Narrative Encounters
Vesna Hart encourages us to engage honestly
with the ideological Other.

Engaging Empathy
"See, they said, this is our pain."
We are human beings, Vesna Hart says. We're social animals and everything that we do is related to our communities. So when we want to advocate for change it's important to keep in mind who we decide to engage or not engage with. It's easy to engage with people who are very much like us and who we can easily empathize with, but it's harder to do that with people who are different. We're going to be talking about that second bit today.

But first, back to museums. They can be seen as repositories of narratives – think of the different Sarajevo museums of the siege. It was a city with lots of families that didn't escape, and so lots of kids were trapped inside. One of these kids became an adult and decided to make a child war museum – he made a call for objects for display. And he wanted to hear stories. What happened was that it eventually became a collection of objects and stories told from all ethnic backgrounds. It was the experience of shared suffering in the context of war.

On the other end of the spectrum we have museums that are focused on the suffering of a particular group. The Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide is told from the Bosnian side (which did suffer more), and Vesna believes there's space for this kind of museum as well. The question for her is how long museums like this need to be here, and how can we take care that they truly enter the narrative (otherwise it will constitute a blind spot in national memory) without it dominating the narrative completely (to the exclusion of other experiences).
So the question here is about how to integrate different experiences into our collective stories, and this very much has to do with the teaching of history. What often happens, especially after a violent past, is that someone decides there's one story everyone has to learn – it's hard to present multiple perspectives. There have been attempts at textbooks that have tried to do this, but these are generally the exception. When we focus so much on one particular narrative, this creates these blind spots again. People who fall into them claim they aren't represented, or at least not represented in a way that satisfies them. These voices, if not processed healthily, can erupt back into the discourse problematically.

There was an organization she met in Bosnia called Euro Clio BiH that creates kits for high school students. There are photos of war from the area of the former Yugoslavia, and the facilitator divides the students into groups and gives them a themed batch. Regular life, for example, or soldiers. They have to go through the photos and talk about the meaning they attach to the pictures. Where it came from, what the context was. Then each person had to pick a favourite and describe what it means to them. Then they string them together into a timeline: did it happen before the war, in which country, in which group? The facilitator then shares how at one point there was this country, the former Yugoslavia, then these pictures happened and now we have six republics. She asks: do you think it was worth it? All answers are engaged with.

So they do interesting workshops like this, teaching from different perspectives, inviting participants to think critically about what actually happened. It's a complicated (and necessary) thing especially because they're working with history that's not 'history' yet – there are people who have living memories of the event and are still processing what happened. Another way to address history that isn't history yet is through story exchange.

The organization that has ownership of this process is called Narrative 4, and it's a methodology that helps promote empathy. Participants are prepped ahead of time and given prompts to think about their lives through specific topics. Facilitators are always in pairs and model the process: they tell the story of the other person. It creates a kind of radical empathy because, when we hear someone else's story with the goal of telling it, we pay deep attention to the other person. We take in their non-verbals, we try to be present in the way that they are.

It also increases self-awareness because we're confronted with how other people think differently, feel differently, and we become more aware of how we feel and think. This can be called 'increasing one's emotional literacy,' and gives us an opportunity to be more curious and open-minded. She uses the word metacognition to describe the process of thinking about how we think – our patterns, our tendencies, the things we think are 'normal' (for us).
The Narrative4 team.
Wonderful. Touchy-feely. Why are we talking about this in the context of hybrid conflicts?

Because dialogue helps with the process of sustained and meaningful inter-group contact. We've been talking about memory wars and the creation of different narratives (which then have the capacity to intensify conflicts), and this is a way to step back from these bubbles. When we engage with the other side with tools that can help us understand their story (and their lives), we can start thinking about new solutions.

There are different examples of how groups are doing this. Narrative 4, for example, uses this model to address racial issues in the United States. There's an organization called Soliya which brings together students from western countries and the Middle-East – they have 4-8 week programs where they create a meaningful exchange of people learning from each other. Then there are initiatives that help shape collective memory through art.

One of the articles we read beforehand showed an example of this narrative-based art therapy. There were communities in El Salvador that had encountered severe, severe trauma, and they were prompted to create a mural that expressed their experiences. They created it together, and in the process they opened up and told stories – individual narratives were woven into a collective narrative and they now have a visual representation of it.

