Find Mediators Near You:

Mediation and the Language and Culture of Politics

“In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.”  All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.  When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.” 

George Orwell

“ [I]f we use the wrong language, we cannot describe what we are seeing.  If we use the language developed for describing fish, we cannot very well describe an elephant: words like "gills,” ”‘scales,” and “fins” will not get us very far.”  

Masha Gessen

“[P]eople care less for our beautiful and complex language than they do for the great, crude questions of what is correct and what incorrect.  We have ceased to be the poetry lovers we once were, the aficionados of ambiguity and the devotees of doubt, and we have become barroom moralists.  Does the thumb point upward?  Does it turn down? …. We are all now gladiators in the Coliseum of the Thumb.” 

 Salman Rushdie


One of the principal difficulties with political conflicts is that, in addition to disagreements over ideas, facts, proposals, beliefs, and values, there are significant differences in the languages we use to describe ourselves, our opponents, and the issues that divide us; as well as in the disparate cultural norms, expectations, myths, assumptions, and ways we attribute meaning to political ideas and assertions.  

These differences in language and culture can be quite apparent, simple, and correctable.  It is clear, for example, as journalist Katti Gray writes:

To change public policy, we also have to change people’s thinking, and to change their thinking, we have to change the language they use. . . .  When you say ‘convict,’ a negative image invariably springs into people’s minds. If you use only such fraught terms as ‘criminal’ or ‘felon’ or ‘offender’ or ‘inmate,’ you are suggesting that these are not human beings capable of being redeemed. Words matter. . . . By changing the language, you change the conversation. 

In addition to these relatively clear examples, there are deeper difficulties with the language and culture of politics that are far subtler, more complex, and challenging to address.  We can, for example, readily identify dozens of distortions in political language that permeate the speeches of candidates and elected leaders, including these (some suggested by others):

  • Broad statements that are so abstract and meaningless they cannot be opposed 

  • Excessive personalization of issues so they can only be addressed individually 

  • Negative frameworks that reinforce pessimistic images of the world 

  • Inculcation of a “learned helplessness” that assumes change is impossible

  • Angry, adversarial assumptions that undermine trust

  • Strangled or suppressed expression of intense emotions

  • Glorification of flags, anthems, and abstract symbols 

  • Romanticization of the past; of virtues, destiny, and ideals 

  • Narratives and stories of demonization and victimization 

  • All or nothing assumptions that eliminate common ground

  • Attacks directed at critics and independent media

  • Repeated references in noble, basso profundo tones, to “our country,” “the mother/fatherland,” or “the people of the United States of America” (or wherever)

  • Denials of wrongdoing and cover-ups

  • Laying blame for failures on opponents and claiming credit for their successes

  • Crass manipulations of maudlin sentimentality, particularly regarding children, struggling families, religious figures, the nation’s history, and recently departed political leaders

  • Facades of personal outrage and affront about others

  • Loud protestations and harsh denunciations of moral transgressions committed by others

  • Assertions of uncompromising toughness  

  • Simplistic, formulaic responses and unyielding principles regarding complex, multilayered, shifting problems

  • Demands for punishment of opponents

  • Crass use of religious sentiments and divine support for our nation

  • Sanctimony and self-righteousness combined with false humility

  • Calls for immediate action by others 

Yet these very excesses and distortions of political language, through their exaggerated, stultifying rhetoric, suggest the need for deeper dialogue, change, and learning.  As Toni Morrison brilliantly wrote regarding the language of war, but with equal applicability to the language of politics:

No matter the paid parades, the forced applause, the instigated riots, the organized protests (pro or con), self- or state censoring, the propaganda; no matter the huge opportunities for profit and gain; no matter the history of injustice – at bottom it is impossible to escape the suspicion that the more sophisticated the weapons of war, the more antiquated the idea of war.  The more transparent the power grab, the holier the justification, the more arrogant the claims, the more barbaric, the more discredited the language of war becomes. 

