From San Salvador to South Africa, Reducing Conflict by Sharing Experiences: An Interview with Tim Phillips

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Elizabeth Herman
Tim Phillips is the Co-Founder and Chairman of the Board of Beyond Conflict.

For 25 years, Tim Phillips has worked to promote peace and reconciliation in Central America and Northern Ireland, among many other regions and countries, and helped the new leaders of post-communist Europe and post-apartheid South Africa confront the painful legacy of violence and repression. Using the “shared experience” approach, Tim and his colleagues at Beyond Conflict utilized the lessons from South Africa, Central and Eastern Europe, and Central America to help leaders work to end “the troubles” in Northern Ireland, sectarian strife in Bosnia, and prepare leaders for negotiations in Kosovo, Sri Lanka, and, more recently, Bahrain. Their book, Beyond Conflict, looks at lessons learned from nearly 25 years of peacemaking and reconciliation work.

His TEDx Talk can be seen online at http://tedxboston.org/speaker/phillips. We spoke to Tim Phillips in the summer of 2014.

Your new book, Beyond Conflict, draws lessons from your 25 years of experience in conflict resolution. What’s the central argument you’re making, and how is it different from what others already know about resolving conflict?

The book focuses on the value of shared experience—the belief that people can learn from the experience of others who have confronted equally traumatic and difficult challenges. I’ve found that individuals living under repression or in civil conflict believe their situation is unique, that no one has suffered they way suffered, and thus they believe they have nothing to learn from the experience or insights of others. However, the reality is that people respond to the experiences of pain, suffering, discrimination, and trauma in ways that are universally shared and understood. In light of this reality, our approach at Beyond Conflict is based on the belief that people can learn from the experiences of others and that people can change. It takes time to penetrate the defensive layer that prevents people from recognizing their shared experience, but for many the value is immeasurable. That, I would say, sums up the core to the approach that we have deployed for nearly a quarter of a century.

You started in Eastern Europe? How did you utilize the shared experience approach?

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Pietro Izzo
A mural in Belfast City Centre depicts the ongoing peace process and challenges facing Northern Ireland sixteen years after the Good Friday Agreement brought a political end to the Troubles.

We began modestly, organizing a conference in Salzburg, Austria in 1992, which was the first to use the shared experience approach that we would later develop into a methodology. When we held our first conference, Central and Eastern Europe was inundated with outside experts eager to help the new leaders write constitutions, design market economies, and establish democratic institutions. I recognized that no one was helping these leaders deal with the painful legacy of the recent past – human rights violations, repression, and the abuses of communism. It struck me then that it would be helpful for these leaders to hear from those who had confronted similar challenges in the transition from dictatorship to democracy in Latin America and elsewhere in Europe. In 1992 there were far fewer examples than exist today to look at for lessons learned. There was Spain after Franco, the transitions from military dictatorship in Argentina and Chile, de-Nazification in Germany, and a handful of others. My belief was that new leaders in post-communist states could benefit from the rich experience of hearing from other leaders, find common ground in these experiences, and develop more effective strategies for overcoming adversity.

Good chemistry between parties is vital. How do you go about selecting which leaders you would like to bring to the table?

We work closely with partners to identify local leaders who can a play an important role in facilitating change or advance peace and reconciliation. We analyze the issues to be addressed and think of the relevant international experiences to share and the people best suited to share them. In South Africa, for example, it became evident that the country would have to face the legacy of Apartheid in a way that addressed the decades of abuse and repression while also laying the foundation for healing and reconciliation. In that context, our work focused on helping the South Africans deal with their past. In 1994, we helped organize what is now considered a historic conference that brought leaders from post-communist Europe and Latin America to Cape Town to share their first hand experience in transitioning from dictatorship to democracy. We thought it would be useful for the new South African leaders to have options, to understand what happened in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and in the former Soviet Union. We endeavored to find leaders who were articulate and had powerful personal experiences to share. Among them were those who could speak directly to how the decisions to establish truth commissions in Chile and Argentina were made. During the several-day conference, the model that resonated the most for leaders in South Africa was The Chilean Truth Commission, which became the model for the later South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In some conflicts, compromising on territory constitutes sacrificing identity, often based in sacred values. How do you approach mediating a conflict in which any party giving ground would be seen as abandoning these values?

