Political, economic, and social differences inevitably create conflict, as do differences in ethnicity, gender, religion, personality, and style. What would it take to successfully mediate these conflicts? If time, money, laws, bureaucracy, expertise, and willingness to participate were not obstacles, what methods and programs might we employ to reduce the bloodshed and recover peace and social unity once the upheavals subside? What might the United Nations, national governments, or non-governmental organizations do to discourage evil, war, and terrorism before they begin?
Over the last two decades, I have worked as a mediator and trainer in political disputes, not only in the U.S., but in the former Soviet Union, helping resolve conflicts between Ukrainians, Georgians, and Russians, and also between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. I have worked in Nicaragua, Pakistan, India, and Ireland, and participated in mediations and dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians, and between Mexican ranchers and indigenous forest dwellers. I have trained conflict resolution teams in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Netherlands, Canada, and England, and studied conflict resolution and political disputes in China, Japan, Zimbabwe, Brazil, India, Spain, and Thailand.
Through these experiences, I have learned that deeply entrenched political conflicts can be resolved, transformed, and transcended. To do so requires us to design culturally adaptable conflict resolution approaches that integrate prejudice reduction, group facilitation, public dialogue, collaborative negotiation, mediation, arbitration, community building, and similar technologies. Simultaneously, we need to form local intervention teams, develop indigenous conflict resolvers, increase local institutional conflict resolution capacity, and train trainers skilled in each of these strategies.
For example, in the period prior to the breakup of the former Soviet Union, I worked with a volunteer group of Russians, Ukrainians, and Georgians, and a similar group of Armenians and Azerbaijanis, assisting them in becoming mediators and developing skills in a variety of conflict resolution techniques. By the end of this experience, they had created cross-cultural co-mediation teams committed to intervene during eruptions of ethnic hostility or violence between their communities, and train others in these techniques.
Political conflicts are simultaneously public and private, intellectual and emotional, procedural and structural, preventive and reactive, relational and systemic. As a result of this complex, multi-layered character, resolution efforts are required that focus on encouraging local, collaborative initiatives and combining these elements, rather than importing or externally imposing generic solutions.
To successfully develop conflict resolution capacity across cultures, I have found it best to adopt the collaborative, “elicitive,” democratic approach created by John Paul Lederach, which focuses on supplementing rather than replacing indigenous resolution strategies, while learning from and building on local conditions.
In order to recover from severe political conflicts such as war and genocide, people in divided communities, including former combatants, need to develop the emotional skills to work through their rage and guilt and assuage their grief and loss; the communication skills to reduce bias and prejudice and engage in constructive dialogue; the heart skills to rebuild empathy and compassion and reach forgiveness and reconciliation; the organizing skills to develop interest-based, collaborative leadership and become productive, functional communities again; and the conflict resolution skills to design systems that successfully prevent and resolve future disputes.
Five Strategies for Intervention
There are five fundamental intervention strategies required to deliver these skills. The first is to actively encourage the open expression of the rage and grief stirred up by the conflict in a context that is constructive and oriented to resolution and reconciliation, such as that used by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. For example, I have asked hostile racial, religious, or ethnic groups to meet in mixed teams and answer the following questions:
- What is one thing someone said or did that you never, ever want to experience again?
- What is one thing someone said or did that gave you strength or courage, or helped you recover?
- What is one thing that needs to be done so what happened will never happen again?
- What is one thing you would be willing to do to make sure that happens?
The second is to dismantle the prejudices and stereotypes of the “enemy” through a combination of bias awareness, storytelling, dialogue, collaborative negotiation, and strategic planning techniques. For example, I have brought antagonistic cross-cultural groups together to perform one of the following exercises:
- Reclaiming Pride: Participants state their names, the groups with which they identity, and why they are proud to belong to them, as in “I am a _____, _____, _____ and _____,” listing different sources of identity.
- What’s in a Name? Participants describe the origin and meaning of their names and how they came by them.
- Story-Telling: Participants find someone from a different group and tell a story about what it felt like to grow up as a member of their group.
- Assessing Group Identity: Participants discuss what they get by identifying with a group, and what they give in return.
- Personalizing Discrimination: In twos or dyads, participants describe a time when they felt disrespected or discriminated against for any reason, and compare experiences.
- Reframing Stereotypes: Participants in dyads describe the stereotypes and prejudices others have about their group while their partners write down key words, which they later compare and reframe as positives.
- Observing Discrimination: In dyads, participants describe a time when they witnessed discrimination against someone else. What did they do? What could they have done? What kept them from doing more?
- Owning Prejudice: Participants write down all the prejudicial statements they can think of, analyze and list their common elements, and read them out to the group.