The Language of Politics 

Part of the problem is that the aggressive, adversarial languages adopted by power- and rights-based systems not only render them incapable of collaboratively solving problems, but dissuade others from trying to do so.  The difficulty is therefore one of inventing, basically from scratch, interest-based, collaborative, values-oriented, mediative political languages, cultures, and problem solving processes that can address global problems more rapidly and collaboratively.  

The language favored by power-based organizations such as the military, police, and monarchical states requires clarity, simplicity, and uniform interpretation in order to encourage unthinking obedience. The communications that emanate from these institutions therefore take the form of declarations, propaganda, pronouncements, and orders, which reinforce hierarchy and command, and imply punishment and contempt for those who disobey. 

On the other hand, the language favored by rights-based organizations such as legal institutions, bureaucracies, and formally democratic states, requires narrow distinctions, exceptions, and adjudicated interpretations in order to maintain control by permitting some behaviors and forbidding others.  The communications that emanate from these institutions take the form of rules and regulations, policies and procedures, legislative definitions, adversarial arguments, and legal interpretations, which reinforce bureaucracy and control and imply coercion and censure for those who do not fit in. 

By contrast, the language favored by interest-based organizations such as teams, civil society, and radically democratic states, requires affirmation of diversity, dissent, and dialogue in order to encourage collaboration and participation. The communications that emanate from these institutions take the form of open-ended questions, open dialogues, value-driven rules, conversations, and consensus decision-making, which reinforce social equality, economic equity, and political democracy. 

In fascism, power-based political language assumes a more intentionally destructive form, as described in detail by Victor Klemperer in his powerful book, Language of the Third Reich, which identified, among others, the following glaring distortions in Nazi political language:

  • Legitimizing hatred and rage directed toward racial, religious, sexual, or ethnic groups such as Jews, Blacks, Gypsies, Gays, and others

  • Generally debasing and “dumbing down” language to the level that is used by children in order to shame and ostracize others

  • Militarizing and brutalizing common speech

  • Promoting fear and disgust toward immigrants and foreigners

  • Discounting reason and elevating feelings

  • Repetitive stereotyping, emotional superlatives, use of romantic adjectives and personal insults

  • Using “big lies,” implausible denials and doublespeak

  • Hijacking or poisoning formerly positive terms such as “social,” “collective,” “followers,” and “faith” 

  • Transforming formerly negative words into positives, such as “domination,” “fanatical,” and “obedient” 

Joseph Goebbels, chief propagandist for the Nazi Party, described the fascist objective quite clearly:

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such a time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie.  It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.

And Adolph Hitler, in Mein Kampf, went further:

All propaganda must be so popular and on such an intellectual level, that even the most stupid of those toward whom it is directed will understand it.  Therefore, the intellectual level of the propaganda must be lower the larger the number of people who are to be influenced by it….  Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way round, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise. 

One of the foremost differences between “ordinary” political lies and the “big lie” technique described by Goebbels, Hitler, and others, is that fascist governments use language and violence in combination to force people to live their lies.  Statements that are obviously deceptive, deceitful, duplicitous, and divided become mandatory and routine, and are reframed as honest, straightforward, reliable, and unified, creating what Gregory Bateson called “double binds” that immediately make anyone who does not comply easily identifiable, indisputably wrong, and vulnerable to attack.  

Everyone is compelled by coercive and violent means to internalize and enact the lie, vigorously defend it against the truth, and force others to accept its correctness.  This permits a form of political control that is near total, and eliminates the need for universal monitoring, as it forces people to surrender all independent thought and ensures their advance support for whatever illegal, unconstitutional, and unjust actions may be employed.  

One of the primary tasks of conflict resolvers is therefore to reframe power- and rights-based political languages in ways that support a transition to more interest-based, egalitarian, collaborative, and democratic communications.  As mediators, we already know many of the elements needed to do this, but have yet to put them together in ways that are politically compelling and capable of overcoming entrenched, insurgent, and authoritarian groups, whose desire for power and domination invite adversarial, demagogic, and dishonest forms of political discourse.  [For more on language and politics, see discussion in Conflict Revolution: Designing Preventative Solutions for Social, Economic, and Political Conflicts, and Politics, Dialogue, and the Evolution of Democracy]

Alternative Forms of Advocacy, Rhetoric, and Discourse

The language of politics largely consists of one-sided statements of positions, advocacy of adversarial outcomes, rhetorical arguments for and against, angry denunciations of opponents, partisan declarations of fact and law, closed-ended questions, stereotypes and biases against others, emotional appeals for support, egotistical grandstanding, and efforts to persuade those in the middle to join forces in defeating the opposition.  

