Channels of Communication

Julian Ouellet

Original Publication September 2003, updated June 2013. Current Implications added by Heidi Burgess in Sept. 2017.

MBI MOOS LogoCurrent Implications

This essay, first written in 2003, refers to the hostile and ineffective communication between North Korea and the United States.  Now, 14 years later, that is not only still true--but far worse, and it threatens the well-being of the entire world.  More...

Interpersonal communication is one of the fundamental underpinnings of society.

We can define communication, as Krauss and Morsella do, as the transfer of information.[1] In this context, communication channels can be understood simply as the modes or pathways through which two parties might communicate. As population grows and technology evolves, these channels of communication change as well.[2] Many have observed that "the world is getting smaller," referring not only to the ease of travel, but also to the ease of communication around the globe. Unfortunately, however, just because communication is easy to accomplish does not mean that it is done, or that the result is an increase in understanding.

Thus, we must distinguish between communication channels and the people and messages that use them. In intractable conflicts, communication problems can arise from poorly-communicated ideas which result in misunderstandings and/or from poor channels of communication. This essay is primarily concerned with the latter.

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Often, during a serious conflict, there is very little communication between the involved parties and there is also little sharing of information, intents, and beliefs. The nature of intractable conflict, by definition, precludes the possibility that people are actively seeking reconciliation.

Prior to a conflict reaching that point, however, the parties might find themselves in a period of increased tensions. There are two possible reactions to this situation.

  • On the one hand, we might see actors increase communication in an attempt to prevent the outbreak of hostility. The July Crisis prior to World War I and the Cuban Missile Crisis are examples of this. In the July Crisis, structural barriers in the form of rigid alliances prevented the resolution of the underlying conflict.[3] In the Cuban Missile Crisis, limited channels of communication hampered efforts to resolve the conflict peacefully.[4] In both cases one can see leaders using available technology to increase communication during the crisis, and in the latter case, the crisis was successfully de-escalated and averted before catastrophe, while in the first situation, the de-escalation failed..
  • On the other hand, communication channels between actors may degrade during the crisis, increasing the likelihood of further escalation and possibly violence. If actors ignore available channels of communication, withhold information, or use increasingly divisive forms of communication, communication channels will tend to break down.[5] This was the case with Japan and the United States prior to Pearl Harbor.  The difficulty in this situation is that one party intended hostility, regardless of the diplomatic efforts undertaken.  Such appears to also be the case (at least at times) between both North Korea and Iran in their communications with the United States.  In both of these cases, each side (the US included) seems to alternate between no communication, hostile communication, and then more conciliatory communication. 

Additional insights into channels of communication are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

In either case -- when communication increases or when communication decreases during a crisis -- once hostility becomes entrenched, channels of communication will degrade quickly, and may stop altogether, further increasing the potential for disaster.

These patterns also take place between individuals, as well as between nation states. When angry spouses, siblings, or co-workers see a conflict arising, they can break off communication long enough to cool down and try again--or they might break it off for as long as possible, therefore avoiding the conflict --and the relationship--altogether.  Or they may increase the hostility of the communication--spewing accusations, and threats, which usually results in a return of the same and the worsening of the conflict and the relationship.  A better approach is to recognize that the communication has deteriorated, and make efforts to remedy the situation.

Re-Establishing Good Communication

One of the first goals in ameliorating intractable conflicts is to reestablish channels of communication. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union established direct links so that future crises could be better managed.  Indivisuals can do this too.  They can make an agreement that if one is frustrated with the behavior of another, they talk about it respectfully, but soon, before frustration and anger gets out of hand.  They can use good communication skills such as I-messages and empathic listening to try to get to the bottom of the problem, and to sort out any misunderstandings that might have driven the conflict--and emotions--higher. 

The Cold War held the threat of human annihilation and thus required channels of communication between bitter enemies. Though other conflicts may not threaten human extinction, they may threaten that for a large population in any particular region, or for a company, or a relationship. Thus the importance of re-opening communication is very high in other conflicts as well.

When the disputants cannot talk effectively one-on-one, third parties are often effective at reestablishing channels of communication -- they may, at times, become THE channel of communication between parties exploring reconciliation. A third party can carry messages back and forth, and explore ideas for settlement that the two parties could not discuss face-to-face. Third parties have the added benefit of being able to manage the conversation such that intent and meaning can be communicated without hostile interpretations.

Current Implications

Often my students--and others--question whether intractable conflicts really exist.  "There's only intractable people," one observed.  "Calling something intractable just means there's no point in trying to fix it" is another observation.  Neither of these are true--as is evidenced by this essay.  

I am struck in late September, 2017 by the reference in this 2003 article to attenuated communication between the United States and both North Korea and Iran.  Here it is, 14 years later, and this is still (dangerously) true.

Although there has been plenty of communication between North Korea and the U.S. in the last few months, all of it (that we know about, anyway) has been high-profile jabs and counter-jabs in the media or in major public speeches.  For instance, U.S. President Trump recently threatened to "totally destroy" North Korea in his first-ever speech to the U.N. and followed up by calling Kim Jung-Un of North Korea "Rocketman."  North Korea's foreign minister responded that President Trump "committed an irreversible mistake of making our rockets' visit to the entire U.S. mainland inevitable all the more." Both countries are engaged in a contiuing escalation of rhetoric and threat, that appears to have no bounds. The question haunting all observers is whether this rhetoric is going to remain just that, or whether it is going to be translated into action.  If the latter, the implications might mean the death of millions or even tens of millions of people in both countries.  

There are a few hints of behind-the-scenes efforts to cool the rhetoric down and perhaps there are more calm voices exchanging ideas about defusing this conflict that are happening in secret in communication channels that are not made public.  We all hope so.  But as long as the two leaders continue their relationship and understanding-destroying rhetoric, the danger of missteps that result in catastrophe remains very high. Right now the communication between the two countries seems to be following the pattern described in this essay related to Japan and the U.S. before the bombing of Pearl Harber.  Hopefully calmer voices will prevail before catastrophe strikes.  Quieting both leaders' rhetoric while opening and growing effective channels of communication so that we better understand each side's interests and needs is essential if catastrophe is to be avoided.

Heidi Burgess, September 25, 2017.


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[1] Robert Krauss and Ezequiel Morsella, "Communication and Conflict," in M. Deutsch and P. Coleman, eds., The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2000), 131-143.

[2] Quincy Wright, A Study of War, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1967).

[3] Stephen Van Evera, "Why Cooperation Failed in 1914," World Politics 38, 1 (Winter 1985), pp. 80-117. Jack Levy, "Necessary Conditions in Case Studies: Preferences, Constraints, and Choices in July 1914," in G. Goertz and H., eds., Necessary Conditions: Theory, Methodology, and Applications (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 113-145.

[4] G. Allison, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missle Crisis, (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1971).

[5] Krauss and Morsella "Communication," David Campbell, Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).


Use the following to cite this article:
Ouellet, Julian. "Channels of Communication." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <>.

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