By Ann McBroom & Merwyn De Mello

The Power and Risks of Conversation

We cannot begin to do justice to the complexity and breadth of John Shotter's ideas, but will try to highlight some of their implications for peacemakers and peacebuilders. Shotter's view of conversation is counterintuitive for people steeped in Western culture.[1] He maintains that the primary role of conversation is not to convey information. Instead, conversation is primarily for negotiating relationships, glimpsing the reality of others, and revising our own reality. This is not the first time that people have been asked to accept a view of language that is counterintuitive. Chomsky's thesis that human beings are preprogrammed to process and generate language was considered revolutionary when first broached,[2] because it challenged the ingrained belief that language was entirely a learned skill.

Shotter believes that when people converse, they possess the capacity to glimpse what and how the other thinks and feels. This leads people in conversation to experience, experiment with, and question their realities and their relationships. What Shotter is drawing attention to is the transformative potential of conversation. Conversations involve "a complex but uncertain process of testing and checking, of negotiating the form of the relationship in terms of a whole range of, essentially, ethical issues - issues to do with matters of care, concern, and respect, about justice, entitlements, etc."[1]

The Nature Of The Interaction In Conversation

Conversation is an interaction, and from this stems its power and its uncertainty. Shotter uses the analogy of the ouija board. When two or more people have a finger on the glass, no one completely controls the movement of the glass. And so, no person can predict or completely control where the glass will move, and participants can never be certain how they contributed to the path the glass followed. When we converse, we cannot be certain where it will lead. We may not be able to trace why we said what we did, why the relationship changed, or why we changed how we thought or felt. And we may not be able to return to who we were before the encounter.

In a recent PBS NewsHour,[3] authors Studs Terkel and Alex Kotlowitz talked about recording the oral histories of ordinary people.

Studs Terkel: We play it back and she hears her voice and she says something, suddenly puts her hand to her mouth and says, "Oh, my God!"

I said, "What is it?"

She said, "I never knew I felt that way before."

Well, bingo, that's a star for her and for me. In other words, that interview helped her say something that revealed herself to herself.

Alex Kotlowitz: And stories are also the way we make sense of ourselves and make sense of the world.

The Power To Transform

Conversation allows us to hear our own thoughts and ask questions. Is that really what I think? Is that really what I feel? Is that really why? Conversation invites us to experiment with different explanations, brainstorm new ones, entertain new realities and relationships. And we are sometimes surprised where this leads us. In conversation, we glimpse how others think and feel, what they want and why, why they are hurting and why. And this too can spur fundamental shifts.

Steeped in an informational model of conversation, we have looked for logical reasons for people to change their minds. Shotter's analysis frees us from this limitation. And we may begin to make sense of some surprising outcomes. Why is it that when some victims converse with their offender, they end up forgiving them and wishing them well?[4] We have tended to look for logical benefits — such as victims escaping victimhood and moving to a more fulfilling role. Shotter's analysis provides another possibility: that glimpsing the hurt, helplessness, grief and the humanity of our perpetratortransform our reality, how we feel and think, and so what we want to do. If we begin looking for such instances, how many will we find? Is it rare for people to settle their disagreements when they have a chance to converse? How often do people give up more than seems reasonable or logical based on what they wanted before they conversed? How often does settlement involve not expanding the pie[5] but choosing a wholly different pie?

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By Ann McBroom

By Merwyn De Mello


1. Shotter, J. (1993) Conversational Realities: Constructing Life Through Language. London: Sage Publication.

2. Chomsky, N. (1972) Language and Mind. 2nd Edition.

3. Online NewsHour (2005) Conversation: Oral Histories. August 3rd. 2005.

4. Johnstone, G. (2002) Restorative Justice. Portland: Willan Publishing.

5. Fisher, R. & W. Ury (1981) Getting to Yes. New York: Penguin.

Dr. Ann Harrison McBroom completed a Graduate Certificate in Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University in May 2006. She comes to the field after a career in Medical Psychology, working in England, the USA, the Middle East and the West Indies. Now contentedly settled in rural Virginia (USA), she plans to pursue both her theoretical interests in transformation and practical work with groups in conflict.