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  • Briefly describe the conflict that you selected ( interpersonal, intergroup, community, societal), its central issues, and the parties involved.
  • Analyze the conflict using the psychological theory that you selected, its constructs, and its assumptions.
  • Briefly explain why you selected the theory that you chose.
  • Explain how an understanding of psychological theory can lead to a better understanding of conflict and contribute to its resolution.


Psychological and
Communication Processes
Associated With Intergroup
Conflict Resolution
Walter G. Stephan
New Mexico State University

This article examines the nature of intergroup conflicts and some of the psy-
chological and communication processes that can facilitate their resolution. It
focuses specifically on conflicts between individual members of different social
identity groups and elaborates on the differences between interpersonal and
intergroup conflict resolution. It continues with a presentation of the prevailing
psychological conditions that exist prior to attempts to resolve intergroup
conflict along with a series of psychological and communication processes that
can be employed in small group settings to improve the climate for intergroup
conflict resolution. It ends by discussing how people can be trained to recognize
and take advantage of the beneficial effects of these psychological and commu-
nication processes in small group settings.

Keywords: intergroup conflict; conflict resolution; communication processes
in small groups

In our globalizing world, with its international terrorism, ethnonational
conflicts, ethnic cleansing campaigns, massive inter- and intranational

immigration, multicultural workforces, and leisure travel between cultures,
intergroup conflict has become a part of the daily lives of more people than
ever before. These conflicts come in all sizes, from major wars to differ-
ences in opinions between students attending heterogeneous schools.
Learning how to more effectively resolve them would improve the lives of
a great many people.

In this article, I examine the nature of intergroup conflicts and some of
the psychological and communication processes that can facilitate their res-
olution. Rather than focusing on large-scale conflicts, which are the domain
of foreign relations experts, I will focus on conflicts between individual
members of different social identity groups, usually those with a history of
conflict. I will begin by elaborating on the differences between interpersonal

Small Group Research
Volume 39 Number 1
February 2008 28-41

© 2008 Sage Publications
hosted at

Stephan / Psychological and Communication Processes 29

and intergroup conflict resolution. I will then discuss the prevailing psycho-
logical conditions that exist prior to attempts to resolve intergroup conflict.
Following this section, I present a series of psychological and communica-
tion processes that can be employed in small group settings to improve the
climate for intergroup conflict resolution. I end by discussing how people
can be trained to recognize and take advantage of the beneficial effects of
these psychological and communication processes in small group settings.

Differences Between Intergroup and
Interpersonal Conflict Resolution

The essence of the difference between intergroup and interpersonal con-
flicts is that intergroup conflicts bring social identities into play with all of
the accompanying group differences in values, norms, and beliefs. There
are also differences in how these two types of conflicts are perceived, the
emotions people experience, and manner in which people behave toward
their adversaries. Because of these differences, the types of techniques and
programs that can be used to help people resolve intergroup conflicts differ
to some degree from those employed to resolve interpersonal conflicts.

Intergroup conflicts arise in situations where the interests of members of one
social identity group are opposed to those of members of another social iden-
tity group. Thus, intergroup conflicts involve opposing group interests, not just
opposing individual interests. In many cases, the parties to the conflict actively
construe the conflict at the group level (e.g., Blacks vs. Whites, Jews vs. Arabs),
but in some cases, they may not be aware of the manner in which their group
memberships are influencing the conflict. For example, the opposing interests
of two parties to a conflict may be shaped by their different racial, ethnic, cul-
tural, religious, or gender backgrounds without their being aware of it.

In resolving intergroup conflicts, the primary goal is to achieve a state of
affairs in which the parties are comfortable with their anticipated outcomes or
future relationship. To resolve intergroup conflicts, respect for the group-based
social identities of the individuals involved must often be taken into consider-
ation. In addition, in many instances, the solution must also be perceived as
being satisfactory to other members of the groups involved. Achieving a satis-
factory solution may be further complicated by the fact that the two groups
have different views of what constitutes a satisfactory resolution. Moreover,
the two groups may have different ideas about what the appropriate techniques
of resolving conflict are. Because so many additional factors come into play
in intergroup conflicts that are not present in interpersonal conflicts, intergroup
conflicts tend to be more difficult to resolve.

