Moral Conflict

Stephen W Littlejohn. The Sage Handbook of Conflict Communication: Integrating Theory, Research, and Practice. Editor: John G Oetzel & Stella Ting-Toomey. Sage Publications. 2006.

On every occasion over the past 20 years that my fingers have met the keyboard on the subject of this chapter, some persistent moral clash has been in the news. Right now, the validity and morality of same-sex marriage is making headlines. This controversy joins many others such as abortion, women’s rights, environmental protection, gun control, and war as vital issues that are seemingly impossible to manage. Resolutions to such conflicts are temporary at best, as moral issues keep cycling back in various forms.

Moral conflict is a clash between opposing parties based on differences in deeply held philosophical assumptions about being, knowledge, and the world. The existence of moral difference is neither surprising nor problematic in itself, but how we respond to such clash can create disturbing conditions that warrant careful attention, creative intervention, and scholarly study. Moral conflict, although a compelling challenge in society, opens rich opportunities for interpersonal learning, improved relationships, and creative collaboration.

My task in this chapter is to summarize the literature on moral conflict and suggest possibilities for transcending these types of conflicts. I address this purpose through the following sections: (a) description of the problem of moral conflict; (b) review of transcendent communication, including theoretical foundations and three discourses of conflict; (c) discussion of dialogue as transcendent communication, including practical guidelines; and (d) summary of challenges and future directions.

Moral Difference and Moral Conflict

Personal action is always embedded within a moral order, or set of assumptions about what is real, how we know reality, and what is right. The moral order is a set of ideas on which we rely (Wong, 1984). As such, it is a kind of common sense (Lakoff, 1996; Wentworth, 1989), a tradition of thought (Stout, 1988), or a grammar of rules (Wittgenstein, 1972). Largely cultural, the moral order is infused with symbols and ways of seeing the world (Carbaugh, 1985; Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997). The moral order is a kind of knowledge base, or epistemic field, complete with a system for judging the truth of claims (Willard, 1996).

The Basis of Moral Difference

The observation that human communities differ in how they see the world is a truism bordering on the trite, but the consequence of this state of affairs can be profound when moral orders come to clash. Pro-life and pro-choice forces may disagree on whether abortion should be legal, but their respective positions on this issue rest on very different moral orders. Thus, arguing abortion is useless when the two sides share no common way of resolving the issue. Herein lies the essential problem of moral conflict: The parties have incommensurate moral orders.

I take the term incommensurate from Thomas Kuhn (1970), who applied the term to competing scientific paradigms, the logics of which cannot be mapped onto each other. The vocabulary, categories, and logical relations of one paradigm do not permit straight-across translation to those of the other. The two systems of thought cannot be compared point by point. Richard Bernstein (1985) applied the term to philosophy and social theory, noting that incommensurate systems can be compared, but only by moving to larger, transcendent categories that require understanding each moral order on a deeper level.

For example, most divorces are strictly interest based. In other words, the husband and wife differ on custody, real estate, money, personal property, and so forth. In such cases, you can actually compare the demands and interests of the parties right down the line, issue by issue. In contrast to this typical case, my colleagues and I once conducted a case study of a divorce mediation in which the parties had deep moral differences (Littlejohn, Shailor, & Pearce, 1994). The wife was arguing from a basis of personal empowerment and choice, while the husband was arguing from conservative family values. We could make sense of the difference only by creating new categories that enabled us to compare moral orders. I will say more about this fascinating case later in the chapter.

There seems to be a reflexive relationship between culture and moral order, though neither can be reduced to the other. Because cultures are determined in part by underlying belief systems, moral differences among cultures are often salient and can lead to conflict. Where cultural groups—ethnic or otherwise—clash, moral differences may be part of the problem. When the moral orders of various cultures are incommensurate, moral conflict can result. Some groups, for example, understand honor as prevailing in physical confrontation, where speech has little place (e.g., Philipsen, 1975), while other groups find honor in resolving disputes through collaboration and talk. Shailor (1988), for example, found significant differences in cultural ways of managing conflict in a survey of some 15 cultural groups worldwide. Foeman and Pressley (1987) offered an example: “In addition to the perceived chasm between white and black Americans, a real gap exists between their divergent perspectives regarding the nature of the world and the ways of surviving in it” (p. 295). Hispanic-Anglo differences provide another example, as Hispanics tend to be oriented more to relationships and communities, while Anglos tend to be more task oriented and to emphasize independence (Triandis & Albert, 1987).

Characteristics of Moral Conflict

My colleagues and I were not the first to discover moral conflict and, indeed, we join a large group of concerned scholars and practitioners. Hunter (1991) referred to such conflicts as culture wars, or “political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding” (p. 42). Docherty (2001) showed that such conflicts arise not merely from different views on materiality and social life, but from our deepest symbols and meanings.

When moral orders come to open clash, several things are likely to happen (Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997). The language of the two sides will differ, and where similar terms are used, they will probably have quite different meanings. The parties will seem locked into the dispute and may even say that they have no choice but to fight. Attempts to resolve the dispute by one side may end up actually fueling the conflict. Neither side can explain the moral order of the other in any satisfactory way. The disputants fail to see why the other party rejects their case, which seems so compellingly clear to them, leading each to describe the other as ignorant, misguided, evil, or sick. Creativity is nil, as the conflicting parties can think of no solution other than capitulation or elimination.

This pattern of mutual frustration and entrenchment leads to conflicts that are intractable, morally attenuated, and rhetorically ineloquent (Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997). They are intractable because there seems to be no way to resolve them, and they continue, often in many guises, over the years (Kriesberg, Northrup, & Thorson, 1989). They are morally attenuated because the disputants often violate their own principles of good behavior, and they are rhetorically ineloquent as they rely on the least sophisticated rhetorical strategies. Christians, for example, believing fundamentally in the principle of love, can become rather hateful when they are involved in moral conflicts. Peace advocates have been known to aggress, radical environmentalists have been known to destroy, and pro-life advocates have been known to kill in response to moral difference. When their best and most eloquent arguments are rejected, parties to moral conflict will tend to reduce their rhetorical strategies to chants, slogans, signs, and reciprocated diatribe. As Willard (1996) described it,

Challenged speakers go to ground…. They assume this is not from fear of criticism but from a kind of self-righteousness born of competence: I’m right; my opponent is wrong. This closure thwarts discourse with outsiders. It precludes agreement… but its worst political effect is that it obstructs disagreement: It makes argument untenable by undercutting its necessary conditions. (p. 128)

An Illustrative Case of Moral Conflict

An extreme case that illustrates just how harmful moral conflict can be is the violent confrontation between Federal agents and a religious group, the Branch Davidians, at Mount Carmel near Waco, Texas, in 1993. Believing that the Davidians, led by their prophet David Koresh, were preparing for armed conflict, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) raided the group’s property, which led to a stand-off lasting 51 days. After several individuals were killed or wounded on both sides, the agents gassed and burned the complex, killing almost all of the occupants, including 21 children. The incident led to numerous Congressional hearings, agency reviews, inquiries, and lawsuits.

On the face, this was clearly an incident involving crisis negotiation gone wrong. In an astute study of this case, Jayne Docherty (2001) claimed that it is much more than a crisis negotiation. Referring to the incident as a worldview conflict, she outlined the differences that led to misunderstanding, miscalculation, and a tragic ending. The incident did have all of the elements of a barricade situation, in which authorities surround and negotiate with an ensconced group that could be a danger to themselves and others. The first goal of such situations is to save lives, the second goal is to save property, and the third is to bring the perpetrators to justice. None of these goals was met in the case of the Davidians. The considerable negotiations during this period were marred by many elements of moral conflict.

