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Where Settlements Cannot Go – Towards a Praxis of Reconciliation in Group Conflicts (Part 2 of 6)

Links to the entire series

Part 1 of 6
Part 3 of 6
Part 4 of 6
Part 5 of 6
Part 6 of 6

To reiterate, my primary interest is in finding true resolution to organizational and community conflict and the reconciliation of conflict-damaged relationships. The empirical data led me to conclude that large-scale reconciliation (the healing of pre-existing relationships damaged by conflict) cannot occur without forgiveness. Though forgiveness happens on an individual level, my quest was to find a process to encourage forgiveness and reconciliation on a large scale. While my work focuses primarily on churches and other religious organizations, the empirical data strongly suggest that my findings are also applicable to secular institutions. This series is a result.

In Part 1 I discussed the inadequacy of settlements in healing the wounds of conflict and challenged the readers to question former clients about their woundedness from past conflicts. Empirical data strongly suggests that the only path to true relational healing is through the decision to forgive, with forgiving being defined as a series of decisions that one make to release feelings of anger, hostility, and resentment towards another person, replacing these feelings with feelings of understanding, benevolence, and even love. We saw that forgiving has clear benefits for the forgiver both physically and emotionally. We also examined and dispelled some myths about forgiveness.

In Part 2 we will examine the initial gateway to forgiving and how we as facilitators can assist people in opening this door that they have firmly held closed. Once again, I make no claim to neutrality in this process: the goal is large-scale forgiveness and reconciliation.

The process I will describe is voluntary—no one should be compelled to go through it. It should also be stressed at the outset that the participants will be led through a series of difficult choices that will make reconciliation easier, but that they must make the decisions. The role of the facilitator is to guide them through and make the process a place where the choices can be made in safety.

Late in April of 2006 I spoke to about 90 mediators, lawyers, students, and law professors at the University of Washington Law School. I asked, “How many of you know what it feels like to be forgiven?” Just about every hand shot towards the ceiling. I then asked, “How many of you know what it feels like to forgive?” Again, almost every hand went up. Finally, I asked, “How many of you know how forgiveness works?” Three or four hands slowly went halfway up.

To help people forgive we must first understand the barriers that block forgiveness. As this series unfolds, we will examine how to breach five general barriers to forgiveness.

The first barrier is that of outward-directed anger. Our clients express anger with such consistency that we don’t even pay much attention to it unless it rises above the normal background noise. Anger is the norm and we expect it. Though sometimes the anger seems out of proportion to the severity of the offense, we usually see a correlation between the two. We understand and accept that anger is a normal and natural occurrence in conflict, and we develop a repertoire of little “tricks” over time to help the clients get past anger that is strong enough to block them from negotiating in “good faith” (another term I think I no longer understand) to a settlement of the issues. In other words, we help them not only manage their conflict, but their anger as well.

Just as conflict resolution goes beyond conflict management through forgiveness, anger resolution goes beyond anger management through anger dissipation. It is not a refocusing of anger from one object to another, but the actual dissipation of anger much like the morning sun dissipates the fog. The key to anger dissipation is in developing empathy for the one(s) who caused you pain. Empathy is the one universally identified gateway to forgiveness and healing. By empathy, I mean the ability to feel and experience the world of the other person, to “walk a mile in their shoes.” Empathizing is not feeling their feelings (sympathy) so much as it is experiencing life in their world. In this vicarious experiencing, it becomes easier to understand why they may have acted in the manner they did, which then gives what they did meaning that can also be understood. Empathy places the harmful act into a different, more understandable context. The difficulty is in helping our clients develop empathy for those who harmed them.

People naturally have differing levels of empathy (trait empathy). Some find it very easy to forgive terrible offenses while others have difficulty forgiving trivial offenses. Consequently, I will describe the overall process as a continuum as it promotes higher levels of empathy in each step of the process, with some forgiving at the first step, others forgiving elsewhere, and some not forgiving at all. The overall process is hallmarked by the acrostic TRUTH, which will unfold as we progress.

CAUTION: There is not enough space in these articles to describe in detail the actual process I use. What follows is primarily a description of the underlying dynamics and some of the ways in which I work with them, not the complete process!