Prevailing Conditions Prior to
Attempts at Conflict Resolution

Intergroup conflicts take place against a backdrop of dissatisfaction,
antagonism, and anger, as well as feelings of mistrust, injustice, and lack of
respect. Intergroup conflicts are also commonly accompanied by a percep-
tion that they involve “us” against “them.” Because of group differences in
values, norms, beliefs, and behaviors, intergroup interactions are likely to
be characterized by miscommunications and misunderstandings. Conflicts
between members of different social identity groups are also freighted with
the baggage of past relations between the groups. At their most extreme,
these past relations have been violent, sometimes brutally so. When prior
relations have been adversarial, they will have created strong negative feel-
ings such as hatred, rage, fear, helplessness, humiliation, loathing, guilt,
defensiveness, and grief. Consequently, members of both groups are likely
to have very negative views of the other group. In addition to prejudice and
negative stereotypes, these views often include delegitimizing and dehu-
manizing the other group. As a result, the positions taken by members of
the other group during conflict resolution will not be regarded as legitimate,
and members of both groups may perceive their adversaries as less than
human. In fact, members of the other group may be perceived as not even
belonging in the same moral universe as the in-group. In addition, members
of the other group are very likely to be viewed categorically, and their indi-
viduality may be ignored.

One outcome of these negative views of the out-group is that out-group
members tend to be blamed for the negative behaviors they engage in, while
situational explanations for such conduct are ignored (Ybarra, Stephan, &
Schaberg, 2000). In-group members may also have difficulty accurately pro-
cessing information about members of the other group and tend to ignore
information that contradicts their views. Additionally, they may overestimate
the differences in core values between the groups (Chambers, Baron, &
Inman, 2006). Expecting the worst from members of the other group can lead
in-group members to be suspicious, reserved, and unwelcoming, which is
unlikely to elicit a warm response from the members of the other group
(Word, Zanna, & Cooper, 1974). In-group members may also be anxious
about interacting with members of the other group and uncertain how to
behave toward them, leading to awkward social interactions (Stephan &
Stephan, 1985). People also have tendency to believe other members of their
in-group share their views. This “intergroup false consensus” effect (Karasawa,
2003) may lead people to be intransigent during intergroup negotiations if

30 Small Group Research

Stephan / Psychological and Communication Processes 31

they falsely believe that their positions are supported by most of the other
members of their group.

Psychological Processes Involved in
Improving Intergroup Conflict Resolution

The psychological processes discussed in the next section are all derived
from social psychological research into factors that are employed to improve
intergroup relations. I have tried to focus on those that are most relevant to
small group contexts. Basically, there are three types of psychological
processes that can have a beneficial impact on intergroup conflict resolution:
affective, cognitive, and behavioral. Although these processes can operate
separately, more commonly they occur simultaneously. These processes do
not refer to the substantive issues involved in the conflict, nor do they refer
to the actual techniques and procedures employed to successfully resolve
conflicts. Rather, they can be used to create a climate in which people gath-
ered in small groups can come to understand the positions of others, change
their own positions, and work toward resolving intergroup conflicts.

Affective Processes

Creating emotional empathy may be especially valuable during attempts to
resolve intergroup conflicts. Emotional empathy involves the capacity to feel
the same emotions as members of the other group. Empathizing emotionally
with the out-group can lead to a concern for their welfare and more positive
feelings and attitudes toward them (Batson et al., 1997; Dovidio, ten Vergert et
al., 2004; Stephan & Finlay, 1999; Stephan, Renfro, Esses, Stephan, & Martin,
2005). In particular, empathy for the distress and suffering experienced by out-
group members should increase the chances of successful conflict resolution.

