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On Guilt, Reconciliation And Forgiveness – A Case Story About Mediation, Dilemmas And Interventions In A Conflict Among Colleagues

It is a major challenge to any mediator to be confronted with a firm violation of a common agreement or a common understanding.

In this article we are explore two sets of circumstances. Firstly, we explore the situation in which a mediator is confronted with dilemmas which can make it very difficult to solve or resolve a conflict. Secondly, we investigate the fact that one of the parties to a conflict may not realize that his violation of a common agreement hinders a solution.

Examples of such violations may be: A person who is always late for appointments, or who doesn’t clean up after himself, even if there is a common understanding of the procedures. Or it may be a person who argues in favour of his own “more sensible” rules despite a common agreement on the opposite. Such conflicts can arise in all mutual personal or professional relations – at work among colleagues or within a family, between neighbours, etc. and cause major frustration, anger or sense of powerlessness in the rest of the community.

Let us use an example from our practice as an illustration. The example is from a public institution, but could have occurred in any workplace.

The conflict took place at a social educational institution for children and young people, in a team of three teachers and three social educators. The institution was changing its organizational structure into an integration of school/workshops and residences. This meant that the teachers and the social educators were to work in a team in order to develop a common educational identity and coherence in everyday life. The management of the institution had participated in developing the team by formulating goals, distributing roles and defining a common set of rules for cooperation. However, a conflict soon developed. To begin with the management attempted to re-establish sound cooperation, but without any success. Then the management and the team agreed to start a process of mediation and a mediator was chosen. He agreed to the task of re-establishing sound cooperation in order to ensure a positive integration of the two groups. It was agreed that the mediation process should consist in part of an analysis of what had caused the conflict, and in part to identify models and solutions to the successful development of cooperation.

The mediator set out by letting each of the team members formulate his or her perceptions of “good cooperation.” Many suggestions came up and some of them were: Respect of each other’s professional skills, being open minded and showing confidence in each other, being ready to share knowledge, respect for agreements and rules. Several times the mediator asked whether everybody agreed to these values and agreements as being important. Everybody agreed!

Then the mediator asked:

“Why do you have conflicts at all when you all agree as to what characterizes “good cooperation”?”

After this question there was a deep silence and suddenly nobody felt like saying anything. One of the social educators, however, started describing an episode, which several others saw as a typical situation of the conflict mirroring their problematic interaction.

At the institution a door was being opened up to a garden that connected the classroom and the residence. This caused trouble since some of the staff considered it to be rather convenient for the children to be able to go out that way – others were of the opposite opinion. One of the staff members argued for the latter view point by saying that it made a mess in the classroom every time the children came in through that door and she thought that the children should be taught to use the door to the hallway going outside or to the residence. At a certain time everybody had discussed this and agreed on a solution saying that the children may go through the door to the garden between 1 April and 1 November. Outside this period the children were not allowed to use this door.

The goal of the mediation was to solve the conflicts and to ensure the future cooperation of the colleagues. At the mediation meeting the teachers and the social educators were present but the management was absent. One of the social educators (let us call him Kim) gave an example of how he recently had encouraged the children to quickly go outside breathing fresh air during a short break. He had encouraged the children to use the garden door in order for the children to save time. At the same moment he suggested this some of the children looked quite puzzled at him, saying: “We are not allowed to. Kate (as we will call the teacher) has told us not to even though you (Kim) say we may.” At first the social educator was completely tongue-tied and then angry and frustrated.

During the process it occurred that Kim’s thoughts about the situation were:
Kate (the teacher) is not going decide that. We have a clear agreement saying that the garden door can be used between 1 April – 1 November.

His following thought is:
it is a typical character trait of Kate. She wants to decide everything.

And then:

Kate cannot take decisions on my behalf and belittle my opinion (…undermine Kim’s authority).

Understandably, the latter thoughts generated strong feelings of anger and frustration. Had it been a single occurrence it would probably not appear as a problem, but the social educator’s experience was that such episodes take place repeatedly. Thus the team faced specific conflicts and had therefore asked us for help to solve those conflicts.

When Kate was asked to comment on Kim’s presentation and whether she could understand Kim’s frustration, her first reaction was to say that she didn’t know what the problem was. She thought that “it is stupid that the children run in and out of the garden door because they get confused and difficult to handle. They make a mess in the class room – and, by the way, one of the common values of the institution is “tidiness.” Therefore she thinks she is simply living up to the common values of the institution by preventing the children from using the garden door.” She also stressed that she has had an upbringing characterized by no limits and that it is for the children’s well being to establish a firm structure. She ends by saying that “this decision is logical and obvious even to the children since they tell Kim that they are not allowed to walk out the garden door.

