Posted in Communicating for Social Change, Compassion, Conflict, Political communication

50 Years Ago: MLK Riverside Speech

Fifty years ago today, April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered a powerful speech in which he connected the U.S. civil rights movement to opposition to the Vietnam War.

MLK-quote-riverside 779x400

His words about nonviolent action, compassion, and social change remain meaningful today – especially today.

Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.




Posted in Communication, Conference, Conflict, Workshop

Upcoming Presentation on Conflict Talk in Online Classrooms

Dr. Dorothy J. Della Noce and Dr. Debora Scheffel will present To Be Feared or Fostered? Conflict Talk in the Online Classroom at the 21st Annual Online Learning Consortium International Conference. The conference will be held at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort, Orlando, Florida on October 14-16, 2015.

Posted in Conflict, Empathy, Groups, social change

New Insights on Empathy in Intergroup Conflict

After spending most of my professional life in the conflict resolution field, I have to admit to experiencing a growing frustration with the state of the field in recent years. There have been times when I have felt that various parts of the field were stuck in their own ideologies, with the result that some interventions seemed to be based on little more than assumptions, research on efficacy of interventions was slow to accumulate, and mythology was revered while research results were ignored. Meanwhile, I looked around me and asked what real change has come from years of experimentation with conflict resolution strategies. I have sometimes been discouraged by my conclusions, especially as I watched intergroup conflicts continue to unfold both locally and internationally that could only be described as tribal – whether the tribes in question were ethnic, racial, socio-economic, religious or political. All this, coupled with my own experiences as a user of various conflict management processes, led to a scholar-practitioner’s existential crisis, prompting such questions as “How do we know what we think we know?” “What if we are wrong?” and “”What if we are doing more harm than good?”

So, I was heartened today to learn of the work of Dr. Emile Bruneau, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. An article by Jeneen Interlandi in The New York Times Magazine featured Dr. Bruneau’s work studying prejudice against the Roma in Eastern Europe. Dr. Bruneau has been studying intractable conflicts around the world for some time and also has some first-hand experience with conflict management programs. As Interlandi reports,

He started looking into conflict-intervention programs and discovered that there were hundreds more like the one he volunteered for in Ireland, and that hardly any of them had been scientifically validated. No one was really checking to see if the programs accomplished their stated goals, or even if their stated goals were the best ones for achieving the desired outcomes. “They have all these very straightforward metrics like building trust, and building empathy, that sound totally reasonable,” Bruneau says. “But it turns out that a lot of those common-sense approaches can be way off-base.”

Dr. Bruneau suspected that trait empathy – how empathetic a person is by nature – does not fully explain how that person will or will not behave in the course of intergroup conflict. He proposed that the mind creates an “empathy gap” when a person considers the situation of an enemy, and this empathy gap mutes or dampens the empathy signal for the enemy. The strength of the empathy gap depended on the strength of ingroup identification. It was this empathy gap that explained intergroup conflict.

The article stimulated my curiosity, so I visited Dr. Bruneau’s website at MIT.  Here are brief descriptions of two of his research programs that stood out for me.

Parochial Empathy. Dr. Bruneau distinguishes various types of empathy and has articulated the concept of “parochial empathy,” which is experiencing greater empathy for ingroup members than outgroup members. Parochial empathy can explain behavior during intergroup conflict. Dr. Bruneau has found interventions that mitigate parochial empathy, including the use of certain kinds of narratives (Ah! Now we are in my field!)

Perspective-taking and Perspective-giving. Dr. Bruneau found that both sides of an asymmetrical conflict were not equally affected by perspective-taking. While the more powerful side did experience positive effects from perspective-taking, the less powerful side actually benefitted more from “perspective-giving:” speaking and being listened to (Again, my field!).

