I was watching the news tonight about the situation in Spain with the referendum on the independence of Cataluña. I couldn’t help but wonder how many people would understand the importance of this referendum, the history linked to this call for independence and the reasons why it is so important to the Catalans.
I am particularly touched because my family on my father’s side are all proud Catalans. I was born and raised in France where many of them had immigrated to after the Spanish war. But early in my childhood, I had become well aware of the depths of pain and consequent resentment all Catalans carried within. They had gone through a soul destroying civil war. They had been beaten by the government forces, humiliated and were left stripped of their identity and their honour. Up until Franco took power, Cataluña had benefited from a special autonomous status. General Franco not only took away their autonomy but also their cultural heritage, their language and their literature. To the Catalans it was a direct attack on their very identity. Many of the men had to leave the country, for their safety and their families followed. This is how mine arrived in France.
Because of my background, I witnessed first hand the pain and hunger for recognition the Catalans have felt over the years about the loss of their identity. Historical background alone, namely laws and events, fail to give us the emotional component that affects this conflict. It’s a little bit like looking at an iceberg, we see the facts and figures at the top of the water, but it takes mediation skills to understand the vast mass underneath, and its important role in the conflict, the depth of this need the Catalans have for recognition and their voice being allowed to be heard. A voice that is saying: “I exist, I am different from you and I have a right to be recognised”.
I suppose this need for recognition of past wrongs and past pain is at the core of many international conflicts. In the Middle East, this is further complicated by the ancestral attachment to the land which is part and parcel of their identity, making conflicts even more difficult to understand and resolve.
In the case of Cataluña, I don’t personally have any political opinion as to whether they should be independent or not, as a nation. I deplore political parties playing on needs, fears and hopes of a population to gain popularity. Media outlets follow suit, only compounding the situation. They have rightly understood that emotions are a strong driver in these matters. Thankfully, the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, wisely called last night for an international mediation team to come and help.
In my opinion it would be the best way forward. It would enable the Catalans to have a platform to express their need to regain their identity, their cultural independence, the acknowledgment of their roots.
The Spanish government would also have the opportunity to be forthcoming with its own worries. They suffered for years with a home-grown separatist group (Basque group ETA). That is a valid concern as well. Unfortunately, the “question of Cataluna” is not going to be solved by rubber bullets and force but by listening and building a bridge of communication where feelings can be validated and assurances brought forward so a peaceful future can be built.
This is where international mediation gets a big thumbs-up.
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In conflict resolution, the notion of community building comes up regularly. We often do that from the perspective of city dwellers where cities are composed of a mixture of cultures that, effectively don’t always mix, causing cultural misunderstandings, friction, and at times long term conflict.
In a recent conversation with a friend of mine, we were discussing the value of the old style community where people would stay in the same village and house all their life, where they knew everyone and had a solid circle of “friends”. The implication according to her argument is that this would be a more caring and nurturing environment where individuals would feel safe and would have a greater chance to thrive than the often isolated inner city dwelling where neighbours often don’t know each other. This young person was not only born in a city but falls into what is coined as “a third culture kid”, raised in foreign countries with frequent moves, thus did not experience having deep roots attached to a particular place. I believe her stance could be in part due to the romanticised way this life style is projected by Hollywood.
My own life experience taught me differently, however. Staying in one place can certainly mean that you know “everyone”. But it does not always equate with caring. I was raised in the equivalent of social housing in France. All the kids went to the same school, the same church on Sundays, we all had our 1st communion together, I would babysit for the neighbour’s kids… Anyone looking in from the outside might have thought it was a “nice” community. But when my 15 years old best friend got pregnant, unexpectedly, she had to leave school, go to another part of our city where she was not known, to escape the shame on her and her family. She was not able to go back to school and in the end, her parents had to move to a place where they were not known, and where they could make up a story about their daughter. That is the other face of the “life-long community”.
When visiting Ireland recently, I befriended a couple of young women who had gone back to their mother’s village and took over the family farm, effectually going back to their “roots”. From day one, the village farmers had put bets that “they wouldn’t last 3 weeks”, “them city girls”. They were not “foreigners” their grandfather had built up the farm, their uncle kept it up and they would go every year. Still the atmosphere was far from caring and supportive. The girls kept telling stories of backstabbing and family feuds.
