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Mediation Techniques for Intergroup Conflicts

This analysis is from Volume 2, Issue 1 of the Peace Science Digest. 

How effective are particular mediation techniques in the context of intergroup conflict? To what extent do perspective-taking techniques improve relations between conflict parties, at both the interpersonal and intergroup levels? Although attention is usually given to the improvement of relations between the individuals actually engaged in the mediation process (who serve as representatives of their respective groups), this research considers the effects of these techniques not only on these interpersonal relations, but also on the extent to which these improved interpersonal relations translate into more positive feelings towards the broader groups to which these participants belong.

The authors propose two hypotheses related to the use of these mediation techniques in the context of intergroup conflict:

  1. “Perspective-taking techniques…increase the interpersonal liking of the opposing group members via increased interpersonal empathy and the feeling to be heard.”
  2. “Perspective-taking techniques…increase positive intergroup attitudes toward the opposing group via increased intergroup empathy.”

In the case of interpersonal relations (Hypothesis 1), there are two ways perspective-taking techniques might foster positive feelings towards the other party. The first is empathy: by restating the other person’s statements or actually putting oneself in her/his shoes and seeing the conflict from her/his perspective for a while, one might develop greater empathy for that party, which might then result in more positive feelings towards her/him. The second, feeling heard, is the mirror of the first. When one party hears the other party express an accurate understanding of her/his own perspective—through perspective-giving as opposed to perspective-taking—s/he might develop more positive feelings towards that other party. In the case of intergroup—as opposed to interpersonal—relations (Hypothesis 2), the authors suggest only one pathway from these perspective-taking techniques to more positive feelings towards the other group: empathy.

The authors tested their hypotheses in the context of intergroup conflict between some segments of German society (those with anti-immigrant views) and refugees in Germany. 103 German university students were selected who met the study’s criteria (students who supported more stringent immigration measures, whose parents and grandparents were born in Germany). Each one participated in a mediation session with an actor posing as a university student named Mahmoud, whose family immigrated to Germany from Libya. The participant and actor were mediated by a professional mediator who either did or did not use perspective-taking techniques, including Controlled Dialogue and Role Reversal. Before and after the mediation, researchers assessed participants’ attitudes toward and levels of empathy for refugees as a group. After the mediation, researchers also assessed how much participants liked and felt empathy towards Mahmoud, in particular, and the extent to which they felt heard by Mahmoud in the mediation.

The authors found evidence in support of a strong relationship between the use of perspective-taking techniques and the development of more positive feelings towards the other individual in the mediation. Both empathy and the feeling of being heard were found to link the perspective-taking techniques to these more positive feelings. They did not, however, find evidence that the use of perspective-taking techniques in the mediation related to more positive attitudes towards refugees as a whole, even if their use did seem to lead to more positive feelings towards Mahmoud in particular. There was also no significant relationship between the use of these techniques and the development of empathy for refugees. The authors reflect that perhaps this discrepancy had to do with the way in which Mahmoud may not have been seen by study participants as a ‘typical’ refugee, given his apparently successful integration into German society as a university student. All the same, these findings draw attention to the way in which more positive feelings developed towards an ‘out-group’ individual due to perspective-taking (and perspective-giving) techniques in a mediation may not necessarily translate into more positive feelings towards the group that s/he represents (in the context of a broader intergroup conflict).

Perspective-taking: a set of mediation techniques that enable each conflict party to perceive the conflict from the other side’s perspective.

Controlled Dialogue: a mediation technique where the mediator “ask[s] participants to repeat the opponent’s statement before responding.”

Role Reversal: a mediation technique where the mediator “asks participants to switch to the opponent’s chair and to (literally) put themselves in the other’s place.”

Contemporary Relevance:

There is perhaps no more urgent focus for peacebuilding today in the U.S. and Europe, where right-wing/anti-immigrant governments are coming to power, than the nurturing of empathy, cohesion, and understanding between immigrant and non-immigrant communities. Though the authors wish to generalize their findings to intergroup conflict more broadly, their particular test case is notably salient in the context of U.S. President Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-refugee agenda and specifically the recent order to ban all refugees, as well as immigrants from particular (Muslim) countries, from entering the U.S. Intergroup dialogue and perspective-taking techniques can be an antidote—at the local level, at least—to the greater polarization, isolation, tension, and even violence between immigrant and non-immigrant communities that this order—or others like it—could set into motion.

Talking Points:

  • During mediation, perspective-taking techniques may lead to more positive feelings towards the other party present, due to both increased empathy and the feeling of being heard.
  • During mediation, perspective-taking techniques do not necessarily lead to more positive attitudes towards the broader ‘out-group’.
  • People may be unlikely to generalize improved attitudes towards one individual to the broader group to which s/he belongs. Instead, it might be easy to pass off an interpersonal connection that defies one’s broader stereotypes of a particular ‘out-group’ as due to the distinction or difference of this particular ‘other’—precluding the need to dismantle these negative stereotypes.

Practical Implications:

Conflict resolution practitioners working in the context of intergroup conflict— mediators as well as dialogue facilitators—should be encouraged to employ perspective-taking (and -giving) techniques in their mediations and dialogues between/among groups. For these techniques to be most effective in improving intergroup—as opposed to only interpersonal—relations, however, mediators/ facilitators should also urge participants to discuss similarities between themselves and other, diverse members of their own ‘in-groups’ (who are not present), helping their counterparts to see them as sharing characteristics and concerns with the broader group of which they are a part. Doing so could help participants to generalize the positive feelings they develop towards members of the ‘outgroup’ with whom they are interacting onto the broader ‘out-group’, positively influencing intergroup relations more generally. Broader changes in intergroup attitudes, then, can positively influence conflict dynamics away from violence— both participation in it and, more indirectly, support of it—against the other group.

Citation:

Gutenbrunner, L., & Wagner, U. (2016). Perspective-taking techniques in the mediation of intergroup conflict. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 22(4), 298-305.

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