Feeling threatened by an out-group may lead to negative emotions, atti-
tudes, and behaviors toward the out-group (Stephan & Renfro, 2002;
Stephan, Ybarra, & Rios Morrison, in press). Two types of threat are com-
monly experienced at the intergroup level: realistic threats and symbolic
threats. Realistic threats consist of threats to the material well-being of the
ingroup, such as their economic benefits, political power, and health. Symbolic
threats consist of threats to the in-group’s system of values. Reducing feel-
ings of threat can improve the climate for efforts at conflict resolution. People
who are not feeling threatened are more willing to communicate their
feelings and interests and are more open to discussing the effects the con-
flict is having on both groups. When people feel less threatened, they are

32 Small Group Research

also more likely to accurately process information about the other group and its
interests and positions. Reductions in threat can be brought about by establish-
ing a safe environment during conflict resolution, including establishing clear
ground rules for social interaction, carefully structuring initial interactions, and
emphasizing that people should treat each other fairly and with respect.

Another beneficial affective process may be activated when people become
aware of the discrepancies between their values and their behavior (Grube,
Mayton, & Ball-Rokeach, 1994). During the course of intergroup conflicts,
members of both groups have often behaved in ways that violate their own fun-
damental values. It may be possible to motivate people to change their attitudes
and future behavior by helping them to become aware of the discrepancies
between their values and their behaviors. Although the distress and negative
affect they are likely to feel as a result of confronting such discrepancies may
simply lead them to try to justify their past behaviors, if they can be led to see
that by changing their future behaviors they can reinforce their basic values,
they may be more willing to work at resolving intergroup conflicts.

In a related vein, if members of the contending groups believe that
stereotyping the out-group is wrong, they may experience guilt or self-
criticism (Devine, 1989; Devine, Plant, & Buswell, 2000). If these individ-
uals have a desire to see themselves as unprejudiced, they can learn to
suppress their stereotypes (Monteith, 1993; Monteith, Zuwerink, & Devine,
1994) and that should facilitate conflict resolution. In-group members may
be further motivated to resolve conflicts with out-group members to the
degree they experience collective guilt—that is, guilt over the past treat-
ment of the out-group by the in-group (Branscombe, Doosje, & McGarty,
2002). Similarly, if they feel moral outrage at the past behavior of their
group toward the out-group (Dovidio, Gaertner et al., 2004), this too may
motivate them to resolve current conflicts with members of the other group.

During intergroup conflicts, out-groups come to be associated with neg-
ative affect. As a result, members of the out-group may come to be feared,
disliked, and avoided. If the associations between out-groups and negative
affect can be modified by providing in-group members with positive expe-
riences with out-group members, the prospects of working together toward
conflict resolution will be enhanced. Small groups comprising members of
social identity groups with a history of conflict are an ideal context in
which to promote such positive intergroup interactions.

Cognitive Processes

Creating cognitive empathy can lead to more positive attitudes toward
the out-group (Stephan & Finlay, 1999; Stephan et al., 2005). Individuals

Stephan / Psychological and Communication Processes 33

experience cognitive empathy when they take the role of another and view
a situation from that person’s perspective. Empathizing cognitively can
enable members of both groups to understand the views of the other group,
especially their perceptions of the conflict.

Intergroup conflict causes members of both groups to exaggerate the dif-
ferences in core values between the groups (Chambers et al., 2006).
Correcting misperceptions concerning group differences in core values
should enhance the chances of resolving conflicts between groups, in part
because perceiving others to be similar to oneself increases liking for them
(Byrne, 1971; Rokeach, Smith, & Evans, 1960).

The polarization of intergroup perceptions that characterizes intergroup
conflict also leads people to view others solely in terms of their group iden-
tities. If efforts can be made during attempts at conflict resolution to help
people interact with members of the other group in terms of their personal
characteristics rather than their group identities, it should improve relations
between them (Brewer & Miller, 1984; Dovidio, Gaertner, Isen, Rust, &
Guerra, 1998; Miller, Brewer, & Edwards, 1985) and facilitate conflict res-
olution. Personalizing one’s adversaries has the added benefit of undermin-
ing the tendency to dehumanize and delegitimize out-group members.