I am all for building community. Anyone living in London knows the deep need we all have for this, to feel a part. But we can’t be naïve and think it is all that simple, that you stay in one place and that is your community. Community is something we all have to BUILD, together, wherever we are. We have to make time and space for one another, and put some thought and effort into bringing down the walls we surround ourselves with. In practical terms, in the cities it might mean joining circles of activities where people have the same interests, baking some cookies at times of Festivals (Christmas, Eid, Chinese New Year or Diwali) according to the cultural background of our neighbours, taking a few minutes to chat about the weather- a very British thing-
The point is that it doesn’t just happen. We have to want it and want to make it happen, we have to reach out. So in the cities, the councils need to think about this. Provide places where people can cross paths and enjoy time together. Nowadays, sport centres have taken on some of this role but wouldn’t it be nice to also have common gardening, more play areas for the children, activities that people can join, which requires affordable room hire or open spaces.
Ultimately though, it is up to each of us as individuals to make “community building” a necessary investment of our time and to take practical steps toward it. As the saying goes:
“Nothing will change if we keep doing what we have always done”.
John and Mary had been married 10 years, they had three children. Over the years the relationship had always been somewhat rocky but in the last three years, it had taken a turn for the worse. John had lost his job and Mary had become the sole earner for the family. Life as a stay-home dad proved difficult for John to adjust to. But Mary also found the situation difficult as she went to work daily and at her return would find waiting for her the chores that John had not thought to tackle.
The children were in school during the day and John would pick them up and take care of them till Mary came home. Slowly, however, something had crept up on him, a sort of paralysis, a negative mind-set about himself, as well as a tinge of jealousy that Mary was doing so well in the workplace – and the doubt that he would ever do as well again. As if to compensate for this, he had become more domineering in the relationship, especially with the household finances. The imbalance further taxed their already strained relationship until Mary just couldn’t cope any more! She had tried to help John with his confidence and self esteem. She supported him to look for work but eventually was worn out and burned out. She felt she had nothing more to give to the relationship.
At her request John reluctantly moved out, however he had no friends, no family and with no support, John’s behaviour became more vindictive, aggressive and obsessive. He had a need to punish Mary and inflict as much pain as possible.
John chose the legal route to take custody of the children away from Mary. This was the beginning of a terrible two years. Both lawyers did their best to WIN. Exaggerations and outright lies got mixed with a semblance of truth, and after a long and bitter battle, the judge decided the custody of the children would be shared. For them both, it felt like a defeat.
And whereas they had had somewhat of an understanding of each other before the proceedings began, now that they were going to HAVE to work together in co-parenting, they HATED each other.
Such a weak and difficult position to start a new page in their life as co-parents. Both were terribly wounded by the legal process, and whatever trust they might have had in the past towards each other, was now sorely in deficit. The words that were said during the court case, the exaggerated accusations, the depersonalisation of the court case, were hard to forgive and forget. It would hang forever between them.
The events will remain etched in both of their minds as “absolutely traumatic”.
It was shortly after John and Mary’s divorce that Peter and Sue found their relationship in trouble. Sue and Mary had been friends and Sue had been a pillar when Mary needed a friend. Now it was Sue’s turn to need support. She had found out that Peter was having an affair, a serious affair. They had two children and Sue had given up her much loved career and her independence to raise the children while they were still small. Peter was away a lot of the time for work and Sue was often home alone and lonely. She was devastated! And she was angry, resentful and SO angry! She asked him to leave and wanted to never see him again. Mary was there for her and was a listening ear to her friend. She couldn’t help but worry however about the divorce procedure. She was still scarred from her own divorce.
She had since become aware of a conflict coaching service for couples in their area. Sue was in no mood to make concessions for Peter but she knew very well the intense trauma Mary had gone through with the court case and after some pondering, she decided to call and book an initial coaching session for herself.
The session revealed itself very therapeutic. Sue talked about her marriage, her pain and the coach listened and listened some more, empathising and giving her time and space to unravel her emotions. People in pain can be extremely irrational. Sue greatly benefited from the initial coaching session and agreed to have another. After a few sessions, the validation and coaching she received from the couples’ coach enabled her to get to a place where she could look at her situation more rationally. By then, at the fore of her concern were the children. Now that her anger was somewhat abated, she realized that the children loved and needed both of them, and she cared about them too much to try and deprive them of their father. Not that she hadn’t thought of it when she was angry. But talking it over with the coach made all the difference. She recognised that Peter was a good dad, and however difficult it was to admit, she couldn’t deprive her children of his care.
