Establishment of Personal Relationships

Michelle Maiese

September 2003

The Importance of Relationships

One of the terrible costs of intractable conflict is the resulting damage to relationships. Protracted conflict strains relationships and makes it difficult for parties to recognize that they share common needs and goals. Fear, anger, and hostility become the norms of interaction, causing adversaries to become distrustful and suspicious of each other's actions. Parties caught in protracted conflict also tend to form negative stereotypes and enemy images and to dehumanize members of the opposing group. Those excluded from the scope of morality are typically viewed as inferior, evil, or criminal.[1] Such conditions often lead to feelings of intense hatred and alienation among conflicting parties. The more severe the conflict, the more the psychological distance between groups will widen. Previously unthinkable forms of abuse, such as rape, torture, or genocide, become psychologically acceptable. Once extreme human-rights violations have been committed, re-establishing "normal" relationships becomes very difficult. Extremely hostile relationships tend to persist and shape the interactions of generations to come, making such conflicts all the more intractable.

However, human relationships also have the power to defuse conflict and make it easier to resolve. In fact, establishing personal relationships is often an integral component of de-escalation, peacebuilding, and reconciliation. Conflicts cannot be genuinely transformed unless the adversaries are tied together with some sense of unity and commonality.

How Relationships Help Defuse Intractable Conflicts

First, establishing personal relationships with people on the other side of the conflict can help lessen many of the problems related to conflict escalation. This is because personal relationships humanize adversaries, improve communication, and increase the general level of mutual understanding and trust. As individuals get to know each other, they are more able to recognize and acknowledge the other side's grievances. This allows for the development of feelings of sympathy and empathy, which tend to inhibit hostile activity and open up opportunities for de-escalation.[2] It also reduces the likelihood that destructive misunderstandings will arise. In addition, programs that systematically establish positive personal relationships between contending parties are key in blocking the psychological process of dehumanization. This is because friendly contact helps adversaries to break down stereotypes and see the "enemy" as a real, living, feeling person. It may also contribute to increased tolerance among highly diverse groups. Indeed, relationships that cut across ethnic, religious, or cultural lines help to combat the effects of narrow identity groups and harsh intolerance, and move individuals toward a wider sense of social identity.[3]

Once this change of attitude has taken place, the parties can begin to develop a sense of mutual understanding and trust. Although they may still have divergent interests or unmet needs, they can begin to approach these issues through cooperation rather than by competing with or trying to destroy each other. Parties are less likely to use violence or inflict grave harm on those with whom they have had empathic personal contact.[4] They are also more able to contain any inflammatory issues that arise, through the development and pursuit of shared goals.[5] And once conflict has ended, parties who have forged personal relationships will find it easier to envision their shared future and rebuild their society.

Establishing relationships can also be a forerunner to official negotiations and conflict resolution. If negotiators view themselves as adversaries in a face-to-face confrontation, each side tends to become defensive and reactive. If, on the other hand, negotiators build personal relationships with those on the other side, they will find that many of the problems associated with strong emotions and poor communication are much easier to manage.[6] Indeed, a very important attribute of a good negotiator is the ability to be friendly and establish personal relationships with others. Rather than immediately getting down to business, successful negotiators should try to make the other party feel comfortable. For example, before formal meetings, negotiators should try to find ways to get to know those on the other side, and perhaps meet them informally so that they have time to chat.[7] Informal social gatherings or meetings give adversaries an opportunity to get to know each other as human beings who share similar interests and values.[8]

Establishing personal relationships paves the way for more cooperative negotiation dynamics. Parties who develop social bonds often have a sense that the other group's beliefs and values are similar to their own, and more likely to frame issues as mutual problems.[9] If their relationship with the other side is important to them, they are more likely to refrain from personal attacks and instead build on the other side's ideas. In this way, personal relationships help negotiators to find common ground, which is helpful in successfully transforming conflicts. If the negotiators get to know each other, they may discover commonalities and establish new bonds. The more similarities they find, the more receptive they will be to each other's messages and efforts at persuasion.[10] In addition, when dealing with someone with whom they have a personal relationship, negotiators are less prone to misunderstandings and more likely to trust the other side. In part this is because they are less likely to attribute diabolical intentions to someone they know personally.[11] Friendliness, empathy, and sensitivity are all connected to the ability to see others accurately, be aware of what they are feeling, and be sensitive to the circumstances that shape what they do. Finally, personal relationships help to enhance genuine concern about the other party's outcomes in negotiation, which in turn contributes to effective integrative bargaining.[12]

Additional insights into the establishment of personal relationships are offered by several Beyond Intractability project participants.

Opportunities for Establishing Personal Relationships

Crosscutting relations that connect nations or subgroups of society are crucial in overcoming divisive in-group/out-group distinctions and damaging stereotypes. They involve the opportunity for members of opposing groups to spend time together, work together, play together, and even live together for extended periods of time.[13] In most cases, the more opportunities that people have to develop personal relationships with their adversaries, the easier it will be for them to resolve their conflict. Various groups, networks, and organizations including persons from the opposing sides can help bring people together in a positive, cooperative way.[14] For example, business interactions, trade unions, and professional meetings often increase positive contact between adversaries. Likewise, educational, cultural, and scientific exchanges can be helpful in forging ties between people from different groups or nations. Other opportunities for establishing personal relationships include interfaith and interethnic dialogue groups, problem-solving workshops, joint projects, prejudice-reduction workshops, and sporting events.

