Journey through Conflict Workshop, pt. 1

Nashville, TN, USA

(The next few posts will be sections from my “Conflict Transformation” assessment reflecting over the residential experience in Corrymeela mid-November. Hope you find it worthwhile.)

The Journey through Conflict residential experience in Corrymeela guided me into new depths of intrapersonal reflection and interpersonal relationship. Whereas self-reflection and human relationships are paramount in my life – especially the former in recent years – Alistair Little and Wilhelm Verwoerd’s Journey through Conflict workshop opened my eyes to new ways for critically evaluating the “story we tell ourselves about ourselves”[1] and the story we tell ourselves about others. Due to word limit constraints, I will focus only on aspects of the “Life Histories” portion of the workshop, briefly evaluate some possibilities and pitfalls of storytelling, and end with a succinct discussion of the importance of “Deep Dialogue.”

Life Histories

The “Life Histories” part of the process is multifaceted, made up of activities that both offer guidance for the journey upon which we embarked as well as opportunities to explore our personal complexities and experience the difficulties of cultural difference and meaning multiplicity. I will reflect to some extent on four aspects of the “Life Histories” process: establishing the “working agreement,” a back-to-back description and drawing exercise, the “I AM” exercise, and the actual sharing of our life stories.

Working Agreement

The “Life Histories” workshop began with group collaboration on a “working agreement” that provided helpful parameters for the pursuit of constructive conversation. The facilitators guided the process where necessary, but primarily allowed us participants to navigate our own way through the agreement’s creation. As we identified important conversation guidelines – such as, listening intentionally, avoiding interruptions, dealing with any conflict within the room, avoiding “side” conversations, and being sensitive – the facilitators made certain they transcribed each point in our words so that we felt the agreement was our own construction and not contrived or imposed upon us.

As one of the facilitators noted, the agreement is “a living agreement between living people,” and thus, though written, could be altered at any point along the way, given that the group decided so together. I found this working agreement most helpful, both for the Journey through Conflict process and in post-residential interpersonal relationships. At the encouragement of the facilitators, I am striving to see such practices not so much as beneficial guidelines in a onetime workshop at Corrymeela, but rather as a “way of being,” seeds of good living that should take root and inform my everyday interactions.

Back-to-Back Exercise

In this exercise, we sat back-to-back with partners, with one person holding a piece of paper containing an abstract image and the other person holding a blank paper on which to draw. My task as the describer was to impart verbally the details of the image in my hand so that my partner could draw the image on his blank sheet. Neither of us could see the other’s paper, nor could he ask any questions save for clarifying ones. After our time was up, the facilitators introduced a new picture, and we partners switched roles.

Given my extroversion and innate (or perhaps conditioned) proclivity towards leading, I found greater difficulty in the silent drawing than in the verbal describing. With a tendency toward perfectionism, I struggled to trust that my partner’s descriptions were sufficient for me to create an accurate replication of the image he held. After much inner wrestling, I was able to ease the push for perfection and embrace the process, realizing that the outcome was much less important than the journey toward it.

After working with individual partners, I volunteered (in ignorance) for the second part of the exercise: I alone sat before the whole group and had to describe an image for the other eleven participants to illustrate. As I attempted to describe the image, I quickly realized the challenges before me: not everyone understood the units of measurement to which I was accustomed, many did not think quantitatively, some did not understand adjectives I used as English was not their first language, etc. I found myself having constantly to adapt my approach, pursuing methods or referencing images I had not imagined using before but that now, as if through epiphany, seemed appropriate or even necessary.

This exercise illustrated for me the complex challenge in conflict transformation of navigating cultural differences[2] and meaning multiplicity, that words carry different connotative significance for different people. As I encountered great difficulty explaining quantifiable images to others, I realized the profound complication of explaining non-quantifiable feelings and experiences to those foreign to them. I came to understand the necessity of adaptive leadership and resisting tunnel vision,[3] cultivating a creativity and humility that understands sometimes the best way forward is a step back[4] and the next appropriate path may well be one serendipitously discovered when we remove our arrogant blinders and embrace “peripheral vision.”[5]

[1] This is a phrase I have heard friend and author Peter Rollins use many times.

[2] For a discussion of developing “cultural fluency” in conflict transformation, see LeBaron, “Mindful Awareness as a Path to Cultural Fluency,” in Bridging Cultural Conflicts, 83-109; Lederach, “The Mediator’s Cultural Assumptions”; Lederach, “Prescriptive and Elicitive: The Critical Tension” and “Facing Multicultural Settings,” in Preparing for Peace, 63-70, 109-118, respectively.

[3] Lederach, Moral Imagination, 117-8.

[4] Little and Verwoerd, “Journey through Conflict Trail Guide,” 14.

[5] Lederach, “On Serendipity: The Gift of Accidental Sagacity,” in The Moral Imagination, 113-129. Lederach writes that “peripheral vision…is the capacity to situate oneself in a changing environment with a sense of direction and purpose and at the same time develop an ability to see and move with the unexpected,” 118.


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Bloomfield, David. Reconciliation After Violent Conflict: A Handbook. Stockholm, Sweden: IDEA, 2003.

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Gibran, Kahlil. The Prophet. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1923.

Govier, Trudy, and Wilhelm Verwoerd. “Trust and the Problem of National Reconciliation.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 32, No. 2, June 2002: 178-205.

Hackett, Claire, and Bill Rolston. “The burden of memory: Victims, storytelling and resistance in Northern Ireland.” Memory Studies 2(3), 2009: 355-376.

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Lederach, John Paul, and Angela Jill Lederach. When Blood and Bones Cry Out: Journeys Through the Soundscape of Healing and Reconciliation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Lederach, John Paul. Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures. Syracuse: Syracuse Press, 1995.

—. The Little Book of Conflict Transformation. Interocurse, PA: Good Books, 2003.

—. “The Mediator’s Cultural Assumptions.” In Mediation and Facilitation Training Manual: Foundations and Skills for Constructive Conflict Transformation, 80-83. Akron, PA: Mennonite Conciliation Service, 1995.

—. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Lerner, Rabbi Michael. Healing Israel/Palestine: A Path to Peace and Reconciliation. San Francisco: Tikkun Books, 2003.

Little, Alistair, and Wilhelm Verwoerd. “Journey through Conflict Trail Guide: Introduction.” Unpublished, 2012.

Minow, Martha. Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History After Genocide and Mass Violence. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.

Senehi, Jessica. “Constructive Storytelling: A Peace Process.” Peace and Conflict Studies, Vol. 9, December 2002: 41-63.

Smyth, Marie, and Marie-Therese, ed. Fay. Personal Accounts from Northern Ireland’s Troubles: Public Conflict, Private Loss. London: Pluto Press, 2000.

Stutzman Amstutz, Lorraine. The Little Book of Victim Offender Conferencing. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2009.

Yoder, Carolyn. The Little Book of Trauma Healing: When Violence Strikes and Community Security Is Threatened. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2005.

1 Comment

  1. […] while also trying to attain funding and receive permission from Riverbend prison to hold a ‘Life Histories’ workshop there in October. Alistair and Wilhelm are hoping to be in the States in October, and I am trying […]

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