Exploring the Past

Suzanne Ghais

Program Manager at CDR Associates, Boulder, Colorado

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: It's quite common for someone to bring up an example from a time to which everyone else thinks is completely irrelevant but for that person is very alive, and very present.

A: And again, if you look at deep-rooted broader social conflicts, I think you're going to find a lot of that, in fact I know you'll find a lot of that. When did this conflict start? Chris Mitchell at ICAR used to talk about that, you ask when the conflict started and you get very different answers from the different sides. Ask what is the history of what happened here and you get very different stories. Ask what were the key turning points or key traumas were along the way and you get very different answers.

But it is important to explore the past. I don't agree with some of the standard community mediation rhetoric that says future focus. I don't think you can do that. I think you have to explore the past, and often in some depth, not to get to an agreement about who did what to whom. Often you can't, but to understand that for each person and group involved, how the past affects their perceptions now, how it affects their ability to trust, how it affects their over-reactions perhaps, or their tendency to interpret a current event in a different way.

You can see this at all levels, I think you can see it in international conflicts, you can see it in marriages. A spouse had some difficult experience with that spouse. Maybe an ex-spouse or an ex-girlfriend, boyfriend in the past, then they'll be on hyper-alert for that thing being done to them again. They'll over-interpret "Oh! Don't you dare try to blame me again, I'm tired of being blamed on unfairly." "Well I wasn't blaming you, lay-off. Now I'm pissed off cause you " You know what I'm saying, those cyclical things. You have to get into the past; you have to explore the past.

Q: Sounds like, if nothing else to understand where a party's reaction might be coming from, the context.

A: Exactly, and to understand their story, to understand their narrative. Understand what is the story from their point of view. Who are the good and evil characters? What was the climax? What was the d‚nouement of the story? You have to understand it. Now you have to structure that conversation, so that it doesn't become a very unconstructive debate about who did what to whom, and when, and I did not say that, and you did too say that.

Q: How do you keep it from going there?

A: You have to work in advance. You have to do work before the parties come together. Then you coach the parties on how to describe what they're talking about in a way that will get the other person in a frame of mind to listen and not to resist and be defensive. And it's hard.