In some cases, parties caught in conflict may be unwilling to formally negotiate because they don't want to compromise their deeply held values. However, in dialogue groups, the objective is developing mutual understanding and positive relationships rather than pressuring parties to change their views. Dialogue groups and problem-solving workshops help parties to develop common understandings and recognize their shared interests and needs.[15] Both processes involve small sets of people, often mid-level academic, political, religious, and business leaders, who get together to discuss various aspects of their struggle. These nonofficial meetings open up new channels of communication and, in the case of the problem-solving workshops, allow parties to explore possible solutions to their problems.[16] (Dialogue usually does not seek solutions, just better understandings.) Both of these processes are carried out under the norms of mutual respect and shared exploration and should give participants an opportunity to get to know each other as people.[17] As people explore their thoughts and feelings, they usually discover that those on the other side are feeling the same way. This gives them an incentive to address the issue in a way that respects the feelings of people on both sides of the conflict.

Independent of any joint problem solving, disputants can also work together on joint projects. These projects are typically local-scale activities, performed by members of two or more groups that presently are or previously have been in conflict with one another. The activities allow individuals from opposing sides of a conflict to encounter one another in a conflict-free zone of cooperation. They give parties the experience of working together on shared goals.[18] The idea is that if opponents can be brought together in some cooperative endeavor in which they are forced to depend on each other, they will begin to break down their negative stereotypes and build positive relationships. Parties who have learned to work together on such projects are in a better position to solve the problems related to their conflict.

Joint projects can focus on many different kinds of goals. These might include improving living conditions and community infrastructure, protection of the environment, and improvement of economic prospects.[19] Examples of joint projects include rebuilding war-damaged houses, buildings, or roads, or developing joint educational efforts. In another type of project, groups may participate in multi-day trips in the wilderness, where participants depend on each other for food, shelter, and navigation. These moderately stressful experiences can draw people together very quickly and build trust between adversaries. Finally, teams that include members from both sides can work together to prepare a meal, arrange an excursion, or participate in sporting events.[20] While athletic events are competitive, they have a set of rules that require fair play, mutual respect, and cooperation.

The advantage of such projects and activities is that people can interact without having to confront the most difficult aspects of their conflict. Because the focus of joint projects is building institutions that have positive meaning or use for both sides, such as houses, schools, parks, and hospitals, the parties are able to see that they share common interests. Throughout the process as a whole, participants have the opportunity to increase communication and create lasting relationships.

Finally, special trust-building programs and prejudice-reduction workshops bring together people from different groups to help them develop a better mutual understanding and build trust. At the workshop level, facilitators can help people explore their stereotypes, and learn to communicate with each other in a more open, trusting, and receptive way. Other programs to build trust and combat prejudice include special educational programs, community conferences, and cultural festivals.[21] By coming together and realizing that the people on the other side really are human, adversaries can discover areas of commonality that lead to better relationships, effective communication, and conflict transformation.

[1] Susan Opotow, "Aggression and Violence," in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, eds. M. Deutsch and P.T. Coleman. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 417.

[2] Louis Kriesberg, Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution, (Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998), 184.

[3] David A. Hamburg, "Preventing Contemporary Intergroup Violence," in The Handbook for Interethnic Coexistence, ed. Eugene Weiner, 27-39. (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1998), 38.

[4] Hamburg , 38.

[5] Kriesberg, 189.

[6] Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, 2nd edition, (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 36.

[7] Ibid., 37.

[8] Morton Deutsch, "Cooperation and Competition," in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, eds. Morton Deutsch and Peter Coleman, pp. 21-40. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, Inc., 2000), 36.

[9] Deutsch, 25.

[10] Roy Lewicki, David Saunders, and John Minton, Negotiation, 3rd edition. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1999), 202.

[11] Fisher, Ury, and Patton, 37.

[12] Dean G. Pruitt, "Strategic Choice in Negotiation," pp. 27-46, in Negotiation Theory and Practice, eds. J. William Breslin and Jeffrey Z. Rubin, (Cambridge: Program on Negotiation Books, 1991), 33.

[13] Hamburg, 38.

[14] Kriesberg, 205.

[15] Kriesberg, 214.

[16] Ibid., 233-4.

[17] Ronald J. Fisher, "Intergroup Conflict," pp. 166-184, in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, eds. M. Deutsch and P.T. Coleman. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000).

[18] Hamburg , 38.

[19] Ibid., 32.

[20] Kriesberg, 226.

[21] Stephen Ryan, "Peace-Building and Conflict Transformation," Chapter in Ethnic Conflict and International Relations, (Dartmouth: Dartmouth Publishing, 1995), pp. 129-152. Summary available at:


Use the following to cite this article:
Maiese, Michelle. "Establishment of Personal Relationships." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <>.

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