- Overcoming Prejudice: In dyads, participants describe a personal prejudice or stereotype they had or have, and what they are doing to overcome it.
- Which Minority are You? Participants list all the ways in which they are a minority, report on the total number of ways, and discuss them.
- Explaining Prejudice: - Participants in self-same groups identify the prejudices and stereotypes other groups have of them, explain their culture, and answer questions others have about their group, but perhaps were afraid to ask.
- A Celebration of Differences: Participants are asked to stand and be applauded for their differences in age, family background, skills, and experiences.
The third intervention strategy is to develop skills within local neighborhoods and communities in group facilitation, public dialogue, strategic planning, collaborative negotiation, and peer mediation. Teams of volunteer trainers can conduct skill-building workshops, not only for professional conflict resolvers, but mixed groups of neighbors, community activists, therapists, clergy, managers, union leaders, judges, attorneys, government officials, and leaders in civil society. For example, in Los Angeles following the “civil unrest” in response to the beating of Rodney King, I helped train Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) workers in facilitating community dialogues between hostile racial and ethnic groups and going door-to-door to deescalate potentially explosive conflicts. Here are some exercises I have used:
- Communication and Miscommunication: Participants in self-same groups identify the communications and signals they or other groups don't understand.
- Mock Conflict: Participants demonstrate a typical cross-cultural conflict in a fishbowl while observers describe their reactions and volunteers attempt to mediate.
- Offensive Remarks: A volunteer starts making an offensive comment while observers coach another volunteer on how to respond.
- Observing Cultural Bias: As homework, participants collect examples of bias or prejudice from the media and share them.
- Social Change: Participants discuss what they can do to change prejudicial attitudes and behaviors among family, friends, and peers.
- Institutional Change: Participants discuss what organizations and institutions can do to counteract prejudice, and what they can do to encourage them to change.
- What I Will Do: Participants indicate one thing they learned or will do differently in the future.
The fourth strategy is to develop skills in heart-based communication and conflict resolution techniques, and move the relationship between hostile parties toward forgiveness and reconciliation. For example, I may ask adversaries to say what they need to hear from each other in order for their conflict to be over, apologize for what they did or did not do to end it, identify why they can’t forgive and what it will cost them and their children to hold on to each reason, speak to each other from their hearts, or describe the wisdom or lessons they learned from their conflict.
The fifth strategy consists of organizing and institutionalizing these skills so that future conflicts can be resolved without coercion or violence. For example, I may create conflict audit teams to identify the systemic sources of conflict in specific institutions. These teams may then join local conflict resolvers to work with popular organizations, government ministries, and political parties to design programs that provide a broad array of conflict resolution alternatives and strategically integrate them across political, economic, and social lines.
A Twelve-Step Program
What follows is a multi-layered twelve-step plan for increasing the capacity of hostile communities to prevent, resolve, and recover from conflicts. I offer it in hopes that it can be modified to fit local conditions and used to break the cycle of violence that ultimately impacts us all:
1. Convene a cross-cultural team of experienced trainers
2. Meet with the leaders of hostile factions to secure agreement on a common plan, build trust, and encourage on-going support
3. Interview leaders of opposing groups, sub-groups, and factions, listen empathetically, and clarify cultural mores, interests, goals, and concerns
4. Elicit from each group or culture the methods currently used to resolve disputes and identify ways of supplementing and expanding them
5. Identify a core of volunteers in each group who want to be trained as mediators, facilitators, and trainers
6. Design a program to elect or select volunteer mediators and facilitators from neighborhoods and workplaces, and from key educational, social, religious, cultural, economic, and political organizations
7. Form cross-cultural teams of mediators to design conflict resolution systems, conduct mediations, encourage forgiveness and reconciliation, and arbitrate disputes
8. Train volunteer facilitators in techniques for processing grief and loss, reducing prejudice, facilitating public dialogue, and organizing truth and reconciliation commissions and similar interventions as needed
9. Form cross-cultural teams of trainers to train others throughout civil society
10. Build on-going support for conflict resolution programs
11. Conduct periodic evaluations, audits, and course corrections to improve capacity and identify where future support may be needed
12. Redesign conflict resolution systems in governments, organizations, and civil society to increase opportunities for early intervention, dialogue, mediation, and negotiation between adversaries
By implementing these steps and modifying them to fit each situation, we can substantially reduce the destructiveness of evil, war, and terrorism and create a platform on which deeper social and political changes might take place. By comparison with the long-term costs of war and terrorism, the most ambitious program imaginable would be inexpensive and well worth undertaking.
