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  • Writer's pictureHelen

‘S**T Happens’

We’re all fascinated by conflict – until it involves us – and then we have two responses often determined by family background or temperament: ‘fight’ or ‘flight’!

My response varies, but I’ve always been fascinated by conflict and conflict resolution. So after I’d trained to be a counsellor, I did a number of courses on mediation in church settings. [When we believe that God is on our side, we often have the most difficulty with conflict resolution.]

A very simple interaction is at the heart of the process of mediation and conflict resolution. It sounds simple but it’s hugely challenging and, I believe somewhat mysterious. We must listen to each other’s stories. Of course, the easy part of the process is telling my side of the story. No problem! I’ve rehearsed it to a fine art.

But here comes the challenge and the invitation to mystery. I need to listen again to the other's story. I need to listen. That means I need to keep my mouth shut, preferably look at the speaker and use my ears - and more. Even though I think I know the story, at this point, something mysterious needs to begin in me. Something which allows me to listen anew. Keeping my mouth shut in these circumstances presents a challenge – for some of us – an enormous challenge.

But an even bigger challenge awaits. After listening to the story, I who have been been struggling to contain myself throughout the other’s storytelling, I who have been mentally contesting just about every point of the story that has been told, I need to retell to its narrator the story I have just heard. And I need to do it from the perspective of the previous narrator. And then comes the final challenge. The previous narrator must recognise my words as ‘their’ story. Only if that process can be accomplished mutually is there any hope whatsoever of the conflict being ‘resolved’.

For years, I have been thinking about and trying to practise and recommend various versions of this process in my counselling room, and in conflicts at church, at work and at home. Listening to the stories around Black Lives Matter, I’ve been asking myself again: just what would it look (and feel) like if I learned to listen truly, not just to keep my mouth shut while black people tell their story? Most importantly, how can I take the second step of retelling the story I have heard so that black people recognise it. How? What would it ask of me?

And so I think through the process again. My experience is that mediation will always fail when both people are not honestly invested in the process of peace-making. It will always fail when there is self-justification, when either participant’s aim is to prove themselves ‘right’ and the other person wrong. So the first quality is the ability to suspend judgement. I need to recognise with Forrest Gump that ‘shit happens’.

Then, I need to prepare myself to take responsibility – for who I am, who I really am. For that I need a third eye and a third ear. An extra eye to see and confess who I am, my strengths and weaknesses, my self-deceptions – and to recognise and accept that humanity in others. I need ears to hear the cadences of pain, the tones of struggle, the echoes of humanity in my own and other people’s stories. And I need imaginative words to hear and retell that story with compassion.

The easy part may, just may, be identifying and patiently learning these skills – keeping my mouth shut, learning to listen, abandoning the blame game and all aspects of self-justification, developing empathy.

But developing the will and wisdom for peace – not peace at any price but peace that learns to live lovingly alongside those from whom I differ...not quite so easy! Maybe that’s why Jesus called peacemakers, ‘children of God’.


During the discussion over black lives matter, I’ve been wondering just what aspects of ‘the black experience’ I, as a middle-class white woman need most to be able to ‘hear’. Last night I heard some of the answers in this timely discussion by five black leaders on both sides of the Atlantic – I commend it to my white brothers and sisters.

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