“Apparently the children themselves are able to say no,” Kate continues. She finishes off by saying that she is really proud of that. Once again Kate is asked whether she remembers the common agreement of the institution on the matter, i.e. that it is specific dates and not individual judgements that determine whether the adults allow the children to use the garden door. Kate answers that she is fully aware of this and that she thinks it is a ridiculous decision. And so do the children, apparently.

When mediation locks up

The mediation is centred around this core conflict. Kim wants Kate to admit that it is her who violates a common agreement of the team. On the other hand Kate doesn’t see why it is such an important matter to Kim and she thinks that generally too much time is spent on such a “minor” detail.

This is a difficult situation for a mediator. As in any other mediation the mediator wants to uphold a neutral position and it is his point of departure that it takes two to create a conflict. Both parties contribute. Kim ought not to be affected so heavily by Kate’s view point since it is obviously very important to her that the children don’t walk out of the “wrong doors.” He could merely say never mind. Another reaction of his could be: “Kate may have said so, but I decide in my classes. Therefore I decide that you are allowed to use the garden door.” Most likely it is due to many different circumstances that it is difficult for Kim to take such a position. For example, for Kim it is not the first time Kate has undermined his authority in front of the children.It may anyway be difficult for Kim to demonstrate his authority to Kate, who is an experienced and highly respected teacher and he himself is young and recently graduated as a social educator.

Therefore a conflict like the above depends on context and relations. This does not mean, however, that the issue of guilt can be overlooked.

Later on we will explore the concept of guilt further. For now our focus is merely who has violated what. In the specific situation it is Kate who violates a common agreement on using the garden doors between April and November and thus promoting her own attitude as the one which is correct and true. It certainly becomes a conflict since Kate not only promotes the rule to be valid when she herself is together with the children but furthermore claims that it is also valid when the children are with Kim.

In the mediation it becomes evident that Kim wants a clear statement from Kate confirming that she has exceeded her own authority and thus apologizing to Kim.

But Kate is not willing to apologize.

Now, the challenge is whether to leave aside this core conflict and attempt a solution through new pathways, or if the mediator must focus on whether Kate is willing to recognize that she has violated a common agreement and thus damaged Kim’s authority and autonomy.

A parallel example would be the colleague who is always late for appointments or the colleague who doesn’t carry out work tasks by the appointed time.

In the same way it is crucial that the colleague recognises having made a mistake or a violation of an agreement and thus accepts personal guilt. Of course it can be discussed just how important it is to be present at the exact minute of the appointed time, i.e. it is the principle and not the consequence of the violation of the appointment, which is the most important, but only after the responsible person has admitted his mistake. It is a common agreement which has been set aside, and it has happened without the different parties having agreed on an exception from the rule. Naturally, a common agreement is to be re-negotiated, for example if the conditions of keeping an agreement turn out to be unrealistic.

Now, the question is whether the idea of accepting one’s guilt and responsibility is a necessary condition for a possible solution through mediation.

Returning to the conflict between Kate and Kim we assessed that a negotiation was only to begin if Kate had acknowledged that she understood Kim’s experience of feeling violated and that Kim was acting according to a common agreement. After Kate’s admission she would be able to negotiate with Kim whether the two of them could form an exclusive agreement concerning their pupils – despite the common agreement of the team. For example it could be an agreement stating that the children are not to use the garden door at all, or an agreement stating that the children are not to use the garden door when they are with Kate and but may use the door when they are with Kim, etc.

It is our experience that it is very difficult for people in a conflict to reach the state of mind where one or other party acknowledges responsibility and thus their guilt. Often the “guilty” person cannot bear the guilt alone. Therefore it becomes very important to make excuses as to why they acted as they did. “It is because…..” But this “it is because…..” can escalate the conflict – and understandably so if one of the parties is convinced they have acted according to the rules.

The generally preferred approach to conflicts is often a constructive approach (e.g. Vindeløv, V. (2004)). Furthermore, many conflicts are naturally rooted in the fact that there is not only one strategy when considering or analysing a conflict (Braskov, S. 2004)). This can be useful when guiding the conflicting parties to understand that each and everyone has a different understanding of the conflict. It is also from this perspective that we help the parties concerned to express themselves in terms such as: “I hear you are saying that…”, “…from your perspective…” etc. And truly many conflicts are about the parties’ lack of sympathetic response. In the same way it can be very fruitful if the parties are able to articulate the other parties viewpoint.

