What Makes for “Difficult Conversations?”

locking horns difficult conversationsConversations are difficult when one or both parties are fixed on an ideological position they consider a core value fundamental to their concept of truth and personal identity. These difficult conversations are the genuinely “hard” part of managing conflicts and in many ways more important than the military dimension. It is certainly easier to kill someone then to change their ideology. Moreover, security measures do not sufficiently engage the problem when the true enemy is an ideology that must be communicatively confronted. Conversations are difficult for four reasons primarily.

  1. The nature of their content: those political or religious positions that claim to speak to God and know the mind of God, and believe that God has a plan or an inevitable future, will be particularly recalcitrant. Yes, radical Islam fits this definition but so do extreme versions of Christianity, Judaism, or any body of thinking and literature rooted in religious cosmology. Some are more dangerous than others because of a tradition of activism and preaching. Orthodox Judaism, for example, does not have a tradition of expansionist preaching and is thus less threatening than some other traditions even though they are still a narrow vision based on the presumed word of God. Cultures of shame and honor are also particularly sensitive to humiliations of various sorts and often likely to respond violently.
  2. Radical versus assimilationist thinking: some people hold strict religious or political opinions and even want to impose them on others but they take a slow education oriented approach. They support a comprehensive system of influences – economic, artistic, educational, cultural, and political – and assume that in time others will assimilate into the “truth.” But those positions that include radical approaches, which desire quicker satisfaction, are more likely to advocate violence and be more difficult to work with. Slower assimilationist approaches are more subject to counter influences. After a generation, for example, of living in the United States a family may have absorbed the values of liberal democracy. Conversation with the radical is clearly more challenging because it typically uses more threats, blame, humiliation, and demands for apologies.
  3. Belief in an essential cause: participants in discussions often get to a point where they have identified what is considered the “essential” cause of the problem. This essential cause takes on considerable explanatory power and becomes difficult to change. For example, some blame the United States for the rise of violent Islam and it is US foreign policy that becomes the “essential cause” of the problem. Others might cherry pick the Koran and find references that are used as essential explanations for violence. A belief in an essential cause is typically accompanied by blame which is psychologically satisfying.
  4. Incommensurate narratives: when the two cultures in conflict are particularly distinct and the qualities of each culture are significantly different, then these differences make the conversation difficult. Cultures like the Israelis and Palestinians present different accounts of historical events and selectively emphasize and organize motivations. These incommensurate narratives are cultural conflicts that make interaction even more difficult because the two sides are locked into images of the past and myths about the future. This concentration on the past becomes powerfully influential because the sides believe that lessons learned from the past are particularly timeless and resistant to change. The narrative or story each group tells about its self becomes glorified as a timeless truth and a steady beacon. Consequently, tolerance and change our challenge.

Of course, there are other qualities of conflict – psychological, communicative, political, economic – that make conversations difficult. But these four pose particularly demanding (shall we say almost impossible) conditions that make for difficult conversations.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on June 29, 2015, in Communication and Conflict Resolution and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on What Makes for “Difficult Conversations?”.

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