The woman who facilitated this process, Claudia Bernardi, says that art attempts to find that which is still unharmed. It's a diplomatic tool of constructing a different reality. It means generating from nothingness, creating a reality where a kernel of life still exists. Later, the women involved in this process were given the chance of showing their mural to national officials. See, they said, this is our pain.
Then there are situations of course where people don't change, and Vesna used to struggle a lot with this. It's very hard. But people need to want to be changed or to learn differently – if there's resistance then you're running up against a wall. She's come to realize that she cannot be the one responsible for change. She can only facilitate the process, and it's only to the degree that participants in the dialogue want to be part of the process that things happen.

People don't often talk about the psychological, emotional aspect of all this – we focus on interests or use the language of grievances, but in the end we're dealing with people in pain. And Vesna wants to provide life-giving opportunities in her work. We need to strive not to do harm – we all do in the end, in some way, but we can still strive to offer ways to help people engage with their emotional processes.

It's important to remember that it's hard for people in pain to deal with the pain of someone else – if you're trying to repair broken communities, it's not enough to say 'there, you've got to live together now and have empathy!' There are histories of trauma that still need to be worked through. One thing that helps with her is doing body work – trauma can be present as a kind of energy in the body, so in a hot situation we can encourage participants (if they're willing) to go for a walk or have a drumming session. It's about finding some rhythmic repetitive movements, and through this we can release energy or steam and calm down our dinosaur brain and open more space up for cognitive functioning.

There's a lot of education about what trauma is. You can educate people about what their reactions mean: when you feel this, when you look at times you reacted in a disproportionate way, this might be a response to trauma. Providing information about how our brain works, and how it works under threat, helps us to manage those panicky, dinosaur-brain moments and prepares us for more high-level cognitive tasks (like generating empathy or analyzing narratives).

All of this is to help prepare people for the moment when they actually encounter the other – without being emotionally prepared, contact with other narratives or traumas or parallel histories can devolve into fights. And you can't force people to do this. What's more, many societies don't actually have a cultural language for expressing these kinds of things.

That and you can't impose yourself – you have to be invited. Which is hard when we think, as advocates, that dialogue needs to happen to help a political, social or cultural process proceed. Most of the work that needs to happen is before the dialogue itself: preparing groups, convincing them to come to the table, creating the space itself. You have to do work individually with both sides so they can enter into the process productively.

The Right Questions
"Our jobs as facilitators is, when engaging with people with incompatible beliefs, to continue the conversation."
We also have to realize that, for some people, burying their emotions is how they survive. When you're in a crisis, particularly a violent one, there are histories and politics and social pressures in play and sometimes you just have to not pay attention to how they're affecting you and you gotta just move forward. She describes having gone through this herself.

So then what questions can we ask people to help enter into this space? We can start with how we come to believe what we believe. Why is it that we're thinking in incompatible ways? Why have we gotten into these conflicts with each other? How do our worldviews fit into this? It helps people to address their narratives as well.

But this is very, very difficult because it means learning (and helping others learn) how to sit in the metaphorical hot seat. How to face uncomfortable questions and not immediately react. What happens when, in our societies, reacting to our discomfort is encouraged or valued?

Other questions: why do we live in echo chambers and polarized worlds? What's the role of cognitive and emotional self-regulation when it comes to conflict resolution and transformation? In what ways have we maybe been emotionally overregulated (unable to express important things) or underregulated (saying whatever comes to mind)? And, of course, how do we come to believe what we believe?

One model that she's encountered about how we develop our worldview suggests that everybody has basic needs, and working through those needs leads us to certain beliefs, and those beliefs collect into values, and those values can crystallize (individually or as a group) into worldviews.

Think of a baby – she needs food, shelter, warmth touch. She doesn't think about ideology yet, but she is in the stage of gradually forming her beliefs. For example, when she cries and someone responds to feed her, she's learning, oh, what I experienced was hunger. I have a need to eat. And someone is there to give me food when I need it. The baby, obviously on an unconscious level, is learning to identify their needs, and there's a corresponding belief developed that those needs can be met. And it doesn't just have to be about hunger or shelter, there are also needs for affection, affiliation and attachment.

On the other hand, a baby who goes on crying and crying might have a hard time recognizing what their need is – this is a pattern that can continue into adulthood. If I don't have someone who loves me, who cares for me, empathizes with me, how can I recognize these as needs that I have? And how can I recognize them as needs in the other.