However, there is a major difference between expressions such as “I hear you are saying that…” or “if this is your experience I better understand that…” to expressions such as “you are right – I was wrong,” or “it is my fault, I apologize.”

It is not always easy to foresee how the parties will handle such an admission, of course, but it is our impression that most people have the potential of forgiveness. It certainly is a good feeling to forgive another person. It is a situation of strength which most people enjoy – and most understandably so. However, the enjoyment must not become triumphalist. If this response follows the conflict will escalate again, because very few people can stand “loosing face.” We do so when being met by condescension if we admit a mistake and apologize.

On guilt and forgiveness

Just how important is the psychology of guilt and forgiveness in the mediation process? In Danish literature on mediation and solving of conflicts these themes are more or less absent. The tradition is stronger in the USA, see for example: Luskin (2002); Enright & Fitzibbons (2002); Umbreit, M. (2001).

One example of this is Hope, who says that forgiveness is “a key to psychological healing.” (Hope (1987), p.240).

If this is so important it may prove useful to explore what it takes psychologically in order to forgive.

It seems to be an important matter in forgiveness that the one who has violated an agreement, a limit, or a norm acknowledges this, takes responsibility, and that some kind of regret is expressed. Typically and in every day terms: “I am sorry. It was my mistake. I apologize.” This will most often be the necessary and sufficient response.

If that doesn’t happen the person who has been psychologically violated may be stuck in an experience of having been personally exposed to indifference and disrespect in a way that it appears that an agreement made with them doesn’t matter and that they are looked down upon as individuals. What may establish trust and reliability will be the offender’s realization of having made a mistake. At the same time it is an important point that the reliability will fall apart if the mistake is repeated several times. In such a situation the apology will often seem hollow and the experience of indifference and disrespect will strengthen once again.

From an immediate and pragmatic perspective the violated persons will be able to act rationally and constructively. Their reasons may be that they want to show generosity, that they don’t want to overreact and seem sensitive, that they want “to move on” with what matters most. At this stage they will most often be prepared to forgive in the terms of: “Never mind, let’s move on.”

However, from an emotional perspective such an experience may lead to reduced trust and perhaps an unconscious antipathy. Over time and with repetition of the violation of the agreement a situation where the offender does not show any regret or realize his guilt, will become for the violated party an experience of injustice and powerlessness. The result will most often be a diminishing of mutual trust and an increased risk of regarding the offender as a threat to self-confidence or security. In such a situation the one who has been violated can react defensively in terms such as “It is me who isn’t good enough and that is why I am most reasonably treated this way” (Neumann, A. 1997). Or the reaction may be perceiving the offender as a generally bad or wrong person and thus the attack or the avoidance will be a necessary protection. Finally, the reaction may be to regard the offender as indifferent, as a person you cannot count on or take seriously. The outcome of this will be that a continuous negotiation becomes indifferent and mutual agreements turn into pseudo-agreements without true commitment.

In this way forgiveness is closely related to the realization and acknowledgement of guilt. Furthermore, the forgiveness reopens the psychological readiness to a continuous negotiation and/or a solution to the conflict.

What is guilt more precisely? The Danish author Henrik Stangerup pinpointed the question in his novel “The man who wanted to be guilty” (1973). A man had killed his wife but he couldn’t maintain his guilt since his surroundings gave all kinds of explanations for the murder, which excused the man and thus his guilt. He acknowledged his guilt and insisted on having done something wrong. The alternative is he would not be a person of will, responsibility and intention – that is somebody who wouldn’t be a normal human being but merely a response to the surroundings.

In contrast to guilt, the sensation of shame is a strong feeling of having lost a sense of decency and not being a valid member of the human community. Shame is about “what you are.” Guilt is the awareness of having done something wrong or having neglected a necessary act, which consequently violates a norm, value, an agreement or another human being. That is “what you do.”

It is a problem if guilt and shame are intertwined. It may be difficult to realize one’s guilt since guilt can generate a sensation of shame. The sensation of shame is a psychologically painful experience, which we, as human beings, will seek to avoid.

Back to the workplace…

Bearing this in mind let us still take a point of departure in “the case of the garden door” and describe how we attempted to help the team to solve the conflict.

At the second mediation meeting we started out by saying that the conflict concerning the garden door was still not resolved. We had had a presentation of the conflict but that was all. Kate’s viewpoint stood up against Kim’s and the rest of the team.

