Conflict Resolution & Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Dialectic

Conflict Resolution & Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Dialectic
October 2, 2013 TraumaHQ

Abstract: Oftentimes, the need for international conflict resolution results from the inability of two groups being unable to reconcile with each other because of long standing wars, political violence or sectarian armed conflicts. Since all serious conflict produces years of traumatic experiences, most if not all of the participants engaged in the conflict resolution process will have experienced some form of trauma, either directly or vicariously. It stands to reason then, that these participants may also be bringing a multitude of unconscious post traumatic stress behaviors and emotions to the negotiation process. These unacknowledged traumatic expressions could introduce numerous impediments to these negotiations or even pose serious threats that can undermine the entire reconcilliatory process. This essay attempts to weave these seemingly two diverse modalities (trauma recovery and conflict resolution), into one process so that post traumatic stress reactions and behaviors can be used to build alliances across opposing sides rather than cause them to break down into additional contentious relationships.

“There is no avoiding the traumatic aftermath of war; it reaches into every segment of society.”1

Studies have already demonstrated that severe societal disruption due to a traumatic event(s) such as prolonged war or violence is followed by a significant increase in family violence, child neglect and psychological abuse of family members.2 Additionally, personal psycho-emotional impairment due to secondary comorbid disorders of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)3 such as anxiety, depression, irritability, disturbed sleep and elevated mood disorders4 occurs to some degree in all individuals living in the midst of war or prolonged violence. Cumulatively, these individual, family and societal disturbances can significantly compromise the cognitive and interpersonal skills of any individual involved in a negotiation or mediation process. They can also unconsciously undermine the efficiency and effectiveness of the third party negotiator and their mediation process.

To be effective, third parties must have extensive and accurate substantive knowledge of the context within which they will be working. 5 It stands to reason that, if third party negotiators are to provide the best assistance possible to individuals who have been living in cultures that have experienced prolonged war and violence, they should be familiar with the devastating and damaging effects trauma has on individuals as well as the society as a whole. Given the pervasive effects of trauma and the professional imperative to familiarize oneself with substantive contextual knowledge of the culture, educating oneself on the effects of trauma is not a luxury but rather a necessity for conflict resolution professionals.

One of the basic principles of trauma recovery is the establishment of safety for the traumatized individual(s). In her groundbreaking work on the trauma recovery process, Judith Herman (1997)6 outlines a process of trauma recovery that establishes the need for safety as an essential element for a healthy recovery from PTSD. The first three stages of safety must be established in; the environment, the self and finally with others. This emphasis on safety can be an important key to help provide a framework for designing and implementing an effective methodology of interactive group planning and process. The following two examples are an attempt to offer some insight into the dialectic of trauma and the negotiation, mediation and reconciliation process.

Environmental safety. Instead of attempting to facilitate the initial meetings of two parties in bi-communal groups, in unfamiliar settings such as neutral zones or third party locations, it is more prudent to have the groups meet as mono-communal groups in familiar surroundings. Meeting in familiar environments provides a sense of reliable safety. This is much more reassuring than unfamiliar surroundings that lend themselves to suspicions of unpredictable danger and unconscious fears. Participants of mono-communal groups also have a sense of a shared history that provides additional familiarity and safety.

Safety in self mono-communal groups: In mono-communal groups, the individuals involved not only have the opportunity to experience and resolve intra-group differences before attempting to integrate them in a bi-communal group but mono-communal groups also provide them with a safe opportunity for self-reflection in order to experience and resolve intra-personal issues. This is particularly useful for traumatized people who often do not understand their behaviors, thoughts or emotions. Since traumatic experiences cause a heightened sense of defensiveness, people who experience trauma often protect themselves with exaggerated responses of emotional outbursts and/or emotional withdraw. Van der kolk (1994),7 described this behavior as a loss of neuro-modulation. This is an experience when an individuals emotions move from a stimulus to a response without knowing why or being able to control it. A simple example of this is an outburst of rage over a simple and non-threatening event or comment during a meeting. This neurological malfunction has been well documented in traumatized people. With this process activated, simple everyday stressors are reacted to as life or death threatening experiences. This is not only disturbing for the group, but for the individual(s) as well. Oftentimes the participants do not understand why they are experiencing these outbursts or withdraws. It can be very useful for the group if this behavior is explained and acknowledged as a consequence of trauma. By publicly acknowledging this behavior the third party negotiator provides a framework for understanding and supporting individuals who are still experiencing a loss of neuro-modulation. It also allows the group to assist one another in actively working with this behavior rather than viewing it (and the individual) as an obstacle to the group process.

Essentially, members in the mono-communal groups are relearning who they are and how they function as survivors of trauma. Just as the individuals must re-learn their new identity as trauma survivors, so must the group or community of individuals redefine themselves as trauma survivors. Since each individual in the group has been affected by violence to a greater or lesser degree mono-communal groups offer the opportunity to repair damaged levels of trust. Each persons trauma experience may need some degree of individual consideration. Those whose family members may have been killed in a bombing for example, may need more time to resolve their psycho-emotional pain than someone whose distant acquaintances were wounded in the violence. All of these issues are better dealt with among members of the same group prior to introducing them into a bi-communal process. Allowing time for the individual groups to redefine themselves and practice new interpersonal and relational skills can greatly enhance the negotiation processes of the bi-communal groups.