More than two millennia ago, Aristotle identified three primary forms of advocacy, rhetoric, and persuasion, which are routinely used in adversarial legal and political discourse today.  These are:

  1. Logos:  Arguments based on logic or reason, or on evidence such as facts or figures.  Yet is it common for lawyers and politicians to play fast-and-loose with logic and with facts and figures, and for fact checking and corrections to go unnoticed.  

  2.  Ethos:  Arguments based on character, or ethics, or credibility and expertise.  Yet legal and political arguments often place a premium on character assassination, ignore ethical violations, and discount proven credibility and expertise.

  3.  Pathos:  Arguments based on emotion or feelings.  Yet powerful negative feelings like fear and anger can easily be stirred up by adversarial legal and political processes, and overwhelm rationality.

Through mediation practice, dialogue facilitation, and other interest-based forms of communication, we have discovered that it is possible to reframe and shift these approaches in the direction of collaborative outcomes by using alternative approaches to advocacy, rhetoric, and persuasion, including:

  1. Personal Experience and Empathy, chiefly through storytelling, dialogue and empathetic listening 

  2. Vision and Values, chiefly through leadership, commitment and modeling

  3. Synergy and Syntheses, chiefly through conflict resolution and the integration of competing ideas

  4. Beauty and Symmetry, chiefly through the arts, sciences and mathematics

  5. Love and Caring, chiefly through kindness, heartfelt interactions, shared intimacy, and reciprocity in relationships

The outcome of these alternative approaches to advocacy, rhetoric, and persuasion is the emergence of languages, cultures, and forms of discourse that are multi-sided, collaborative, and non-binary; that search for shared meanings, ask open-ended questions, acknowledge and learn from opponents, critique biases and stereotypes, encourage honesty and authenticity, and aim for consensus-based outcomes that are acceptable to all.  

If we ask, what is better than advocacy, rhetoric, and persuasion, the answer is a dialogue, sparked by a finely honed question, that might lead to self-discoveries, profound realizations, fresh insights, heightened awareness, new ways of thinking, creative forms of problem solving, increased ownership, discovery of complex truths, transformation and transcendence of the conflict, improved capacity for communication and collaboration, more trusting and satisfying relationships, learning and wisdom, deeper humility, increased skills, enhanced civility, and a search for personal, relational, and systemic improvement.

Two Meanings of Civility 

It is also essential for us to find ways of responding imaginatively to the superficially civil, legalistic, and bureaucratic, rights-based languages that are commonly used by conflict-averse organizations and institutions to stall, sideline, dishearten, undermine, and punish efforts to bring about systemic change.  We need to invent and discover words and phrases that will resonate with voters who seem to oscillate between being apathetic and avoidant, scared and distrustful, proud and aggressive, or enraged and punishing, all of which are elicited, strengthened, and sustained by political language.  

These adversarial power- and rights-based languages and polarized cultures of politics are sometimes used simply as a cover for playing it safe, or to hide from the consequences of what needs to be done.  Yet our customary practice as mediators is to invite people, implicitly and explicitly, to shift their languages and cultures from an orientation to adversarial power-based battles; or rights-based civility, conformity, and passive compliance; to interest-based exploration, dissent, and ownership.  

It is important, however, to clarify what we mean by “civility,” as at least two meanings are possible. First, it can suggest conflict suppression and a retreat to superficial politeness that marginalizes intense emotions and prioritizes accommodation and compromise.  Second, it can denote conflict engagement and a shift to respectful, open, honest conversations about values, beliefs, and feelings that are affirming, empathetic, inclusive, diverse, and collaborative.  

