The importance of language in conflict resolution

The importance of language in conflict resolution

Language plays an important role in shaping the way conflicts unfold and resolve. It is the key to the hearts of people.

Language can be provided in several forms of verbal, non-verbal and written. Humans use language as the vehicle of communication to enable engagement for many reasons and purposes. The language used is influenced by culture and values, it plays a role and function of communication as one of the means of non-violent methods of conflict resolution.

Language can play a role in escalating or deescalating a situation, often non-verbal forms can provide an insight into someone’s thoughts and behaviour towards the other, sometimes words are not required to initiate a conflict, it is the actions or non-verbal cues that can trigger events.

An integral aspect of culture is the language that is used. Human attachment to a language indicates that one shares a connection with a unique culture, grammatical structures unveil increasingly complex insights into linguistic thought processes and actions.

Unity or War

Language can focus on unity and reconciliation where harmony is created or tensions, segregation, nationalism leading to war. There is an intimate link between how one communicates, and the conflicts created. There is a strong relationship between the language used and conflicts caused and escalated. Learning to use language more effectively is a crucial skill to reducing unnecessary conflict and managing conflict effectively.

Language is rife with euphemisms, metaphors and cliches. In some instances, the words used may appear to be insignificant, but when one understands that language has the ability to influence perception, the implications are substantial.

The language we use is influenced by our world view and thought process. Studies show that it is not just cultural differences that can influence the language used, also the thought patterns language fosters.

How often do you stop and think about how important communication is?

When you are unable to find the language to communicate it affects you on a cognitive, emotional and behavioural level. The science of psychology and linguistics (Psycholinguistics) is a science that looks at how illness or problems related to language emphasises the cognitive mechanisms.

The language that we use to communicate when in conflict can be harmful and can fuel negative emotions, resentment, fear and bitterness. What makes these emotions so damaging is that with unresolved conflict they can linger and metastasize to the point where relationships are destroyed, leading to estrangement.

Given the ubiquitous nature of conflict, the language used to communicate in conflict can arise to lasting social and behavioural changes.

“…any language people choose for themselves and their children is a function of their perception of that language’s standing in the world and of the relative importance of the nation or nations that use it…”

Marshall Singer, professor of International and Intercultural Affairs

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How language can divide a nation

The historical bloody conflict between the Hutsi and Tutsi in Rwanda has been well documented where in 1994 in just 100 days Hutu militias targeted Tutsis, about 800,000 people were killed.

Academic studies have shown the importance of the use of language and the drives of conflict from colonialism to independence, from the dictatorship regime to the genocide perpetuated against the Tutsi in 1994. At first it was dismissed that language played a part in the conflict as both Tutsi and Hutsi speak Bantu as well as French. Through analysis the language used in several press releases at the time revealed that the usage of words and their connotative meaning instigated differences between the two tribes that led to the conflict. The Tutsi were believed to be foreigners and not native to Rwanda by the Hutsi, the Tutsi were symbolized as enemies of human beings.

These thoughts and ideologies were attracted at the political level when in a speech by Leon Mugesera in November 1992 incited people to exterminate all Tutsi. People also integrated the ideology in their daily conversations and used phrases to imply that “when one is killing a dangerous mouse, one does not spare the pregnant mouse”. This was used to mention that all Tutsi have to be killed without distinction whether young, old or unborn.

Where language was used as a weapon to form divisions and mass genocide in Rwanda, following the genocide the re-building of the communities and country has been through the use of language as a peace building tool for unity and reconciliation. Language has been used not only as a tool of communication but also by means of distortion of genocide ideology.

Where a dominant group attempts to eradicate the use of minority language by coercing others to accept their language as standard and pragmatic is referred to as linguistic hegemony. When put into practice linguistic hegemony can result in the emergence of hostility towards the dominant group, especially if the dominant language is strongly enforced politically. If individuals are forced to adopt the dominant language, which by proxy has new cultural and ideological beliefs, adverse feelings may develop.


Language analysis is a prominent tool in major approaches of conflict management which includes conflict prevention, transformation, and conflict resolution.

For sustainable peace, conflict management is necessary to be aware and mindful of the language used as mentioned above, the language used is influenced by our thought patterns, cultural values and beliefs which influence our world views. This in turn influences the perception of situations and events.

Language used can either incite hatred and division or empathy and understanding, having a command of language is a powerful communication tool to be able to avoid the painful consequences of unresolved conflict.

Without the management of tensions, fractured ethnic identities within a state can often lead to political tensions and conflict. The language used to build up to a conflict, and during the transformation period, whether through modern conflict mechanisms, arbitration, negotiation and mediation, should be taken into account.


Mediation has undoubtedly become an evolving reality today. The demand for trusted mediators has also been rapidly increasing. So, if you are also struggling with a dispute due to a conflict situation in your workplace or community don’t panic anymore.
Minute Mediation Ltd is experienced in facilitating disputes and finding the best possible solutions to help you and your partners find common ground and resolve issues.
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