Docherty (2001) analyzed the worldviews of the two sides in terms of ontology, or what is believed to be true; logic, or how reality is believed to be organized; epistemology, or how we believe knowledge to arise; axiology, or what is believed valuable or important; and ethics, or beliefs about proper action. Although there was some overlap among the worldviews of the two sides in this dispute, the moral differences were palpable. The ontology of the FBI classified human beings as normal or abnormal, and barricaded situations always involved the “bad guys” on the inside and the “good guys” on the outside. This ontology further divided the world of emotion from the world of reason, such that negotiators were forced to separate the two. These ontological features revealed a dualistic logic, or an either-or type of reasoning. A manifestation of this ontology and logic was that the police turned to clinicians, who were ready to psychoanalyze the perpetuator, a standard procedure in crisis negotiations.

Although the Davidians also used a dualistic logic, their ontology was actually quite different. Believing in the apocalypse, the Davidians divided their world into good and evil, those who are saved and those who are damned, the believers and the non-believers. People are not inherently good or bad, but can be saved, which explains why the Davidians encouraged negotiators to choose God’s way, which the FBI took as inappropriate, irrational behavior.

As for epistemology, the Federal agents used science as a basis for knowledge, relying especially on psychology. Consequently, they understood barricade situations in terms of diagnostic categories, believing that appropriate response should be based on psychological knowledge. In contrast to this view, the Davidians gained knowledge only through the word of God as revealed in scripture. You know what is right by listening to God.

Questions of axiology and ethics revolve around action, or what one should actually do. If your epistemology is based on psychological knowledge, as was the case for the agents, then proper action will be counseling strategies designed to calm subjects down and to move from emotion to reason. The Davidians, however, valued faith, prophecy, and obedience to God. They eschewed things valued by ordinary society as materialistic and anti-godly. At one point the FBI sent the Davidians a video of the children who had been released to show that they were being well cared for. Unfortunately, what the group saw was their children eating sweets and watching television, which was not particularly reassuring to their worldview. The proper course of action for the Davidians was to obey God’s law, which meant to resist the materialistic values such as those perceived to be part of the FBI’s childcare practices.

As another example, the FBI negotiators never really understood the Davidians’ attempts to engage them in Bible study. The group would swing back and forth between negotiation on the issues and attempts to convert the negotiators, which the FBI finally ascribed to irrationality and bad faith. The authorities responded to this perception by an abrupt change in approach, which involved changing negotiators, agenda, and process. The new hard-line position of the negotiators, which involved leveling criminal charges at the Davidians, merely served to reinforce the Davidians’ apocalyptic view.

The negotiations came down to a clash of language—instrumental bargaining versus life narratives. The agents were perfectly willing to try to establish a connection with Koresh by talking about personal things like hobbies and children, but they were clearly uncomfortable talking about God and the meaning of life. The FBI negotiators wanted to frame the negotiations as bargaining, which Koresh resisted. For example, the FBI essentially ignored Davidian concerns about equity and justice, believing that such issues should be handled only in the courts. Specifically, the Davidians wanted fair treatment; they expressed a desire for the ATF agents to be held accountable for earlier killings, and they wanted an investigation by a neutral organization.

There was also a fascinating difference in the time scales of the two sides. The Davidians saw the episode as one small part of God’s long plan, in contrast with the agents’ short-term view of the incident as a single event. This meant getting everyone out safely, while for the Davidians, safety, though important, was subordinate to an equitable outcome approved by God. In the end, frustrated by their perceived lack of progress, the authorities forced the issue by demanding that everyone leave the compound, and when they did not, tanks breached the building, igniting the fatal fire. Not all moral conflicts end this tragically, but frequently do lead to considerable “collateral damage,” long-term resentment, frustration, and paralysis of action.

An Evolving Inquiry

In the 20 years that my colleagues and I have been studying this subject, our program has taken some intriguing turns. In this section, I provide a bit of background and history on the project. Our inquiry started as an elucidation of the problem of moral conflict and has evolved into an exploration of processes that can transcend difficult differences, including moral conflict. In this section, I outline four dimensions of this inquiry: (a) theoretical and methodological influences, (b) case studies, (c) conceptualizing the discourse of conflict, and (d) exploring transcendent communication.

Theoretical and Methodological Influences

Since our first studies of moral conflict (Freeman, Littlejohn, & Pearce, 1992; Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997), our inquiry has developed and moved in directions we could not have anticipated in those early years. Consistently over the years, however, this work has been guided by a set of four related academic traditions—system theory, social constructionism, practical theory, and action research.

System theory. This broad tradition draws attention from individual attributes to relationships and connections, in which communication processes are emphasized over personality and individual behavior. From system theory, we learn that the “whole” is created through interaction among parts and that processes of interaction produce outcomes (Littlejohn & Domenici, 2001; Littlejohn & Foss, 2005). Systems are organized sets of components that act on one another to create something more than a mere accumulation of characteristics. When you take a systems approach, you look at the dynamic forces among parts in terms of some kind of energy or information. Control and self-regulation are also important, as the system forces lead to homeostasis as well as adaptation and change. In addition, systems cannot be understood apart from their environments, because the system itself always interacts within a network of shifting relationships.

Our work has been especially influenced by a line of systems inquiry known as second order cybernetics, primarily attributable to such thinkers as Gregory Bateson (1972) and Heinz von Foerster (1981). Observing always means interacting with the system itself. Automatically, the system widens to include the observer, who both influences and is influenced by the system. The implication of this point is that one can never observe a system purely and objectively, but must take his or her own role into account. Thus we become part of the system we observe.

In all of our work, then, we want to concentrate on what happens between parties in conflict, how they communicate with one another, and how this communication impacts and is affected by larger systems. Much of our work is interventionist in nature. In other words, we become involved with actual communities and learn from this experience. Our “knowledge” about moral conflict and transcendent discourse develops over time as a result of this engaged practice, which I discuss in more detail below. Our key learning from system theory is that moral conflict is a dynamic relational state arising in certain forms of interaction.

Social constructionism. The second influence on our work hails originally from two movements in sociology—symbolic interactionism (Lal, 1995) and the “social construction of reality” (Berger & Luckmann, 1966)—and from the philosophy of language (e.g., Schutz, 1967; Wittgenstein, 1953). This work expanded to a movement throughout the social sciences that Kenneth Gergen (1985, 1999) aptly named constructionism (Littlejohn & Domenici, 2001). In the communication field, this school of thought forms an important part of what has been called the social approach (e.g., Leeds Hurwitz, 1995; Littlejohn & Foss, 2005), which is based on the ideas that human beings always make their realities socially, through interaction, and that language and other symbolic forms shape what we experience. The focus of attention in constructionist research is what gets made in a social situation and how social worlds come into being through communication (Pearce, 1995). In other words, humans “make” or “construct” social worlds through the forms of communication they employ. Though the process of social construction is not normally conscious, we have learned that it can become deliberate if participants think about the consequences of their interactional patterns within the situations they face.

Constructionism is really an application of system theory to human social life, acknowledging that interactional patterns create understandings that give meaning to human experience. Individuals come to understand their experience through interaction within social groups. Language and other symbol systems assume great importance in establishing social realities, as human beings can never have pure, unfiltered experience. Because reality is created socially, it will shift from situation to situation. Something that assumes great importance at one time will fade at other moments, and the actual meaning of experiences shifts from one group to another. Our work, then, is based on situated practice, understanding that human beings must come to some sort of understanding of what is happening in various situations and then to respond in a way that makes sense to them from the perspective of some set of social worlds.