Each of these definitions leads to vastly different languages, cultures, and outcomes, both in politics and in personal relationships.  At the core of the first is often a fear of confrontation and the negative emotions that flow from adversarial, win/lose power- and rights-based arguments; while the second reveals a deep-seated recognition of the generative value of dissent, differences of opinion, and the positive emotions and improved outcomes that emanate from collaborative, win/win, interest-based processes and relationships.  

To encourage the use of these interest-based processes and relationships, it is important to identify a few core lessons from past responses to political conflicts.  First, it is not helpful for mediators to use civility to silence or minimize the passion and commitment people feel for what they believe in, or want for the world.  Second, it is helpful for mediators to use civility to try and redirect peoples’ passions and commitments from attacking their opponents to understanding what is beneath the surface of their emotions, beliefs, and desires, and search together for principles on which they can agree.  Third, it is also helpful to use civility to remind ourselves that we are members of the same family, we belong to the same species, and all live on the same planet, and sooner or later, we will have to find ways of solving problems together if we are to survive.  Fourth, the ability to discuss, negotiate, and resolve differences civilly is foundational, not only to mediated problem solving but to collaboration and democracy.  Fifth, changing the ways we speak to each other about our differences can vastly improve all our communications, dialogues, negotiations, problem solving efforts, and mediations, and help overcome impasse and intractability.  Sixth, conventional political language promotes one-sided, partisan support for a single person’s or party‘s ideas, assertions, and proposals, and we need to strengthen civil ways of affirming everyone’s right to have the ideas they believe in discussed, considered, tested, and then either adopted, amended, synthesized, or discarded.  

Without these core ideas, it is easy to lose touch with empathy and slip into uncivil, adversarial political arguments, or to stand civilly and passively by as angry, hostile groups use their freedom of speech uncivilly, precisely in order to destroy it for others — as the Nazi’s consciously did in Germany in the 1920s and 30’s.  Unfortunately, as history amply demonstrates, failing to defend our opponents’ right to speak legitimizes them in later denying it to us and makes the abrogation and annulment of democracy far more likely.  Worse, it cheats everyone out of the opportunity to turn conflict avoidance and authoritarian monologues into conflict engagement and democratic dialogues, reinforcing the subtle fascistic attitudes that destroy civility in order to promote violence and silence their opposition, even at the subtle level of processes and relationships.  

In the end, whatever connects us empathetically and collaboratively across our differences will predictably result in reducing our capacity for fear and hatred, which are the deeper truths of our incivility and hostility toward others.   Nietzsche interestingly wrote that the best way to enrage people is to force them to change their minds about you.  This seems especially true in politics, and is a principal difficulty in our work as mediators, as we can see in conflicts over civility and respect, bias and prejudice, and exclusive, hostile, argumentative cultures of political correctness.  

Cultures of Political Correctness 

When politics is limited to elections, and democracy is confined to voting yes or no, for or against, this party or that, my candidate or yours, political language and culture automatically become binary, digital, flat, crude, and adversarial, reducing our ability to solve complex, subtle, multi-dimensional problems, and demoting them to clashes over cursory, overly simplistic, falsely polarized, one-dimensional proposals.  

These stunted, power- and rights-based languages and cultures block genuine engagement, dialogue, and popular decision-making, and increasingly turn democracy into an empty shell that can easily be manipulated by elites, autocrats, and corrupt politicians.  Each side assumes there is a single, unitary, exclusive, invariant truth that consists solely in what they alone are saying; or even more trivially, in the dogmatic, propagandistic, formulaic ways they say it.  In the process, complex meanings are simplified, distorted, and disguised, taking the form of repeated, coded phrases and covert “dog whistles,” representing veiled political goals that are undisclosed, undiscussed, and undefined, yet inferred and understood.  

While these distorted political languages and cultures of “political correctness,” are commonly attributed to the left, they are actually found in all parties, groups, and factions of the left, right, and middle.  Each insists on using words and phrases that reinforce their particular values and beliefs without explicitly saying so, and in these ways create easy sources of group identity, mass conformity, social cohesion, ostracism, and personal anonymity.  