The tendency to interact with their adversaries primarily in terms of their
group identities can also be counteracted if people are reminded that they and
their adversaries belong to multiple social groups that intersect and overlap
(Brewer, 2000; Dovidio et al., 1998; Dovidio, Kawakami, & Gaertner, 2000;
Hewstone, Islam, & Judd, 1993). Although there may be one group identity
dimension along which there is contention (e.g., race), members of the two
groups may share other social group identities, such as age, sex, social class,
or social and work roles. If people can be helped to become consciously
aware of their multiple, cross-cutting identities, it can offset the sharp dis-
tinction they are making between the in-group and the out-group.

Furthermore, if the contending individuals can be encouraged to see that
there are overarching identities that individuals from the two groups both
value, these superordinate identities can be employed to unite them in some
common purpose (Gaertner, Dovidio, Nier, Ward, & Banker, 1999; Gaertner,
Mann, Murrell, & Dovidio, 1989), such as resolving their conflicts in the inter-
ests of the greater good. Such superordinate groups might include the organi-
zation, the community, or a unifying religion. It is important to note that
emphasizing a superordinate identity does not imply that other in-group iden-
tities are lost, only that a more all-encompassing identity is added (Gaertner,
Rust, Dovidio, Bachman, & Anastasio, 1994).

Behavioral Processes

Research on intergroup contact has demonstrated that there are a number
of factors that promote favorable intergroup relations. The best established fac-
tors include cooperation in the pursuit of common goals, equality in the con-
tact situation, the approval of relevant authority figures, and contact that allows
people to get to know one another as individuals (Allport, 1954; Pettigrew &
Tropp, 2000). A special benefit of mutual interdependence (cooperation) is
that it encourages people to more accurately perceive others (Fiske, 2000). All
of these factors can usually be introduced into small group contexts.

People are also influenced by the models to whom they are exposed,
especially those of higher status (Bandura, 1986). Thus, the behavior of
third parties who intervene in conflicts is extremely important. Mediators
and facilitators need to model the same types of behaviors they wish to have
the parties to the conflict display. For small groups dealing with intergroup
conflicts, it may be especially valuable to have mediators or facilitators
from both contending groups who can model the types of intergroup rela-
tionships they wish to foster.

It may also be useful in small group intergroup conflict resolution set-
tings to provide the participants with an opportunity to talk about them-
selves, not just the conflict. Such self-disclosures can lead to openness,
acceptance, and mutual trust (Derlega, Metts, Petronio, & Margulis, 1993).
They can also yield the type of information that leads to empathizing with
members of out-groups. The beneficial effects of such self-disclosures are
likely to be increased if the ground rules include respectful listening.

Communication Processes Involved in
Improving Intergroup Conflict Resolution

There are several communication processes that have emerged from
research on dialogue groups that are relevant to improving intergroup com-
munication during conflict resolution in small group settings (Nagda,
2006). Dialogue groups are a technique of improving intergroup relations
that entail facilitated discussions between members of two social identity
groups with a history of conflict (e.g., racial groups, cultural groups, reli-
gious groups). The goals of intergroup dialogue are to increase intergroup
understanding and equip participants with the skills to interact with
members of other groups. Participants are encouraged to express their emo-
tions and discuss their reactions to prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimina-
tion. Although not all intergroup dialogues explicitly address intergroup

34 Small Group Research

Stephan / Psychological and Communication Processes 35

conflicts, many do. The initial focus of these discussions is typically on
coming to a better understanding of the conflicts, not on resolving them. Later,
discussions tend to focus more on joint searches for solutions. The communi-
cation processes involved in intergroup dialogues that seem most relevant to
intergroup conflict resolution more generally include alliance building, critical
self-reflection, self-engagement, and appreciating differences.

Alliance building involves working through disagreements and building
trust. It requires members of both groups to examine and confront their own
biases and assumptions about the other group. It consists of reaching across
the group divide to work collaboratively with members of the other group.
In terms of specific communication behaviors, alliance building often
entails discussing options for action and making commitments to take joint
actions. In conflict resolution settings, alliance building would involve
encouraging the contending parties to work together toward mutually
acceptable outcomes and to focus on the fairness of the outcomes of the
other group as well as their own group’s outcomes.

