Thursday, November 19, 2015

Speech given by Brendan McAllister in Caux, Switzerland, July 2015


Good morning everyone,

For a moment, imagine that you are not here in this beautiful ballroom but, instead, you are sitting in the big tent of a circus.

A troupe of clowns has just raced out of the arena.

Now the lights dim; the drums roll, the cymbals clash and a spot-light guides your eye to the roof, where you behold a young woman and a young man, hanging upside down, swinging backwards and forwards from opposite sides.

They are trapeze artists. They increase the speed and span of the swing.

Just below them, a man is also suspended upside down from a swing. He is muscular and his eyes are fixed on the trapeze artists. He is the catcher.

Suddenly, the woman lets go of her swing. All around you people gasp when she propels herself into the air, performs a double somersault and, as she starts to drop, in mid-air and with perfect timing, the catcher grabs her arms and swings her to safety on the other side of the tent roof.  

Immediately, the catcher swings out again, just in time to perform the same task with the somersaulting young man.

There are many dynamics at work in conflict.

‘Trust’ is one of them.

Let us consider three features of the trapeze act.

First, the catcher. He must be strong enough to do his job. He must have training or experience in order to be entrusted with his job. He also must have a certain kind of temperament. These trapeze artists are a twin brother and sister. They are both rather emotional. When they practise with the catcher, the sister sometimes comes late; the brother sometimes does not show up at all; sometimes they are giddy with laughter and at other times break down in tears. The catcher must be able to cope with their mood swings and know which mood each is in. His job is to care for them so that they will not lose courage but will have the nerve to face danger.

When they first worked together it was difficult for them to trust him. This was because of his father. His father had once been a catcher and performed with the their mother. One night he came to the show after drinking all day in a bar. He missed the catch and their mother fell towards the floor of the arena. She was saved only by the net.

Ah, yes, the net: the second feature of our story. Each day the circus workers check the net. They make sure it is tight and secure and, before each show begins, the catcher and the artist walk to the net and pull hard on its corners, just to know that it is working well.

Then there are the trapeze artists, the third feature of the story.

Whe they were children, most evenings, they used to watch their mother perform. From an early age, they, too, learned to swing, way up high. Then their mother decided to retire and asked her twins to take her place. But first they needed to learn the techniques of the trapeze. It took a long while for them to master their art sufficiently for their mother to announce that they were good enough to entertain the public.

Things have not always been easy between the twins.

The brother is married but seems to pick up a girlfriend in every town the circus goes to. Some of his friends are gamblers and thieves and the brother has stolen money from his sister on more than one occasion. People say that it is thanks to the catcher that the trapeze act stays on the road.

With this story, let me make 10 observations about building trust in situations of conflict.

  1. Confidence.  My dictionary defines ‘confidence’ in two ways: Firstly, “ the feeling or belief that one can rely on someone or something.” Secondly, “a feeling of self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.” Mediators have to enable people to have confidence in their work. And people in conflict need to develop a certain level of personal competence and skill in order to engage effectively in peace-building.

  2. Confidence-Building Measures. Just as the trapeze act had a safety net, trust in a peace process will be greater if there are safety nets in place.

  3. Design.  Just as a good trapeze act has good structure and equipment, good mediation and peace-building requires good design.

  4. Choreography. Just as someone must put together a trapeze performance, in peace-building, someone needs to pay attention to the choreography so that people know what is expected of them and in what order.

  5. Mutual Respect. I do not agree that one should try to establish mutual respect early in a mediation process. In deep conflict, this is too much to ask of people. Rather the aim should be to ask people to give each other due regard – to have enough regard for each other to enable the process to function.

  6. Integrity. In my experience, it is sometimes useful to help people to write a ‘statement of integrity’ – a description of the traditions, values and beliefs that a group of people view as ‘red lines’ which they will not cross. The mediator should assure people that, whatever happens in the process, the mediator will protect their sense of integrity.

  7. Systems. We should always remember that, when it comes to societies in conflict, we are never dealing with mere individuals. Such conflict is systemic. Those who engage with the enemy are leaders or representatives of larger constituencies. Therefore, establishing trust between leaders should not be confused with the much larger question of trust between whole tribes, communities or nations.

  8. Identity. Often in conflict intervention, a mediator must work with the deeper issue of ‘identity’: people may feel that the very essence of their being is at stake. However, some identities can be reliant on the continuation of the conflict. In this respect, I refer to the identity of the powerful – who may stand to lose their sense of privilege if the conflict is resolved; or the identity of being the victim. Sometimes it is as if people would rather live with the misery of conflict than face the insecurity of conflict resolution. The mediator must help people to envision a more attractive identity.

  9. The management of distrust. My dictionary defines ‘distrust’ as “the feeling that someone or something cannot be relied on.” I disagree with the notion that the establishment of trust is a pre-requisite for mediation. I think that, mediators need to work with enduring distrust and not put pressure on people to trust each other.

  10. Relationships. The best antidote to mistrust is the development of better relationships between people divided by conflict

Brendan McAllister

Senior Mediation Adviser 

UN Mediation Support Unit

UN Department of Political Affairs


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