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Where Settlements Cannot Go – Towards a Praxis of Reconciliation in Group Conflicts (Part 1 of 6)

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Part 2 of 6
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Part 6 of 6

It is always difficult to admit that what one is doing is often insufficient, but this is that admission. After 30 years in the field of conflict management, including 16 years as a mediator, I have come to believe that conflict in ongoing relationships cannot be managed—it must be completely resolved or it will live on and reconstitute itself with greater destructive energy than before. Like most mediators, I have seen many conflicts where relationships fairly begged to be healed but have not known how to help the parties get there. Nowhere is this more true than in those conflicts where there is an ongoing relationship. Where I once considered getting a settlement to be the measure of success, I have now reversed myself and believe that stopping with settlement is sometimes the measure of failure. Let me explain.

Like almost all conflict professionals, my education, training, and experience were all in managing conflict. Over the course of 26 years as a union labor relations director and trainer, every bit of training that I both received and gave had winning or a favorable settlement as the end goal. Even my training as a mediator was aimed at reaching an amicable settlement. The primary difference was that I was now a neutral rather than a partisan advocate. It was a role change, but hardly a role reversal. Several years ago, however, I began to notice something. Many mediation clients arrived angry and left angry. Before long, they were back, still angry. The settlement had settled the issues but not the conflict itself, and now they arrived with new issues.

Conversely, I also experienced cases where forgiveness and reconciliation happened in front of me. Though I wanted to claim the mantle of wise healer, it seems that they had healed themselves with me more as a fascinated bystander.

One of the premises of mediation is that a durable agreement comes through both procedural and substantive satisfaction. That is, the clients will have a good and lasting settlement if they see the process as one that treats them respectfully and they feel that the outcome, the settlement, is fair. There is a problem, however, and it is in the assumption itself. Procedural and substantive satisfaction do not resolve the underlying conflict; it only shows that the clients found a measure of satisfaction in the mediation process. It is then a leap of faith that this narrow level of satisfaction translates into something more and in making that leap, one must assume that a settlement can do more than it does. Otherwise, the entire premise collapses.

Before you jump on me too hard, every conflict needs a settlement. Well-constructed settlements provide a basis for trust-building. They provide the “how-when-where” practicalities that can construct frameworks for trust to grow upon. I believe that settlements are sufficient in cases where there never was or will be a close relationship between the conflicted parties. Even in those cases where the wounds run deep and raw, a settlement is necessary to deal with the issues of the past and build protocols for the future. Unfortunately, settlements cannot bring resolution. The very nature of a settlement, e.g., Mary will pay Robert $500 in cash at 5:00 pm on Friday, October 20, does not resolve the conflict. It may pay the debt (an issue), but it cannot heal the emotional wounds left behind. All the settlement can do is manage the issues—the conflict itself lives on in the woundedness of the clients, something settlement cannot even approach.

We cannot negotiate respect or trust, only the framework within which they might grow. My point is that the clients should have the choice of stopping with settlement or going further towards reconciliation. In those cases where relational healing is desired, we must stop seeing settlement as an endpoint. In many cases, then, settlement is, in the words of Winston Churchill, “…not the end; it is not the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

To me, then, settlement is often like placing a band-aid on a hemorrhage. If you are doubtful, then do what I did. Contact previous clients. Meet with them one at a time over coffee and ask this question: How do you feel about the conflict with _______? Or, How do you feel you were treated during the conflict? If the conflict is still alive within them, anger or sadness will flash in their eyes.

We tend to shy away from these questions and ask what they thought about the mediation process (and the mediator, by implication). The narrow context of the question also narrows the scope of the information we seek, which then tends to skew the data more towards the positive than it actually is. It also provides us with a neat escape route where we can claim that our part of the process went just great! In other words, perhaps we have been asking the wrong question. I expanded the scope of the question, and the answers reversed from happiness with the mediation process to sadness and anger over the conflict itself. The conflict was alive, and they were still wounded people, sometimes many years later.

Most of my work now centers on large-scale conflict resolution and in particular on conflicted religious communities and churches. One might think that settlement agreements in these venues are more effective at resolving the anger and pain of conflict than they are elsewhere, but they are not. So, I set out to discover, if I could, the dynamics that take people beyond settlement to true resolution. The two-year journey led me through huge stacks of books and journal articles all the way to South Africa and back, and through a doctoral dissertation focused on the underlying dynamics of group forgiveness and reconciliation. It also led me beyond the professional detachment and neutrality of mediation into the intense engagement of facilitation where the ultimate goal is reconciliation for those who desire it. I found what I sought.

