Where Settlements Cannot Go – Towards a Praxis of Reconciliation in Group Conflicts (Part 5 of 6)

Links to the entire series


Part 1 of 6
Part 2 of 6
Part 3 of 6
Part 4 of 6
Part 6 of 6


We have now seen the first three steps of the process of bringing groups wounded from conflict back into relational closeness. The first two steps, turning and remembering, were tightly controlled. The third step, understanding, was also controlled, but less stringently so. Each step has been marked by inward reflection and outward action. The last two steps follow the same pattern of reflection and action, but are increasingly fluid and less well-defined.


The third step was marked by expressions of remorse in a controlled framework in what is best described as simple apology. It served to bring into the open what happened, who did what, and how people were hurt. It was a level of increasing transparency as people admitted their harmful acts and expressed their sorrow at not only being hurt, but in hurting others. They came to see that they were both victim and perpetrator in the same person, and it changed the ways that they saw themselves and each other. The framework of the conflict has now been altered and rendered less threatening. In offering and accepting apologies, hope for the future has been nurtured and strengthened. The research indicates that a majority, but not all, who will forgive have done so. The last two steps assist those still angry in releasing their animosity, and begins strengthening relational bonds for those who have forgiven.


Whether or not they have forgiven, they all need to begin creating a new framework upon which to build trust. Strong relationships are constructed on trust, and there is yet very little trust in the room, nor is there the framework for it to grow upon. We must first build the framework, and they will not only plant the seeds of trust, but also help them grow.


We must help them answer this question: How do I know that I can trust you? They will want to ask it of the other, once again desiring to revert to the outward approach first. The problem inherent in the question is that it is more than a question – it is also an accusation. If the one questioned responds defensively or with the wrong answer, the conflict will re-escalate. Once again, the facilitator will be most effective by redirecting the thrust of the question inward. They have the answers to their own questions, and our job is in helping them define what they need and will do.


The more effective question is, “What must I do to re-establish trust?” The answer is always found in trustworthy behavior. We will break it down into two pointed questions: (1) what needs to happen for you to trust another, and (2) what have you learned from the conflict that you must change to be accepted as trustworthy again? These questions form the heart of Transformation, the second T in the TRUTH acrostic.


We are attempting use the memories of how things were and how things are to point to the changes we can make to regain trust and avoid the dangers of future conflict. In doing so, we point our energies away from the anger and divisiveness of conflict toward the future and what can be. We are building more hope on the foundation of hope they constructed in the previous step. Even though it may be a wisp of a wish, hope can be grown. It often hides deep and unseen within the psyche, difficult to find, but when found, grows quickly. We cannot go through serious conflict without it changing us. We “learn a lesson.” That lesson can change us into angry and bitter people who build walls around ourselves to keep others out – and ourselves in. It is self-protection that not only saves us from future emotional harm, but also shields us from emotional freedom. Anger and bitterness form a self-imposed prison that keeps us in as much as it keeps others out. We have all done it at some point or at multiple points. The foundation of hope says that we can learn from what we did that was harmful, replacing it with something better.


Regaining trustworthiness is accomplished through trustworthy behavior. For some, the mere commitment to changed behavior is enough for them to forgive, while for others, the behavioral changes must be observed over a period of time that can range from days to years. How it will work is predictable only within a general structure.


There are two levels that we can help them identify and locate: group norms for trustworthiness, and personal responses. One way of approaching the issue of trustworthiness is to ask the group what being trustworthy means and looks like and writing every answer on newsprint. As each page is filled, it is conspicuously posted and another begun. Before long, they will begin repeating themselves, and have defined the group’s framework for trustworthiness. Turning it further inward, one might ask each individual to take a few minutes to ingest what the group has said and see how it applies to themselves, what they have learned about themselves during the conflict, and in applying that new knowledge, how they commit to changing their behavior in the future.


When they are finished, I suggest asking each to state what they identified about themselves that they like the least. Again, this is an exercise in honest transparency—the act of answering confirms their honesty, building the seeds of trust. It places pressure on those who see no need to change, for they will be a small minority and a refusal to respond will be seen as arrogance, threatening social isolation. We are still in the Crucible but, while it again is an uncomfortable time, it is not as uncomfortable as the previous levels. The act of stating what they discovered that was so discomfiting continues the rehumanization process, particularly for those who have not decided to cross over to forgiveness.


Once they have finished this exercise, we can turn this from theory to practice by asking them to state how the conflict has changed them and what they commit to doing in the future that is different that what they did in the course of battle. In other words, they are telling the group why they should once again be seen and accepted as trustworthy. Moreover, they are committing to that changed behavior in front of witnesses, which the data says will result in greater adherence to the commitment. One cannot normally commit to changing behavior in front of many witnesses without feeling a strong compulsion to follow through with that behavior. Unlike New Year’s resolutions, the context of conflict makes this a serious endeavor. Without changes in group behavior, trust will not be rebuilt and the group will disintegrate or erupt into more serious conflict—and then disintegrate.


What constitutes a general framework for trustworthy behavior may be defined by the group, but is refined by the individual. Every person has a personal and private idea of what it looks like to be trustworthy and what one must do to earn trust previously forfeited. By defining what they will do differently, they also define what they see as trustworthy behavior. Once again, the commonalities will be greater than the discrepancies. Once more, writing these on large sheets of paper and posting them conspicuously keeps them before the group – and the individuals who made them. Some may initially demand reciprocity, an “I’ll do this if he does that” agreement. It may work. It may not. However, most will not hang everything on this one condition for a certain type of behavior from one person. The group context renders this less important, but it may still be important in terms of interpersonal relational repair as opposed to the larger group reconciliation milieu. As people begin to hear agreeable changes, they are likewise more willing to make similar commitments, and be met with positive responses. Again, the synergy effect appears and gains strength.


The effect of confession, apology, and changed behavior on forgiveness decisions is greater than that of confession and apology alone. Changing one’s behavior from untrustworthy to trustworthy paves the way to the final step in the reconciliation process, Healing.


                        author

Darrell Puls

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. MORE >

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