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Saving Face: Image Management and Conflict

  • Posted by: asadmin

Happy New Year.

Our lead article this month is about “managing face,” the impression we give to others and how we would like to be viewed. In conflict resolution mediators look for ways to allow parties to save face or rebuild their image in order to resolve a dispute.


Managing Face

Cosmetics are a $5.9 billion dollar industry in the US. We use beauty products to enhance our image and appearance. Our face is our window on the world. “Face” refers to one’s image of self. It includes who we think we are and how we perceive ourselves in all of our various roles. When socializing and communicating with others we strive to support one another’s face. It involves creating and sustaining an identify for yourself as well as helping others whom you communicate with to sustain their self-image and impression. So maintaining face is a cooperative process.

When an interpersonal conflict occurs one or more parties in the dispute often experience a loss of face. This has multiple implications for conflict resolution. First, people who have lost face may experience numerous emotions including shame, guilt or embarrassment. Second, the experience of losing face may result in a desire for revenge or retaliation. So any person involved in resolving disputes must understand ways to manage and bolster face and repair it when there is damage.

Types of Face

Scholars who study this area identify two types of face. Positive Face is the desire to be liked and respected. For instance, when someone expresses admiration for a person or values what they do or say then positive face is involved. Autonomous Face is the desire for privacy, independence and recognition. This kind of face is supported when a spouse recognizes their partner’s need for downtime. A request that impacts someone’s independence or autonomy may effect this type of face. Sometimes these two different face needs can clash when loved ones make excessive demands on family members or when there isn’t enough balance between these competing needs. Ruth Abigail and Dudley Cahn in Managing Conflict Through Communication. Boston, MA: Pearson, 2011.

Facework refers to the process by which people establish and maintain their impressions of themselves to others as well as supporting or denying the impressions that others are making. Ibid. It consists of four separate but interconnected factors: The act, or what is said and done; the conversation-what is happening at the moment; the episode-how does this fit in the pattern of interactions with the other and the lifescript (who am I?). These four factors are constantly changing as people interact with each other.

Preventative Facework refers to strategies for avoiding or minimizing threats to face. These include: standing in the other’s shoes, accept the other’s right to change her mind, avoidance of face threatening topics, use of disclaimers and qualifiers. By disclaimers we mean communication that softens the forcefulness of a message, i.e., “I don’t want to sound bossy but I think you are seating in my place”.

Supportive Facework consists of strategies that are consistent with the concept “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” People want to look good, be respected, feel secure and important. So consider whether in your interactions with others you foster their positive impressions of themselves in your interactions. Do you politely greet the security guard in the building you enter? Do you treat a restaurant worker with respect? Do you try to make your office colleague feel valued and worthwhile when you ask them to do a task for you?

Corrective Facework refers to strategies and statements designed to repair the effect of face-threatening messages. Checking on your perceptions is one way of managing impressions. Another strategy is offering an explanation. Both of these tactics help assure that the person receiving your messages doesn’t misconstrue them. If the issue is minor disregarding the statement may be an option. However, if such comments are continually ignored they can create a bigger conflict. When an individual experiences a hurtful situation and has lost face there is a keenly felt need for an explanation of the offense and some kind of remedy. The remedy can consist of an account or explanation of the offensive behavior or hurtful statements or conduct. The offender may offer excuses, justifications or an apology. An apology is the most restorative corrective facework strategy.

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: asadmin

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