We attempted an educative approach describing Kim’s and Kate’s perspectives and dilemmas respectively. In Kate’s case that she obviously knew the rule “April-November” but considered the rule to be ridiculous since it seemed to her to conflict with one of the values of the institution, namely tidiness – the relationships between staff, and relations between staff and pupils are conducted according to three common rules: tidiness, respect and skills.

To Kate, the children were disturbed and confused when doors were opened and the classroom made into a mess, that is non-tidiness.

Furthermore, she was satisfied when even the children recognised the sense of her viewpoint since they stood up against Kim allowing them to use the garden door.

It was Kim’s perspective that he also knew the rule. That he had a clear right to open the door but is met by a “we are not allowed to. Kate says so” from the children. Our perspective is that Kim has at least three possible choices in this case:

1) Never mind – Kate is in charge
• either since Kim really means “never mind” or since he is afraid of the conflict and doesn’t want trouble (flight mode)

2) No way – this is not the way we do it here
• since Kim thinks Kate’s decision is wrong and he doesn’t want to submit himself. But he feels exposed to condescension and gets angry

3) I am in charge in my lessons
• a third perspective is presented by a colleague who says: “I am in charge in my own lessons!” The colleague says that she introduces a specific rule for her lessons. Actually it is not a specific rule but a common rule.

We put into perspective that one has similar possibilities as the above mentioned in similar conflicts. Which possibilities to choose depend on numerous factors, for instance frequency; if one rarely has a conflict with a colleague the solution of saying “never mind” is most likely to be chosen. The reason of saying “never mind” could also be because one is afraid of the conflict and seeks to avoid trouble.

A good deal of self confidence and authority towards children and colleagues are required from the colleague who chooses “I am in charge in my lessons.” As this case showed, it was a teacher who responded in that way, not a social educator. It is not unusual that teachers have a greater sense of authority and autonomy compared to social educators. The fact that some choose “self-determination” doesn’t solve the conflict unless the team agrees to dissolve the common rule on behalf of the individual teacher/social educator’s sovereign decisions.

Finally, we sketched out the cores of the conflict:
– Kate takes a point of departure in her own perception of the values of the institution but she still agreed to the rule “April – November.”
– Kim takes a point of departure in the common agreement on the rule.

Confronted with several choices we asked the team a number of questions:
– How would you handle such a conflict as a team?
– What takes precedence – a commonly agreed rule or an individual interpretation of a value in the sense of “overruling”?

This was a difficult choice for the team members. No one felt like expressing themselves and it only vaguely emerged that if you have a common agreement everyone must adapt to it. There may be certain exceptions but they must be explained. The person who breaks a rule must be able to explain why he or she abolishes the common agreement in a specific situation. There may be numerous explanations of course, and everybody must be ready to tolerate this in order to avoid constant conflicts among each other as colleagues. On the other hand, if the same person often breaks the common rules it is not a matter of exception but of withdrawal. Naturally, mutual cooperation cannot accommodate that.

When it seems so difficult for the individual team members to express whether it is a common agreement or an individually interpreted value which is takes precedence, it is all about the fact that it is no longer possible to take a neutral position towards the two conflicting colleagues. It is naturally a risky business to express one’s opinion in the middle of a conflict. Any word will emphasize their attitude and the colleagues don’t want to take that risk being afraid of the day tomorrow. How can you continue working with someone if you have clearly stated that you think she has acted in a wrong way? Many colleagues will find such a situation difficult and seek to avoid such a confrontation. This may seem to be the easiest strategy. In return you let the colleague down who is on the axis of the conflict. In this situation it may prove effective to consider what it means that everybody indirectly support the one in favour of the other – but no one expresses anything, being afraid of taking sides. At worst the person may experience that the other team members become annoyed with her because she exposes the conflict. Everybody would like to avoid it – most likely by hoping that “the other” keeps quiet. This doesn’t solve the conflict of course. On the contrary the person will feel let down, but instead of expressing this directly it is our experience that one tends to generalize by saying “it is the teachers who don’t respect the social educators,” etc. Such generalizations are always easily accessible in any conflict. If it is not the teachers against the educationalists it may be the younger against the older; men against women, etc.

In the present case we continuously attempted to keep the team members focused on what they would do when (and if) one member doesn’t adopt a common rule everybody has agreed to. At a certain point of time somebody says: “Well, the management must now help us.” From an outside perspective it may appear obvious that this is the case, but as a team member it is often very intimidating to openly express in the team that you need the managements help, since you may experience it as if you are exposing a colleague to the management. This is contrary to the perception of being a good colleague, i. e. standing up to the management. However, it is not unusual to let the management know that you are in the middle of a conflict but this is completely different from acknowledging that you want the management to intervene.

