Externalizing the Conflict Story and Mapping Its Effects
Separating conflict story from historical narrative. Most conflicting parties are unable to distinguish between the individual lines of stories that are in conflict and the larger historical narrative that encapsulates their lives and memories. The mediator uses questions and dialogue to help the conflict party perceive that their narrative can flourish and continue without the presence of the intervening conflict story. Once the conflict parties can begin participating in dialogue about their historical narrative separate from the conflict story, they are ready to begin the process of externalizing the conflict.
In rural communal societies, survival is often a matter of trust between cultures cohabitating common lands. Communal conflict creates betrayal, an insidious form of emotional victimization that creates alienation, shame and rage.
When loved ones are lost amidst alienating shame, the ability to mourn is interrupted with dire consequences for individuals and families because shame, as a primary emotion, cannot be shared. In the separation of conflict story from historical narrative, a safe place is created for the conflict party away from humiliation of victimization, allowing for mourning to commence and for nurturance from the healthy parts of the historical narrative. Doing so creates possibilities for the interruption of the shame– rage–revenge dynamic that drives communal conflict into downward spirals of psychological and emotional devolvement. The mediator uses questions and dialogue about love of children and preservation of memory to further separate the conflict parties from the humiliating elements of the conflict story as a condition of strengthening them for the remainder of their mediation journey.
Mediator: What ways of living (or farming, working, learning) would do most to keep the memory of your grandfathers and their grandfathers alive in the memory of your children? What do you see in your children that most reminds you of your father and grandfather? How can you and your children grow or develop these elements of remembrance to strengthen their historical memory? How can we do this without losing one more son or daughter to this violent conflict?
The mediator frames questions that serve as position calls away from the conflict story and back towards the historical narrative in a form of what Vamik Volkan (1998) calls identity management. Such questions can be simple, but are laden with meaning for survival.
Mapping conflict story damage on the present and the future generations. As the conflict parties move from totalizing positions of alienating shame, rage and revenge within the conflict story to positions of reflective remembering within their historical narrative, the mediator moves to focus their attention on the damage of the conflict story from an emotional perspective (White, 2008). The mediator may well ask them about the possibilities for their own individual survival or the survival of their children and grandchildren, helping them to calmly evaluate the many aspects of communal and family life that have been negatively affected by the conflict or that the conflict threatens to terminate altogether. As part of these lines of questioning and dialogue, the mediator takes on the delicate task of reminding parties of the cost of the conflict.
One example of this occurred in a conflict village in western Darfur where we asked both conflict parties to meet at our mediator team house after they had refused to meet in each other’s physical spaces. The individual gain that we were trying to accomplish with that particular session was twofold: First, we wanted to open psychological space among the parties for the presence of each other. Secondly, we wanted to place a physical object between the two parties that represented both their past and future losses. We accomplished the former by asking each conflict party to begin the session with a public reading of the list of their dead and injured from the last attacks on each of their villages. The result was sobering. A hushed silence fell over the villagers in the room, and instead of angry denunciations, a mutual respect began to appear for the grief and suffering of both sides. While their faces and body language continued to radiate hushed rage and suffering borne of incalculable loss, the villagers quieted and accepted the presence of each other in a common physical space; they had made psychological room for the temporary existence of the other as a prelude to dialogue. It seemed as if the public suffering of their enemies in front of them had a profound effect on their ability to exclude their existence. Despite one’s grief and suffering, the anguish of another calls out for recognition – even the anguish of one’s enemy.
Deconstructing the Conflict Story
Separating the negotiable story from the non-negotiable narrative. The externalization of the violence and intent away from humans and onto the conflict story allows the participants to talk about the conflict from a position of psychological safety. Removed from the immediacy of the conflict story’s position calls, the participants can remain outside the pull of victimization, humiliation and tragic loss with all the attendant rage and pain associated with those positions. Even as the participants are outside of their conflict story, the position is temporary, in that the story cannot simply be thrown out or discarded. This is because the conflict story is embedded within the group’s historical narrative that documents their existential origin, carries their generational memory and transmits their ascribed and constructed identity. Their narrative is their only known pathway as a group for a future destiny, and moment by moment, the conflict story calls them back into position, into action, into conflict.
While the participants cannot ignore or discard the existence of the conflict story, they can alter it with the mediators’ assistance. Through questions and restatements, the mediator can help the participants identify the living tissue of their historical narrative from the conflict story and its calls to positions of alienation, shame, rage and violence. In individual, single conflict group or multiparty group sessions, the mediator uses evaluative questions leading to separating conflict story from existential narrative.
Mediator: What parts of group social, economic, family or religious life create the most happiness for your family? What parts of your group life seem to involve violence and conflict? If you had to rank order these elements of group life from most to least important, how would you rank them?
The mediators’ questions seek to help the conflict parties evaluate an intensely personal narrative that is essential to their being. Yet the conflict story within this narrative has placed them in harm’s way through its compelling calls to posi- tion, where they are psychologically and emotionally induced to defend a story that is killing them.
The mediators use questions and restatements to help the parties grapple with answering questions about the nature of their conflict story.
Mediator: Is the story changeable? Can we change the story without losing our identity and memory of our fathers? Will the other party allow us to change the story? How do we know what parts of our story to change and what parts of our story we must keep in order to survive as a culture? How do we preserve the good narrative without succumbing to the bad story of conflict?
