Dialogue with Adversaries: Update
Dudley Weeks, PhD ©

February 2, 2009

Engaging in dialogue with adversaries opens up possibilities for resolving conflicts and improving situations.  Refusing to dialogue with adversaries hardens positions, damages all the parties directly involved in a conflict, and also damages others who are affected by the conflict. 

These two statements have proven true time and time again both in interpersonal and international relationships.  Yet, we see many situations in which people and nations refuse to enter into dialogue with adversaries.  And if they eventually do, the interaction is ineffective. 

As many of you know, I have spent most of my life working in severe conflict situations, trying to help activate effective interaction among conflict parties.  In this commentary I will discuss the vital reasons for having dialogue with adversaries, and also focus on a few of the Principles and Skills that can help make the interaction effective.  But I will begin with a few comments on some of the faulty reasons people give for refusing to dialogue with adversaries.

Faulty Reasons for Refusing to Dialogue with Adversaries

1.  The Myth of “Credibility” and “Legitimacy”
Some leaders argue that particular adversaries do not “deserve” to be included in dialogue, and to dialogue with them would give them undeserved “credibility”.   Such thinking is unrealistic, impractical, and exacerbates conflict.  In most serious conflict situations, all parties question whether the adversary is credible (able to be believed, or to be convincing), and refusing to dialogue denies the adversary a chance to become credible.  The reality is that all the parties involved in a conflict already have the kind of “credibility” inherent in conflict and conflict resolution.  If they have contributed to causing and perpetuating a conflict, and if their participation in resolving the conflict is needed to make it work, then their inclusion in dialogue is essential.  To claim that certain adversaries do not have credibly because they disagree with “our” position or violate our values obstructs effective conflict resolution.

A faulty interpretation of “legitimacy” is also used as an excuse to refuse to dialogue with an adversary.  There are various ways of looking at what/who is “legitimate”.   Some leaders and/or nations use a specific criterion (such as being democratically elected) as establishing the “legitimacy” of an adversary.  Others seem to think a particular party perceived as an “enemy”, or as “evil”, or simply as being deplorable, does not deserve to be called “legitimate”.   One example is Hamas, who even though democratically elected, is considered by many to be “illegitimate” and thus not worthy of being included in dialogue.

The practical reality is that any parties who have the power to contribute to the creation of a conflict and to a sustainable resolution of that conflict must be included in the conflict resolution process.  Whether they measure up to one’s own interpretations of “credible” and “legitimate” is not as important as dealing with the conflict effectively.

2.  Maintaining the “High Road” or “High Moral Ground”    
There are those who refuse to dialogue with certain adversaries because doing so is seen as somehow demeaning one’s own character, values or ideals.  The assumption is that in order to take the “High Road” or seize the “High Moral Ground” we cannot talk to (or sometimes even acknowledge the existence of) an adversary we consider deplorable.  This faulty reasoning gives such an adversary a LOT of power over us because, in essence, we are saying we are so weak we will be tainted by associating with that adversary. 

Being on the “high road” or “moral high ground” is determined by the worth of our own character, by our values and ideals, and by the level of our conflict resolution skills, not by which parties we omit from dialogue.  In conflict resolution terms, the high road and high moral ground is occupied by those who contribute to the effective and sustainable resolution of a conflict.  And that includes having the wisdom and confidence in having dialogue with any adversary.

3.  Seeing Only the Negative Potential of an Adversary
Always looking for the “lesser” in others as a way of trying to prove our own goodness and superiority is one of the most troubling patterns we need to overcome in human society.  In conflict situations, this pattern often leads to seeing only the negative in the adversary.  Refusing to dialogue with an adversary is justified by saying, “It’s useless because that adversary does not have the willingness or capability of being reasonable or contributing anything worthwhile to the conflict resolution process.” In other words, the most negative aspects of the adversary are used to define that adversary in its totality.  If we reach for more constructive parts, we just might find them; if we refuse to reach for them, we give the adversary no reason or incentive to be anything but negative.   

Reasons To Dialogue with Adversaries

Combining what we have already discussed with additional comments, here is a summary of a few important reasons for engaging in dialogue with adversaries.

