Using Dialogue to create Peace

Martin Wright

For years, trained volunteers with Lambeth Mediation Service (LMS) have been helping neighbours to resolve conflicts. Like most conflicts, they can be ended with dialogue, but the dialogue needs to be guided by facilitators to enable each person to hear what the other is saying. We also teach children to mediate. The principles are very simple. You don’t ask Who was to blame? What law (or rule) did they break? How should they be punished? Instead, What happened? Who was affected? What can be done to put it right (by the person who caused the harm, but also by the rest of us)? You also have a code: you don’t take sides, you don’t gossip about what is said during mediation.

Some politicians think that ‘restorative justice’ only means doing work for the community, wearing high-viz yellow jackets. That leaves out the essential element: dialogue. Boris Johnson got the idea, when he said that people whose shops and homes were destroyed in the riots should be able to meet the ones who did it. It has to be voluntary if it is to mean anything, which makes some people think it is ‘soft’; but some offenders don’t have the ‘bottle’ to go through with it, which shows that facing the person you have harmed is actually very tough. Often the victims congratulate ‘their’ offenders for doing so. The process encourages people to admit what they have done and make up for it, and to feel empathy for each other; the offender earns re-acceptance into the community. They have to do something constructive, instead of merely having something painful done to them. In a restorative dialogue, people aren’t on the defensive, trying to minimize the harm they caused or to make excuses: they look for ways to make it right (at least symbolically) and explain what led them to do it. This is more likely to lead to an answer to the question we are all asking: why did the riots happen?

These ideas are broadened out into ‘restorative practices’, a way of running a school, institution or business by involving people in decisions that affect them. LMS is offering mediation in the workplace and OCN accredited training in community conflict resolution; this is to earn general income and reduce our dependence on funding from trust funds, not as charitable projects. It is also promoting ‘Peace Ambassadors’, who are trained to facilitate dialogue between people from different backgrounds and communities. If people know more about each other, hopefully there will be fewer misunderstandings. Hull and Norfolk are trying to become a restorative city and county, training everyone who works with children in restorative principles; Lambeth can become a restorative borough.

It is all very well teaching children to do what is ‘right’ and to conform to rules; we need to teach them (and people in positions of power) to do what is fair and respects other people. This could be the next Big Idea. We have spent the last two or three decades learning that we have to live in harmony with the planet. Now we have to learn to live in harmony with each other.

If you are interested in becoming a Peace Ambassador in Lambeth contact:

Martin Wright, 19/08/11

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