How Mediation Can Transform Everyday Conflict
Updated: Nov 14, 2018
When Bridge Builders Ministries first started in the early 90's, reconciliation and mediation were relatively new concepts in the Church. The early staff members came across this general idea that because Christians were meant to be loving and forgiving people, the Church didn't experience conflict. Of course this wasn't actually true, but Bridge Builders Ministries discovered that where there was conflict, people were either trying to ignore it or struggling to know how to talk about it well. And if people couldn't name and identify conflict, they couldn't actively pursue any kind of reconciliation.
When Colin Moulds mediated his first workplace dispute he had no official training, but something in it connected with him ‘like putting on a coat that fits really well’. From his first foundation training course at Bridge Builders Ministries in 2009, he formed close connections with the organisation that lead to him taking over as Executive Director in 2015.
Now, the best part of his day is when he gets a call from someone who has lost hope. They are in the midst of a conflict and can’t see a way out of it. Colin will be on the phone to them for an hour or more, and at the end there will be a light of hope. It might not be very big, but someone will have listened and understood something new. They have ‘honoured their emotional cost’ – both the emotions that are driving their behaviours in the conflict situation and the emotional impact that the conflict is having on them – and they are ready to do something about it.
Bridge Builders addresses conflict head on. Colin describes it as like 'putting a finger on the sore spot that nobody wants to touch’. It might be painful and tempting to avoid, but like a strained muscle, you have to work it in order for it to heal. In a world where conflict is inevitable, we have to develop the empathetic communication skills that enable us to live with difference. Because conflict – as Bridge Builders see it – is ‘difference plus tension’.
So how can mediation help to resolve tensions? Colin gives this example of a recent church conflict. An elderly congregation member noticed that their name was missing from a rota of duties, and felt that the vicar was attempting to manoeuvre them out of their position in the church. As a consequence, they became more hostile and stubborn in their approach. The vicar, on the other hand, was intending to protect a member of the congregation from overwork. When the person became less responsive, the vicar stopped trying to engage them in conversation, and all communication was reduced to email.
Mediation begins with individual sessions. Everyone involved (in this case the vicar and the congregation member) can share their personal experiences without judgement and to start to explore how conflict has touched their lives. ‘We need to be kind to ourselves in being kind to others’, explains Colin, and the highly personalised training and mediation offered at Bridge Builders provides people with the space to get to know themselves better. By identifying our own influences and triggers, we can begin to understand our responses to conflict. Colin notes that conflict frequently makes us want to change others, but in fact the only person that we are really capable of changing is ourselves. Using ‘I-speaking’ – ‘I am hurt’, rather than ‘you hurt me’ – enables people to take ownership of their experiences and their role in conflicts.
In the example above, communication had completely broken down and neither the vicar nor the congregation member had any idea of the other’s motivations for acting the way that they did, or the emotional impact that the conflict was having on each other. The role of mediation, as Colin sees it, is ‘enabling relationships to grow again’. We need to repair relationships before we can work on problem solving. This might seem like the wrong way round, but conflict is very effective in stopping both relationship development and creativity. It is only when people are able to communicate effectively that they are able to find constructive solutions.
This has remarkable ripple effects in a community. If the minister changes their approach to conflict, this affects the way the congregation approaches conversations and therefore relationships amongst the community as a whole. Although these mediation skills are not part of the ministerial training process, Colin and many ministers who have used Bridge Builders’ training services all reflect that they can be crucial in fostering healthy congregations.‘Forgiveness doesn’t happen in an instant’, especially if it is long-term relationships which have broken down. But it begins by being willing to change, by holding our hands open to reconciliation and beginning to walk through that healing journey within ourselves and in our relationships with others.
Reconciliation is never a single event, rather it is a continuous learning process, not a point in time but a journey. The Journey of Hope training programme aims to prepare people for many of the challenges and conflicts they will experience in their ministry, and to equip them with the skills to be continually reconciling and strengthening relationships in their communities.
by Bathsheba Wells Dion