Even when one has the experience of “acting alone,” one still acts from within social meanings salient at the moment—meanings created and reproduced in many interactions of the past. As people communicate in new situations with new conversational partners in new communities across time, their repertoire of meanings and actions can develop in new and unpredictable ways. Many aspects of a person’s social realities remain relatively stable over time, as they are repeatedly reinforced, while other aspects can undergo considerable change.

In the realm of moral conflict and transcendent discourse, then, we can look at (a) how moral conflict involves certain patterns of interaction, the use of certain kinds of language and action; (b) what is created in moral conflict situations; and (c) what could get made if the language and process of communication were to change. Our key learning from constructionism is that moral conflicts are made in human interaction, and they can be transcended when communicators shift their patterns of talk.

Practical theory. A practical theory establishes a set of principles by which an actor can make difficult situational decisions (Littlejohn & Foss, 2005). Instead of predicting outcomes from causal models, practical theory provides a basis for achieving goals in complex situations where many solutions and outcomes may be possible. Following this tradition, our work is designed to provide practical guides for action. According to Craig and Tracy (1995), practical theories “construct a tentative, revisable, but still rationally warranted normative model that is relevant to a broad range of practical situations” (p. 252). Cronen (2001) wrote that practical theory “offers principles informed by engagement in the details of lived experience that facilitate joining with others to produce change” (p. 14). According to Cronen, practical theories provide a basis for understanding the uniqueness of situations in order to learn from experience and to weigh alternative courses of action for achieving positive outcomes. Our emerging theory of transcendent communication (Littlejohn, 2004), summarized later in this chapter, is itself an example of practical theory.

An example—indeed, an exemplar—of practical theory, is the coordinated management of meaning, or CMM (Pearce & Cronen, 1980; Pearce & Kearney, 2004; Pearce & Pearce, 1999). Especially influential in our work, CMM looks at the ways in which action, particularly interaction, is embedded in socially constructed contexts of meaning. CMM provides a basis for understanding how people connect their actions with meaning, the logics that drive interaction, and the ways in which shifting contexts can bring about changes in meaning and action (Littlejohn & Domenici, 2001; Littlejohn & Foss, 2005).

CMM has expanded considerably since its original formulation. Some of the many extensions through research, application, and conceptual development are discussed in a special edition of Human Systems (Pearce & Kearney, 2004). In reflecting on this work, Pearce (2004) mentioned several themes he believes important in the theory. These include (a) multiple contextuality, or the idea that all experience is understood in a web or in dynamic contexts that give meaning to action; (b) connected stories, or the relationship between the interactions that people live and the stories they tell; (c) coordination, or the challenges of organizing and understanding actions within a system; (d) mystery, or openness where firm answers cannot be found; and (e) continuing creation, or the dynamic, constantly created nature of our social worlds. Our key learning from practical theory and CMM is that responses to moral difference are coordinated practices by which communicators manage actual situations in their lives.

Action research. As a final influence on our work, action research involves inquiry accomplished through engagement in actual communities (e.g., Stringer, 1996). Action research is learning by doing. We work in communities with real people facing normal conditions of life, experience and learn from this work, codify and write our observations, and continually refine our ideas about how to work in communities. Spano (2001) outlined three characteristics of action research. First, it is participative, working collaboratively with members of actual communities. Rather than treating people as “subjects” to be “observed,” action research relies on partnerships and relationships in real situations. Second, researchers take the role of facilitators and invite participants into new forms of communication that will help them reflect on the system and make decisions about how to orient and respond to the situations they face. These processes are never invented out of context and imported into the situation, but are tested and developed collaboratively over time so that they become “owned” by and “meaningful” to the participants themselves. Third, action research produces practical knowledge that allows participants and facilitators to gain insight into the situation, desired changes, and new forms of action that can lead to salutary outcomes. For the researcher/facilitators, these insights grow over time to enable the development of evolving practical theories that provide frameworks for (a) understanding important dynamics of situations, (b) identifying potential community visions, and (c) making decisions about how to act in complex and potentially problematic situations. Thus our key learning from action research is that understanding grows as we engage actual communities facing real situations.

In summary, the four influences on our evolving inquiry are system theory, social constructionism, practical theory, and action research. These traditions have influenced our work in many ways. Spano (2001) provided useful discussion of the methodology that my colleagues and I have used over the years in our studies of moral conflict and transcendent discourse and show the practical application of the four traditions discussed in this section. These are outlined in Table 14.1.

Our inquiry into moral conflict began with a series of case studies. From these, we began to conceptualize patterns of communication in moral conflict situations, and we explored new forms of interaction that can transcend moral differences. In the following sections, I outline these dimensions of our work—case studies, conceptualizing the discourse of conflict, and exploring transcendent communication.

Case Studies

Moral orders are never just things-in-them-selves, but are always reflected in, and reproduced by, the discourses that the parties use in discussing actual issues such as abortion, women’s rights, and prayer in the schools. Our case studies, then, looked at the discourse used by groups to speak to their own constituents and the logics and categories used to “make the case.” We also looked at how groups characterize and address opponents (Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997). Two large case studies—the Religious Right and conflict mediation—in combination with our readings and unpublished studies on gay and lesbian rights, abortion, and the Persian Gulf War (Freeman et al., 1992), formed the corpus of our initial studies of moral conflict.

The Religious Right. Our first major study concentrated on the conflict between the New Christian Right and its critics. In the early 1980s, certain fundamentalist Christians became active in politics and, indeed, quite powerful in those years. Under the leadership of Jerry Falwell and others, such organizations as the Moral Majority and the Christian Roundtable came into being. This effort became a movement known as the New Christian Right, or, more generically, the Religious Right. Liberal critics of this movement immediately emerged. Less organized than their conservative counterparts, many liberals spoke out against the movement. Perhaps the most visible oppositional organization was People for the American Way, led by Norman Lear. The struggle between these two opposing voices continued in different forms well into the 1990s (Yoachum & Tuller, 1993). Our studies concentrated on the pattern of interaction in public discourse between these two broad groups (Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997).

In our early studies of the Religious Right (Pearce, Littlejohn, & Alexander, 1989), we began to hypothesize that groups in moral conflict would be unable to understand one another’s ideas within a common moral order. We observed a pattern there in which the discourse within each tradition would inflame the other party and lead to frustration and reciprocated diatribe. We noticed an important difference between the discourse used within groups, which seemed intelligible and eloquent, and that between groups, which appeared strident and ineloquent. Intermural discourse, as opposed to intramural communication, departed from civil attempts to make the case and moved toward attempts to obstruct or disempower the other group.

Table 14.1 Elements of a Way of Working Elements of a Way of Working

Aspect of the Work Tools Employed Purpose or Impact
Communication practices Neutrality and a notknowing position Empowers participants to tell their stories. Puts researcher/facilitator in a listening/learning position.
Dialogic listening Embodies an attitude of openness and curiosity. Shows engagement. Brings participants in as collaborators.
Eliciting experiences and stories Encourages participants to speak from personal experience. Enhances the “data” by including rich personal detail.
Appreciative inquiry Focuses on the positive resources within the system. Allows futures to be built on past successes. Opens up the possibility of fresh new ideas and pathways. Calls participants’ attention to connections and relationships.
Systemic questioning Highlights difference and change. Builds a systemic view.
Reflecting Expands participants’perspectives on the system. Helps the community “see itself.” Helps participants see the powers and limits of their current social realities.
Connecting theory and practice Constructionist attitude Highlights the creative potential of various communication forms. Invites participants to think about the kinds of social worlds they wish to co-construct. Emphasizes that all forms of communication have consequences.
Social intervention model Builds principles for practical action.
Orientation to public communication Acknowledges that every form of public communication has both powers and limits. Builds a willingness to engage, not avoid, important issues. Shows that healthy, positive, and affirming public relationships around difficult public issues are possible. Empowers citizens to become constructively involved in civic life.
Community-based action research Ideal of democratic participation Aims to involve all community stakeholders. Initiates work by and for the community.
Use of skilled facilitators Provides process, not content, expertise. Helps guide the forms of communication used to address public issues.
Provides forums whereby the researcher/facilitators and participants can listen to the concerns, visions, and stories of the community.
Emphasis on practical outcomes Leads to practical actions plans for the benefit of the community. Increases the sophistication of communication practices used within the community. Builds the capacity and skill of the researcher/facilitator in continuing this kind of work. Builds momentum for continued dialogue within communities.
SOURCE: Adapted from Spano, 2001.