The couple’s coach asked whether Peter would like to see her and he agreed. He also was distraught by the way things had turned out in his marriage. He was especially missing the children. He was struggling with feelings of guilt and ambivalence between his relationships. But he was determined he wanted an arrangement for the children. He would go the way of the courts if necessary but he was willing to give coaching a chance.
After a couple of sessions with Peter, and at the couple’s request, the coach set up a joint meeting. This was a meeting with a specific future focused agenda, where they could communicate about the specifics that were important to each of them. The conflict coach was merely a facilitator.
They both agreed that their primary concern was about the children. Sue felt that she was going to need to go back to work. Childcare needed to be arranged. Peter also, needed to make some big adjustments if this was to work. He realised how much he had leaned on Sue for the running of the household, and he was now considering taking the children part time.
The agenda had already been set with the help of the coach and both Peter and Sue were poised and sober throughout, although Sue struggled a few times and had to pause. The emotions were still raw, and in this initial joint meeting, they agreed on a temporary arrangement for Peter to have weekend visitation, to be reviewed a month later. In the meantime, Sue would be looking for work. In the next meeting, they both agreed to an alternate week parenting. Peter had to made some changes in his work and could now accommodate being a single parent every other week, with the assistance of some childcare.
Once the parental responsibility was agreed, it was easier to work on the rest of the issues. A specific plan was laid for financial responsibilities and communication about important decisions concerning the children.
The benefit of couples coaching in separations is that the outcomes are fully in the hands of the parties, not a judge, lawyers, or anyone else. The conflict coach is merely a facilitator. The parties decide and that is crucial. It is much more difficult to accept a decision that feels like a loss when it is “imposed” on you, as it is with a judge’s decision.
In the end, the decision they made was the same as the one their friend John and Mary were handed down by the judge but the difference in the process, the gentleness and “humanness” of the couples coaching process had made it possible for both of them to start healing from the onset and to lay a foundation for their future lives joined by co-parenting.
After seeing the tug-a-war and suffering both John and Mary went through in the divorce by going the legal route, they both felt an inner sense of relief that it had gone so well and they had passed the rocks and pitfalls of emotional early breakups with the support of a couple’s coach. It laid the foundations for clear communication in their co-parenting.
Break ups happen and if you have children they can be a very difficult experience to go through. Don’t be afraid to reach out for some support if you need it. Get in touch.
I had already begun to draft this article a week before the terrible events in Manchester came to rock our various communities in England and my heart is heavy as I endeavour to finish it. I hope it is clear that when I speak of reaching out across our communities, I do so with the utmost respect for the families caught in the Manchester atrocities, and the extreme difficulties they must be enduring in their pain and their grieving.
As a community mediator, a question is at the forefront of my mind, how will this atrocity affect our community cohesion? How do we avoid the backlash of the “you and them” attitudes, how can we continue to build our communities effectively? Manchester has shown us a beautiful example of a community coming together. However, in many parts of the country, there has been a rise of anger, hate speech and abuse towards a whole group of people.
Whenever I think of the beauty of multi-cultural communities, I am brought back to the years I spent in Lebanon where, before the war, you had a multi-religious community whose unity and neighbourliness was exemplary. This was perhaps helped by common middle Eastern values such as the importance of hospitality, and food. In a country of 4 Million inhabitants – less than ½ the population of London – were living together communities of Christians, Maronites, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, as well as Shia Muslims, and Sunni Muslims, Druze then you also had Armenians, Palestinians, and Syrians. The over 40’s would often reminisce of the days before the war – war that lasted 20 years- when everyone was friends with their neighbours in this country 140 miles long by 50 miles. My friend Kamal, would tell me how when he was in school people didn’t know and didn’t pay attention to the religion of the other. There were very few signs of typical religious affiliation such as crosses around the neck or scarfs on the girl’s hair. I also loved to hear the stories from my elderly friend Mme BouKaram, who was from the south where many villages were mixed. They celebrated each other’s festivals, at Christmas the Muslims would bring Christmassy food to the house of their Christian neighbours and the reverse would happen at Eid, the Christians would bring dates or “tabouli” (a Lebanese salad) and brake the fast with their neighbours. This promoted a sense of appreciation and of respect of each other, simply as neighbours and fellow human beings sharing the same reality.
