conditions most likely to make for “difficult” conversations. They can be considered part of deliberative and decision-making processes that must be taken into account in order for communication that will be the most workable. The citations can be unearthed for additional insight.
Incommensurate cultural narratives. Difficult conversations are more apparent when the two cultures in conflict are particularly distinct or even incommensurate with respect to cultural qualities. And there is no shortage of descriptors and statistics that report differences between cultures. But our concern here is not with general differences such as those posed by Hofstede (1980) but with those differences that represent cultural conflict. Conflicting cultures such as the Israelis and the Palestinians delegitimize each other and have qualities that exacerbate the differences thus making conversation or contact between the two groups “difficult.” The Israeli-Palestinian narrative represents significantly different accounts of the same historical events. They differ on how they selectively emphasize and organize events and motivations. But neither narrative recognizes very much legitimacy or pain of the other. Each blames the other and offers little recognition of its own behavior and how it has contributed to the conflict. Each sees the other as a threat and focuses on its own fears and reasons. Both sides demonize the other with historical events and have hardened their positions into mutually exclusive categories. The conflict captured by these competing narratives have certain cultural and psychological features that characterize them and these features are useful for understanding more precisely how cultural qualities make conversations difficult.
Cultural conflict becomes more restricted and difficult when both sides are heavily locked into the past, the myths of the culture’s birth and evolution. The Israeli narrative, for example, has been analyzed by many scholars with respect to its images of the past, parade of heroes and villains, and development of a worldview (Zerubavel, 1995). A key point is that these contemporary identities are constructed to meet contemporary needs by fashioning the modern narrative out of the past. The past is understood on the basis of the present. This is clearly the case for the Palestinians whose conflict ethos is completely directed toward its contemporary political conditions with the Israelis. This incommensurability with respect to interpretation of the past is particularly powerful because lessons drawn from the past are viewed as timeless and hence resistant to change. The past becomes glorified as a timeless truth that is a steady beacon of light. Consequently, conversations calculated to unlearn these lessons or change them are particularly “difficult.” There have been occasions when narratives converge and there is a movement toward mutuality. The Oslo Accords and Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem are such occasions in the case of the Israelis and Palestinians. Although they are no guarantee, historical events such as these underscore the importance of leadership and identity widening.
Narrative particularity. Difficult conversations focus on particular emotional experiences that are presented as objective. There is a difference between narrative in history where history is more rooted in collective agreement about events and their meaning. But narrative focuses on particular events and weaves them into a story designed to serve group interests. Groups focus on emotional events such as victories or defeats and spend more time concentrating on the strength and character of their ingroup narrative than they do on the nature of the outgroup narrative. Hence, one’s own narrative becomes sharp and precise with clear defenses and the outgroup narrative is more opaque. Israelis overweight the “war of independence” or the “Six-Day War” while Palestinians interpret these events as a “Nakba” (disaster) or glorify the intifada.
A sharp and precise narrative produces high within-group agreement about the interpretation of events and results in intensified links between people. Consequently, any disagreement within the narrative becomes disloyalty and dissenters are particularly stigmatized as outgroups. Conversations become particularly difficult because high within group pressure is a powerful deterrent to change. Such pressure directs a wall of resistance to the exposure and adoption of new information and perspectives. But a regular discourse of deliberation or resolution does make the accumulation of new perspectives possible because we have seen new attitudes and beliefs emerge from intractable conflicts in a number of cases. The Israeli Zionist narrative, for example, has broken up with the rejection and alteration of many of its tenets and the narrative has somewhat less appeal than it did historically including the diminution of its emotional appeal.
Existential threat. This is a common characteristic of intractable conflicts which of course makes conversations difficult. When a group fears for its very existence it will respond in difficult and defensive ways. But in intractable conflicts the two groups often have a deep history of existential threat. Jews have a long history of discrimination and defeat from Masada to the Holocaust, and the Palestinians also described their history as one of occupation and oppression. Related to existential threat is victimhood and the feeling that one’s own group is vulnerable. Groups that feel vulnerable or weak do not give up very easily and are particularly protective of themselves. Jews have an interesting history of both victimhood but are now in a power position. South African Blacks, Irish, Palestinians, Bosnians, Tamil in Sri Lanka all feel threatened. Such groups desperately hold onto an identity that categorizes everything the other side does as representative of their victimization. This mirror image psychology makes conversations difficult. Group members feel as if they’re going to be attacked both physically and symbolically.
Power differences. Conversations are most difficult and challenging when they are asymmetrical with respect to power (Deveaux, 2003). Power obstructs the pressures toward normative argumentation bound by norms of rationality. A clear position of power by one participant in a conversation pressures the person to use the power and makes him or her less amenable to listening and giving up strategic interests. Power distorts the issues and to the detriment of the process power becomes an issue itself. Dryzek (2010) reminds us that the deliberative and communicative processes involved are supposed to transform participants. They are supposed to help us clarify issues as well as deep commitments. But power makes it possible to exclude others and, more interestingly, it stunts normative reasoning. The conversation is clearly more difficult when the communication processes are distorted because of power asymmetry. And if one party is primarily concerned with its own status, or more concerned about one’s own gain and has the power to realize this, then there is not much incentive for good arguments and reasons in the deliberation process. The powerful party does not feel compelled to seek valid justifications because other easier power moves are available. In fact, an idealized version of deliberation might only reinforce the advantages of powerful participants. This would be especially true if the more powerful party has more symbolic capital than the less powerful party.
Delegitimization. Bar Tal and Teichman (2006) write comprehensively about the psychology of delegitimization that is most fundamental to groups in conflict and perhaps most associated with the experience of difficult interactions. As part of intractable conflicts, where the parties have prolonged violent conflict and are existentially threatened, delegitimization adds stereotypes and distorted communication patterns to the mix. Delegitimization is categorizing the other group as outside the sphere of humanity and subject to moral exclusion (Opotow, 1990). Interaction between the two groups, either individually or on the group level, is more than difficult; it is often impossible. Intergroup relations such as that between Hamas and Israel is an example of delegitimization such that each group refuses to recognize the other and considers the other as undeserving of human recognition. The information received about delegitimized groups is not only distorted but dominated by conflict themes. Negative traits are attributed to the other including troublesome political labels, biased group comparisons, and homogenization of the other group that does not allow for individuality or member differentiations. Bar Tal and Teichman (2006) explain how delegitimization involves stigmatizing the other group, which of course makes conversations difficult. When a group fears for its very existence it will respond in difficult and defensive ways. But in intractable conflicts the two groups often have a deep history of existential threat. Jews have a long history of discrimination and defeat from Masada to the Holocaust, and the Palestinians also described their history as one of occupation and oppression. Related to existential threat is victimhood and the feeling that one’s own group is vulnerable. Groups that feel vulnerable or weak do not give up very easily and are particularly protective of themselves. Jews have an interesting history of both victimhood but are now in a power position. South African Blacks, Irish, Palestinians, Bosnians, Tamil in Sri Lanka all feel threatened. Such groups desperately hold onto an identity that categorizes everything the other side does as representative of their victimization. This mirror image psychology makes conversations difficult. Group members feel as if they’re going to be attacked both physically and symbolically.