Journey through Conflict Workshop, pt. 3

(final part)

Potential Pitfalls of ‘Storytelling’

Storytelling is not without pitfalls, however. Aside from the obstacles presented by the term storytelling itself, such a process can have destructive consequences.[1] Especially regarding “one-and-done” encounters, story sharing may actually allow participants to hear just enough of others’ stories to solidify feelings of superiority, increase bigotry, and justify slander. This is why, when possible, the Journey through Conflict process spans a full year, creating multiple opportunities and locations for interaction so that relationships may emerge. It is through this development of relationship that the trust necessary for reconciliation may be cultivated.[2]

Another potential pitfall for storytelling workshops, or most any conflict transformation endeavor, is predetermining outcomes. Especially because of obligations to demonstrate “results” to potential funders, facilitators of workshops may feel pressure to prod participants toward predetermined outcomes such as “transformation,” “reconciliation,” “healing,” or “forgiveness.”[3] When this happens, the process becomes contrived and is no longer about the individual or collective journeys of the participants but rather about achieving desired results. If transformative or reconciliatory goals, for example, are stated explicitly, participants may feel tremendous pressure to ensure they reach the prescribed destination. At the end of the process, if they have not experienced the reconciliation or transformation desired, feelings of inadequacy or failure may emerge.

For this reason, Little and Verwoerd describe the Journey through Conflict process as containing “transformative potential.”[4] The facilitators never tell participants how they should feel, react, articulate, process, interact, or cope. While a collective journey certainly exists, each individual must move at the pace and in the way possible for them. Gibran wrote that the wise teacher “does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.”[5] This describes well the approach of Journey through Conflict, a process that believes the journey is equally – if not more – important than the destination.

Deep Dialogue

While our residential experience did not fully explore “Deep Dialogue,” this element of the process is an opportunity for “facing the elephants in the room, without getting trampled on.”[6] In our workshop, we explored difficult questions by clearing space in the room and engaging complex statements by standing beneath signs stating “Disagree,” “Undecided,” or “Agree.” In our case, the facilitators presented two statements, each addressed in turn: “Nonviolence is not always an option,” and “There can be no future without forgiveness.” As each was read, we had a few moments to choose our position, and then each person had around 30 seconds to make their case.

Initially, I felt great frustration in having to simplify complex thought processes into quick sound bites. I thought questions of nonviolence and forgiveness to be far too complicated to reduce to rushed statements. Yet, in retrospect, I find this exercise helpful, as it allowed me to realize the core of my perspectives. I was able, to some degree, to step away from the overwhelming complexity and address the essence, learning that, as Lederach writes, sometimes simplicity should be seen “as a source of energy [for complexity] rather than as the choice of reductionism.”[7]

In contexts of conflict, participants have the opportunity to “journey beyond comfort zones” and pose questions to each other.[8] Anonymity is prohibited; participants must own their questions. Guided by the parameters of a “talking stone,”[9] participants tread into the deep waters of unanswered questions of trauma. Though certainly not guaranteed, this “Deep Dialogue” carries the potential for experiences of trauma healing. The simultaneous safety and risk that exists in this interrogative confrontation allows both sides to seek answers to gnawing questions, a process that could either lead toward re-victimization or healing.[10] Through “Deep Dialogue,” participants are able to deepen their understanding of the pain they have endured.[11]

Conclusion

The Journey through Conflict experience is complex. As a 2011 ISE MPhil student aptly stated, it is a “process of humble labyrinth-navigation.”[12] Lederach writes that “brokenness wanders all over our souls. Healing requires a similar journey of wandering.”[13] Little and Verwoerd understand the necessity of this wandering and are aware of its complexity. Their process engages well what Lederach identified as the challenge of conflict transformation: befriending complexity rather than fearing it.[14] I emerged from the time in Corrymeela understanding that with responsibility, we should practice humility; with complexity, creativity; with confrontation, curiosity; with talking, listening; with listening, more listening; with obstacles, adaptation; with fragility, community; with fear, perseverance. In the end, as Jung observed, sometimes “the only way out is through.”[15]


[1] Little and Verwoerd note that for some, storytelling connotes “public performance” or implies a fictional tale, though neither characterize the approach of Journey through Conflict, 59. For examples of the positive potential of fictional and informal storytelling in conflict transcendence, see Cashman, Storytelling on the Northern Irish Border, in which the author explores the role of local anecdotes during wakes and ceilis for transcending the sectarian histories of Catholics and Protestants in the mixed border town of Aghyaran.

[2] For more on the necessity of trust in the reconciliation process, see Govier and Verwoerd, “Trust and the Problem of National Reconciliation,” esp. 185-186.

[3] For more on the difficulties of funding and reporting to funders, see Little and Verwoerd, 99-112.

[4] Ibid., 66, emphasis added. This is the very same language used by Hackett and Rolston in “The burden of memory” regarding storytelling in Northern Ireland, noting also that the journey is both an “individual and collective process,” 356-7.

[5] Gibran, The Prophet, 56.

[6] Little and Verwoerd, 67.

[7] Lederach, Moral Imagination, 33.

[8] Little and Verwoerd, 70.

[9] Ibid., 27. A “talking stone” functions in much the same way as the conch shell in Lord of the Flies. Whoever has the stone has the floor. With the liberty to speak without interruption, when one is finished speaking, one is obliged to set the stone back in the center of the circle and respectfully listen to the next person’s perspective.

[10] For more on potential pros and cons for antagonistic parties participating in mediated confrontations, see Amstutz, Little Book of Victim Offender Conferencing, 66-71.

[11] Little and Verwoerd write that the “Deep Dialogue” experience “can bring relief, enable the release of grief, help a person move on to the next question and open up a potential for change and growth that previously did not exist.” But it can also “stir difficult responses,” 79.

[12] Qtd. in Little and Verwoerd, 150.

[13] Lederach, Moral Imagination, 160.

[14] Lederach, Little Book of Conflict Transformation, 53; Moral Imagination, 37. “…From complexity,” Lederach writes, “emerges untold new angles, opportunities, and unexpected potentialities that surpass, replace, and break the shackles of historic and current relational patterns of repeated violence,” Ibid. Within this complexity, Journey through Conflict addresses the four “essences” of building and transforming peace as identified by Lederach: “relationship, paradoxical curiosity, creativity, and risk,” Ibid., 34.

[15] Qtd. in Little and Verwoerd, 6.

Bibliography

Bar-On, Dan. “Toward Understanding and Healing Through Storytelling and Listening: From the Jewish-German context after the Holocaust to the Israeli-Palestinian context.” In Stories in Conflict: Towards Understanding and Healing, ed. by Liam O’Hagan, 15-26. YES! Publications, 2008.

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

Cashman, Ray. Storytelling on the Northern Irish Border: Characters and Community. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008.

DeSalvo, Louise. Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.

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.

Halpern, Jodi, and Harvey Weinstein. “Rehumanzing the Other: Empathy and Reconciliation.” Human Rights Quarterly 26, 2004: 561-583.

Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma and Recovery. London: Pandora, 1992.

LeBaron, Michelle. Bridging Cultural Conflicts: A New Approach for a Changing World. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

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.

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