Critical self-reflection involves individuals examining their own ideas, expe-
riences, and perspectives—often with respect to power inequalities or other
problematical aspects of relations between the groups. Critical self-reflection
becomes a communication process when it results in questioning in-group and
out-group members about issues such as systems of inequality with a goal of
understanding their views. Likewise, when individuals state publically that they
are willing to reappraise their own views, self-reflection has become a part of a
communication process—one that is especially relevant to conflict resolution.

Self-engagement refers to individuals being actively involved in the inter-
group interaction through personal sharing, inquiry, and showing their inter-
est in others. Importantly, it includes self-disclosure and displaying comfort
with others who are expressing emotions. At times, it may mean being able
to tolerate silence.

Appreciating differences implies that individuals learn from members of
other groups, are willing to listen to their perspectives, and are open to dif-
ferent realities. It shows up in attentive listening as well as communicating
acceptive of, and respect for, others.

Practitioners of other small group intergroup conflict resolution tech-
niques have identified additional communication processes that can facilitate
conflict resolution. For instance, in their problem-solving groups, Kelman
and Cohen (1986) stress the importance of taking an analytical perspective
toward the conflict. They enjoin participants to try to understand the per-
spective of the other group. They also stress the importance of communi-
cating in a civil manner. A guiding assumption in their approach is that “the

36 Small Group Research

interaction between individual participants is a reflection and expression of
the relationship between their groups” (p. 326). Thus, they process the here-
and-now communications between participants in their groups as an avenue
to understanding the conflicts between the groups.

Intergroup Conflict Resolution Training

In small group programs designed to improve intergroup conflict resolu-
tion, these psychological and communication processes can be taught to
potential third party interveners as well as to potential adversaries in inter-
group conflicts. To illustrate the applicability of these processes to conflict res-
olution training programs, I discuss the Teaching Students to be Peacemakers
Program (Johnson & Johnson, 1995a, 1995b, 1996). The overall goals of this
program are to train students to positively negotiate their own conflicts and
mediate schoolmates’ conflicts. One of the explicit goals of this training is to
improve intergroup relations. Training is provided every year during this 12-
year curriculum. In the beginning of the school year, 20 hours of training are
given to students in 30-minute lessons during the course of several weeks.
Subsequently, students receive at least two 30-minute lessons each week to
refresh and refine their negotiation and mediation skills. During the training,
each student has an opportunity to serve as a peer mediator an equal amount
of time so that all receive the benefits of mediating. This training program is
usually accompanied by the creation of a collaborative climate in the school
through the use of cooperative learning procedures.

The initial lessons in the program include defining conflict and dis-
cussing why it should be studied, asking the individual students what con-
flict means to each of them, and asking students to write down what they
do in conflict situations (Johnson, Johnson, & Bartlett, 1990). Teachers also
use structured academic controversies to increase students’ reasoning and
conflict resolution skills. In structured academic controversies, students
prepare positions papers on an issue, advocate their positions, and refute
opposing positions. They then rebut their opponents, view the issue from
both perspectives, and come to a consensus solution based on a synthesis of
the two positions (Avery, Johnson, Johnson, & Mitchell, 1999). Later in the
program, the students are introduced to the steps involved in negotiation.
The six negotiation steps are as follows: jointly defining the problem as
mutual, small, and specific; describing one’s own feelings; describing the
reasons for one’s own position; reversing perspectives by presenting the
other party’s position; creating options for mutual benefit; and reaching a

Stephan / Psychological and Communication Processes 37

wise decision. Next, the students practice the individual steps and rehearse
putting the steps together. The same process is repeated for mediation. In
this case, students first learn the steps involved in mediation. The seven
mediation steps are as follows: end hostilities, ensure the disputants’ com-
mitment to the mediation, facilitate the negotiations, help the disputants
present their views, help the disputants reverse perspectives, help the dis-
putants create options, and formalize agreements. Again, the students prac-
tice the steps and experience putting the steps together.