It was clear to us that this conflict—reflecting other disputes on such issues as gay rights (Gattis, 2003), abortion (Tribe, 1990), and environmental conflict (Smith, 1998)—was based not so much on surface issues as deeply held philosophical and moral tenets, which Hunter (1991) referred to as a culture war between the orthodox and progressive. Lipset and Raab (1970) presented a fair description of the moral differences lying behind the clash between these two: (a) simplism, or reduction of choices to a few clear options, versus complexity and situational decision making; (b) moralism, or defining all action as morally right or wrong, versus non-judgmentalism; (c) monism, or the establishment of a clear, unified set of criteria and authority for judging action, versus situational ethics; and (d) preservationism, or the conservation of perceived traditional values, versus change.

These value differences are striking in many moral conflicts. They held up very well, for example, in our analysis of the anti-abortion commercials of the Arthur S. DeMoss Foundation, aired in the early 1990s (Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997). This campaign consisted of about seven 30-second spots described by one observer as “Hallmark card ads” (Ames, Leonard, Lewis, & Annin, 1992). Each celebrated the birth and life of children who might otherwise have been aborted, and each ended with the slogan, “Life. What a beautiful choice.” These were highly emotional ads featuring happy scenes and lovely backgrounds over music. Each of Lipset and Raab’s (1970) orthodox ideals were depicted clearly in the series—simplism, moralism, monism, and preservationism.

When faced with deep differences such as those outlined by Lipset and Raab (1970), communicating across a moral divide may look futile; yet even in our study of the Religious Right, we began to see seeds of transcendence, raising hope that new forms of interaction are possible in these very difficult situations. It seems that archliberal Edward Kennedy received a Moral Majority membership card by mistake. Upon informing the national office of this error, he was encouraged to keep the card and was in fact invited to speak at Jerry Falwell’s institution, Liberty Baptist College. Kennedy accepted this invitation and there proposed a kind of contract of civility that led to a cooperative relationship and joint speaking engagements for Kennedy and Falwell. In their study of Kennedy’s speech and its outcomes, Branham and Pearce (1985) noted that Kennedy and Falwell initiated “a new form of public discourse about religion and politics” (p. 438).

Mediation. The second piece of work within the Moral Conflict Project involved a series of eight case studies of mediation conducted at the University of Massachusetts in the mid-1980s (Littlejohn et al., 1994; Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997). Videotaped, with permission, from behind a one-way mirror, these mediations included a family dispute, a consumer case, two roommate conflicts, an assault case, a deteriorating romantic relationship, a property-division case, and a divorce case. Our observations and interviews with the mediators revealed an interesting set of patterns. First, the meaning of essential moral terms such as fairness tended to shift from one party to another. Second, the structure and process of mediation itself reflected a certain moral order that may or may not have matched that of the disputants, and mediators sometimes became unwittingly aligned with the party that most shared the mediation-process ideal. In other words, moral similarity and difference did play an important part in these cases.

Not all of the cases we observed were moral conflicts, but where significant philosophical and moral principles were at stake, we found that patterns of communication were similar in many ways to those of more public moral conflicts such as those involving the New Christian Right. One case involving a divorce in particular reinforced this view (Littlejohn et al., 1994). This case involved a dispute between a divorced couple regarding custody and property issues. To help understand this case, we constructed an interpretive model consisting of three dimensions: (a) moral reality, (b) conflict reality, and (c) justice reality. The moral reality included deeply held ideas about proper conduct. Using the work of Bellah and his colleagues (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985), we identified four moral ideals—the authoritarian, based on scriptural or divine authority; the republican, based on civic duty; the utilitarian, based on individual interests; and the expressivist, which is based on individual freedom. These “realities” are not necessarily incommensurate, though elements of them may be. In the divorce mediation, for example, we found that the husband was very much driven by a traditional, authoritarian moral vision, while the wife based her actions on a highly expressivist one. This difference led to very different styles that frustrated both parties.

The second dimension, conflict reality, involves assumptions about the meaning of conflict and how it should be managed. Using Zartman (1978) and Kilmann and Thomas (1975) we identified three approaches: (a) reliance on outside parties, (b) conflict “management,” and (c) avoidance and prevention. The first of these—reliance on outside parties—defers to adjudication and cultural authorities to settle conflicts. The second—conflict management—involves negotiation, fighting, competition, and coalition building. The third—avoidance and prevention—tends to be libertarian, or “live-and-let-live.” In our divorce case, the husband had a strong avoidance, or libertarian, set of assumptions, which led him to want to be left alone. The wife, on the other hand, held a conflict management model that drove her motivation to “be creative” and to negotiate solutions.

The third dimension, justice reality, consists of principles for decision making in conflict situations—criteria for what constitutes a just and right solution. Based largely on the theory of Tedeschi and Rosenfeld (1980), we posited three types of justice. The first, retributive justice, involves punishing wrongdoers. The second, competitive justice, involves moving to maximize gains and minimize losses. The third, distributive justice, involves distributing resources fairly according to a defined principle such as entitlement, equality, equity, or social welfare. In the divorce case, the husband operated out of a strong sense of social welfare, in which he argued for a settlement in the best interests of the children. The wife, in contrast, worked out of a sense of justice based on equality, or equal division.

It was clear to us that the husband and wife in this case were experiencing a moral conflict. Their apparent moral realities did clash, this frustrated them, and their interaction conformed to a typical moral conflict pattern. We saw also in this case that the mediators’ moral view conformed largely to that of the wife, and they became unconscious collaborators with her, further alienating the husband. Needless to say, this mediation was not successful. Because of this and our other case studies, we became intensely curious about the patterns of interaction commonly found in conflict situations and began to codify our observations in this regard (Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997).

Conceptualizing the Discourse of Conflict

We have organized forms of conflict communication in several ways over the years (e.g., Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997), but I now prefer to think in terms of three types of discourse, each responding to a particular challenge (Littlejohn, 2004). The first is advocacy, which is a response to the challenge of confrontation. The second is negotiation, which is a response to the challenge of peacemaking. The third form of communication is redefinition, which responds to the challenge of transcendence.

The discourse of advocacy. The discourse of advocacy is a response to the challenge of confrontation. Recognizing the radical meaning of the term, I am using confrontation more broadly to mean any form of direct pressure for resistance or change. The most typical means of advocacy in democratic societies involve persuasion, which aims to influence the thoughts and behavior of others. Indeed, the art of persuasion is the oldest and most studied communication form (Foss, Foss, & Trapp, 2002). On matters of public policy, persuasion and debate are the chief instruments by which differences are settled (Gouinlock, 1986). Traditional debate is especially effective and appropriate when parties agree to the standards of good argument and the means by which decisions should be made. For example, legislation and election usually work in democracies, because the stakeholders agree that decisions will be made by vote or by fiat. The process may seem to take forever, but the issue will eventually get settled, or at least the mythology teaches us that this is the case.