All of these questions are major topics that the mediator helps the parties ask and answer by guiding them in self-review, searching for essential narrative tissue and separating it from conflict story tissue that the parties can cut away, changing their story. As the mediator works with the conflict parties to evaluate the story, he continues to use psychosocial cultural analysis and framing to maintain the conflict parties’ focus on the needs of their families in the present and requirements to balance past memory with future promise. In Niger and Sudan, for example, their environment cognitively and emotionally imprints the tribes we worked with, a perspective Stein (2008) refers to as psychogeography and that I add to with psychogeology.
These psychosocial perspectives have important implications for understand- ing, evaluating and reframing conflict stories for the mediator. One aspect of this psychosocial perspective is time orientation. In the desert, nothing moves quickly
– neither farmer nor herder. What few time markers exist in the desert do so with the seasonal rains that determine whether a family survives or perishes. Time orientation and survival questions allow the mediator to focus the parties on the conflict issues and help connect the dots for restorying.
Mediator: Will your farms provide all of the food and trade needed to meet the communities’ annual demands? Are there efficiencies that can be gained from forming collective action cooperatives with other farmers and traders, even those from the other conflict party? Have you laid out forecasts for farm labor and compared the growing rates of birth for your future planning pur- poses? If you will have more or fewer community members than needed, have you thought about cross-community dialogue with other communities to meet those needs or employ excess community members?
Only because the mediator has already demonstrated to the conflict parties his understanding of the underlying life-and-death significance of these seemingly unobtrusive questions will his inquiries be listened to and answered from the depth of the conflict story. The parties must believe that the mediator is forming his questions from a position within the story that accounts for the cost they have already borne.
Reimagining Identity-Meaning and Restorying the Conflict Narrative
Problematizing external violations and restorying the conflict elements. Evaluating the conflict story is a step towards restorying, so the evaluative emphasis is balanced between elements that cause loss, pain and suffering, and elements that create joy, pride, positive memory and identity in non-violent cultural expression. In mediation, questions and restatements help the parties adapt past the negatives while maintaining attention on safeguarding and increasing the positive elements of their stories. How the parties view and understand the causative factors of the negatives is central to their willingness to adapt past them. For example, much of the conflict involving emerging cultures is rooted in failure to adapt to the demands of change. Cultural elites and leaders of sociocentric communities fail to grasp the scope of change that has long since occurred in the world around them.
Possible mediation lines of effort might involve problematizing modernity as the cause of the conflict rather than another cultural group that has adapted faster or with more agility. If the conflict party accepts modernity as the problem rather than malicious intent of other groups, then a number of positive pathways open themselves for use by the mediator. Questions and dialogue can demonstrate that the evolutionary waves of modernity affect entire regions and that all cultures struggle to adapt. Open-ended questions with the parties about the effect that modernity has on communications, travel and transportation, for instance, can focus on the problematized issue that modernity restricts cultural groups’ ability to maintain solidarity of inner group cohesion when such choices are presented all around them. Mediator questions then ask the parties to con- sider and discuss options for how they might preserve cultural heritage, linguistic nuances and generational memory in the face of such changes.
Ultimately, the questioning leads to methods of attraction versus methods of restriction in maintaining the sociocentric collective. Upon this platform of view- point change, the mediator introduces the possibilities of collective action. Once each side begins to open pathways forward to preserve themselves, they inadver- tently place themselves on parallel courses rather than at right angles in collision. This relational change in position opens the door for the mediator to ask how they can mutually support each other’s existential preservation.
Mediator: Can either of you imagine possibilities where you can use collective action to strengthen your individual abilities to preserve your language, cul- ture and narrative history? Is modern change unavoidable? What actions can you take individually and collectively to adapt to those changes that are inevi- table, while preserving generational memory of your fathers?
Such conversations not only open the door to restorying, but also serve to desta- bilize totalizing descriptions of conflict (White, 2008). For instance, if the conflict parties are groping towards agreement on the problematized effects of modernity, this opens the door for the mediator to question underlying assumptions regarding motives of the parties.
Mediator: Now that you have agreed on elements of modernity that must be dealt with mutually, can you accept that the other side really desires to pre- serve tradition, narrative identity and generational memory of their fathers? Can each of you accept that the challenges of change are based on realities outside of either of your control?
From destabilizing the parties’ totalizing thoughts and descriptions of the con- flict, the mediator can use questions to help build pre-stories of respect and col- laboration.
Mediator: Based upon your discussions of the coming changes, what ways can your two cultures work together to form a stronger coalition with which to negotiate the effects of the coming change with the outside world?
This type of dialogue allows the mediator to maintain the focus of discussion on what is best for the group or society rather than for individual needs and inter- ests. For example, the mediator might use questions that move the conflict focus from present interests to future needs of transmitting generational memory.
Mediator: If you agree that some change to your stories is required for sur- vival, what elements of your stories do you think your fathers would most want preserved?
Questions and dialogue should promote a preferred storyline that is based on non-negotiable needs of memory group identity and that call forth new positions for both parties based on new realities rather than old stances and politics.
When the mediator’s questions bring the conflict parties past these stances that are instantly recognizable as meeting the deepest psychological and emotional needs, positive emotion and trust in the process begin to swell. The truthfulness of a mediator’s questions when they touch upon basic underlying unmet needs transmits through the noise of the conflict conversation and registers on the participants. Such questions validate the psychological and emotional pain and dread that have been building during the life of the conflict. Open discourse and the willingness of the mediator and one conflict party to speak from the heart can melt the hate and bitterness that have fuelled the conflict. From the common need to survive and safeguard their existential memory and origination comes the genesis of emerging culture cooperation that is needed to begin the process of creating alternative non-problem-bound narratives in co- authorship with the other party. Most often, cultures in conflict want peace, but they do not know how to write that story or even where to begin. For this, the mediator can help, and all it takes is belief that the answer is there waiting to be found.