Lockdown Dispute Resolution 101 #4: Choosing our words wisely – playing the lockdown language game(s)

We all have our own personal communication style. That’s what makes communicating in lockdown a challenge but also interesting! What we might not realise is that there is science and theory behind how we speak to each other and the terminology we choose to use. Harnessing our dispute resolution agency in making good communication choices is essential to preventing, managing and resolving disputes that might arise while we’re all locked down.

In this post we explore how the idea of a ‘language game’ can help us understand the background norms structuring our communication environment in lockdown.


Ludwig Wittgenstein – a German philosopher born in 1889 in Vienna – used the notion of a language game to explain the underlying conventions of different forms of social discourse and to make explicit some of the implicit expectations that lie behind different forms of social interaction. Diverse communication environments reflect different expectations as to appropriate or expected forms of speech and behaviour. For example, people communicate differently in more formal environments (such as a courtroom) compared with less formal environments (such as a party). Different contexts have different rules of engagement – different language games that must be played – for communication to be effective.


Wittgenstein’s point is that people are often unable to participate seamlessly in a language game unless they already understand, to a certain extent, the rules that apply to the specific communication context. He illustrated this point through the example of the name of a piece in chess. If you are shown a piece from a chess set and told, ‘This is the king’, it does not inform you how to use the piece. An understanding of the rules of the game of chess is required to know what to do with a ‘king’. On the other hand, if you do know the rules of the game and you are told that a certain piece is the ‘king’, then you will know exactly how to use it. The name ‘king’, when affixed to a specific piece, will tell a competent chess player to only move it one square in any direction, to protect it from threats by opposing pieces and so on.


The same idea applies to different communication environments. In a courtroom, for example, there are well-documented difficulties that arise when an unrepresented litigant attempts to engage in courtroom advocacy. At a party, certain types of comments will contribute to smooth conversation, while other types (such as offensive jokes, inappropriate questions or sharing of overly personal information) may cause social discomfort and be ignored or shunned by other party-goers.

Wittgenstein describes a language game as a set of rules for the use of language in social interaction, with ‘the speaking of language [being] part of an activity, or of a form of life’ (Philosophical Investigations, 11 [23]). Wittgenstein notes that language fundamentally influences – and, indeed, constructs – the ways in which people interact. Language is linked to social behaviour and to the social dynamic. People associate certain words and phrases with particular forms of behaviour and vice versa.

In the context of our current global COVID-19 crisis we are having to learn the rules of a new language game – the lockdown language game. An added layer of complexity is that the language game of lockdown is different in different contexts – the language game associated with communicating with family members under stress and confined at home will differ from that connected with communicating with anxious work colleagues over Zoom.

We need to think carefully about our new communication environments and harness our dispute resolution agency to respond appropriately. A failure to do so may result in a ‘clash of genres’ or what French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard called the differend. A clash of genres occurs when a person operates within one language game when the communication context is governed by a different language game.

One base-line element – a fundamental rule – of achieving effective communication in the context of the diverse manifestations of the lockdown language game is that there is an imperative for us to choose our words wisely. If we choose negative, accusatory, threatening, challenging or unhelpful words we will probably exacerbate the potential for conflict, contestation and struggle to arise as a result of our communication approach. On the other hand if we craft our communications from a positive perspective, we are more likely to negotiate and communicate effectively, and also prevent, manage or resolve disputes.

In mediation practice we use a skill called ‘reframing’. Reframing is where the mediator takes negative language the parties might be using and proactively reframes it in appropriate language. A later post in the series will discuss the art and science of reframing in more detail.

When mediators reframe, that is choose to use less negative and more appropriate terms, they can have a positive influence on the tone of the communication environment. The use of constructive words can also induce the people we are communicating with to think about matters more helpfully and from a new perspective, and it can help people to be more open to embracing productive approaches to problem-solving.

For example, instead of saying ‘You’re lying’, we could ask ‘Are you sure you’re accurate about that?’

Here are some further examples:

Negative statement Instead we could say
It’s all your fault. My expectations were a bit different.
I hate that. I feel quite strongly about it.
He’s very rude. I thought his language was not appropriate.
I can’t stand it when … I feel uncomfortable when …
She totally ignored me. I needed further consultation about that.
I’ve got no room to move. I feel as though my options are limited.
You’re always late. I’d like to talk with you about punctuality.
You never return my calls. I’d like to talk with you about our pattern of communication.
You never listen to my instructions properly. I’d like to talk with you about the importance of good communication and responsiveness.