These political languages can be critiqued as efforts to create a single objective standard for everyone in deciding which political ideas and acts are ethically or factually correct and which are not; or alternately, as an unstated, yet logically necessary assumption that political ideas in general are pluralistic, unscientific, and therefore incapable of being proved either ethical or unethical, true or false, correct or incorrect, based on objective evidence that others are likely to find convincing.  

Yet accusations of political correctness can also be seen as requests for more respectful relationships; invitations into open dialogue and joint problem solving; unconscious efforts to move beyond power-based hostile and demeaning biases and stereotypes; or criticisms of historically dated rights-based political orthodoxies, superficialities, and subliminal slurs.  

Regardless of the underlying reasons for these accusations, logically there are only six possible outcomes of any effort to determine which of two competing political propositions is correct: 

  1. The first is correct and the second is incorrect

  2. The second is correct and the first is incorrect

  3. Both are incorrect 

  4. Both are correct

  5. Neither is correct or incorrect

  6. Both are correct and incorrect in different ways

The first two options, which underlie most accusations of political correctness, commonly result in efforts to counter or suppress the “incorrect” act, statement, or idea, sometimes by force, and impose a win/lose outcome that rejects the losing proposition entirely, castigates and punishes those who spoke or acted incorrectly, and generally ends the conversation without dialogue, learning, synergy, or improvement. 

The third and fifth options also end the conversation prematurely, unless we go deeper and critique the underlying belief that it is possible to determine, in a scientific way, whether a given political statement is actually correct or incorrect.  More often, these assumptions take a simplistic, cynical, middle-of-the-road position favored by bureaucrats, journalists, political pundits, and frightened voters, and dismiss the “extreme” views on both sides, often out of cowardice rather than conviction, and a fear of being attacked or ostracized for taking an unpopular position. 

The fourth option moves us a little nearer to the core problem of trying to establish the truth of political assertions, which are not, as Isaiah Berlin argued, mathematical or scientific in nature; that is, they are generally non-quantifiable, non-provable, and non-falsifiable.  This option has the defect that it may also end the conversation at the precise moment when it might become useful – that is, at what mediators recognize as the source, center, or crux of the conflict, where it is most likely to lead to genuine communication, insight, learning, and growth.  

I find the sixth option more useful because it captures the complexity, subtlety, hidden dimensionality, and paradoxical nature of most political conflicts, whose correctness or “truth,” frequently takes the form of a “complementarity,” a term coined and defined by Nobel Prize winning physicist Neils Bohr as, “a great truth whose opposite is also a great truth.”  

In other words, what is fundamentally correct about all deeply held political beliefs and assertions is that they represent one out of many possible interpretations of the meaning of a set of subjective experiences; or particular ideas and options for the future that might be modified and retooled to include others.  These are accompanied by a latent defect in the adversarial form of their presentation, which can give rise to opposition for reasons that are not always entirely conscious, clear, or constructive.  

What is fundamentally incorrect about all deeply held political assertions is that they do not acknowledge or include the opposite “complementary” truths advanced by others, who are stereotyped as misguided and regarded as adversaries.  As a result, they are not yet “whole” truths, but incomplete, immature, “larval” forms that have yet to experience the syntheses and transformations that are uniquely triggered by communication, dialogue, joint problem solving, collaboration, negotiation, and mediation.  

John Stuart Mill wrote, several centuries ago, that, “It is not the violent conflict between parts of the truth, but the quiet suppression of half of it that is the formidable evil.”  And the half we are most eager to suppress, often out of a desire for certainty and simplicity, or a deeply held belief in some ethical or moral principle, is the half that transforms the truth we insist on into a more nuanced, subtle, complex, enigmatic, evolved, and beautiful form that runs deeper and lasts longer than the half we are holding on to so dearly; the one we dress up and distort until it becomes a caricature and turns false, even as it is spoken.  