The discourse of advocacy serves important functions in society. For one, it is a way of constructing community (Pearce, 1993). A community is built on identification along some set of dimensions important to a group. As people identify with others who share their interests, concerns, visions, and ideas, they begin to draw symbolic boundaries between themselves and other groups. Communities are defined through the discourse of identification and division (Burke, 1969). Over time, the tenets of belief and action are constructed jointly through a series of turns in an ongoing conversation about what is right and good, what should be promoted and won, and what should be attacked and defeated. Whether the discourse of advocacy is based on reasoned argument, diatribe, or violence, it functions to create moral orders and define communities.

Too often, however, advocacy falters when differences are moral. What seems to happen is that the failure to persuade leads to frustration, diatribe, or even violence (Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997). Moral principle and the will to prevail can make confrontation harsh, as advocates “hit the streets” to force results. Yet, open clash is unsettling because of the collateral damage that can occur; the perceived overconfidence of the disputants, whose cause belies the complexity of a multi-valued world; and the incivility of the communication between the combatants. Such conditions lead many to search for a way to make peace, which is the second challenge, addressed by the discourse of negotiation.

The discourse of negotiation. Peacemaking can take many forms. In international affairs, the term diplomacy best captures this genre of action. Bargaining, mediation, even collaboration among conflicting parties are typical. I am using the term negotiation generically to capture many discursive forms associated with the challenge of peacemaking (Folger & Jones, 1994; Putnam & Roloff, 1992). In general, the goal of these types of communication is to work out compromises or consensual solutions that will settle the dispute (e.g., Fisher & Ury, 1991). The discourse of negotiation is vital. It can help to reduce tensions and even resolve conflicts in many cases. It can stimulate creative thinking and collaborative problem solving. Erstwhile enemies can even find a common ground in working through a difficult situation, which can in turn create a basis for future collaboration. And negotiation, once it actually gets going, can return a feeling of civility into an otherwise hostile environment.

The discourses of advocacy and negotiation aim to achieve first-order change, or movement on the issue of contention (Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 1974). In the discourse of advocacy, the aim is to achieve a goal by having others move toward the desired end; in the discourse of negotiation, the goal is to achieve resolution by having one or more parties move toward an acceptable solution. The point of contention does not change, though positions can.

For this reason, the discourses of both advocacy and negotiation encapsulate the conflict. By arguing, forcing, bargaining, even collaborating, communicators participate in the mutual construction of their respective identities as conflicting parties. The idea of encapsulation comes from the theory of dialectics (Handelman, 1984; Rawlins, 1988). In managing a contradiction or opposition, the solution further reproduces the opposition itself. Any attempt to promote or select one option over another or mediate between them merely perpetuates the distinction between choices. For example, selecting policy A over policy B reinforces the idea that we have only two policies. Even a compromise policy includes a little of A and a little of B, making these the only starting points. Consequently, the discourses of advocacy and negotiation construct a reality of durable categories. This is paradoxical: As we struggle to overcome a conflict, we reproduce the very categories that made the conflict in the first place. Often attempts to negotiate solutions are successful, especially in interest-based conflicts, but they often fail because the conflicting parties, positions, and interests get hardened in the process of resolution, a tendency exacerbated in moral conflicts. This outcome leads to the third challenge—transcendence—and the discourse of redefinition.

The discourse of redefinition. The discourse of redefinition is a search for ways to transform the conversation from encapsulating contradiction to productive dialogue. This discourse is a kind of “negation of the negation” (Rawlins, 1988), a new set of organizing principles that leads participants to think differently about what they are doing as they work through their differences and to help them achieve unimagined outcomes. In the Cupertino Community Project, for example, the “undiscussable” issue of racial tension was transformed by reframing the issue in citywide dialogue groups from “racial difference” to “cultural richness” (Spano, 2001). The Cupertino Community Project is a decade-long dialogue project with many facets within the city of Cupertino, California. Cupertino has afforded me and my colleagues the opportunity to develop a number of dialogue tools and to learn a great deal about what can happen when care is taken about how to frame issues and structure conversations (see Barge, Chapter 19 in this volume, for a more detailed description of dialogue tools and Cupertino).

Successful discourse of the third type will achieve second-order change (Watzlawick et al., 1974). If first-order change is movement on the content issues of a dispute, second-order change aims to switch the definition of what we are doing as we work through our differences. It involves a change in the meaning of winning. Where once it meant prevailing on the issue, winning now means communicating in a way that leads to humane outcomes for all. Such discourse may not, perhaps should not, change anybody’s position on the issue; but it can profoundly change their ideas about communication and human relationships. When communicators successfully redefine their issues, their points of difference, and their relationship, they are able to transcend old patterns that held them in frustrating and negative patterns of interaction. They are, in other words, able to engage in transcendent communication.

Exploring Transcendent Communication

The Transcendent Communication Project

From the beginning of the Moral Conflict Project, we imagined better forms of communication between parties with significant moral differences, and our work soon began to explore creative methods for managing significant differences. The Transcendent Communication Project is an ongoing exploration of methods for helping communities manage potentially complex and difficult conflict situations humanely, effectively, and appropriately (Littlejohn, 2004). I use the term transcendence to mean moving above or beyond typical patterns of communication found in difficult conflict situations. My colleagues and I have maintained an intense interest in ways in which communicators can transcend negative patterns in which they are caught in situations where difference matters. This work is based on our own research and practice along with what we have learned from other groups such as the Public Conversations Project (Chasin et al., 1996).

Kaleidoscope Project. The early Kaleidoscope Project, a collaboration between the University of Massachusetts and the National Council of Christians and Jews, marked a clear transition from studying moral conflict to looking at alternative forms of discourse. An experiment in public discourse, Kaleidoscope invited spokespersons with different worldviews to discuss a difficult issue in a new way (Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997). At the University of Massachusetts, we held Kaleidoscope sessions on such issues as animal rights, U.S. policy in Central America, gay rights, and more. A later version of Kaleidoscope, on the topic of affirmative action, led to the establishment of the Public Dialogue Consortium and the now decade-long Cupertino Community Project, a series of dialogues in Cupertino, California (Spano, 2001). Kaleidoscope was designed to enable people to talk constructively about difficult and undiscussable public issues—issues that were so hot that proponents refused to talk to one another, issues on which participants were terrified that a discussion might explode into an uncontrollable conflict, or issues on which discussion might imply capitulation of some sort. The idea behind Kaleidoscope was to create a public-event format that would make constructive communication possible where moral difference stood in the way.

The initial Kaleidoscope format included opening statements by opponents on the issue followed by a public interview of each side and then both sides together on the stage. The interview was designed to have the speakers reflect on their interaction and on the limits of their respective worldviews. The audience was then taught to ask questions of the same nature, not to spark debate, but to invite mutual reflection. This format was clearly experimental. Participants tended to find it odd, but they “played” and, in most cases, constructive conversation was made possible.

The Kaleidoscope Project was probably our first piece of action research on conflict. Since then, we have been involved in many projects with actual communities aimed at transcending important and potentially moral differences. As the limitations of traditional discourse become increasingly apparent, many organizations have worked on methods that, like Kaleidoscope, aim to transcend and transform communication in the most difficult cases of conflict. We have learned a great deal from our own work and that of others and have expanded our repertoire of ways of working in the management of difference (Littlejohn & Domenici, 2001; Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997; Spano, 2001).

Characteristics of transcendent communication. We have found that transcendent communication tends to embody three characteristics. First, it creates new frames that transcend differences. Using the metaphor of Wittgenstein (1953), this kind of dialogue establishes a new “grammar” that enables parties to reconceptualize their differences and even find common ground. The new categories of conversation constitute a creole of sorts, making it possible for parties to have a coherent dialogue across otherwise incommensurate worldviews (Stout, 1988). In his book The Soul of Politics, Jim Wallis (1994) championed a new set of topics that could bridge liberal and conservative ways of thinking. Instead of pitting opposing economic, political, and social categories against one another, Wallis proposed that new conversations address transcendent topics such as compassion, community, reverence, diversity, justice, and courage.