I appreciate Dr. Bruneau’s approach of questioning the taken-for-granted common sense of conflict processes and interventions. His research is challenging some long-held assumptions with evidence. At the same time, his work is deepening our understanding of fundamental conflict processes and shedding new light on possible interventions. As Bruneau stated in Interlandi’s interview,

“I get that these are complicated problems,” he told me. “I get that there isn’t going to be any one magic solution. But if you trace even the biggest of these conflicts down to its roots, what you find are entrenched biases, and these sort-of calcified failures of empathy. So I think no matter what, we have to figure out how to root that out.”

I encourage you to visit Dr. Bruneau’s website and read his publications  for more. The research is exciting, fresh, promising, and relevant.


Interlandi, J. (2015, March 19). The brain’s empathy gap. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from

Posted in Communication, Conflict, conversation, Dialogue, Political communication

Beginning a Conversation with “Loves and Doubts”

This morning’s New York Times featured a compelling interview between David Bornstein and Parker J. Palmer, author of Healing the heart of democracy: The courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit (2014).  Bornstein (2014) noted his desire to find ways that we all can relate to each other better. After some discussion of the current state of conflict in our national politics, Bornstein asked Palmer, “How do we talk across lines of difference more successfully?” Palmer’s reply included this excerpt:

We can talk across lines by talking about what we love, because a lot of us love the same things: our kids and grandkids, our country, the natural world, the idea that people should be able to get ahead in life. Then we can talk about our doubts, because we all doubt that what we love is being served well. Beginning a conversation with loves and doubts rather than political ideologies opens a new door to dialogue, driven by story-telling rather than political point scoring.

The interview offers many touching, brilliant, and practical examples of how story-telling was used to encourage dialogue.

What also struck me in this interview was the use of the root metaphor “conversation” when talking about constructing ways for people to talk together across differences. This has been an interest of mine for quite some time. The root metaphor of conversation was one of the key differentiators that I discovered in my research when I compared the practices of transformative mediators with those of mediators who did not engage in transformative practice in order to discover if there was anything truly unique about transformative practice. I discovered that transformative mediators crafted their interactions with “conversation” as a guide, and this root metaphor held together a web of unique discursive moves.

One of my ongoing research interests is how to carry the idea of conversation beyond theory and metaphor and into practical, on-the-ground communication strategies. Now, I am inspired to think about how “loves and doubts” can become part of conversation. I find the focus on putting our “doubts” into conversation to be especially intriguing.  It is a refreshing and constructive counterbalance to certainty and ideology — surefire conversation killers. Off to the bookstore I go!

Bornstein, D. (2014, Sept. 4). Reclaiming “We the People,” one person at a time. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Posted in Communication, Conflict, conversation, Negotiation, Political communication, Quotes

Contesting the Term “Negotiation”

As I said in an earlier post, we need to be alert to how the interactions around the current  government shutdown are named and framed, because the names and frames that are used actually import entire narratives of norms, expectations, obligations, rights, and responsibilities.

The news reports over the last several days demonstrate that the term “negotiation” is now actively being contested in public discourse. Here is a meme that I saw on Facebook today:


At the same time, I have visited the Facebook pages of various political figures involved in this crisis over the last several days. Many of those figures — and their supporters —  are working hard to claim the term “negotiation,” which is understandable considering the norms, expectations, obligations, rights, and responsibilities that are carried with it.

Finally, it is worth noting that House Speaker John Boehner has made a recent shift to the use of “conversation” as his underlying metaphor.  Eric Black of the Minnesota Post offers an excellent analysis of the transcript of ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” in which Boehner uses the word 22 times! Apparently, he wants to trigger a different narrative and thereby reframe the norms, expectations, obligations, rights, and responsibilities that apply to those involved.

In a post last spring, I discussed the hallmarks of “conversation” as a conflict management strategy. Needless to say, I think this is a very constructive and humanizing strategy. However, I see none of the hallmarks of “conversation” in Boehner’s actions — only his words. Again, the word is being used for political positioning and needs to be interrogated and challenged.