What, then, are the “politically correct” assertions people complain about so bitterly? Often they are simply subjective truths, i.e., painful life experiences, passionately held ideas, or intense unacknowledged emotions, together with a lack of skill in communicating them successfully to others, whose equally valid experiences, ideas, and emotions draw them in different directions.  Yet it is possible to design conversations that result in listening, learning, and encourage people to discover higher orders of truth that only emerge when they creatively combine their opposing truths.  

This does not mean that genuine factual, mathematical, or scientific truths do not exist; or that what other people think and feel is not true for them; or that there is no truth other than experience and opinion; or that political beliefs are superior to reality; or that compromise always leads to higher truths.  On the contrary, among the universally accepted criteria for factual, mathematical, and scientific truths is the idea that they should lead to unique predictions that can be tested, or as Karl Popper asserted, falsified.  Once these higher levels of truth have been established, no denial, no matter how rigorously imposed, can maintain it forever.  

Moreover, none of these truths is made any truer by combining opposing propositions in some bland, cursory, mediocre compromise that denies their opposition; or by reducing them to conventional banalities, clichés, and platitudes; or by adulterating whatever accuracy they may once have possessed; or by reducing them to sterile, neutered forms that eliminate conflicts by stripping them of all their deeper meanings and consequences.  

Higher forms of combination take place when conflicts are transformed in ways that invite them to assume non-zero sum forms that capture their complexity; strip them of their destructive potential; focus their energy on diverse, collaborative, interest-based approaches to problem-solving; and encourage critical examination, learning, and improvement. 

As a consequence, there are two principle methods for combining opposites: first, in a simplistic way through compromise, as by adding cold water to hot water and producing lukewarm water; or second, in a more complex way through synthesis, as by adding water, flour, yeast, and heat and creating bread.  It is the second that allows us to resolve our conflicts, and becomes possible through dialogue, collaborative negotiation, mediation, and similar techniques.  What allows us to transition from lukewarm solutions to those that create bread is our ability to discover or design questions that invite adversaries to shift from power- to rights- to interest-based approaches to conflict resolution. 

In all disputes, including those that are social, economic, political, and environmental, it is possible for mediators to identify a set of “pivot points” that take the form of “dangerous” questions around which conflicts can turn, and shift from being intractable to being resolvable. For example, it is possible to transform adversarial, zero sum political conversations over contested facts or beliefs by asking questions that focus on shared values, common interests, and subjective experiences; or on the problem as an “it” rather than as a “you;” or by reframing divisive, polarizing, exclusively correct languages. Our inability to make these shifts can cause mediations to fail, keep us at impasse, divert attention to blaming others; and block us from addressing chronic conflicts at their systemic sources.  

Why Political Mediations Sometimes Fail 

To fully understand any method, process, or technique and implement it effectively, we need to probe its limits and push it to the point where it begins to break down, allowing us to discover in its decomposition something of its true nature.  [For more on this process and the limits of mediation, see my article on]  

It is important to begin by admitting that mediation is not a cure-all, or snake oil that can lubricate all social ills.  While conflict resolution methods are nearly always beneficial, even when they don’t result in agreements, are there political times when they are not?  Under what circumstances might conflict actually be preferable to settlement, compromise, or partial, truncated solutions?  

What, for instance, of the mediation in Munich between Hitler and Mussolini representing Germany and Italy, versus Chamberlain and Daladier for England and France?  Was it appropriate for Mussolini to act as the mediator?  Was trading the defense of Czechoslovakia for predictably false promises of peace a successful compromise?  Who was, and was not at the table when that decision was made, and what difference would their inclusion in the mediation have made?  What would a genuine mediation or full resolution of that conflict have looked like?  Who would have had to have been present?  Could a different approach have led to a different result?  

What about the many efforts to mediate the growing conflicts that took place over slavery before the U.S. Civil War, all of which offered guarantees for the continued legality of slavery?  What about the conflicts that took place over apartheid in South Africa prior to the release of Nelson Mandela, or over colonialism in India before independence?  Would it have been possible in those circumstances to reach full and genuine resolutions through ordinary mediation and dialogue?  How might we mediate serious losses of status, wealth, power, and environmental advantage?  What should the role of mediation be in highly polarized political conflicts that are gravitating towards war?  How do we know whether, or when, instead of producing a resolution, mediation might actually bring about a loss of hope or trust, and a continuation of the conflict?  

