Name-Calling in Conflict

Roy Lewicki

Professor of Management and Human Resources at Ohio State University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: The environmentalists regularly referred to the people on the other side of the table, the development community, homebuilders, power companies, companies with big investments who were disturbing the earth and as a result changed the ground water conditions or control run-off, siltage, or a whole variety of things, constantly, to their face, called them "polluters." That is not a term of endearment. That is not a term that allows the polluters to see what they are doing in a positive light. They don't feel like people on the other side are treating them fairly or nicely. That particular case clearly made the relationship between them somewhat more adversarial.

Q: So a skeptic might come along and say, "Big deal. Call them polluters; everyone knows that's what they really think." So it really wouldn't make that much of a difference to call them something else. How does it affect the negotiations themselves?

A: Conflict between parties is largely a result of interactions around non-verbal exchanges of looks and glances. Verbal articulation of issues, problems, perceptions and actions are either perceived as moving us in the same direction or moving us in different directions. Language is used in ways to heighten the conflict level because of what we call ourselves, what we call the other party, what we believe are the only reasonable ways for resolving this problem between us. It's fundamentally clear that if we are committed to conflict resolution we have to be committed to understanding what kind of language people are using. If we believe that resolution is possible we may have to help them change that language.