Featured Special Issue 13:3 Article – Talking to the Enemy: Difficult Conversations and Ethnopolitical Conflict

Featured Special Issue 13:3 Article


Talking to the Enemy: Difficult Conversations and Ethnopolitical Conflict
By Donald Ellis


Connection to the Special Issue

Eventually, all parties to a conflict must talk. Whether the conflict is about a small matter that can be handled with some guided interaction, or a detailed and complex conflict that has implications for identity, ethnicity, or political power, there comes a point when the parties to the conflict must build relationships and collaborate on solutions. That is, at some point in the conflict conversations are necessary and sometimes these conversations are difficult. Ethnopolitical conflicts (e.g. Israelis and Palestinians), which are particularly resistant to resolution, and are concerned with issues such as sanctity, deep-rooted values, and identity are often characterized by “difficult conversations.” The essay below describes the conditions of ethnopolitical conflict that leads to difficult conversations. In an era of extreme polarization where conflicting parties live in their own information enclaves it becomes increasingly important to understand the strategies of respectful conversation, how to initiate and facilitate conversation, communication tactics for change, and the efficacy of democratic deliberation.



This article reviews intractability qualities (power imbalance, existential threat, cognitive distortions, extreme emotions, and trauma), and uses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an example of the difficult conversations that depict the conflict between competing groups. There are two typical research trends for analyzing group conflict. These are either a rational model or intractable conflict model. The rational model assumes that differences are over realistic issues such as scarce resources. The intractable model focuses on identity and emotions. Intractable conflicts are recalcitrant, nonrational, and particularly resistant to resolution. They generate difficult conversations. The argument here demonstrates how intractability establishes the descriptive conditions for difficult conversations about conflicts. These conditions are incommensurate cultural narratives, narrative particularity, existential threat, power differences, and delegitimization. Islam and the West and the Israelis and Palestinians are used as examples. Finally, such difficult divides must attend to five issues that ameliorate difficult conversations, namely, inclusion, maximization of arguments and reasons, controlling undue influences, dialogic equality, and the value of deliberation.


Author’s Biography

Donald Ellis

is a Professor in the School of Communication at the University of Hartford. Professor Ellis is the past editor of the journal Communication Theory, an ICA fellow, and the author of numerous books and articles pertaining to communication issues and ethnopolitical conflict. He is currently working on ethnopolitically divided groups where conversations are particularly “difficult.” Such groups are typically divided by religion and identity conflicts characterized by distorted communication resulting from ingroup-outgroup distinctions. Follow related issues on my blog at: http://peaceandconflictpolitics.com