Language and Conflict

12 August 2019


I recently returned from a wonderful three-week cycling tour in France during which I savoured its cuisine and marvelled at the beauty of its countryside. Although conflict, negotiation and mediation should have been far from my mind, it wasn’t. I kept being reminded about the role of communication and language in dealing with people and conflict.

Even with the help of Google Translate, my waiter gave me a dish which looked and tasted like raw mincemeat, when I thought I had ordered veal tenderloin. On my bike, my efforts to understand, let alone establish rapport, with officious gendarmes on the Tour d’ France route were completely in vain.

I had much more communication and rapport building success with my English speaking American, New Zealand and English fellow riders, but even they were often bemused by my South Africanisms like “ that hill was flippen hectic”, “isit”, “chips there is a robot” and many more.

Of course, it reminded me of the challenges we have in South Africa where we have thirteen official languages and, very often, people are communicating with each other in their second or third language. I know how much easier it is for me to communicate and build rapport with my fellow English speakers and, to a lesser extent, with Afrikaans speakers in their language, with which I am fairly proficient. Interestingly, I was even able to communicate in Afrikaans and develop some rapport with our Flemish-speaking coach driver on the tour because of the similarity between the two languages!

Until recently, I could not communicate at all, let alone establish rapport, with my fellow South Africans in any other languages than English and Afrikaans. This prompted me to start to learn Zulu and, although my ability at present to speak the language is very rudimentary, I have learnt to greet people in Zulu and how important it is, in their culture, to do this properly. This has, thankfully, helped me to communicate and establish some degree of rapport with, for example, some frosty Zulu speaking civil servants.

So, what does all this have to do with conflict, negotiation and mediation? I think a lot. In my experience I have seen much conflict caused, even between English speakers, by misunderstanding over words like negotiate, consult, inform, advise, gross, nett and many more. Furthermore, I have learnt that an inability to understand other languages is an obstacle to appreciating other people’s cultures, which in turn makes rapport building very difficult.

It is therefore critical for people dealing with conflict, negotiators and mediators to understand both how language can cause and aggravate conflict, but also how it can be the key to unlocking it and finding ways of addressing it. They need to help parties to understand what they really need, want and think. Research also shows that the careful choice of words helps prevent, alleviate and open people up to mutual gain solutions.

If you would like to hear more about the training that Conflict Dynamics offers to assist you to address the language, communication and rapport building challenges in the South African context, contact Craig Hulscher on +27 669 9678 for more information.

You may also be interested to attend our one-day course – Sharpen your Conflict Management Skills – being held in Johannesburg on 18th September 2019.

John Brand

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