A Christmas Gift for Mediators by Sala Sihombing


In the spirit of the season, I am offering a Christmas gift to mediators.  Although conflict can debase our humanity and make us incapable of making logical decisions, it is possible for people to make decisions, which honour our shared humanity. And we have a Christmas story to prove it.

In a series of trenches across the desolation of the Western Front, individual groups of people decided to celebrate their values over their orders.  How did this happen?

The First World War was known as the Great War, the War to end all wars due to the horror and devastation it wrought.  The use of mechanised weaponry and chemical weapons brought a new level of savagery to war. In particular, the First World War saw the escalation of the separation between the weapon and the effect.  People removed from witnessing the impact of the chlorine gas could drop bombs with abandon.

The First World War poets wrote movingly of the horror of the war.  Made all the more tragic given that many had signed up in an ecstasy of patriotism or jingoism depending on your viewpoint.

But in December of 1914, something special began to happen on the Western Front. In contradiction to their orders, soldiers from Germany and British soldiers began recognising their shared humanity.  They created an informal truce.  They sang their own Christmas songs, they shared greetings and exchanged gifts.  In the midst of the mire and mud they managed to rise above their surroundings. In fact, these truces happened periodically throughout the First World War to allow soldiers to recover the injured and dead or to have a moment of respite from fighting.

In mediation, it can seem as if people are so positional that they will never connect with their interests.  In mediation terms the soldiers on the Western Front managed to go below the line and respond to their interests over their positions.

We often use the imagery of war to describe conflict between people.  However, for most people while their personal or commercial conflict can feel like they are engaged in battle, it is not a matter of life and death. A sense of perspective is often an early casualty of disputes.  The positions of adversaries in conflict can make it difficult to understand that the dispute is a shared misery.

In ‘Strange Meeting’, Wilfred Owen, describes how a soldier falls out of the battle and realises he is now in Hell.  He meets another soldier and they consider their shared fate. The other soldier explains that the reason he is familiar is that he was the enemy who the soldier killed the day before. However, he greets him now without recrimination and calls him friend.

So the gift for mediators is the memory that in the worst of circumstances people are capable of reconnecting with and reasserting their humanity. People are capable of moving beyond their positions to honour their interests and values. The optimism that characterises mediation’s belief in the ability of people to solve their own problems has history on its side.

© Conflict Change Consulting Ltd.  2014