by Jim Ferrell
Founding and Managing Partner
The Arbinger Institute
My first conflict mediation in the Middle East occurred in 2007. Arbinger’s international bestseller on conflict resolution, The Anatomy of Peace, had just been published, and the Shimon Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv gathered a group of Palestinians and Israelis for a three-day experience with us. The event was sponsored by the Danish Embassy.
Our objective was to help the group come together and gain an understanding about how to resolve the conflict in the Middle East, starting with themselves. I know what you are thinking: Middle East conflict—three days; yeah, that should do it.
At the end of the event, officials from the Peres Center said that they had never seen anything so effective in bringing groups of Palestinians and Israelis together.
This post is a quick account of how we helped that happen.
Whether you have three days or three years in such a setting, one counter-intuitive truth will determine how helpful you will be. That truth is this: If you want to help Palestinians and Israelis resolve the conflict in the Middle East, don’t focus on the conflict in the Middle East.
Think about it. People in conflict already are invested in their own narratives about their situations. Talking about their conflict simply invites them into the very narratives that are helping perpetuate it. This is just as true in marital and workplace conflicts.
If you want to help people resolve their differences, help them focus together on things that have nothing to do with their differences.
In fact, it is good practice to begin by helping them focus on and engage around their similarities. This is how we did that with this group of Israelis and Palestinians:
On our first day together, we learned portions of Arbinger’s work that equipped the group to think with greater clarity about their relationships with their family members and neighbors. Through interpreters, they shared those stories with each other. This learning and sharing did two things: it equipped the group to think differently about their own life situations, and it got them sharing stories about themselves that others in the group could also relate to. So, for example, when a young Israeli man heard a Palestinian of a similar age tell a story about his relationship with his father, the Israeli person often could see himself in the story. And vice versa.
Every time one person reacted to the sharing of another group member with the thought, “I have the same kind of situation in my home or my village,” the divide between the people in the room got smaller. As they began to see each other as fellow human beings with similar situations and challenges, peace in the room became immediately more tangible, which in turn made peace in the Middle East slightly more possible.
The next morning, we had the group learn first aid together. After learning a collection of important first aid skills, we had them compete in mixed teams in a series of first aid competitions. The friendly competition brought the mixed groups together in common cause and purpose.
The afternoon of the second day, we set aside time for group members to choose various activities they could do together. Some swam. Others chatted. Many chose to play soccer. We allowed them to do these activities in whatever groups they chose. We didn’t force mixing. With the trust that had been established to that point, however, the group members began to mix easily and engage together in activities that they enjoyed.
It was on the third day that we finally got to the conflict in the Middle East. We began by dividing the group into smaller mixed groups and assigned each group a different portion of the Arbinger ideas we had studied together on the first day. Each group then presented their portion of the ideas to the full group, along with examples they had identified from their own lives. After each presentation, we discussed and further clarified the ideas.
When the ideas had been fully presented and reviewed, which took the morning of the third day, we turned to applying those ideas to the situation in the Middle East. For the afternoon, we invited each mixed group to apply a series of Arbinger frameworks to the conflict, from both Palestinian and Israeli perspectives. So for each framework, the mixed groups discussed and applied the framework from one perspective and then from the other. This meant that Israelis were thinking not only from their own perspective but also from the perspective of Palestinians, and vice versa. They placed themselves, as it were, into each other’s shoes. After work on each framework, we invited each group to present their findings and applications, then discussed these insights in the full group.
By the time we were finished on that third day, the group had progressed further toward mutual understanding and respect than those in attendance from the Peres Center for Peace had ever witnessed. As a result of the reports from the event, the President of the Center, Uri Savir, requested a meeting in Tel Aviv that evening to discuss how the Peres Center and Arbinger could partner together.
Consider a few important takeaways from this experience—steps you might think of as a kind of conflict resolution roadmap:
- If you find yourself in conflict and want to find a way to improve or resolve it, resist your first impulse, which likely will be to begin by focusing on the conflict. This is almost always a mistake that will make matters worse.
- In order to invite the parties to see and appreciate each other as people rather than simply to blame each other as objects, learn something along with your partner(s) in the conflict. You might study ideas that stimulate thought and discussion. Ideally, engage in learning something about which both parties are equally ignorant and interested. A disparity in understanding or interest at the beginning can trigger power dynamics that may mimic the issues in the relationship.
- Strengthen the parties’ ability to see each other as people by engaging in projects or activities together. Engage in activities or projects that both parties care equally about—things that require joint effort. In the workplace, this might be a project to improve a work process, for example, or to solve a client services challenge. At home, this might be something like playing together or hiking a mountain.
- Begin to discuss the difficulties in the relationship only after successfully applying steps 2, and 3. By “successfully applying” these steps, I mean doing them enough and in such a way that both parties have begun to develop or redevelop a level of appreciation for the other as a human being. You will know this has happened when both of you are actually enjoying learning and doing things together.
- When you begin to discuss your difficulties, it will be helpful to apply a body of work to those difficulties. Some bodies of work are more helpful in this regard than others. I believe that Arbinger’s is the most helpful you can find. However, more important than the body of work you select will be the commitment by both you and your conflict partner to apply that work together from both perspectives. Don’t let the parties become the representatives and mouthpieces only of their own viewpoints. Together, apply the ideas to both sides. If you want to think about the ideas separately, that’s fine as well, but take on the role of your partner as you each do so and apply the ideas from your partner’s perspective. Explore. Ponder. Stand in each other’s shoes.
- Once you begin step 5, don’t forget to keep doing steps 2 and 3! Ultimately, they are what will reduce the need for step 5.
- Don’t get anxious if you and your partners still have challenges. Challenges are the stuff of life—or rather, the stuff out of which a better life is made possible. Keep following the conflict resolution roadmap. And remember the wisdom of the songwriter and poet, Leonard Cohen, who wrote: “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
So, as surprising as it may sound, if you want to resolve your conflicts, don’t dwell on them.
There will be a time and a way to handle them, but when we are in conflict, our own impulses almost always lead us astray as to both the time and the way.
To stay on track, follow the steps from the conflict resolution roadmap. Remember that dealing directly with your conflicts is only step five in that process. Starting that step earlier, or making it bigger than just one step out of seven, will put everything you care about in peril.
And don’t feel overly threatened by the cracks you are feeling in your relationship. Remember, it is through the cracks that the light gets in.