Or, on a smaller and more personal scale, what would mediation before the event consist of, for example, between a murderer and his or her innocent intended victim?  What of the rape victim, the slum tenant who resides with rats, or the parents of a molested child?  Are "win-win" approaches always possible, and what do we do if they aren’t?  When does compromise become unacceptable and conflict preferable?  When does neutrality mean siding with the powerful against the powerless?  

In my experience as a participant in the political movements of the 1960’s, including the civil rights movement in the South and the North, there were many occasions when confrontation felt necessary and useful, for example, in drawing attention to injustice, or bringing people to the negotiating table, or offering dignity and a voice to people who would otherwise have been silenced and ignored.  All these, in hindsight, can be seen as essential steps in securing deeper and more lasting resolutions by using conflict as a means of calling attention — not only to important problems, but their underlying chronic, systemic sources.  

Through these examples, we can recognize that, not only for us as individuals; and for marriages, families, workplaces, and interpersonal relationships; but also for organizations, cultures, societies, economies, polities, and environments, there are times when conflicts need to be expressed in order to expose their chronic underlying sources, and thereby make deeper, genuine, and complete resolutions possible.  

This is not to suggest that destructive conflicts ought to continue indefinitely without making strenuous efforts at resolution; or that peacemaking is not a fundamental goal; but that there are limits on the desirability of compromising and settling conflicts prematurely, without achieving just outcomes; or surfacing their hidden secrets; or revealing the preventative possibility of ending their chronic, systemic repetition; and, that it may sometimes be necessary even to increase the level of conflict in order to discover how to resolve it more completely and lastingly.  

We can therefore broaden our definition of the role of conflict resolvers to include not merely stopping or settling conflicts, but helping people discover the language they need to constructively express them, open them up, expose their hidden natures, encourage principled opposition to their chronic sources, design systemic improvements, and end their long-term destructiveness.  In the process, we will discover that there are ways of disagreeing and fighting more positively and productively, intelligently and competently, collaboratively and synergistically – not over relatively superficial and mundane issues; but their hidden sources, enduring elements, and essential natures, and learn how to transform, transmute, transcend, and prevent them.  

Doing so will require us to shift the entire nature of political discourse, in part by incorporating principles of emotional intelligence, dialogue facilitation, consensus building, mediation, and the sensitivity and depth of poetry into the coarse and profane language of politics.   Poet Reginald Dwayne Betts writes,  

I want to say that language is politics, but that seems not to be true. Or it seems to suggest that everything is politics and if everything is politics, then nothing is politics.  So maybe the way I understand the two is this: for me, the language of poetry is what allows me to recognize something about politics I hadn’t before. 

If poetics and politics represent unique truths, the creation of a language that combines them could produce profound results.  Henry David Thoreau was said to have kept two books, one for facts and one for poems, and to have sought some day to merge them, so that every poem would be a fact, and every fact would be a poem.  I cannot imagine a better future for the language of politics.  


Kenneth Cloke

Kenneth Cloke is Director of the Center for Dispute Resolution and a mediator, arbitrator, consultant and trainer, specializing in resolving complex multi-party conflicts internationally and in designing conflict resolution systems for organizations. Ken is a nationally recognized speaker and leader in the field of conflict resolution, and a published author… MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


Justices Seek Justice, Not Peace*

Just 3 years after Fisher & Ury's Getting to Yes started us on a journey most readers of this blog are yet to complete, Yale University's Owen Fiss delivered his...

By Geoff Sharp

EQ vs IQ: Do Attorneys & Mediators need Emotional Intelligence?

The story made headlines around the world last year. Crisis deepens as apology plea rebuffed. Relations between China and Japan were at their lowest point in decades with reports the...

By David Bogan

The Five Most Effective Ways to Break Negotiation Impasse: Part II

Someone recently told me that you can't argue with a story, only with a position or another argument.  That's why narrative is such a powerful impasse breaker and why asking...

By Victoria Pynchon