This program relies on presenting and illustrating the elements of conflict
combined with rehearsing the steps to resolve them. If students in this program
were made aware of the psychological and communication processes that can
improve the climate for conflict resolution, they would be more effective in
resolving their own intergroup conflicts or mediating the conflicts of others.
For instance, if they understood the value of empathy, they would know why
they should be encouraging the adversaries to take each other’s roles. If they
were taught about the destructive effects of feeling threatened and other nega-
tive emotions, they would understand why it is important to create a sense of
security for conflict resolution to occur. Similarly, they would be able to more
effectively promote personalization and superordinate group identities, if they
had been explicitly taught about these processes. Likewise, they could be
taught why it is important to model civility, fairness, and respect. They could
be trained to take advantage of value/behavior discrepancies, moral outrage,
collective guilt, and feelings of compunction to move negotiations forward.
They could dispel misperceptions, inaccurate attributions, and false consensus
effects if they knew how to spot them. In addition, they could be taught why
and how to emphasize multiple, cross-cutting identities.

Similarly, if they were aware of importance of communication processes,
they could take steps to encourage constructive communication processes,
such as alliance building, self-engagement, critical self-evaluation, and appre-
ciating differences. For example, they could encourage adversaries in a con-
flict to be willing to reappraise their own positions, to share relevant personal
experiences, to learn to appreciate rather than disparage group differences, and
to make explicit commitments to work together on joint solutions to the con-
flict. Thus, understanding psychological and communication processes can
lead to training more effective intergroup conflict resolution experts.

Most of the small group intergroup conflict resolution programs that
currently exist do not explicitly incorporate the teaching of psychological
and communication processes that enhance conflict resolution (see Stephan
& Stephan, 2001, for a review of these programs), but there is no reason
that these processes could not be included in such programs. Adapting these
programs to include these processes would entail explicitly teaching the

38 Small Group Research

participants how to incorporate these processes into conflict resolution set-
tings. Most conflict resolution programs rely on a mixture of didactic and
experiential pedagogical techniques. There is every reason to believe that
the types of pedagogical techniques currently used in these programs would
be equally effective in teaching the psychological and communication
processes that are relevant to conflict resolution. For instance, people can
role-play interventions based on these processes as easily as they can role-
play the steps involved in the mechanics of conflict mediation.

In addition to training individuals to be attuned to psychological and
communication processes in racial, ethnic, or cultural conflicts, it may also
be beneficial to train them to understand the types of cultural differences
that contribute to misunderstandings between these types of groups. One
approach to doing so is the cultural sensitizer (Brislin & Yoshida, 1994). In
this approach, specific instances of intercultural relations problems are pre-
sented and analyzed to teach the subjective culture different groups.
Subjective culture refers to aspects of culture such as norms, roles, values,
and beliefs that are often unquestioningly accepted by in-group members
but typically remain hidden from out-group members. Differences in
approaches to conflict resolution itself would seem to be one of the most
important aspects of cultural differences for mediators, facilitators, and par-
ties to intergroup conflicts to understand.

Concluding Comments

The list I have provided of psychological and communication processes
relevant to intergroup conflict resolution is fragmentary and incomplete. It
should, however, indicate the promise of understanding these processes for
the practice of small group intergroup conflict resolution programs. As we
gain a better appreciation of these processes, our capacity to train people to
resolve intergroup conflicts should be enhanced. That is the promise. To
fulfill this promise, more research and conceptual integration are needed,
along with the knowledge gained from actually training people to recognize
and act on their understanding of these processes.


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group members. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26, 1515-1525.

Walter G. Stephan received his PhD in psychology from the University of Minnesota in
1971. He taught at the University of Texas at Austin and at New Mexico State University,
where he currently holds the rank of professor emeritus. He has published articles and book
chapters on attribution processes, cognition and affect, intergroup relations, and intercultural
relations. He has also authored or coauthored eight books and five handbook chapters, as well
as editing two issues of Journal of Social Issues. In 1996, he won the Klineberg award for
intercultural relations, which is given by the Society for the Psychological Study of Social
Issues. In 2002, he won the Allport Award in intergroup relations, which is also given by the
Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues.

Stephan / Psychological and Communication Processes 41

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