Nussbaum – Lessons on Language: Ken Cloke’s Dance of Opposites

Lydia Nussbaum (UNLV) sends this report from Ken Cloke’s recent visit to UNLV’s Saltman Center.


The Saltman Center for Conflict Resolution and the UNLV Boyd School of Law had the pleasure of hosting Ken Cloke on March 3.  He spoke to an audience of more than 80 people that included students, faculty, attorneys, and mediation practitioners.

Ken is the Director of the Center for Dispute Resolution and one of the founders of Mediators Beyond Borders.  Ken discussed some of the concepts explored in his latest book, The Dance of Opposites: Explorations in Mediation, Dialogue and Conflict Resolution Systems Design.  With this text, Ken moves beyond the basic precepts of mediation practice, drawing on research from the fields of linguistics, psychology, neuro-physiology, and religion, to name a few, to re-examine the nature of conflict and the work mediators do to manage it.  He explores what mediation can do to address contemporary challenges, such as global warming and politics, and ultimately considers how mediation’s strengths and weaknesses can address unsolved problems and conflicts of the future.

Ken’s talk at UNLV focused primarily on the language of conflict.  Agreeing with Mark Twain’s observation that “kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see,” Ken used examples to illustrate how deconstructing the language of conflict by its grammar, syntax, myth, archetype, and metaphor exposes the deeper meaning of the parties’ conflict.

Take grammar for example.  A characteristic structure for conflict sentence is:  PRONOUN + VERB + ACCUSATION (JUDGMENT).  By paying attention to the form of PRONOUN used, one can elicit different forms of response.  Consider a workplace conflict where one individual feels like she is taking on a greater burden of work responsibilities.  Using different pronouns, such as they, you, s/he, it, I, and we, causes the characterization of the conflict to shift and thus leads to a different outcome.

Pronouns that are less accusatory and more objective, such as we, send a message of collaboration to the listener.  The pronouns we use can influence how others react to us and, if used constructively, have the potential to transform a conflict.  Ken conducts a similar analysis for other grammatical elements, such as verbs and objects, and comes away with the same conclusion: from the pronouns we use to the metaphors we reference, language is charged with emotional content.  By examining the language of conflict communications, mediators and dialogue facilitators gain insight into what the conflict means to each individual and what interventions are likely to be effective.

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