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Are we building bridges or are we building walls?

I had an extraordinary experience at a conference last week, witnessing a presentation that was moving, desperately sad and hopeful in equal measure.

The speakers were Jo Berry and Patrick Magee. Jo’s father, Sir Anthony Berry was a Conservative MP who was killed in the Brighton bombing in 1984. Jo’s fellow presenter was Patrick Magee, the IRA member who planted the bomb. They spoke to us on the 34th anniversary of the bombing.

That’s right – Patrick killed Jo’s father. Yet somehow, these two people have found a way to come together, giving hundreds of presentations all over the world and sharing their message, which is a simple one – that dialogue and mediation are the means to peace. Through the charity ‘Building Bridges for Peace’ they’ve travelled to places including Palestine, Lebanon and Rwanda trying want to help people ‘understand the roots of war, terrorism and violence’.

Their talk made me reflect on the power of talking and those skills that are often referred to as ‘soft’ such as listening, empathy and acknowledgment. When they first met some time after Patrick was released from prison as part of the Good Friday agreement, Jo and Patrick did not describe a situation in which everything was resolved and all was forgiven. What Patrick repeated, simply, was this: “she listened to me”. This listening seemed to have had an incredibly powerful effect on him. Their willingness to enter into conversation and to really hear each other has helped them to achieve something truly inspiring.

Working through difference

This was a powerful message for an audience made up of lawyers, mediators and others working with families going through conflict.

I’ve found in my work that, even when there still remain differences between a former couple (as there often are), they can still make progress in resolving conflict, provided they can listen to the other and show some degree of honesty, open-mindedness and willingness. A lot of the time the job of a mediator has to be about finding a way forward that both people can live with; not something either person is wildly enthused about, (as no one ‘wins’ in these situations) but something acceptable to each of them.

It takes a lot of hard work by the mediator to keep former couples focused on rebuilding the bridges of communication that have been so damaged by conflict. The alternative of course would be to help the couple to continue to build up walls between themselves (often through litigation), harming themselves and any children they may have in the process.

No dialogue = no chance

I believe that we all as humans have a propensity to build walls between ourselves and others without even realising it. I was reminded of this at the very same conference, bumping into someone who I hadn’t spoken to for a long time. A situation had arisen years ago involving me, this person and some others; a situation that I looked back on with confusion, remorse, a bit of annoyance and some pain. In the intervening years, a wall had grown in my mind between myself and this person, due to my own fear-based imaginings and the passage of time, rather than any actual wrongdoing.

Having had the opportunity to sit down at the conference and have a dialogue of our own, these fears dissipated (as they so often do, once we have the capacity to be honest with a person) and the conversation ended with both of us having a better understanding of what had taken place years previously. Our meeting ended with a hug, just as the presentation given by Jo and Patrick did.

I for one want to keep on trying to build bridges, even though it’s usually much tougher than building walls. It’s much easier not to talk and to blame the other from afar. Attempting to be conciliatory also presents particular difficulties for those in the legal profession, still working within a fault-based system and facing criticism from clients for being too ‘weak’ and ‘walked all over’ by their ex and their legal team if they take this sort of approach.

This is a difficult time for our country and for the world and there’s never been a more important time to focus on building bridges not walls. As Jo and Patrick’s presentation showed, this is not the easier, softer way; it is the tougher way. But for me and many others it is the only way.

If you’ve got something out of this article, please donate to Building Bridges for Peace who need financial support in order to continue their incredible work – 

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