A peace-focused approach to transforming Conflict and Trauma

The dominant approaches to addressing trauma within the context of peace work are inconsistent with its primary aim, which I believe is to elicit and amplify peace. Many methods used for dealing with the effects of trauma focus on identifying root causes and the problems associated with these. I believe it is inherently violent to ask someone to dive deeper into the details of their trauma for the purposes of helping to transform it, especially if there is another way of doing so. What I am proposing in this article is an alternate way. One which focuses on the hopes, resiliencies, inner strengths, and resources that are always present, yet which can be overlooked, especially when dealing with trauma — a peace-focused approach.

Peace. A word that might seem foolish or even naïve in the face of some of life’s most challenging circumstances, such as the unspeakable pain and horror which can result from traumatic experiences. Particularly during difficult times, trauma, pain, and violent conflict often can overshadow our ability to see the bigger picture, narrowing our focus on what is, or has, gone wrong and causing a sort of amnesia to our deeper ability to tap into our peaces. Unfortunately, it is precisely during these times that we need to be able to do this the most.
Although many exciting and transformative changes are taking place in the way peace is being understood and conflict is being approached, contrary to its intent, much of this work is still predominantly conflict-focused. Peace workers carry out conflict mapping, conflict analysis, and conflict assessment. Professionals are referred to as conflict workers, and those seeking change as conflict parties. The primary methods used are conflict management, conflict resolution or conflict transformation.

The Problem with Problems

Neuroscience shows us that the brain changes in response to experiences for better or for worse. Often in the face of trauma, people tend to get stuck in trauma patterns. That is, the aspects of the story that had, or still have, negative effects on them, which are usually fear and anxiety-filled. Practitioners inquiring deeper into these parts of the story (the trauma and problems associated with these) risk amplifying these negative effects.
The traumatic experience is not the person’s only life experience. Focusing on trauma as if it is the only significant life experience misses important aspects of that person’s reality such as their inner strengths, resiliencies, hopes, and resources – reinforcing a state of victimhood.

Focusing on trauma as if it is the only significant life experience misses important aspects of that person’s reality such as their inner strengths, resiliencies, hopes, and resources – reinforcing a state of victimhood.

Many methods tend to focus on analyzing the conflicts and problems associated with trauma, and their underlying causes. I strongly believe that emphasis and investigation into these problems only amplifies them. As peace workers, I see it as our job to help counterbalance that.
If what we are ultimately working towards is facilitating and amplifying peace(s) then why are we so heavily focused on what is, or has, gone wrong? Clearly doing so runs the risk of contributing to further imbalance, and missing important opportunities for transformation— missing peaces.
Inquiring instead into the ways in which people have been able to cope and find resilience, despite the difficulties, sheds light on other aspects of their stories that are crucial for transforming them.

A Peace-Focused Shift

I believe the road to amplifying peace begins with focusing on peace. New experiences create new neural pathways, and these pathways become stronger the more they are used. Fortunately, the same way that focusing on negative experiences can reinforce negative patterns or pathways established by the trauma, so can positive associations and experiences. In this case, focusing on resilience, and peace, during or after trauma, can change the way the person not only perceives what happened, but also the way they perceive him or herself—as victim or hero.

I believe the road to amplifying peace begins with focusing on peace.

Bringing positive elements back into the picture can help move people out of their reptilian and limbic brain and into their prefrontal cortex by shifting their attention from fears and problems; to possibilities. This can open up creative channels and help amplify the person’s inner resilience to cope with traumas.
It is of utmost importance that we shift from being conflictologists to becoming peaceologists. That is, we must constantly and deliberately recalibrate towards the many peaces by looking for, listening for, and intentionally noticing these in every moment. Thus, helping to amplify them. The question is how?

A Peace-Focused Mindset

The beliefs, value systems, and underlying assumptions we adhere to shape the language we choose and therefore what we co-construct in our interactions with others. This ultimately guides what we focus on as peace workers and therefore orients the process of transformation we step into. Asking questions such as the ‘who, where, what, when, and how’ of the problems, elicits a description of these and draws more attention and energy into them.

Conversely, asking about the ‘who, where, what, when, and how’ of the peaces such as; “what does peace look like for you in this situation?”, or “how have you managed and coped despite the hardships?”, elicits talk about inner strengths, resiliencies, hope, and peace.
To do this we must first ask ourselves who and what we are perceiving, and what we believe to be possible:

  • Are we seeing a victim or a hero; someone who has been subjected to hardships, or someone who has endured, despite the hardships?
  • Are we listening for hopes or despair?
  • Are we inquiring into the ‘who, where, what, when, and how’ of the problems, or the ‘who, where, what, when, and how’ of the peaces?
A Peace-Focused Lens

One way I propose to do this is by using a peace-focused lens through which we can check in and ask ourselves what we are attending to:

  • Are we attending to the peaces: the horizons of peace and instances of peace?
  • Or are we attending to the conflicts: the past and possible conflict?

Here is an image I have built on to capture this more concretely:

A Peace-Focused Process

A second possibility is through a peace-focused process, a map so-to-speak, for navigating the process of transformation in a peace-focused way.
The map I am proposing has four main orientation points: (1) Hopes for Peace, (2) Horizons of Peace, (3) Instances of Peace, (4) Signs of Peace.
It also has four corresponding actions for peace-focused practitioners: (a) Explore, (b) Envision, (c) Expand, and (d) Emerge.
A peace-focused process might look something like this:

  • Explore what people hope to see different: Hopes for Peace
  • Envision a vivid, dynamic, embodied, and observable image of what the future of peace might look like when these hopes are unfolding: Horizons of Peace
  • Expand on relevant and recent experiences, by bridging the images of the horizons back to their own history (where this has already been experienced): Instances of Peace
  • Invite people to take notice of new signs of peace as they Emerge: Signs of Peace
Wrapping up

Emphasis and investigation into problems only amplifies them in the long run, maintaining a negative spiral. What I am proposing is a shift of focus onto the many peaces that are present even in, or perhaps despite, violent conflict and trauma.

I believe that in order to facilitate peace we must counterbalance the dominant focus on conflict by more explicitly attending to the many peaces.
Of course, I also do recognize that one-size-does-not-fit-all, and many different lenses can be useful in different circumstances. I am simply proposing one such lens. Just as anyone can contribute to amplifying conflict, anyone can contribute to amplifying peace; in my view, we are therefore all peace workers. As such, we must ask ourselves what difference it might make when we intentionally curate our thoughts, feelings, possibilities, and memories in a life-giving and hopeful way; when we choose to see, perceive, and feel peace all around us, no matter what the circumstances. And when we choose to respect and understand conflict as an inherent part of our human experience and, in holding space for that, consciously and continuously orient towards peace.

Image Sources:

  • Peace Focused Lens: Unit for Peace and Conflict Studies, Uni Innsbruck
  • Peace focused process: Jessica Hawkins
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