Communicating effectively in lockdown with our families, work colleagues and others is a challenging experience when we are also trying to manage feelings of uncertainty, stress and sadness. Harnessing our dispute resolution agency to make positive choices about the words we employ in our communications will help us to avoid clashes of genres in how we engage with the lockdown language game(s). The consequences of such actions are unavoidably positive: more effective communication and proactive achievement of the prevention, management or resolution of disputes.

Tomorrow’s post: It’s not all about the words – effective communication and body language.


The idea for a post on choosing words wisely was inspired by Laurence Boulle and Nadja Alexander, Mediation Skills and Techniques (LexisNexis, 3rd ed, 2020) paras 6.27-6.28 and Table 6.2. Both Laurence and Nadja are esteemed members of the ADR Research Network and have long been leaders in the Australian and international dispute resolution communities.

The content about the notion of language games was adapted and reproduced from Rachael Field and Jon Crowe, Mediation Ethics – From Theory to Practice (Edward Elgar, 2020) Chapter 7. See also Rachael Field and Jonathan Crowe, ‘Playing the Language Game of Family Mediation: Implications for Mediator Ethics’ (2017) 35 Law in Context 84. Jon Crowe is another esteemed member of the ADR Research Network and a dear friend, co-author and colleague.

For further relevant scholarly sources see for example, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Macmillan, 2nd ed, 1968); Leonard Linsky, ‘Wittgenstein on Language and Some Problems of Philosophy’ (1957) 54(10) Journal of Philosophy 285; Max Black, ‘Wittgenstein’s Language-Games’ (1979) 33(3/4) Dialectica 337; Norman Malcolm, ‘Wittgenstein on Language and Rules’ (1989) 64(247) Philosophy 5; Hilde N Lindemann, ‘Wittgenstein Meets “Woman” in the Language-Game of Theorizing Feminism’ in Naomi Scheman and Peg O’Connor (eds), Feminist Interpretations of Ludwig Wittgenstein (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002); Dale Jacquette, ‘Wittgenstein on Lying as a Language-Game’ in Daniele Moyal-Sharrock (ed), The Third Wittgenstein: The Post-Investigations Works (Routledge, 2004) 159; Kenneth Mølbjerg Jørgensen, ‘Conceptualising Intellectual Capital as Language Game and Power’ (2006) 7(1) Journal of Intellectual Capital 78; Jean-François Lyotard, The Différend: Phrases in Dispute (Georges van den Abbeele trans, University of Minnesota Press, 1988).

Wittgenstein image: Funny Face: How Ludwig Wittgenstein “Invented” Emojis

Chessboard image: Chess Board Dimensions | Basics and Guidelines

Chess pieces image: Wikipedia Chess



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About Dr Rachael Field

Rachael is a Professor of Law in the Law Faculty of Bond University. Her key teaching and research interests are in legal education and dispute resolution. Rachael was awarded an Australian Learning and Teaching Council Citation in 2008 and was made an ALTC Teaching Fellow in 2010. In 2010 Rachael worked with Professors Sally Kift and Mark Israel on the development of the Threshold Learning Outcomes for Law. In 2013 Rachael and Prof Nick James published a first year law text entitled "The New Lawyer". Rachael has been a member of the First Year in Higher Education Conference organising committee since 2007 and now chairs that committee. She was awarded the 2013 Lexis Nexis Australasian Law Teachers’ Association Major Prize for Teaching Excellence and Innovation jointly with her colleague James Duffy. In 2014 Rachael was awarded an Office of Learning and Teaching national Teaching Excellence Award. Rachael has also been a member of the Women’s Legal Service, Brisbane Management Committee since 1994 and has been President of the Service since 2004. In 2010 Rachael, along with the Women's Legal Service Brisbane, was commissioned by the Federal Attorney-General to design a model of family dispute resolution for use in matters where there is a history of domestic violence. This model was implemented in 5 locations around Australia for 18 months and was evaluated by the Australian Institute of Family Studies. In 2011 and 2012 Rachael was invited by the Australian Human Rights Commission to contribute to their International Program by presenting the model to bi-lateral workshops with the All China Women's Federation. Rachael completed her PhD through the Faculty of Law at the University of Sydney under the supervision of Professor Hilary Astor in 2011. Her thesis explored the notion of neutrality in mediation and offers an alternative paradigm based on professional mediator ethics. Rachael was named Queensland Women Lawyer of the Year for 2013. Research Interests • Dispute Resolution • Women and the Law • Restorative Justice • Family Law • Legal Education

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