Second, transcendent communication transforms relationships. Abandoning the discourses of confrontation and negotiation that privilege arguments, positions, interests, and solutions, dialogue features personal stories, new contexts of meaning, and relationship building. The Public Conversations Project, for example, had amazing success in some 20 dialogues on abortion, where participants were invited into a safe environment to talk about their lives (Chasin etal., 1996). Using strong facilitation and ground rules, these dialogues encouraged participants to share stories, to listen well to the experiences of others, to ask questions based on curiosity, and to explore the complexity of their own and others’ positions on this intractable issue. The outcomes of the abortion dialogues were remarkable. No one really changed their opinions on the issues, but they changed their perceptions of themselves and those who held opposing views.

Third, transcendent communication creates opportunities to explore the powers and limits of multiple worldviews. In addition to exploring common ground, the discourse of redefinition allows participants to explore differences, but to do so in a way that helps group members learn significant new things, make new distinctions, and realize that every perspective is limited in what it can do. Transcendent communication allows participants to explore complexity in ways often not permitted by advocacy and negotiation. In contrast, when we have the opportunity to go beyond simplistic categories and have a more nuanced discussion, we can learn a great deal about ourselves, others, and the issues at hand. For example, in a fascinating dissertation on the struggle over homosexuality in the United Methodist Church, William Gattis (2003) provided dialogue groups with a set of guidelines designed to change the nature of the discussion. Specifically, he encouraged participants to,

Learn all you can from others about the points of view with which you disagree… compare and contrast your own point of view with the viewpoint of others… [and] compare and contrast the strengths and weaknesses of each point of view. (pp. 184–185)

Meeting the challenge of transcendence cannot rely on established methods. Engaging in discourses of redefinition is a foray into new territory and is inherently creative, which is why there is no canon of transformative methods. They are worked out anew whenever and wherever the challenge is experienced. Sometimes traditional approaches such as mediation are adapted to meet transformative goals. The publication of Bernard Baruch Bush and Joseph Folger’s book The Promise of Mediation (1994), for example, sparked something of a movement aiming to make mediation more transformative. Many new methods of conflict communication are truly innovative. Transformative discourse frequently proceeds by trial and error, and in this act of creation, we can learn a great deal about both content and process. We use the term dialogue to capture these transformative aspects of transcendent communication. Chapter 19 (Barge) of this volume summarizes much of the growing literature on dialogue, especially as it relates to communities. For this reason, I will limit my discussion to the transcendent qualities of dialogue with special attention to its application in public and private situations, where important differences become a factor.

Dialogue as Transcendence

If persuasion is the paradigm case of advocacy and negotiation is the paradigm case of peacemaking, then dialogue is surely the form of communication most associated with redefinition. For me, the term dialogue usefully designates a certain communication practice, which aims to redefine issues, conflicts, and relationships, thereby enabling participants to transcend hopeless patterns of interaction. The terms dialogue, redefinition, and transcendence are not exactly synonyms, but each term does capture a particular dimension of the same process. In general this process has several characteristics:

  • It embodies a relationship in which parties treat one another as fully formed, whole, and complex human beings, whose life experiences provide a basis for their moral orders, positions on issues, and actions in the world.
  • It allows communicators to say what is important to them, be assured that their stories will be heard, and allow others the same privilege.
  • It permits participants to move from a place of being stuck to new territory where joining places may be found.
  • It is multi-voiced and non-polarized.
  • It includes fresh, constructive questions that demand critical, creative thinking.
  • It is educative and allows participants to learn important new things, including how to look at the problem in new ways.
  • It leads communicators to see the powers and limits of a variety of points of view.
  • It builds relationships of respect.

Dialogue is designed to “keep the conversation going” (Rorty, 1979, p. 378) in ways that open up, rather than close down, possibilities (Arnett & Arneson, 1999). Unlike persuasion and negotiation, dialogue does not necessarily aim to settle issues, though it can lead to consensual decisions in some cases. More importantly, it allows people to live in a world in which difference is seen as a positive resource that does not have to be resolved. This new orientation provides a basis for managing, if not resolving, such differences. This orientation is a change leading to mutual respect, or “a favorable attitude toward, and constructive interaction with, the persons with whom one disagrees” (Gutmann & Thompson, 1996, p. 79). Such change gives us pause to stew a bit about our position and remain open to the powers of other points of view, even when we disagree with them. We can allow democratic processes to work and live with decisions we disagree with when we come to understand the basis for prevailing decisions. In other words, “the principles and values with which we live are provisional, formed and continually revised in the process of making and responding to moral claims in public life” (Gutmann & Thompson, 1996, p. 26).

Willard (1996) referred to this kind of discourse as epistemic, meaning that it is a form of mutual inquiry. We can learn more about ourselves including the basis of our beliefs, we can learn more about others and how life experience leads to moral action, we can learn about complexity, and we can learn about difference itself and how to manage it productively. It is a shift of commitment to what Robert Kegan (1994) calls in his remarkable study In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life the “new curriculum” of “reconstructive postmodernism” (p. 324).

Dialogue allows us to go to a new place, to reframe our differences, to find or construct a joining spot (Littlejohn, 2004; Littlejohn & Domenici, 2001; Pearce & Pearce, 1999). If old patterns merely encapsulate old categories, can new patterns be found? If familiar forms of interaction serve to perpetuate, even enflame, a conflict without a positive result, can the participants find a new form of communication that might change their relationship?

Although there are many traditions of dialogue, I find the work of Martin Buber especially helpful. In his book I and Thou (1958), he showed how important it is to treat others as subjects whose legitimate experience can impact our own lives. Persons in an I-Thou relationship together open up new vistas. There is an interesting irony in I-Thou dialogue. It is a place where you stay in the tension between “standing your own ground” and being “profoundly open to the other.” Pearce and Pearce (1999) called this ability dialogic virtuosity. My own view is that dialogue should move beyond the tension of difference to find a place for constructive conversation and to create a context for shared meaning and action (Littlejohn, 2004). In this section, I outline three keys for the practice of dialogue. These are (a) working with process, (b) creating joining places, and (c) changing the context of the conversation.

Working with Process

In new realms of discourse, the question of how we talk to one another is as important as the question of what we talk about. The dialogue literature is infused with discussions of process. Indeed, the transcendent communication project itself is process-driven (Littlejohn, 2004). A key to the success of the Public Conversations Project’s abortion dialogues was the fact that they invited participants into a “new kind of conversation” on the issue and paid very careful attention to the way in which the dialogue was actually conducted. Two dimensions of process talk are important. The first is really a design question that facilitators and sponsors may address: What form should the dialogue take? The second dimension is an invitation for participants themselves to transcend the issue on which they are stuck by talking explicitly about how they might be able to have a good conversation.

As an example of process, Mary Alice Speke Ferdig (2001) used a set of five sensibilities as a guide for dialogue. The first is the spirit of freedom, or the desire to empower everyone to engage in discussion of issues of importance. The second is the spirit of inclusion, which means acknowledging the necessity of hearing others and valuing differences. Ferdig’s third sensibility is the spirit of inquiry, or the willingness to learn and discover new things within the process of dialogue. The fourth, the spirit of spontaneity, allows the conversation to develop turn by turn and permits participants to change. Finally, the spirit of possibility acknowledges that transformative dialogue can lead to unexpected outcomes. Ferdig, then, asked how we can create a process that encourages the spirit of freedom, inclusion, inquiry, spontaneity, and possibility. Dialogue participants themselves can address these questions: “How can we talk in this spirit about a hard issue?”