Crossing Cultures: An Elicitive Approach
It is also useful to adopt an elicitive approach, pioneered by Mennonite mediator John Paul Lederach, which first seeks to determine the varieties of conflict and resolution procedures already available within a culture, then identify possible additions that can be used to supplement what is already being done. Here are a few techniques I have used to bridge cross-cultural gaps:
1. Begin by welcoming both sides, serve food or drink and breaking bread together. Ask each person to say what they expect of you and the mediation process, or who they think you are, and how they define your role
2. Ask each side to identify the ground rules they need to feel respected, communicate effectively, and resolve their problems
3. Elicit a prioritization of conflicts from each side. Which are most serious, which are least? Compare similarities and differences, and do the same for conflict styles
4. Ask each side to list the words that describe the other culture, and next to this list, the words that describe their own. Exchange lists and ask them to respond. Do the same with conflicting ideas, feelings such as anger, or attitudes toward conflict
5. Ask parties to rank all available options from war to surrender, and explore reasons for choosing mediation
6. Ask parties to state, pantomime, role play, draw or script how conflicts are resolved in their culture. Who do they go to for help? What roles are played by third parties? How do they mediate? Then jointly design the mediation process
7. Invite each side to suggest someone within their culture who may be willing to co-mediate, and work with them to build consensus on a model for the process
8. Establish common points of reference or values by asking each side to indicate their goals for the relationship or the process.
9. Ask questions like: “What does that mean to you?” or “What does ‘fairness mean to you?”
10. Acknowledge and model respect for cultural differences
11. Ask each person to say one thing they are proud of about their culture and why
12. If appropriate, ask if there is anything they dislike about their own culture and why
13. Ask people in conflict to say what they most appreciate about the other group and why
14. Ask them to bring cultural artifacts, such as poems, music or photographs, and share their stories
15. Ask each side to identify a common stereotype of their culture, how it feels, and why. Then, describe their culture, showing why the stereotype is inaccurate
16. Ask what rituals are used in each culture to end conflict, such as shaking hands, then jointly design a ritual for closure and forgiveness
Mediators Without Borders
When listening to news about the latest disasters from wars and terrorist attacks around the globe, I sometimes fantasize what would happen if, instead of dropping bombs on civilian populations, mediators by the tens of thousands were parachuted into war zones to create conversations across battle lines; if, instead of shooting bullets, mediators organized dialogues and shot questions at other side; and if, instead of mourning the loss of children’s lives by visiting equal or greater losses on children from the other side, mediators would act as mourners, and turn every lost life into the name of a school, hospital, library, road, or olive grove that would be open to all and dedicated to the common good.
I realize this is wishful fantasy, yet within the dream lies a truth: that it is possible for mediators to have an impact on people’s willingness to participate in war or terrorism by organizing alternative ways of expressing, negotiating, and resolving differences. I call this idea “Mediators Without Borders.”
It is clear that, as a profession, we have the knowledge, skill, and experience needed to begin thinking and talking about how we might pool our resources and act in groups to intervene in trouble spots, even in small ways. Within our ranks, we have considerable experience working in other countries and cultures, building mediation centers in hostile communities, and training people in mediation techniques. While we have done so largely as individuals, we have reached a level of maturity as a profession that allows us to now consider how we might do so as a group.
While parachuting mediators into war zones may not be realistic, having separate groups of mediators dedicated to working a few weeks a year for several years with opposing sides is quite possible. It is likely that members of mediation organizations would be willing to see part of their dues dedicated to such purposes. Grants could be obtained from foundations and donations from individuals. Costs could be controlled, and would in any case not be excessive. In other words, all that is lacking is our resolve and a practical way to begin.
The most effective international projects, in my experience, are those that extend over decades, with people returning year after year to follow up, learn what works and what doesn’t, and provide fresh information, technique, and advice as circumstances evolve and change. It will undoubtedly take considerable effort and commitment to design and implement such a project; yet because conflict has no border, nor does compassion, nor our capacity to make a difference, we can only choose whether we will be distant, helpless victims of what we regard as other people’s tragedies, or active participants in resolving disputes in our own family, regardless of where they may occur.
More importantly, if we cannot learn to resolve our conflicts without war, coercion, grief, and injustice, we will find ourselves unable to survive, either as a species or as a planet. By responding to international conflicts in preventative, heartfelt, and systemic ways, we prepare the groundwork for the next great leap in human history – the leap into international cooperation and coexistence without war. Through these efforts, we may hope someday to achieve the transformation promised in a pamphlet published by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission:
Instead of revenge, there will be reconciliation.
Instead of forgetfulness, there will be knowledge and acknowledgement.
Instead of rejection, there will be acceptance by a compassionate state.
Instead of violations of human rights, there will be restoration of the moral order and respect for the rule of law.
Let’s make it happen, starting with us.