Unfortunately, this was not how I found Lebanon when I moved there in 1996, a few years after the 20-year civil war ended. The war had ravaged the unity that once existed and the togetherness of the communities. There was a sharp increase in religious identity as a show of belonging. The conflict had managed to destroy any sense of “togetherness” and respect of the other that the Lebanese reportedly had previously felt, as neighbours and citizens of the same country. This, the older generation sorely missed.
This hardening of positions is, in my opinion, what is dangerous, in our own communities, this gulf that seems to come between us, and this reject rather than acceptance of the differences. As a conflict resolution professional, I know that, on a personal level, this type of situation is not so difficult to resolve, it just takes communication. Communication will bring understanding and acceptance of the other, and often a willingness to find common ground. But how to expand that to the community level?
I was pondering on this when I came across a picture of a beautiful patchwork rug. The contrasts in the colours, the shades, the dark and the light, the bright and the mellow all serve to enhance the beauty of the rug.
Could we not look at our communities in that way? Allow the differences to enhance the community, recognise the goodness of the other, the value of the other?
I live in London in a very diverse community and it has been obvious, in my area at least, that unity and togetherness don’t happen by themselves. If people are left to their own …….they will often gravitate towards what is known and familiar to them. That is human nature. So how do we counter this natural cycle? Should we even try? In my opinion, it is worth the challenge.
On an individual level, awareness would need to come first, seeing and embracing the importance of our need to create links within our multi cultural communities, and not just across cultures but among age groups as well. Creating ties with just one person of another religion/culture/nationality will sensitise both individuals to the needs, problems and challenges of the other culture and create a bond that extends far beyond those two people.
On the community level, there needs to be initiatives by community leaders to provide events, celebrations and places for communities to come together and celebrate the good we find in each other. Food is a great facilitator to that effect, the sharing of food being a cultural norm in many cultures.
Much of the disputes in our communities have to do with noise, car parks, kids playing, stemming from everyday occurrences, nothing malicious or sinister, yet it can cause deep rifts between neighbours and often the cultural aspect of the other can be used as the extra weights in the balance that tips the conflict for the worse.
So my recommendation would be for community leaders to promote openness and ways where people can get to know each other. It has been proven that laughing together, as well as sharing food helps to break down the walls that separate people. Festivals, street parties, local activities, are all great avenues for people to mingle. But in the end, the most important step is the one each one of us can take to interact, to commit to doing our part in our own community and reach out to those around us, with curiosity, to learn about them and connect.
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I was reading a text on meditation this morning and something stood out to me. Lawrence Freeman, the author was quoting Evagrius, the 4th century ascetic monk who went to live in the Egyptian desert, who said: “The most important task we have is to ‘watch our thoughts’ and become aware of the connections and associations between them” He was “concerned about the deep thoughts that are the expressions of our unmet needs, coming from our deeper spiritual nature. We need to pay these significant thoughts and their associations the attention they deserve. They are the only indicators we have of what really motivates us for good or for ill.” The words “expressions of our unmet needs” jolted me! I was surprised by such “modern” words of wisdom coming to us from so long ago!
The expression of unmet needs; As a mediator I am very familiar with the term, especially having studied Marshall Rosenberg on Non-Violent-Communication. I was, however, surprised and intrigued by finding those words in the mouth of a fourth century ascetic monk. It was as a proof, if I needed one, that human deeper needs have not just been discovered in the 21st or even 20th century. It is obvious that the wise men of old knew in depth about human emotions.
I am keenly interested in human behaviour, what is underneath the anger, the different triggers and how to deal with it. In her blog “Unmet needs and negative behaviour”, Angela Lunde, expresses it this way – (her study is primarily on dementia patients but it applies to all human behaviour)
“It is important to see challenging behaviours as symptoms instead of problems. Think about this analogy: You have an infection and develop a fever. The fever is a symptom of the infection. If we simply see your fever as the problem, we will only treat the fever. While this might reduce some of your discomfort for a time, the fever will eventually return and you will get worse because nothing was done for the real problem — the infection. Similarly, to better manage behaviour symptoms ……..we need to uncover and address the real source of the problem.”