Kathy Domenici and I have worked with another set of criteria that can be useful in making process decisions (Littlejohn & Domenici, 2001). These are collaborative communication, power management, process management, facework, and a safe environment. Collaborative communication means that participants are working with, rather than against, one another. They perceive that they have a common stake and must cooperate to achieve a set of supraordinate goals. They work creatively to develop solutions that are workable for everyone. Power management means empowering each person to use the individual and collective resources he or she has for the benefit of the whole community. It means helping individuals to express what is most important to them, to hear what is important to others, and to work to bring a diversity of perspectives and interests together. Process management means keeping process issues at the fore, bringing the importance of process into awareness, and collaborating on process methods as well as content issues. Facework means building honor and dignity. It means treating others with respect and present the self respectably. Finally, a safe environment simply refers to creating ways in which people can explore ideas without threat of harm. In other words, how can we make constructive and creative dialogue possible?

The point here is that the “how” question itself can be transformative, as participants must think beyond the issue to the process of communication that will be employed. The question, How shall we talk? sets a new ground or place where the disputants can come together. An illustrative case occurred in Catron County in rural southwestern New Mexico in the 1990s (Smith, 1998). Located amid beautiful national forest land, the community of only 2,500 people found itself in distress. The economy was depressed because of declines in the two major industries—lumber and ranching—caused at least in part by environmental protection policies. This state of affairs led to a severe conflict among environmentalists, ranchers and timber workers, and Forest Service personnel. The conflict was strident, it was moral, and it seemed intractable. Alarmed by the amount of stress-related illness, the area’s only doctor felt that the community itself was sick and arranged to bring in the New Mexico Center for Dispute Resolution (NMCDR) to initiate a community wide dialogue process.

The key question for the NMCDR and local participants was how to have a new kind of conversation, one that could take them beyond hateful slogans, threats of violence, flashing guns, and frightening displays. A small group agreed to meet and take up this question. Indeed, much of the initial talk centered on ground rules. One initial decision was to allow all of the perspectives to be heard and to concentrate on listening respectfully to various points of view. Soon the initial group grew to as many as 50 and the discussion moved from various opinions on the issues at hand to a vision for the community. Over the course of several years, a variety of processes was used, including dialogue groups, planning committees, field-trip discussions, mediation and negotiation, community visioning meetings, and youth meetings. Although the community did experience setbacks, concrete solutions were created and, most important, continued conversation was made possible. Community members were able to find areas that could be discussed in ways that built positive relationships.

Creating Joining Places

Process talk addresses the question of how we communicate with one another and seeks an answer to what can we talk about? Areas where constructive conversation can occur constitute the joining place. Nola Heidlebaugh (2001) used the term commonplacing to identify the ground where people engaged in moral conflict can meet. She likened commonplacing to weaving together two pieces of cloth. In moral conflict, the weaves in the separate tapestries are too tight, so we must find a way to loosen them to make a joining place possible. Notice that the metaphor is not “sewing.” Indeed, stitching the pieces together would be like what we see too often in moral conflicts today—some kind of a forced seam that does not work for either piece of fabric. Instead, the metaphor calls for loosening threads and actually weaving them together at some point without threatening the integrity of either tapestry. This is the joining point. In the vein of social construction, the joining point is not “found,” but “created.” Where can insights be coordinated in some meaningful way? In essence, we are saying, “Let’s be creative and see what we can do.”

Between 1999 and 2003, the provinces of Maluku in Indonesia were involved in a terrible conflict, as Muslims and Christians bombed one another’s homes, mosques, churches, schools, and public buildings, resulting in some 6,000 deaths and many thousands of displaced persons. As part of a restoration process, the International Catholic Migration Commission (2004) put together a dialogue institute for village and religious leaders in Central Maluku. Tired of war and ready to rebuild their communities, 40 participants came together for 4 days to explore their differences and find a way to build a foundation for restoration. During the institute, the participants created a number of joining places. Despite their many differences, they were able to talk very productively about their common culture and shared religious values and to discuss how to use these as resources for restoration. They did not spend time on old conflict issues, but instead built a vision for a unified community in which mental, physical, and economic well-being could be achieved. One place where tapestries could be woven was pela gandong, a cultural practice akin to blood brotherhood. Recognizing that their ancestors had created a blood bond that made them like family, the dialogue participants found a common place and bond for future work together (Lowry & Littlejohn, in press).

Changing the Context of the Conversation

A powerful way to create joining places is to shift the context of the conversation. I like to use the metaphor of scoping to capture this idea. The frame limits what you see in a scope, but you can change the frame by “scoping out,” which leads to a broader context, or “scoping in,” which leads to a narrower one. In many conflicts, especially moral conflicts, the parties are stuck at one lens length. Debates on abortion, for example, focus right on the issue of abortion itself; but the Public Conversations Project (Chasin etal., 1996) has learned that productive dialogue can occur by asking participants to reflect on their life experiences, which is a kind of scoping in. In the Catron County conflict described above (Smith, 1998), the dialogue groups found it useful to scope out to explore a common vision for the community. We can also change the context by moving the scope around to look at different spots. In good dialogue, then, we may want to continually shift the context by scoping and pointing.

Ferdig (2001) explained the power of questions in shifting the context of the discussion. She outlined several ways in which questions can focus on different contexts. To focus on contexts of identity, for example, the group may ask, “Who am I?” “What is important to me?” “Who are we together?” “What do we both care about?” To focus on contexts of principle, we might ask, “What do I stand for?” “What do we jointly stand for?” “How do our choices and actions reflect our individual and collective values?” Contexts of intention can be revealed in discussions on questions such as, “Where am I going?” “What do I want to see happen here?” “What are we up to in this conversation?” To focus on contexts of assumption, we ask questions like these: “What aren’t we thinking about here?” “What is our logic for these conclusions?” Finally, a focus on contexts of possibility would require such questions as, “What are the things you value most about yourself and the self-organizing experience of which you are a part?” “What are the core factors that give ‘life’ and ‘energy’ to the self-organizing process of which you are a part?” “What are the possibilities of that which we can create together based on the best of who we are?”

The power of good questions is illustrated by a remarkable set of dialogues on Vietnam sponsored by Robert McNamara (McNamara, Blight, & Brigham, 1999), the U.S. Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam era. Between 1995 and 1998, McNamara assembled a group of scholars and former government officials from both countries for a series of six dialogue sessions held in Hanoi and Bellagio, Italy. The dialogue was made possible by focusing on a single well-crafted question, which set the context for discussion. The group did not ask who was to blame, how it happened, or who was right. Such questions would have reproduced the differences dividing the two countries in the first place. Instead, the question was this: “In light of what now can be learned from the historical record, what U.S. and Vietnamese decisions might have been different and what difference would they have made in the course of the war—if each side had judged the other side’s intentions and capabilities more accurately” (p. 17)? Once the participants worked out their misgivings about dialogue, they were able to have a productive conversation and, indeed, did identify a number of mistakes made on both sides in judging one another and explored what might have happened if they had more accurately judged one another. Most notably, Vietnamese participants learned that the United States had not been motivated by colonialism, as they had believed during the war, but a fear of the spread of international Communism. The U.S. participants learned that the North Vietnamese had not been motivated by Chinese influence, as they had once assumed, but by a strong desire to win what they considered a civil war motivated by nationalism.

Practical Guidelines

Over the years, we have learned several lessons that have informed our practice (Littlejohn & Domenici, 2001). The following is a synopsis—(a) Create the right conditions; (b) manage safety; (c) provide a process that encourages constructive conversation; and (d) maintain ends-in-view and think about possibilities for outcomes of the conversation.