1.   Adversaries are part of the conflict and thus must be included in the conflict resolution dialogue and process.  If we exclude them, it’s like trying to make a car move forward on only three wheels.

2.  If adversaries are excluded from dialogue, they will usually see their only power as being the obstruction of effective conflict resolution.  They become more intransigent and more likely to use irrationality, extreme emotion, and violence to get their views expressed and heard.  Including them in dialogue at least opens up the possibility they may understand and utilize a more constructive kind of power.

3.  Including adversaries in dialogue provides an opportunity to learn about their needs, desires, emotions, perceptions, and reasoning.  Such knowledge is crucial to moving forward effectively in trying to deal with a conflict.  Excluding adversaries or any conflict party from dialogue allows for the perpetuation of dangerous, self-serving assumptions and misperceptions that will only make comprehensive conflict resolution more difficult.   

How To Dialogue with Adversaries:  A Few Suggestions
*(NOTE: These steps are also helpful in any relationship, interaction, and/or conflict.)

1.  Focus first on any constructive connections we still have with an adversary even in the midst of numerous things that divide us.  Building on one of those connections, however small, can open up possibilities for more constructive interaction.

2.  Reach for the positive potential in an adversary.  All people and groups are more than just their most negative characteristics and behavior.  In reaching for the more positive potential we can sometimes provide a secure interaction environment that encourages adversaries to allow their positive potential to be expressed.

3.  Sincerely seek to understand an adversary’s needs.  Actual needs are often quite different than the demands and desires being expressed.  Only when all parties in a conflict get at least some needs met can a conflict be resolved effectively and sustainably.

4.  Look for what I term “SHARED Needs”, the same need(s) all parties in a conflict share.  Although we often want to believe we have no shared needs with adversaries, that is rarely the actual case.  Once again we find an example in the Israel-Palestinian situation.  The establishment of a Palestinian Homeland is a shared need of both Israel and Palestinians.  When there is a Palestinian homeland, Palestinians can focus on nation-building rather than anti-Israel strategy, and Israel can devote more resources and energy to peaceful development rather than military action against Palestinians.  Furthermore, the flow of international development aid to the region will increase.  Both parties will benefit from a Palestinian state.         

5.  In order to participate effectively in resolving a conflict, a conflict party needs to believe there are reasons to do so, reasons that involve getting some benefits from the conflict resolution process.  If an adversary seems to think there is no need to resolve a conflict (or even thinks there is a need to keep the conflict going), clearly communicate the reasons why all parties, including the adversary, will indeed be better off if the conflict is resolved.

6.   Develop what I term “Power-WITH” (TM).  Trying to work with adversaries rather than against them may seem distasteful, but it is necessary if conflict resolution is to be effective and sustainable.  We need to open up dialogue that explores how needed, positive steps can be accomplished through “power-WITH” and cannot be accomplished through a struggle for “power-OVER” each other.

7.  Focus on what I term “Doables” early in the conflict resolution process.  Doables are smaller steps and agreements on the less divisive issues.  Far too often conflict parties focus only on the big issues they consider most important and try to “win” the battle over those issues.  Positions usually become more rigid and frustrations increase.  Getting a Doable, however small, can help show that moving beyond impasse is indeed possible, can help build momentum, and can make dealing with the tougher issues more feasible and effective.  I have worked in many situations where establishing a process of dealing with an adversary is made possible through the discovery and implementation of small Doables.               

8.  The setting of pre-conditions is a major obstacle to progress in conflict resolution.  Issuing pre-conditions limits possibilities and creativity, and is almost always used as a “weapon” to try to manipulate and dominate the conflict resolution process.  Conflict parties need to have enough confidence in their opinions and abilities so that any and all subjects can be discussed.  In many situations, setting pre-conditions has made dialogue and conflict resolution impossible, and gives adversaries a justification for refusing to participate in dialogue.  Just because we are willing to include a particular issue in the dialogue process does not mean our views on that issue are “weak”.  If that issue is involved in the conflict, it needs to be included in the dialogue.



1. A commentary discussing the Middle East situation in more detail, focusing on Israel and Palestine, is titled "Understanding the Middle East", dated January 9, 2009.
2. The first article in the series on Dialogue with Adversaries was written in 2008 and also appears among the articles under commentaries on this site.               

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