Why South Africa? No other country has been so successful in moving from the brink of civil war to a civil society because of an intentional process that demanded truth and accountability regardless of which side one was on. The truth and reconciliation process formed the operating structure within which hard truths could be told where no one was to be above accountability. While it did not function perfectly, recent research shows that it not only worked to avoid civil war, but also rewove the fabric of societal truth to foster relational repair and healing. While there is a long way to go in South Africa, one must first consider the starting point to truly see the almost miraculous nature of the change. I saw it in person.

As I further discovered, there were no empirically supported processes in which to facilitate forgiveness and possible reconciliation on the larger scales of group, organizational, community, and even national conflicts. In South Africa, I found an operational framework. In the empirical data, I found the dynamics to grow a process on that framework.

Make no mistake: what follows is not neutral and this is not mediation; it is facilitated conflict resolution that pushes back the frontiers of conflict management into new territory. It is intended for those facilitators who would go into the bloody trenches of conflict and heal, and begins where settlements end!

Forgiveness. Yes, I uttered the “F” word, a word almost anathema in conventional ADR. It scares us because we do not understand it. It seems, and is, beyond the yoke of neutrality which we so admire. More than that, we don’t know how to help groups of people get there. Still, the clinical studies all show that the only way to truly resolve conflict so that it is healed instead of left festering is to forgive, so we must leave behind the safety of the known for the adventure of the unknown. Clarifying what it means to forgive may help, as how we understand forgiveness forms the foundation for everything that will follow in this series.

Forgiveness is not an emotion, though strong emotion may result. To forgive is to make a series of conscious decisions to release feelings of anger, resentment, and the desire for revenge, replacing them with feelings of understanding, benevolence, and even love. Forgiving can be difficult (which is why I created this process) and may take time, depending on the emotional makeup of the persons themselves, the closeness of their relationship, and how they perceive the seriousness of the offense.

Forgiving is very practical and has proven medical and psychological benefits. To name only a few, those who forgive recover more quickly from bereavement and depression, have better heart and lung function, have lower blood pressure, and resist infections and addictive behaviors better than those who do not forgive. Forgiving even helps victims recover from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and assists children cope better with parental divorce. In sum, forgiving is good for you!

There are also some myths about forgiving that must be addressed:

1. Myth: Forgiving means they get away with it. Fact: This myth confuses forgiveness with pardon and amnesty, both legal terms, and no one “gets away” with anything. Being a series of decisions to release certain emotions and replacing them with other emotions, forgiving affects the forgiver far more than it affects the offender. However, there is still room for justice, as we shall see.

2. Myth: We have to forgive and forget. Fact: No one can forgive and forget. Forgiveness takes time and may be a slow process, but one does not have to forget the painful incident; instead, it is remembered in a new and less threatening context in what some have termed a “healing of memories.” The act of remembering painful incidents within a guided context allows the memories to not only lose their painful power, but also allows the person remembering to view the incidents and the offender in a different, more positive context. We can either remember and hurt or remember and forgive—but we must remember.

3. Myth: Forgiving shows weakness. Fact: Forgiveness shows inner strength rather than weakness, as it requires the forgiver to examine him or herself for anger and then let it go, taking ownership and control of one’s emotions rather than blaming them on someone else. Hanging on to anger can be corrosive and damages both the person it inhabits and all of his or her relationships.

4. Myth: Forgiveness must be earned. Fact: Forgiveness is rarely earned. Forgiveness is a gift that one gives to oneself that several prominent researchers have described simply as “freedom.”

5. Myth: Forgiving is a religious belief. Fact: Though forgiveness is foundational to Christian theology, secular scholars and universities are doing the primary research on forgiveness. Religious belief may make some more aware of the issue of forgiving, but religious belief is not required and the practical benefits attached to forgiving have no connection to religious dogma.

6. Myth: Punishment makes it easier to forgive. Fact: Punishment is about anger and the desire for vengeance, and has little connection to forgiveness. There is a place for punishment, but do not expect lasting satisfaction from it. In a very recent case, a Lutheran minister was found guilty of vehicular homicide for accidentally killing a bicyclist. The young woman’s mother remarked after the verdict, “I thought I would be happy, but I’m not. I’m sad. This is a sad day.”

7. Myth: Forgiving means you have to reconcile, no matter what. Fact: One can forgive and sever the relationship. There are relationships that probably should not be reconciled; particularly if the relationship has been abusive and there is no evidence that the abusive behaviors have changed. However, it appears that lasting reconciliation can occur only after forgiveness. Though forgiveness is separate from reconciliation, lasting reconciliation is not likely to happen until after forgiveness has occurred.

I am not a therapist and what I offer is not therapy but a facilitated process. In the coming installments, I will outline the underlying dynamics for a five-step process to assist churches, communities, and organizations in healing the wounds of conflict through forgiveness, opening the gateway to reconciliation.

I believe that it forms a significant step towards true conflict resolution.


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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