Last month, I witnessed an extraordinary meeting. The man who was responsible for the Brighton bombing in 1984 sat next to the daughter of one of the men his actions had killed, and together they discussed empathy, and how it could change the world.
I was at the UK College of Mediators’ annual conference. The man was Pat Magee of the IRA. The woman was Jo Berry, daughter of Sir Anthony Berry. It was Jo, who, after losing her father to the terrorist attack, realised she had a choice: to remain in the grip of blame and victim-hood, and to live with “an enemy” in her life, or to try to understand the man who was capable of ordering such violence. She asked to meet with Pat, and he eventually agreed. Their first conversation was in private, with no intermediaries, and lasted three hours. It led to an astonishing alliance that now seeks to help people build bridges all over the world, in all sorts of conflicted situations.
Pat spoke humbly to us of how he began his first talk with Jo driven by political allegiance but found his stand-point gradually eroded by her willingness – her eagerness – to understand him. Jo had begun the conversation full of fear at what she would find and overcame that fear by concentrating on what Pat might be feeling about meeting the daughter of the man he had killed. Pat, in turn found that Jo’s empathy disarmed him. His political beliefs were acting as a barrier to his understanding of the consequences of his actions; Jo’s curiosity, her genuine desire to understand him, dissolved his defensiveness and led him into true dialogue.
What role does empathy play in mediation?
It is key. It is vital. It is the bedrock of our process. Mediators work best when they take time to identify what their clients are feeling and respond with respectful attention and empathy. A couple in mediation will achieve more if they each listen hard to what the other person is saying and try to understand where he or she is coming from. Separated parents will do their children the best possible favour if they concentrate on forming a Parental Alliance that transcends the broken relationship between them as individuals.
Only with empathy can we bring peace into the room and generate an atmosphere in which differences can be managed and solutions proposed.
Watch the TED talk by Jo Berry on Empathy. It could change your life.
Caroline Friend, Family Mediator, Oxford & Milton Keynes
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