Revisiting earlier conflict resolution proposals (2) – Pearce & Littlejohn’s “Transcendent discourse”

Finding a neutral space 

The strategy for conflict resolution proposed by W.B Pearce and S.W Littlejohn (1997), which they called Transcendent Discourse, is based on an earlier study conducted by Robert Keagan. From his analysis, Keagan concluded that humans deal with differences according to five levels of consciousness.

Empty spaces

In the first level, the infantile level, humans view objects as independent entities without connection.

The second stage pertains to the ability of children above 10 years of age to relate objects to one another in durable categories that are immutable and universal.

In the traditional and third level people become aware of different ways of understanding and conceptualising experience. Categories lose their durable character.

In the fourth level of consciousness categories become social rather than merely personal and realities are given meaning from within the confines of a system. Keagan matches this fourth level with the modern state.

Humans who reach the fifth level of consciousness move from an awareness of institutions and groups to a trans-system cognisance.  The fifth level parallels the post-modern state where reality is not merely constructed within a tradition, institution or system but is a complex product of a transaction among traditions, institutions and systems. A trans-system cognisance allows human beings to extend their analysis to the differences between groups and perspectives. Someone in this stage beings to question the ways in which systems affect one another, creating contradictions, conflicts and paradoxes (in Pearce and Littlejohn, 1997:136).

Pearce and Littlejohn expound on Keagan’s five levels of consciousness by suggesting that only those that have attained trans-system cognisance are able to successfully resolve conflicts. Those at the fifth and ultimate level of consciousness become equipped with an instrument for conflict resolution called by these authors Transcendent discourse (TD, 1997:122-123).


The benefits afforded by TD lie in that it acknowledges and works within and between multiple stories trying to coordinate them rather than changing them. Advocates of this framework believe that TD brings an overarching notion of human beings as social, linguistic, story-defined agents ad that TD involves a moment of primary commitment from the community’s story to a new story. This movement makes communication with the other side not only possible but also real. Thanks to the dynamism afforded by TD there is a potential to create new categories, a new creole language by which one side can compare itself with the other.

TD aims at creating a constructive dialogue between parties in contention while acting as a forum in which issues and options can be explored without attempts by one party to influence the other. To achieve these objective, TD departs from a solid thesis, i.e. Keagan’s model of consciousness levels. This model allows for new contexts in which to understand differences and new ways to compare and weigh alternative choices. The all-encompassing nature afforded by the fifth level of consciousness facilitates a more humane, enlightening and respectful dialogue.

Question mark/s?

Pearce and Littlejohn strive for a “a new place to reach one another”in order to establish the objectives mentioned above. But, just as I questioned Lederach’s search for a neutral space in the first post of this series, I’d like to point to the difficulties leading to the formation and completion of this new place they suggest.

Two important elements might emerge in this process. I believe it will be difficult to determine which party is to decide on the proportions and location the space to be metaphorically erected. Firstly,  power structures will reinforce the ever present imbalance between parties. One of the contending parties might hold onto and utilise a previously obtained dominant position. Secondly, the superior power structures will eliminate the capacity for agency of the other party. One of the parties will be denied the chance to voice choices on boundaries, proportions and measurements of this common space. There will be a tendency for the identity of the less dominant party to be outweighed by the power structures of the prevailing group.

At a more practical level, it makes me wonder whether our negotiators, politicians, diplomats, mediators… the persons we leave the resolution of disputes in the hands of, have in fact, attained Keagan’s first level of consciousness or even come close to it. I believe many have been trained and have years of experience in understanding the intersections between peoples and cultures, but I also, believe, that many others are not even close to it.


Keangan, R. 1994.  In over our heads:  the mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pearce, W.B & Littlejohn, S.W. 1997. Moral conflict. When social worlds collide. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications


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