March 25, 2004

May 25, 2004


The skills of peacemaking

What are skills of a peacemaker? I think about this question every time I step into a conflict. As I have gained experience, I have learned that the skills are subtle.

The first skill is the ability to listen. The peacemaker's listening skill is much different than the skill required for everyday discourse.

Conflict conversations have many layers of meaning and nuance. Therefore, listening requires concentration and mental focus. The words, tone of voice, chosen grammar and body all transmit information. Some of the data is important, some is not, and some is outright misleading. Discerning the real message and the emotional content behind it requires unwavering attention.

Oftentimes, people have experienced deep injustice that has led to the conflict or its escalation. Because injustice is tied to relationships and identity, articulating the existence of the injustice or its cause can be difficult. However, the emotional push of the injustice manifests itself in how people speak.

I listen carefully for those signals that tell me perceived injustices underlie the statements, positions or stories of the parties. When appropriate, I direct the conversation to those injustices. Uncovering them and laying them out for examination can be a powerful healing process for the parties.

The second skill is the ability to withhold judgment. Well-trained, analytical minds seek interpretations, explanations and understanding. Peacemakers learn to resist their underlying professional training and not seek answers or causes immediately. Decision-making is not usually what a peacemaker is asked to do.

Reaching for a bottom line conclusion, while normal in ordinary business discourse, can be disastrous in peacemaking. I have made this mistake, only to learn that not only was I wrong, but that I was creating a perception of "choosing" sides. Being nonjudgmental is therefore a skill I consciously cultivate every day.

The third peacemaking skill is nonreactive patience. Sometimes, I want to throttle the people I am working with because they seem to be acting so stupidly. I have learned to let go of that impulse and simply let the process unfold.

I have worked particularly hard on being nonreactive in hostile, challenging environments. Frequently, people in conflict will directly challenge me as a way of projecting their frustration, anger and hostility outward. Or, they will revert to earlier positional statements, making the process appear to be moving backwards. Sometimes, emotions will become intense.

In all of these cases, my job is to remain calm, centered and nonreactive. People are assured by my confidence and my light touch of humor, especially when they are in the throes of conflict. I find nonreactive patience easier and easier to cultivate because I see the same conflict behaviors over and over. From experience, I know these behaviors are transitory and necessary to break through the impasses into the problem-solving realm.

At the end of an assignment, people are thanking me for my work when hours earlier they seemed ready to throw me out the door. It's all part of peacemaking.

The fourth skill is compassion. This one is tough because we do not live in a culture where compassion is valued or nurtured. As a peacemaker, however, I have to help good people who are in bad situations.

Underneath the superficial levels of hostility, anger and even hatred are human beings seeking peace, harmony and cooperation. To the extent that I can be compassionate and see into the parties' deeper essence, I can be a model for the way they wish to be. My compassion also has a soothing effect in the peacemaking environment, which helps to de-escalate hostility.

The last skill is truth-seeing and truth-telling. The peacemaker is a lot like the little boy who exclaimed that the emperor was wearing no clothes.

In conflict, the spin doctors in each person are active and anxious to get to work. My job is stop the spinning and ground people in the truth of their dispute. People don't like this too much, but it's like taking bad tasting medicine -- one gets over the taste to accept the cure.

These five skills -- listening with the ear of a peacemaker, being nonjudgmental, being nonreactive, having compassion, and truth-seeing and telling -- are the secrets of peacemaking. You can develop these skills with practice by being conscious of them. In your everyday business and home conflicts, try cultivating one or more of these skills.

What works? What doesn't? Be aware and present in the moment and be open to learning. You will be surprised at how quickly your peacemaking skills develop.

Noll is an attorney and law professor trained as a peacemaker, and author of "Peacemaking: Practicing at the Intersection of Law and Human Conflict." He can be reached at or Web site

March 25, 2004

May 25, 2004