Eventually these beliefs cluster together to create values ('we should respond to people's needs,' for example, or 'it is wrong to express your needs to other people'), and then those values cluster into worldviews. Cracks in those worldviews happen during dialogue processes – say she has a belief that conservatives aren't humanitarian and then she meets one who is. There's a crack that runs through her certainty in that belief.

Then there are black spots, beliefs that we haven't formed yet.
We have to help people sit in the hot seat even when they hear something they really, really don't agree with.
If we want to take a value like sociocultural openness (the opposite of xenophobia) then the beliefs underlying that might be how she feels people from other places are interesting, or how people who are different are likeable. A number of these beliefs come together to create how socioculturally open a person is.

Or if we take a value like gender traditionalism, beliefs that would affect that are whether or not a person believes gender is binary, or if genders have shifting/fixed roles in society or if men are more capable than women. These would cluster together to create a way of seeing the world.

So if we want to engage with a person's worldview, we have to try to explore what values underlie it, and then what beliefs underlie those values. If we're working on a level of beliefs there are a couple ways we can classify them.

The first is a solo, low-incompatibility belief. It doesn't really have an opposite to challenge it – think about a belief like "if you want something done right you have to do it yourself." It's the kind of thing that people hold more or less true – you don't have people going around saying the best thing to do is give it to people who have no connection to your task at all.

Then there's the second type, which is a binary set of beliefs that have a tension between them but aren't entirely incompatible (medium compatibility, in the lingo). But then there's the third type: highly incompatible beliefs. For example, "God's will is enough for me" and "I think that religion does more harm than good." People will have more heated discussions about the second two than the first one.

Our jobs as facilitators is, when engaging with people with incompatible beliefs, to continue the conversation. We have to help people sit in the hot seat even when they hear something they really, really don't agree with. Then there's the task of helping people enter the brave space of expressing things that other people don't believe. When we are faced with two or more competing or contradictory thoughts we get what's called cognitive dissonance.

So what happens when we're faced with this dissonance, with ideas that don't jive with the ones we already have? It's very easy to exclude things that don't support our point of view, and some people just go on thinking what they've always thought. Sometimes their beliefs are even stronger after this.

We talk a lot about how other people (the ones who don't agree with us) react to dissonance badly. But how do we cope with it ourselves?

It really depends on our goal – are we wanting to debate, discuss or to dialogue? What method is best depends on what kind of collaboration we're looking for. In discussions we often give initial positions that might not entirely reflect what we really think – they might be a little PC. After some more discussion (and trust-building) we might get to what our positions really are. This can create conflict.

For Vesna, to really engage with the issues at hand we have to go deeper:to a) acknowledge emotions, b) check our assumptions, and then c) work with our beliefs and values. Intergroup dialogue (IGD) is a series of techniques that aims at establishing and maintaining sustained, meaningful contact between different parties.

We're going to do an activity: everyone will get a statement preferably one that they find a bit scandalous, and they have to create a story about why a person might believe this. Maybe that the swastika is a misunderstood sign, or that all religion is bad. It should in some degree be incompatible with your own beliefs.

Then we have to engage with each other in a way that helps us encounter the values and beliefs under these positions. If we dismiss or criticize, Vesna warns, we shut down the opportunity for them to understand our concerns or for us to understand theirs. Some questions include:
So where did you get this idea?
Where did you learn about this?
Where have you gotten information about this issue?
How much is your opinion due to how you grew up and were socialized?
Is there anyone in your community who thinks different?
What does the phrase mean to you?
You have to adapt these questions as you go, and try not to ask them in a way that shuts the dialogue down. There are deeper questions we're provided with on separate sheets, and they're to help us create open ended questions (ones that invite broad responses instead of yes/no). We're encouraged to probe, be open minded and curious, to avoid debate and judgement. If a person experiences judgement it's too easy to shut down.

We're reminded that not everyone is ready or willing to do this and that's also okay – we're all in different places. Maybe we'll be dissatisfied with the experience, and that's also okay. We're just here to sit with each other, to encounter the complex reality of being human. All the same she invites us, for the rest of the workshop, to sit in the heat. To feel ourselves burning to react and instead asking ourselves what this means. To dig deeper. To try to find the humanity in a person who might think something different.

"So," she asks, "are we ready to start?"