First, it is important to recognize that all people have beliefs they hold to be sacred and important to the narratives that shape their lives as individuals and communities. Tensions arise when people try to describe someone else’s narrative—which is alienating and destructive to any relationship. It is critical to recognize that individuals need to own and articulate what is sacred to them, and that these identities and values need to be recognized and honored. You don’t have to share these values, but you must recognize their value to the person or community that holds them. For example, when we worked in Northern Ireland, many Catholics wanted independence from Great Britain and a united Ireland. Since this was a very difficult and sensitive issue to address, leaders from both Catholic and Protestant communities developed the notion of shared sovereignty: the idea that what was sacred to you—your culture, your language, and your identity—could be realized and protected while you remained citizens of the same state as others who held other deeply felt values and narratives.

Roelf Meyer, one of the six subjects of your book, credits the growing empathetic understanding between South Africans as one of four elements that drove change, the others being forms of international pressure. Do you see your methodology as one piece of the puzzle, and how do you approach bringing the other pieces together?

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Allan Leonard
Roelf Meyer played a significant role in the negotiations that brought an end to apartheid in South Africa, where he became familiar with Beyond Conflict. He is now one of six subjects featured in the organization’s recent book, Beyond Conflict. Here, he speaks at the Rotary International-INCORE Peace Conference in Northern Ireland in 2013.

Roelf Meyer played a significant role in the negotiations that brought an end to apartheid in South Africa, where he became familiar with Beyond Conflict.

There are many elements that play a role in ending a conflict and promoting effective reconciliation. For me, one of the most important contributions an individual or organization can make to a society that feels isolated, cynical, and alone is to help them believe in the possibility of change and recognize that they can play a role in making that change happen. We have found that one of the most effective ways of enabling people to envision change is to hear from others who dealt successfully with similarly “hopeless” circumstances—it helps to expand their imaginations. One of the key insights that Roelf shares is the need to build trust. Roelf understands that people need to get to the point where they see that taking a risk is acceptable because others have done so before and have achieved positive results. Seeing this gives folks the space to be successful.

Does resolving conflict require several different approaches? What other approaches are effective, and where does the shared experience approach fit in?

The very nature of shared experience is that we aren’t coming in with the “only answer” or some secret formula. The idea is to be able to bring in different examples of ways to view conflict resolution. It is inherent in our approach to bring other views to the table. But we are careful to choose people who have lived through and solved similar challenges. These individuals can provide valuable insights because they have faced similar dynamics. Examples of other approaches that we have found to be effective are: the Enlightened Dissent Methodology developed by our colleagues Jose Maria Argueta in Central America and the principles of inclusion, ownership, and mutual trust that Roelf Meyer commonly talks about. But there are a lot of different methods and approaches that are effective at different stages. These are highlighted in our book.

Do you think there is an optimal time within a conflict for your approach?

There are without doubt windows of greater opportunity during the peace process, but I don’t think they’re one-time windows. Look at Israel—Palestine: most people would look [at that conflict] as intractable, but there will be a time when both parties say, “enough is enough,” and that is the moment for us to do something. Somebody once told me “opportunity will pause but it will never wait.”

How have world leaders responded to your methods? What’s been the biggest challenge in getting leaders on board?

The leaders of countries who have been through transformations are often the easiest to recruit. These leaders often claim they have a moral responsibility to share their experience. The biggest challenge we often have is going into a country in the midst of conflict, just coming out of a dictatorship, or currently struggling with change. Because of the intensity of that environment, it’s difficult to get people to open up. These countries are often so saturated with international mediators that it is often hard for us to convey that we aren’t there to mediate. We are there to share experience. It takes time. But I think over the last 25 years we have developed enough credibility that people can really see us for who we are.

You’ve been involved in conflict resolution in a wide range of regions over the last 25 years. What was the spark for this neuroscience initiative?

I often say that it has been in the DNA of our organization—in the commitment to the belief that there is a shared human experience. We just didn’t realize until recently that there actually was biology to support this intuition. A few years ago, I was teaching a class with my colleague Ina Breuer on the human dimension of conflict. In one class, a retired neuroscientist sat in and afterwards he mentioned that there is a lot of brain research behind many themes discussed in the class – fear, trauma, empathy, etc. He then made a memorable statement that connected neuroscience to our shared experience approach. He told me, “we are not rational beings with emotions at our core…we are emotional beings who can only think rationally when we feel that our identities are understood and valued by others.” His statement struck me powerfully, and it led us to investigate the field of neuroscience and later establish the Neuroscience and Social Conflict initiative in partnership with MIT and other universities and scientists. We recognize that neuroscience is still at an early stage, but we see it as a powerful tool that can help us understand what it means to have a common human experience and what parts of it drive us into and away from conflict.