Create the right conditions. Dialogue is rarely possible in the heat of conflict. Timing is a critical factor of success, and opportunities for dialogue must be made, either by intervention agents or concerned stakeholders. Several points can be helpful here:

  • Don’t wait until conflict breaks out. Engage stakeholders in conversations early on.
  • If open conflict has already happened, look for the right moment, often when participants are tired of fighting or become desperate for new solutions.
  • Work initially in small, private groups.
  • Be careful about the role of “leaders” and other powerful persons. Allow all of the voices to be heard from the start.
  • Build on prior success. Avoid single-shot interventions, and use a grow-as-it-goes process.
  • Be creative about process. Think about what will work best, now, under the conditions currently experienced.

Manage safety. Safety is crucial and must be managed well. People will not experiment with new forms of talk when they feel unsafe. Here are a few points for guidance:

  • Think consciously about time and place.
  • Provide appropriate structure.
  • Solicit agreements on process.
  • Promote good facework.
  • Respond to willingness and felt need.
  • Find a shared level of comfort.
  • Leave an out.
  • Use an impartial facilitator.

Provide a process that encourages constructive conversation. Encourage participants to treat people as people, not as representatives of positions. Several principles can help:

  • Take sufficient time to explore.
  • Encourage listening, and build listening into the process.
  • Help participants to listen beyond mere content. Listen deeply to lived experience, stories told, values, shared concerns, and differences.
  • Ask good questions designed to open the conversation, not close it down.
  • Frame issues carefully to capture a context that will create a joining place.
  • Be appreciative. Look for positive resources, and look for the vision behind negative comments.
  • When speaking, aim to be understood rather than to prevail in a contest.
  • Base positions in personal experience, and help others to understand your life’s experiences.
  • Maintain a multi-valued, rather than bipolar, purview. Listen for all the voices.

Maintain ends-in-view and think about possibilities for outcomes of the conversation. Several ends are possible:

  • Discovering the heart of the matter, or learning what is most important to all participants
  • Building respect by looking for the ways in which others are experienced, complex, concerned, intelligent, healthy, and rational
  • Learning about complexity and developing a healthy suspicion of a two-valued framing of any issue
  • Building a context for collaboration

Challenges and New Directions

As I look back at the ways in which our ideas and practices have developed, I see a number of challenges facing this line of work in the future.

What conditions create the possibility for transcendence? When are people ready for dialogue? What makes them ready to engage in new forms of discourse? So far, our studies have concentrated on the nature of moral conflict, methods of conflict intervention, and forms of communication that can promote dialogue in conflict and non-conflict situations. We have not looked particularly closely at the situations in which people seem ready for these methods and forms. It would be interesting to generate a series of case studies of moments of readiness and non-readiness to identify some of the factors at play. Here are some potential places to look for answers to this question: (a) moments of frustration and fatigue when participants realize that old forms of communication are leading to dead ends; (b) cases of forced alliances, when erstwhile enemies must come together to provide mutual support; (c) upstream opportunities in which important issues can be explored before open conflict arises; (d) downstream opportunities when the reality of destruction is most salient; and (e) times when larger contextual factors create new opportunities to transcend old patterns of interaction.

What settings and situations provide opportunities for transcendent communication? This question is similar to the one above, but it looks more specifically at times and places in which transcendent communication sometimes occurs naturally. What is it about these times and places that seems to create an environment in which participants find themselves engaging in a new type of communication? Most of our studies so far have dealt with problem situations in which the need for dialogue is apparent and with good dialogue situations in which intervention agents were able to establish it. But something lies between these two points, places where individuals come together in new ways because of the force of the setting and situation. A series of case studies of this type would be beneficial. Here are some settings and situations that might create opportunities for transcendence: (a) the experience of mutual adversity; (b) the presence of powerful models and leaders; (c) moments of strong lessons learned from previously failed communication; and (d) a heightened sense of humanity that overrides moral differences.

How can parties to a dispute respond constructively when others are unwilling to engage in dialogue? This is a perennial question in conflict-resolution circles. How can people go on when significant stakeholders refuse to talk? In interest-based negotiations, this state of affairs is common when one stakeholder group has effective power and perceives nothing to gain from dialogue. A different form of non-participation occurs in situations in which the moral order of one group precludes dialogue. In our experience, this condition does not mean that dialogue is impossible—indeed, we have seen that it can happen—though not as easily. I feel that there are creative responses to such situations that could permit willing participants to cope if not create conditions for effective processes and salutary conclusions in the future. For example, one might treat non-participation as an act in and of itself, which has meaning and can be understood as a legitimate move. As a response, one might acknowledge the desire not to participate, be open to this possibility, ask for advice and clarification, and open discussions of when and how dialogue might begin.

Table 14.2 Lessons Learned Lessons Learned

Projec Focus Lessons Learned
Case studies Religious Right Moral conflict is created in patterns of interaction between parties with incommensurate moral orders. Initially civil discourse leads to frustration and reciprocated diatribe. With conscious intent, civil discourse is possible in the presence of moral difference.
Mediation Moral conflict can be private as well as public, where similar patterns occur. Intervention agents can be co-opted into the moral order of one side over that of the other.
Discourse Discourse of advocacy Moral difference cannot be managed easily or effectively with advocacy. When differences are moral, advocacy will usually lead to frustration and lost eloquence.
Discourse of negotiation Moral conflicts are rarely resolved through negotiation because disputants do not share ideas about what constitutes proper process or fair settlement.
Discourse of redefinition The discourse of redefinition affords the greatest potential for transforming destructive patterns of communication in complex and difficult conflict situations.
Transcendent communication Kaleidoscope Project Innovations in public communication about moral difference are possible and potentially effective.
Identifying characteristics Transcendent communication creates new frames that transcend difference. Transcendent communication transforms relationships. Transcendent communication creates opportunities to explore the powers and limits of multiple worldviews.
Dialogue Working with process How people talk about their issues is as important as what they talk about.
Creating joining spaces People who have serious differences can find joining places, or some ground, on which to have a productive conversation.
Changing the context of the conversation If an issue is undiscussable on one level, changing the context of the conversation may be a way to make discussion possible.
Generating practical guidelines You can help people achieve dialogue by (a) creating the right conditions, (b) managing safety, (c) providing a process that encourages constructive conversation, and (d) maintaining ends-in-view.

What defines a transformative moment in dialogue, and what makes such moments transformative? Professionals in the dialogue field have experienced transformative moments, but I think we need to know much more about these. In pursuing this question, we need to look for three kinds of things. The first are markers of change, or interactional features common at such moments when the group moves to a new plane. This might be a moment of collective excitement; it might be a time of clear shift or change on the part of certain participants; or it might be a change in tone or mood. Second, we need to interpret the meanings of participants for such moments. What did they see happening? What did it mean to them at that time? Finally, we need to identify some of the interactional events leading up to and following from these moments.


We have now a sufficient body of work on difficult conflict and forms of transcendence to provide some understanding of problems and solutions. This line of work is immensely heuristic as it continues to offer opportunities for additional inquiry and the further development of practice. Table 14.2 outlines the lessons we have learned from our own work and that of others within this realm.

We live in a world where surface disagreements belie the complexity of the true differences that divide us. In a world of many voices, our very ways of thinking and knowing create chasms on issues that will shape the human condition—issues like war and peace, the environment, poverty and prosperity, the role of science and religion, forms of government, cultural preservation and change, biology and genetics, and education and human development. We need to create meeting places where we can explore the moral orders that lie at the heart of our actions, where we can learn important things about ourselves and others, where we can join in a common endeavor, and where we can create futures of mutual benefit.