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Marcel Krčah

Resolving conflicts peacefully and powerfully

Published on , in

I'm moved by the works of Marshall Rosenberg. In the book Living Nonviolent Communication, Marshall tells a story of how he mediated peace negotiations between two African tribes at violent war.

In Chapter I, subtitled Resolving Conflicts Peacefully and Powerfully, Marshall starts off by laying out generic steps to resolve conflicts. He follows the principles laid out in his previous work, NonViolent Communication. We then peek into a counseling session, where Marshall uses the steps to mediate a married couple's life-long financial dispute. Within one session, the couple resolves the dispute to the benefit of both the wife and the husband.

At this point, Marshall moves on to a different use-case—violent war. The move startled me: I didn't expect to see the steps from marriage counseling to be applied in peace negotiations. I'm wondering: could all conflicts and tensions be resolved using Marshall's approach?

I include the peace negotiation story from the book:

...As we were walking into the session, my colleague whispered to me, “Be prepared for a little bit of tension, Marshall. Three of the people in the room know that the person who killed their child is in that room.” It was very tense at first. There had been so much violence between these two groups, and it was the first time they had really sat down together.

I started with the question with which I frequently start conflict resolution sessions in order to focus on people’s needs. I said to both sides, “I’d like whoever would like to speak first to say what your needs are in this situation. After everyone understands the needs of everyone else, then we’ll move to finding some ways of meeting the needs.”

The chief from one side looked across the table and said, “You people are murderers,” and the other side responded, “You’ve been trying to dominate us. We’re not going to tolerate it anymore!” ...

I turned to the chief who had said “You people are murderers” and guessed, “Chief, do you have a need for safety and to be sure that whatever conflicts are going on will be resolved by some means other than violence?” The chief immediately said to me, “Of course, that’s what I’m saying!” Well, of course, he hadn’t said that. He’d said that the other person was a murderer and had made a judgment rather than expressing his needs. However, now we had his needs out on the table, so I turned to a chief from the other side and said, “Chief, would you please reflect back what he said his needs were?” ...

The chief responded to this man by asking in a very hostile way, “Then why did you kill my son? That started an uproar between the two groups. After things calmed down, I said, “Chief, we’ll deal with your reaction to his needs later, but at the moment, I suggest that you just hear his needs. Could you repeat back what he said his needs were?” He couldn’t do it. He was so emotionally involved in this situation and in his judgments of the other person that he didn’t hear what the other person’s needs were. I repeated the needs as I had heard them and said, “Chief, I heard the other chief saying that he has a need for safety. He has a need to feel secure—that no matter what conflicts are present, they’ll be resolved in some way other than by violence. Could you just reflect back what that need is, so that I’m sure everybody’s communicating?” He couldn’t do it. I had to repeat it two or three times before he could hear the other person’s needs. ...

After I spent this much time getting both sides to express their needs and to hear each other’s needs (this took close to two hours), another chief who hadn’t spoken jumped to his feet, looked at me, and said something very intensely in his own language. I was very curious about what he was trying to express to me with such intensity, and I eagerly awaited the translation. I was very touched when the translator said, “The chief says we cannot learn this way of communicating in one day. But he says that if we know how to communicate this way, we don’t have to kill each other.”

In fact, before I left that day, we had members from both tribes eager to learn this process that would allow everyone to hear needs behind whatever message was being expressed. I am happy to report that the war between the tribes ended that day.

This blog is written by Marcel Krcah, an independent consultant for product-oriented software engineering. If you like what you read, sign up for my newsletter