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<xTITLE>Where Settlements Cannot Go – Towards a Praxis of Reconciliation in Group Conflicts (Part 4 of 6)</xTITLE>

Where Settlements Cannot Go – Towards a Praxis of Reconciliation in Group Conflicts (Part 4 of 6)

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

Part 1 of 6
Part 2 of 6
Part 3 of 6
Part 5 of 6
Part 6 of 6
This series of articles describes the underlying empirical dynamics that assist large groups in reconciling following conflict using a process hallmarked by the acrostic TRUTH. The goal of the process is to assist groups that wish to heal and reconstitute relationships torn by organizational or community conflict by helping them overcome specific barriers to forgiveness. Part 1 examined why settlements fail to resolve conflict, defined forgiveness and dispelled several myths and misunderstandings regarding forgiveness and reconciliation. Part 2 looked at the necessity of Turning inward to find our own contributions to the conflict. Part 3 examined and described the necessity of Remembering what each had done that may have contributed to the conflict, and moves one from passive acceptance of those actions to active acknowledgement through the simple truth statements of confession. In Part 4 we will examine the single most powerful layer of the continuum, what I have termed Understanding.

Two executives, a man and a woman, sat with me. They had co-founded a successful company that was in danger of collapsing due to their present conflict. I will never forget the look on his face. He had just described how he came from a boisterous family where everything was exaggerated, where invading personal space was how one showed conviction, and yelling when angry was the norm. He was a big man, about 6’4” and 250 pounds, and seemed quite happy with having leaned over his business partner’s desk and yelling at her while waving his arms. I then asked her, at 5’2” and 100 lbs, “What happens when you get yelled at?” A tiny, 4-year-olds’ voice answered, “You get hit.” Silence. He looked like a horse had kicked him in the gut. His shoulders slumped and his face collapsed in utter devastation. He had not an inkling of how she had responded to his “normal” conflict behavior. He couldn’t even speak for several seconds, and finally managed to sputter, “My God, I had no idea, I’m so… I would never … oh, please, I’m so sorry.”

He finally understood what he had done.

I suspect that each of us at some time or another has been stopped in our tracks when we fully understood the impact of the pain we have inflicted, and how it has affected those we care about.

We rarely understand the extent of the damage we inflict while in conflict, nor do we particularly care. We are too busy defending our own positions and interests to notice or care about what is happening to the other as a person; we would much rather see him or her as a caricature of a human being. Moreover, we actively avoid confronting ourselves through layers of blame against the other and excuses that “they deserved it.” It’s called dehumanization and we do it without even thinking.

Carried to an extreme, dehumanization allows us to justify anything, even torture, terror, and murder. If we see the other person as less human than ourselves, it is easier to inflict pain and offers us a measure of insulation against caring. If we see them as inhuman, we may kill with little remorse.

The key to breaking this cycle is actually quite simple, and again focuses inward rather than outward.

If we have been successful so far, the participants have acknowledged some of the acts they committed during the course of the conflict. They have said, “I did this.” While many might be tempted to then ask, “How do you feel about it?” that would be a mistake. The temptation is still too strong to say such things as, “He deserved it, the lying cheat!” That form of question and the resulting answer will set you backwards.

Instead of examining how they feel about what they did, focus on the impact what they did had on those at the receiving end. In a large group, the facilitator can depict the general impact by describing what the participants have already told him or her during initial interviews. It will look something like this: “You have told me how this conflict has affected you, which I will now describe. Many of you suffer from headaches and nausea; some have had diarrhea and vomiting and have lost interest in food. Others can’t stop eating – you can’t find comfort in food, but you keep trying. You are now suspicious where you used to be trusting. Friendships have exploded, and you mourn their loss. Some of you are depressed, can hardly get out of bed in the morning, but can’t sleep at night – you are exhausted. Many cannot concentrate on their work, and are worried that they are making mistakes where they were accurate before this. Many are ready to leave, and some already have. Many are angry, but on the verge of tears at the same time…” The key is to give them the complete picture of how the group is reacting as they have given it to you. The list of symptoms will be much longer than what I have given you. There is no need to embellish.

