Does Storytelling play a role in mediation?
By Jessica Tallman
Storytelling helps to breakdown cultural walls, sympathize with others, accept different experiences and feel what it’s like to be in another person’s shoes. The concept of storytelling is widely used in mediation practices and conflict resolution. It is one of the oldest forms of conflict resolution which can be found in many tribes around the globe. The San bushmen tribe of South Africa are a great example of a group that used storytelling to resolve issues amongst their tribesmen. During a conflict someone from the tribe would hide the tribesmen’s dangerous arrows for hunting and they would join together in a circle to discuss the issue until it was resolved. During long discussions, they would even take breaks to reflect on the stories told and let the anger dissipate and then return to the circle once again until necessary.
Storytelling has a way to bring people to the core of the problem, to understand the intentions and the “why” of a problem. Storytelling cannot always demolish borders or barriers between two conflicting parties, however it does provide a path to a deeper understanding of the problem and at times a new perspective on the issue. Narrative mediation practices are sometimes useful in order to re-create a new story for the parties involved and help them to see their story or even the other’s in a new light. Often times what is needed is the physical space or opportunity to tell stories, a place to bring people together for dialogue.
Mediators are often able to create a safe space for two parties to resolve a conflict together or to discuss their points of view and tell their stories, similar to the circle created by the San Bushmen. This space is a very important part of the mediation process as it allows the two parties to feel empowered and that their concerns are being addressed and followed through. Allowing them to tell their story makes them feel comfortable and welcome into the discussion to then resolve the issue.
An example of making space for storytelling to resolve conflict that has been taken to a larger scale is that of the “Abraham Path”. If you haven’t already heard of this experience, I highly recommend taking a look http://abrahampath.org/ . The idea behind the Abraham path comes from the story of Abraham, in this case from religious texts however, the experience is not meant to be religious. The story of Abraham is about a man who was known for walking across the middle east to spread unity, respect and kindness towards strangers. The Abraham path is a physical walk that takes place in the middle east from Urfa to Harran to Aleppo, Damascus Jerusalem, Bethlehem and more. The idea is for travelers to repeat the experience Abraham had of being in a strange land where now most people expect hostility and war but will find hospitality, respect for others and the opportunity to create unity between cultures. William Ury a negotiation expert himself, created this initiative to promote unity and create a space to receive hospitality from the local people in these towns. It allows the local people to share their lives, their experiences and their stories. This of course has also helped the economy of these small towns by helping the towns people to have a business of providing meals and accommodation for the walkers. There has since been walks created in other cities such as London and Sao Paolo to re-enact the walk and even a virtual experience has been created. Ury believes that the secret to peace is the third side of a story, the person on the outside, such as a mediator or even in the case of the Abraham path, an outsider who can help in small steps, see or promote unity instead of division. Sometimes it can be one simple story that can lead one to empathize just a little bit more and resolve issues with the other party. The space to allow for these stories to be told is what Ury is attempting to resolve which mediators have first-hand when put in front of two conflicting groups or individuals. Mediators are the “third person” in a conflict who can make a difference.
Although Narrative mediation practices are not always the answer, this practice mustn’t be forgotten when dealing with conflict of any sort and to promote not only a solution to the issue at hand but also to promote the continuation of the stories which will lead to a better understanding for outsiders and help to create universal understanding of the issues. Even in cases of personal or legal conflict this can go a long way for a family, organization, or company to better understand each other or to be at peace with one another once the issue has been resolved. Stories stick, they help us to remember the important parts of an issue. It is important to keep in mind however, that storytelling can also create a backfire effect and can bring back emotions of the past, make people take the position of the victim or for the mediator to become emotionally involved as well. It is important to know when to shift the focus away from the stories being told when they are no longer useful to the situation or perhaps re-shape them in a way that is easy to see what parts of the story are important. All Stories are important but the focus should always be about moving forward from the story, learning from it and creating a new story.