When dealing with conflict, we typically have an expression of anger, at various degrees. Sometimes this simply stems from frustration at not being heard. I recall an incident I witnessed at the airport while waiting for my flight. A French elderly couple was quite agitated and speaking very loud to the airline attendant at the registration desk. They were about to miss their flight to their daughter’s wedding in the USA, had bought their tickets in France, but there seemed to be a paper missing and the attendant just kept repeating the same line: “You didn’t provide us with this paper so we can’t let you on the plane”. The elderly Frenchman, in his 70’s, whose English was very poor, kept saying and repeating the same thing, only LOUDER! This is common when people don’t feel heard, but it caused the lady at the desk to feel threatened and so, she called security.
The security man arrived and in English, ORDERED THEM TO CALM DOWN!!! He threatened to have them expelled out of the airport – much of which they couldn’t understand.
That is when I approached them, offering my help, wanting to avoid an unnecessary consequence for these elderly compatriots. Since when had anyone who was upset calmed down when ordered to do so, all the more in a language they didn’t understand! All they could hear is the tone of voice used. To be fair to him, the security man was probably overwhelmed by the task in front of him, and the fact he couldn’t communicate with them. I recognised he was just trying to have his own needs to met, and that the situation had the potential to end in a negative outcome for the couple.
I am happy to say that my intervention was useful in allowing the French couple to vent to me in French and it helped them feel understood and get some clarity as to what was happening. In the end, they realised that there had been a missing paper which was not difficult for them to obtain. By helping all the parties to express their needs in a way they could understand, there was a happy ending, and the elderly couple was able to make it to their daughter’s wedding.
We can see from this incident that this couple needed above all to feel heard and understood in order to diffuse their anxiety. All three parties, the couple, the security man and the lady at the check-in desk all were able to get their needs met. All the situation needed was a simple empathic intervention. An important point however is that I didn’t just translate French to English, but demands into needs, and this is crucial when it comes to intercultural interactions.
Anger is an interesting topic. Naturally I shy away from angry people – I don’t like conflict. I am by nature much more of an Owl or Teddy bear (See the graph below) Some cultures – such as the English – are more prone to a distaste of emotional displays than others.
I recall a little story my old English teacher told us that brought much amusement to the class: two Englishmen had a small accident with their cars, they both came out of the car and said, in a cordial tone:” Good morning, what happened here?” We all laughed at the story, knowing well what a typical Frenchman reaction would have been (to yell and blame each other). This Englishman’s comparison story came back to mind during my first week in Lebanon, when I saw a brawl in the street. Concerned about my safety, I looked on from afar. Two men had a small accident with their cars, nothing serious, but there they were, with their chests out in a posturing manner, ready to come to blows with each other, lashing out in abusive language and having to be held back by passers-by so they didn’t come to actually hitting each other. This incident reinforced my understanding of how much “culture” affects basic human behaviour.
Similar incident, totally different reactions, is one preferable above the other? If we look at anger as an expression of unmet needs, they are similar, just people crying out for what they need, albeit in different way. The way anger is expressed in different cultural settings will differ greatly from one to another but they amount to the same basic need. In Mediterranean countries, it is considered healthy and “normal” to show a strong emotional response. In English society, it is seen as a lack of restraint. The response of the security man at the airport was a normal, educated response, to a strong display of emotion, in an English setting.
When dealing with speakers of a foreign language and an emotive foreign culture, using compassionate communication will bring in the recognition of “unmet needs”, which can then be expressed in such a way that the other party will be able to “hear” it.
In my view, so much heartache would be saved if training for those types of situation included cultural awareness.
Had you previously thought about your reactions? In the words of Abraham Maslow: “What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself.”
Below is a learning tool, which animal do think represents the way you handle conflict?
The Turtle – the avoider: Tends to avoid conflict and confrontations.
Teddy Bear – the accommodator: The bear tends to focus on relationship rather than issues.
Shark – the competitor:
Fox – the compromiser: Foxes looks for the compromise.
Owl – the collaborator: Searches for the win-win in each situation.
Do you recognise your normal response? Would you want to learn more on getting your needs met safely? If you do, feel free to contact us, we provide training.