I have gone through this process many times with large groups and the reaction has been the same: heads start nodding all around the room as people acknowledge the validity of what you are saying. An interesting and desirable thing happens as opponents begin seeing each other’s heads moving in agreement: they begin too see the universality of their suffering. They begin to see that they are all wounded, though in differing ways. This opens a spirit of inquiry where they begin to think, “Bob has been sick and depressed too? Wow. I didn’t know that.” It opens the most important step in the rehumanization process. As they begin to see each other in terms much the same as themselves, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain barriers of anger between them. Up until this point, each person has claimed the higher moral ground. This shows them that there is no need to relinquish the high ground. Instead of seeing forgiveness as being dragged down to the level of the other, it pulls the other up to the same plane in a moral leveling and triggers what happens next.

I ask individuals to state something that was done as part of the conflict, and explain how it damaged them. It is short, simple, and factual, without opinion or embellishment, e.g., “I was devastated when someone implied that I had been stealing from the company. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It haunts me to think people see me this way. I went home and vomited half the night.” Again, these statements are impossible to argue with, as they contain no opinions, accusations, or conclusions about motives.

The effect, however, can be dramatic as people begin to understand not only their collective woundedness, but also how their acts have hurt specific people. It evokes not only empathy, but also sorrow and collective guilt. It evokes an ever-deepening understanding of who we are and what we have done.

I learned a beautiful and simple hymn in South Africa that describes where we are in the process. It is called Senzenina (senZENiNA). It has only that one word, and it means, “What have we done?” Sung slowly, it is a hymn of lament and collective sorrow. It was sung frequently during the six years of their truth and reconciliation process, not by the apartheid supporters, but as a collective question from the victims of apartheid to the entire nation.

The most common experience from a facilitator’s view at this point is seeing confusion followed by deepening sadness on participant faces as these statements continue. Tears are common, but then something extraordinary starts to flow through the group: energy and hope begin to mix through the sorrow as people begin to see their common cure. The new mixture produces compassion, an active turn outward to heal through simple statements of remorse. Though I have already primed the group leaders to move first, it may be unnecessary as the group energy increases along with the realization that they have the power to make things better again. They already know how to do this; it’s called an apology.

Confession is about ownership of an act. Apology places a layer of remorse on top of bare confession and expresses sorrow for having done the act, which means that the act itself, in being harmful, was wrong.

A very quick intervention is in order as this begins to happen. Participants should be cautioned to not offer anything other than simple statements such as, “Sharon, I am so sorry that I hurt you. It was wrong.”

The most effective apologies are those made without any semblance of excuse. The caution is to avoid uninvited explanations or the reasons something was done, as these will usually be seen as excuses. Apologies that begin, “I’m sorry for what I did, but…” will almost always explode and make things worse. Offering explanations as part of an apology is usually an attempt to save face or place the blame on the victim. It says that, even though I did it, I’m not at fault, or worse, it’s your fault.

Apology need not be verbal, though that is its most common form. For it to be authentic, the remorse must be seen as real, but can be expressed through non-verbal means. I have seen people say nothing, but show their sorrow through tears and body language in an elegant display of both remorse and the desire to heal the other that no verbal apology could ever approach.

Some people have a strong need to know why. They need to answer that question so that they can forgive. They will ask, “Why did you do that? What were you thinking?” This is an attempt to more deeply understand the world of the offender and make sense of what has not made sense previously. Since they seek the answer, an explanation will generally be accepted.

The people are now at a place where facilitator control becomes much lighter. I encourage them to seek out those they may have hurt and express their remorse for having hurt them. I urge them to keep it very simple and unadorned, without excuses or explanation unless an explanation is requested. It is likely that they will begin seeking out former friends to apologize. The room will come alive as most, but not all, seek to mend their torn relationships.


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.

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