Stay up to date on everything mediation!

Subscribe to our free newsletter,
"This Week in Mediation"

Sign Up Now

Already subscribed No subscription today
<xTITLE>Where Settlements Cannot Go – Towards a Praxis of Reconciliation in Group Conflicts (Part 3 of 6)</xTITLE>

Where Settlements Cannot Go – Towards a Praxis of Reconciliation in Group Conflicts (Part 3 of 6)

by Darrell Puls
December 2006 Darrell Puls
Links to the entire series

Part 1 of 6
Part 2 of 6
Part 4 of 6
Part 5 of 6
Part 6 of 6

In Part 2, Turning, we examined the foundations for the first layer of a large-group forgiveness and reconciliation process. In it, we redirected the clients thinking from self-centered suffering to the universal suffering of the group. In doing so, they became more aware that they have within each of them both victimhood and predatory behavior. The common unifier was their shared pain, which served as a bridge across the chasms of conflict in creating a sense of shared sorrow, but also shared hope. They have begun to lower the barriers between them, though not very much. In peering over the barriers, they begin to see once again not only the shields of the other side, but the human beings behind them. They still fear each other, and their anger is still their primary motivating force.

The underlying dynamic in the first continuum level, Turning, is empathy. Without empathy, forgiving is almost impossible. Though empathy levels naturally vary, it is possible to increase them by using intentional interventions. Turning conflictees viewpoints from a purely inward view to both inward and outward views was the first step in increasing group empathy. The next level in the continuum is Remembering. Once again, what follows is supported by the empirical data.

It is common in listening to conflict stories to hear huge differences in descriptions of the same events. Untended, the differences escalate the conflict, as each person telling a differing story believes that his or her recollection is the truth. If my recollection is the truth and is significantly different from yours, then it is likely I will see you as untruthful and deceptive—you must be a liar. By tending to how the stories are told through carefully orchestrated sequencing, however, it is possible to build a new understanding of truth without ever directly demanding that someone tell the truth or accusing another of lying. It is a matter of recovering accurate memories.

Most people believe that their memories record traumatic events much the same as a movie camera. It is common to hear such statements as, “I can see it like it was yesterday.” Unfortunately, they are wrong. Memory is impacted not only by one’s viewpoint (where one was standing, the angle at which an event is witnessed, the lighting), but also the trauma of the event itself. Fear, surprise, and other emotions force their way unnoticed into the event and interpret it, skewing the memory. Moreover, these memories are usually exaggerated in ways that increase the damage done and ill intent of the other while minimizing one’s own actions, their impact, and intent. Put plainly, we vilify the other party while enhancing our own image. Consequently, it is normal to have narratives that not only fail to agree, but compete with each other for supremacy. Each party or group then hangs on to its view as the truth. Of course, if their stories compete they cannot all be the truth. Therefore, it is normal to see oneself and one’s group as truthful, and the others as deceptive and lying.

Trying to reconcile competing truths between groups is, at this stage, a fool’s errand. It won’t work, and forcing the issue will drive the parties farther apart, sort of like trying to force a huge key through a small keyhole. Since the keyhole is small, we need a small key: recovering the memory of what acts that each person has done that may have made things just a little bit worse. They will do it because we ask them to. “Right now I just want you to focus on something that you did during the conflict that might just possibly not have resulted in exactly what you hoped for.” In hedging the statement, we also lower their anxiety levels by allowing for the possibility that it was a mistake, which allows them to save face. It may have been an abrupt response where something better thought out would have soothed. It may have been lashing out defensively when a softer response would have lowered tensions. The key is not to accuse, but to turn inward even further in self-examination for those things great and small that one could have, perhaps should have, done differently.

There will be fence sitters who claim the mantle of innocence because they did not actively participate. That argument fails when closely examined. Even sitting on the sidelines and watching is a contribution because they failed to stand between people who were hurting each other as the conflict escalated. Doing nothing made things worse by not making things better. It is fascinating to observe as people begin to see their own contributions to the conflict. If they are encouraged to view their act as if it was done to them, or imagine themselves in the shoes of the other, empathy will moderate their interpretation. Faces that are furrowed in thought change to chagrined sadness as their realizations force them to begin loosening their grip on the moral high ground to which they have clung for so long. It is common to see people begin looking around at each other with greater curiosity as if to say, “Is that why George was so upset with me?” Some will show sadness as they realize that their claims to moral truth may not be as strong as they thought.

