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The ABC’s of Conflict Resolution: “E” is for Enemy

This is your enemy.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, he

feels hatred toward, intends injury to, or opposes [your] interests[; he’s] . . . a foe[;]  [a] hostile power or force, such as a nation[;] . . . [a] member or unit of such a force[; or,] . . . [a] group of foes or hostile forces.

Though some enemies are real (Japan bombing Pearl Harbor, for instance; or, al-Qaeda terrorists flying passenger jets into New York’s Twin Towers) others are imagined.

“Our” imagined enemies have included people of  nearly every color, creed, national origin, disability, political persuasion, and, sexual preference.    “We” have feared the influx of German, Japanese, Irish, Italian, Iranian, Mexican, Puerto Rican; Jewish; Catholic; and, Muslim immigrants.

When our own countrymen formed groups ideologically opposed to the existing power structure, we have feared each and all of them as enemies of the state — communists, socialists and, anarchists; free speech advocates, hippies, yippies and weathermen; trade unionists and abolitionists; civil rights activists; and, early in the 20th century, women who sought the vote.

Entire nations have been enemies of course.  The former U.S.S.R. was our most visible national enemy for most of the 20th century even though our “cold” war with it never turned “hot” except by proxy.  The last war that was supported by a majority of our country’s citizens, the Second, was against enemies who are now our allies — Germany, Japan and Italy.

Who “we” are matters deeply when we identify enemies.  Europeans were enemies to the Native Americans whose lands were invaded and occupied.  “We” (and here I count myself among white Europeans and their descendants in this land) were enemies to the Africans who were captured and shipped as slaves to the “new world”  by the Portuguese,Dutch,English,Spanish, and French.

If you take a quick look in the mirror, odds are better than even that you’ll see a present or former “enemy” of the United States looking right back at you.

What Makes This Man My Enemy?

Most of us do not have to look far to identify an enemy.  By the time we are five or six years old, we begin to form “in groups” for our own protection.  We are, after all, social animals whose survival depends upon our membership in a family, clan, tribe, community, city, state or nation.  Once comfortably ensconced in such a group, however, we are tempted to demonize “outsiders” who we assume are competing for the same scarce resources we are.  Too often, “we” turn physical and psychological weapons against those we have demonized.

Left to our own devices, we more or less reflexively create outsiders.  In schools that are primarily “white,” for instance, even school children will begin to exclude Hispanic and African-American children from their play groups.  In primarily Hispanic or African-American schools, “white” children are identifiably “other” and excludable.

But do not imagine that we would live harmoniously with one another if only we segregated ourselves by the color of our skin; our religion; or, our national origin.

In the absence of an immigrant child who speaks with an accent and wears a head-scarf, the dominant playground in-group will rely upon far finer graditions of “otherness.”  Children with disabilities are prime targets of exclusions as are those who do not meet “popular” standards of intelligence, beauty, athletic prowess or wealth — this last often marked even in grade school by the “branding” of clothing and athletic shoes.

Making Allies of Enemies:  Use Your Words

We’ll talk later about the hot political issue of this campaign season — negotiating with terrorists.  For now, we’ll stay on the elementary school playground.  Teacher Eleanor Vistein and Project Children L.E.A.D.  (Learning Early to Appreciate Diversity) Director Dr. Vincenne Revilla Beltran recommend the following communication exercise for children who are five to six years old.  Though we’re talking about school yards rather than international relations, don’t be surprised to learn that “cutting off diplomatic relations” — not speaking to one another — is as common among children as it is among world leaders.

To help children deal with schoolyard “enemies” Beltran and Vistein recommend that children as young as 5 and 6 be asked

if there was ever a time that they wanted another child to play with them, but the child wanted to play with a different child instead. Was there ever a time that another child called you a name? Made fun of you? Wouldn’t share with you? Called you names? Ask the children if they were able to solve these problems. If so, how? If not, what did they do?

This exercise allows children to prepare to share what international second-track diplomat the Rev. Brian Cox calls “conversations of the heart” among the people of warring nations.  (see his book Faith-Based Reconciliation:  A Moral Vision that Transforms People and Society here)  There is not a one of us who has not felt the sting of exclusion and ridicule. Not one of us who hasn’t been excluded as an “enemy.”

Beltran and Vistein continue:

Tell the children you are going to read [The Hating Book, a story] about two friends who wouldn’t talk to each other anymore. This caused problems for them. After I read the story, we will talk about how they solved the problem. 


What was the problem? ([One girl] sat by someone else on the bus, she used someone else’s pencil when her friend offered to let her use hers, she didn’t ask her to help wash the blackboard, she didn’t choose her to be on her team)

What did the mother tell the girl to do to solve the problem? (Use her words to ask her friend, “Why”)

How did the girls solve the problem? (They used their words to talk it over.)

Tell the children they can use their words to keep problems from happening or to solve them when they do happen.  . . .

Choose two children to be the friends in the story. Have the children reenact what happened on the school bus. . . . . Demonstrate how an “I” statement could have solved the problem. “I got upset when you didn’t sit by me.”

Choose two different children to be the friends in the story. Have the children reenact what happened in school with the pencils. . . . . Ask the children if they can think of an “I” statement that the girl could use; if not, provide them with one.

Choose two different children to be the friends in the story. Have the children reenact what happened when it was time to wash the blackboard. Ask the children if they can think of an “I” statement that the girl could use to solve the problem; if not, provide them with one.

Repeat this procedure for the time she wasn’t chosen to be on her friend’s team.

Tell the children that telling a friend how they feel about a problem can help to prevent or solve the problem. Tell the children that if someone won’t listen to their words, they should get an adult to help them solve the problem.

Oh, that’s too simplistic, you say.  That’s a children’s game.  If we talk to our enemies — particularly terrorists — we risk appeasing their demands and encourage the escalation of their terrorist activities.  We give them legitimacy by talking to them.

These are serious concerns and we will discuss them in more sophisticated detail in the chapter “T” is for Terrorist.

In the meantime, let’s remember to “use our words” when local conflict threatens to shut down communications or escalates into physical violence.  Because if we look in the mirror, we’ll find that we too have once been someone’s enemy; that we have been reconciled with the “dominant” culture; and, that we continue to bring productive working members inside our inner circle not “despite” but because of the benefits of diversity.

Finally, let’s retain hope.  Hope that we and our enemies can — at a minimum — find ways to talk to one another about protecting the innocent caught in our cross-fire until the day on which we transform those enemies into our friends.


Victoria Pynchon

Attorney-mediator Victoria Pynchon is a panelist with ADR Services, Inc. Ms. Pynchon was awarded her LL.M Degree in Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute in May of 2006, after 25 years of complex commercial litigation practice, with sub-specialties in intellectual property, securities fraud, antitrust, insurance coverage, consumer class actions and all… MORE >

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