I call the visible process framework The Crucible, which is a place of heat, pressure – and refining. The Crucible is made up of five interconnected layers in a continuum where each layer becomes the foundation for the following layers. Before instituting The Crucible, the facilitator must interview as many participants as possible. This requires listening deeply to the pain and trauma of the conflict experience, including their emotional and physical reactions. In a large group, universal patterns appear that the facilitator can describe elegant in simplicity but ugly in effect: headaches, diarrhea, vomiting, sleeplessness, irritability, depression, rage, and so on.

The first layer in the continuum is T, which stands for Turning away from what the other has done to what oneself has done. It must be guided intentionally, carefully, and tactfully. I do it by describing the physical and emotional symptoms that they have described to me in a simple statement of reality, “This is life here today, for this is what you told me…”

The anger of conflict is almost always faced outward towards other people and can accurately be termed as blame. We blame others for our pain and discomfort. “If they had not (a) started it, (b) lied, (c) cheated, (d) attacked, (e) _______, I would not have reacted like I did. It’s all their fault.” The problem, of course, is that we know this is not entirely true, even though we want it to be. By directing our anger at others, we have no need to examine ourselves for fault. In an unfortunate twist for that argument, however, there usually are no innocent victims in group conflict, as the research shows. To succeed, we must help them by redirecting their scope of examination back to themselves. In just describing what they have told me about how the conflict has affected them on a deeply personal level, I have seen heads from all factions start nodding in agreement. As they begin to realize their experience is universal rather than isolated, they begin to see each other in more human (and humane) terms, thus starting a lowering of barriers between them. They once again begin to see each other as distinct individuals rather than faces in a threatening crowd. With these realizations also comes the gradual dawning of another realization: they have hurt each other. It is mutual, not one-sided.

In conflict, we are quick to form an “I-It” viewpoint where we see ourselves as right, innocent, and virtuous and the other as a less than fully human “it,” a process known as dehumanization. In helping the participants see their mutual woundedness, we also help them change their viewpoint of the others to the more intimate “I-Thou,” an equality of regard. This refocusing from “me” and “you” to “we” changes the very foundations on which we stand, eroding the barriers we have raised. It is here that the facilitator can interject not only their mutual woundedness, but also their mutual guilt based on what they have done.

I learned a beautiful hymn in South Africa that has just one word, Senzenina (Sen ZENi NA), which means, “What have we done?” It is a hymn of lament for the past and hope for the future. By changing the inflection and tempo, though, the meaning is also changed. Sung slowly, it is a question of deep introspection and sadness. Sung quickly, it is transformed into a statement of amazement and hope. Turning does both: it looks at the pain of the past with hope towards the future. In now focusing on what each may have done to cause distress to the others, empathy becomes stronger and the forgiveness decision easier, a move from lament to victory.

One of the strongest ways to evoke empathic responses is through guided story telling. It is particularly powerful in stories that are focused inward towards personal pain and loss, and not outwards in blame towards the others. Inward pain, fear, and uncertainty are universally recognized signs of simply being weak and human.

The goal of the facilitator at this point, and the object of empathy, is compassion. Empathy says, “You have been hurt.” Compassion says, “You have been hurt, and I can help.” It turns from inward examination to outward action with the shared experience of pain as a catalyst. It still does not claim responsibility outwardly, though a sense of responsibility for the damage may be gaining strength inwardly.

Any acknowledgement of contributing to the problem, no matter how small, constitutes progress, even if that acknowledgement is silent. People read softening in body language remarkably well, just as they read hardening well. Acknowledgement requires that we begin dropping shields of denial, replacing them with smaller shields that do not protect us so much. The facilitator must take care to provide a safe framework for such acknowledgements, as people will retreat behind their barriers at the first sign of angry blame. Too, sorrow and regret may appear at this point, but they are peripheral and there will be a more effective place for them later in the process.

Though the result of Turning may be almost invisible, it is a 180-degree internal change that is profound as it represents a change in not only how we see the world and those around us, but also in how we see ourselves. Where once we righteously claimed innocence and victimhood, we now begin to embrace the probability that we are at the same time predators and guilty. It is also fragile, and the facilitator must guard against angry accusations. Once the shields go back up, they do not come down again so easily. Everything that follows builds on the empathy and compassion that we have helped our clients find in this segment, so due care and diligence are mandatory.

In the next stage, Remembering, we will take this deeper – much deeper.


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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