Safety with others bi-communal groups: Unless the mono-communal groups have dealt with the first two phases of environmental and self-safety before they meet together, their participation in bi-communal groups may be premature and therefore covertly undermined by their own unconscious fears and subsequent behaviors as traumatized people. The conflict resolution professional will spend many frustrating hours trying to sort out the multiplicity of psycho-emotional problems that are layered beneath the group dynamics but which ironically grew insidiously and systematically right before their eyes. If these two issues of environmental and self-safety are dealt with first, they can be used as a foundation for relationship building between the two groups. Inevitably the two groups will discover they have many experiences in common and they are both in the process of healing deep pain and emotional memories. This can be a very humane and human bonding experience for the individuals in the groups. This common identity can have a powerful impact on the individuals and help to dispel the image of the other as the enemy. Dispelling the image of the other group as the enemy is not only essential for healing but can be the nexus for the creation of a collective vision.

The Enemy Image Syndrome, like the loss of neuro-modulation, is another unconscious neurological process that acts as a natural protective mechanism allowing us to identify danger when we are in threatening situations. The brain uses this mechanism to rapidly identify the color of a uniform, sound of a voice, direction of gun fire etc. Its protective behavior is based on the following principles.

1. Distrust of everything originating from the perceived enemy.

2. Seeing the perceived enemy as guilty and responsible for all the pain and suffering that exists in ones life.

3. Belief that everything the perceived enemy does is intended to do you harm.

4. Sensing that you need to destroy the perceived enemy before they destroy you.

5. Assuming that anything that benefits the perceived enemy harms you and visa versa.

6. De-individuation of anyone in the perceived enemy group no matter of age, actions or beliefs.

7. Refusing empathy by denying that the two groups have anything in common.

This neurological mechanism is essential to help the individual survive during war, but if the experiences of trauma are prolonged and repeated this neurological mechanism remains active in the brain long after the danger has subsided. This neural thought process is one of the major behaviors that lock the human species into a vortex of violence that can repeat itself for generations. Since the average duration of each trauma episode in the human psyche is reported to be more than seven years, the typical person with PSTD has a duration of active symptoms for more than two decades. (Kessler, 2000).  The process of healing from these neurological patterns therefore can take generations rather than years. It is safe to assume therefore that the degree to which the participants of each group have experienced war or violence, there is a concomitant degree of post traumatic stress disorders that will need considerable attention in the negotiation and mediation process.

As a result of my work as a trauma therapist and third party negotiator, I have often found it useful to include some trauma awareness education and simple group recovery processes to assist the negotiating parties in understanding each others experiences. The combination of these two modalities has helped immeasurably to bring about a stronger sense of unity, understanding and identification of shared pain among the reconciling groups. It has often been the foundation of a mutual identification of the two groups as they begin to recognize and accept the human pain and suffering experienced by everyone during times of violent conflict.

It is important to consider that the ineffectiveness of some conflict resolution programs and crisis management techniques is due in large part to the lack of awareness of trauma induced behaviors and reactions among the individuals involved in these processes. Having an awareness of trauma and PTSD can help the third party facilitator make more accurate calculated responses at pivotal times in the negotiation process.

Through my work in both of these fields, I have come to recognize that there are certain neurological and biological impediments in traumatized individuals that impede but don’t necessarily prevent their ability to participate in the oftentimes delicate task of conflict resolution. These people should not be excluded from such processes but should be assisted in recognizing these unconscious impediments so they can gain a greater awareness of how to deal with these traumatic symptoms when they arise. It is important to understand that the behaviors, actions and reactions of the individual(s) during traumatic experiences are mostly autonomic or instinctual rather than calculated and conscious, so traumatic reprocessing cannot always be dealt with via logical and systematic methods such as those used in conflict resolution methodologies. It is precisely this conscious and logical resolution of a conflict versus the unconscious and illogical creation of traumatic reactions that can prevent traditional conflict resolution models from working as effectively as possible.

Given all these obstacles and impediments to peace and reconciliation, it may seem overwhelming or impossible to bring about resolution of decades old conflicts. However, continued research on trauma and the human species suggests that trauma has been and will remain a fact of human life. However, we also possess the capacity to heal even the most debilitating of traumatic experiences. As Levine (2002) suggests; A person who has successfully renegotiated a traumatic event is transformed by the experience, and feels no need for revenge shame and blame dissolve in the powerful wake of renewal and self-acceptance.8 It seems as though the human organism is genetically encoded to let go of the past so that it can complete one process and begin something new as part of our unending cycle of evolution.9 This should be the unremitting thought of every third party negotiator as they begin their process of skillfully and sensitively assisting others through the labyrinth of negotiation and mediation.

1. Levine, P. 2002. We are all neighbors. This article was produced by the Foundation for Human Enrichment. P.O. Box 1872 Lyons, CO 80540.

2. Figley, C. 2000. AAMFTs Clinical Update on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Vol. 2. Issue 5.

3. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the re-experiencing of disrupting emotions or behaviors following the initial trauma.

4. Kessler RC, Sonnega A, Bromet E, et al. 1995. Posttraumatic stress disorder in the National Comorbidity Survey. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 52:1048-1060.

5. Broome, B., Murray, J. 2002. Improving third-party decisions at choice points: A Cyprus case study. Negotiation Journal. 1: 75-98.

6. Herman, J. 1997. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence from Domestic and Political Terror. p. 155.

7. van der Kolk, B.A. 1994. The Body Keeps the Score: Memory and the emerging psychobiology of post traumatic stress. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 1, 253-265.

8. Levine, P. 2002. Trauma The vortex of violence. Foundation for human enrichment P.O. Box 1872 Lyons, Co. 80540.

9. Holloway, R. 2002. On Forgiveness, Canongate Books Ltd, Edinburgh, Scotland.