Of course there might have been other approaches to resolving Kate’s firmly locked position. For example the mediator could have taken Kate aside face to face (caucus) in order to help her accept responsibility for violating the common agreement and find an acceptable way of expressing this to the team. The mediator did not choose this option because the mediation was primarily orientated towards the process and cooperation. If Kate was persuaded (by the mediator) to apologize and take responsibility of her violating the agreement, it would give rise to a concern whether it would merely be a strategic taking of responsibility on her part, without deeper reflection and thus, merely a superficial solution of the conflict. If this was the case the same kind of conflict would arise again without anybody having to change behaviour and understanding the necessity of taking responsibility and accepting guilt.

Naturally the mediator’s strategy might be discussed, but in such situations as presented in this case the decisions must be founded in the strategy the mediator finds necessary and reasonable.

The mediator agreed with the team that he would report the problems of cooperation to the management and furthermore that one member of the team members didn’t follow the common agreement. According to our estimation this would demand the intervention of the management. This would not have been the mediator’s ideal result, but was nevertheless considered a necessary step.

The reason for this outcome not being completely satisfactory to the mediator is of course due to the immediate experience of the method not being effective in the current case. The mediation didn’t succeed in solving the conflict since the psychological reality was impossible to change. The one party maintained her perception of reality so firmly that it was immoveable.

This perception could be due to a lack of competence or ability to change perspective in the situation and therefore the person wasn’t able to recognize the other side of the conflict. The immovable perception could also be due to an intra-psychological conflict, i.e. a change in perception would take such a toll on identity, position or interests that it would be much easier to maintain the original perception of reality. We do not know with any certainty and can only hypothesise, and this is beyond our present purpose.

A further objection could be related to a reflection on methods. Did the contract for the mediation prove sufficient from the beginning? Were goals and purpose sufficiently specific? Was the team building precise in relation to task, rules and roles? Could we have affected the process more strongly by pinpointing the dynamic processes at stake to the group, in order to make the reactions commonly expectable in a developmental process of the team? Could we have raised the discussions to a meta-level in order to reformulate the contract, which is adjusted to the specific situation of the team?

All of these are questions, reflections and initiatives which may have taken the team and its conflicts elsewhere.

Still, one important point remains to be mentioned.

The mediation is an effective tool when dealing with conflicts but the method doesn’t guarantee a solution. Too many difficulties, contrasting view points and paradoxes may intervene in the mediation. It may be necessary to abandon the mediation and involve another authority in order to facilitate a decision and a solution.

It is the general theoretical conclusion of this article that when the mediation doesn’t solve the conflict it is not necessarily because of insufficient mediation methods. Positions may simply be that firmly locked that negotiations between the parties cannot take place – movement is not interesting to either party, so to speak. In such cases the condition of a movement may be that people are able to acknowledge their own responsibility, guilt, forgiveness and reconciliation if the mediation is to succeed.


Braskov, S. (2004): Når samarbejde i praksis skranter. Månedskriftet f. Praktisk Lægegerning, Vol. 82, p. 1-13

Domenici, K. & Littlejohn, S.W. (2006): Facework. Sage Publication, California

Enright, R.D. & Fitzbbons, R.P (2002): Helping Clients Forgive: An Emperical Guide for resolving Anger and Restoring Hope. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association

Hope, D. (1987): The healing paradox of forgiveness, Psychotherapy, no.24, 240-

Luskin, F (2002): Forgive for Good. Harper Collins. San Francisco

Neumann,A. (1997): Selvværd og afmagt i lærerarbejdet. I Lærer i Tiden, Forlaget Klim, Århus

Umbreit, M. (2001): The Handbook of Victim Offender Mediation. Jossey- Bass, California

Stangerup, Henrik: (1973) Manden der ville være skyldig. Gyldendal, København

Vindeløv, V. (2004): Konfliktmægling. Jurist og Økonomforbundets Forlag, København


Asger Neumann

Asger Neumann holds a MA in Psychology from the University of Aarhus and he is certified by The Danish Association of Psychologists. Moreover, he works as an external lecturer and supervisor at the University of Aarhus.   Since 1993 Asger has worked as a vocational psychologist at municipalities, institutions of… MORE >


Søren Braskov

Søren Braskov graduated as a MA in Psychology from the University of Aarhus in 1985. Since then he has had a private practice, and for 10 years he has been employed at the psychiatry in Århus Kommune.   Søren is certified by The Danish Association of Psychologists. Moreover, he was… MORE >

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