As I have stated, this is a voluntary process, but we must have the active participation of both the formal organizational leaders and the informal conflict leaders, particularly as we transition from passive remembering to active remembering. My practice is to work with the organizational and conflict leaders prior to the larger process that I describe here. Part of the work is to help them get to a place where they can step forward and lead as each continuum segment progresses, and an agreement that they will actively do so. Since they are leaders, they must lead. If they wish to save the organization and retain their leadership roles, they have an incentive to show the way. That leadership becomes crucial here at the crossing point from passive remembering to active remembering. (I do not have enough room in this series to adequately describe the preparatory work, but it is extensive.)

Active remembering requires something more than silent contemplation, however, and it is the most difficult step in the entire process. Active remembering is done verbally in the form of confession. By confession, I mean nothing more than a truth-statement, e.g., “I wrote the letter.” It does not include statements of sorrow or regret, no “I’m sorry” or mea culpa. As I wrote previously, The Crucible is a place of heat, pressure—and refining. Confession increases both heat and pressure, and begins refining by burning away the dross of denial.

The biggest blocker to confession is the fear of public humiliation. We can counteract this fear in two ways. The first is by making certain that the confession statements are as simple and concise as possible, without recriminations, reasons, or excuses, and that everyone understands that this is all that is encompassed here. The second is by having the leaders start the actual process by confessing what they have done.

The focus in Remembering is the simple stating of unadorned truth. No reasons, and no excuses, just what we did and nothing more. The effect of it, however, is stronger than one might suppose. Hearing these truth statements begins to show the makers as truthful and honest, which is crucial in rebuilding trust. It avoids the pitfalls of inaccurate memories by focusing only on what one did rather than the context in which he or she did it. There is little to interpret if the facilitator has emphasized the simplicity of the statements themselves and that reading into them would be a mistake. Thus, confession says, “I am here, and I did this,” giving both a face and a name to the act itself.

It is easy to imagine that an anonymous damaging act was done by an inhuman ogre, but giving the act both a face and a name shatters the illusion. Instead, it often leads to a state of internal inquisitiveness, e.g., “Why did Barbara do that? It isn’t like her.” By fueling inquisitiveness, the nature of the act tends to change from fearful to intriguing, a natural confusion between the image of the act and the image of the actor, something therapists call cognitive dissonance. Since the two unaltered images cannot peacefully coexist in the brain, the person must choose between them, which requires reinterpreting one or both. To paraphrase one psychologist-writer, placing a face on evil shows it to be human after all.

Group membership tends to swallow individual identities and stories into the larger identity and story of the group, what some have termed a “master-story.” Conversely, group conflict shatters the master-story into smaller stories, reversing the process in what might be referred to as a “balkanization” of the master-story into much smaller pieces. These pieces are then adopted by the various sub-groups within the conflict and are embellished into more complete narratives that describe and justify why each group exists. The effect of a multiplicity of confessions from all groups is the beginning of a new and shared master-story that tells the truth of the conflict and starts pulling the subgroups back together. It actually rewrites the past from a series of intentionally threatening events to a more coherent (and acceptable) story of human frailty. Rewriting the larger-master story into more acceptable form undermines the necessity of the individual group stories, which can eventually be discarded as historic artifacts rather than currently operating truth, and undermines the perceived necessity of the subgroups themselves existing. While competing narratives keep people apart, mutual confessions break the cycle by freeing the parties from their need for competing master-stories. In creating a new and shared master-story, the parties also open new avenues for deeper dialogue.

The confessions should be public enough that those who need to hear it have the opportunity, but not so public as to hold the confessor up to public ridicule. Those in the conflict need to hear it, but those not in the conflict have no need or legitimate reason to hear it. Too, the confession should be explicit enough to identify the “who and what,” but not so detailed as to cause further damage by humiliating someone else. Too, if Cindy and Mary acted together, Cindy should include only what she did, and Mary is left to fill in the remaining blanks of what she did. Though they acted together, they confess independently, lessening the possibility of them playing off each other for sympathy. Coaching the parties on what their statements should and should not contain helps this process immensely.

The effect of confession may not be readily apparent, but it is there and working to lower tensions. By carefully framing each truth statement, we minimize the risk of verbal explosions, though they are certainly possible and tensions will still be running high.

Confession, then, creates the initial common ground on which the remainder of the visible process builds. Confession also forms the first layer of apology. The second layer arrives in the next segment where the visible dynamics take a dramatic shift.


Darrell Puls is an adjunct professor of conflict management at Trinity Theological Seminary and private practice mediator, trainer, and writer living in Kennewick, Washington. He holds a doctorate in conflict management, specializes in organizational and church conflict resolution, and has worked in the conflict management field since 1976.

Email Author

Additional articles by Darrell Puls