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Fighting words: using language to reduce or produce conflict

According to Newton’s Third Law of Motion, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

This must surely apply to the dispute resolution field. Consider this:

Exhibit 1: Action.

Family lawyers in Massachusetts, including esteemed family mediation pioneer John Fiske, are currently working to replace references in state law to “custody” and “visitation” — words laden with negative associations for parents facing divorce — with the terms “parental rights and responsibilities” and “parenting plans” — language which is far less inflammatory and likely to provoke conflict. If Massachusetts takes this step, it will join other states like its neighbor New Hampshire which have already incorporated such changes into law.  I have seen first-hand how destructive the traditional language can be and how much anxiety it arouses; those who work with families and couples in conflict as I have will no doubt welcome this change.

Exhibit 2: Equal and Opposite Reaction.

Every year I take the last week in December off and enjoy some of that time catching up on my reading. One of the books I added to my library is the tremendously entertaining pocket reference, William Drennan’s Advocacy Words: A Thesaurus. From the preface:

Effective word use is vital for anyone active in the law. For the attorney arguing a case or preparing a brief, for the jurist writing an opinion, even for the law student, words are the ammunition needed to make the point.

Quite an image, huh? Now this from the book’s description in the American Bar Association’s bookstore, which keeps the combat metaphors coming:

If you are a litigator, Advocacy Words can help you decimate opposing counsel’s position. If you are writing a brief, it can help you compose a convincing argument. If you are a jurist, it can help your opinions ring with the strength of your legal judgment. And if you are a law student, Advocacy Words can help you to hone your combative legal skills. Use the verbal dynamite in Advocacy Words to promote your position effectively. Let it be your companion in painting the verbal picture you want. Keep it handy to help you move others to your point of view.

In a way, it’s like reverse reframing.

The book is organized into two parts. Part one provides favorable words in one column with critical synonyms suggested in another; part two reverses it, with critical words in one column, with their favorable synonyms in the second.

For example, in part one, the critical “conspiracy, deal” are suggested substitutes for the favorable “agreement”; “confused, indecisive” for “considering alternative opinions”; and “manipulable, docile, meek, pliant, compliant, collaborative, toadying” for “cooperative”. Meanwhile, in part two, the favorable “frank exchange of ideas, frank discussion” is offered for the critical “argument”, and “flexible negotiator” for “soft-liner”.

See? Fun!


Diane J. Levin

Diane Levin, J.D., is a mediator, dispute resolution trainer, negotiation coach, writer, and lawyer based in Marblehead, Massachusetts, who has instructed people from around the world in the art of talking it out. Since 1995 she has helped clients resolve disputes involving tort, employment, business, estate, family, and real property… MORE >

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