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Best Practices for Mediating Religious Conflicts

By Sukhsimranjit Singh

People are passionate about religion. It informs people’s core values, codifies their morals, and inspires their actions. Religion is generally considered to be part of cultural decision making. As a specialist in cross-cultural dispute resolution, I hope that the insights below, gained from my experience mediating religious conflicts, are useful in helping you navigate similar disputes.

Past versus future orientation. When I started mediating, I learned about the practice and importance of persuading parties to understand their past—and then urging them to use this understanding to move on and look toward their future. In church conflicts, however, I have learned to take a different approach: I spend much more time than usual on the parties’ historic orientations.

In church conflicts, the central dispute often revolves around the clash of a shared worldview. In religion, people learn to form patterns of behavior. With such patterns come expectations of what is right and what is wrong, which tends to raise differences above commonalities. Language is always important in discussing and resolving disputes, and this is even more true when religious beliefs are involved.

I recently mediated a dispute between two congregations in a large religious community. When they agreed to work with me, each group declared that its “religious orientation” was right and the other congregation’s was wrong. All attempts at conversation and resolution had failed.

I started the mediation in a joint session with more than a dozen representatives from each side. After the two-hour joint session, I learned what so many mediators discover in working with many people who disagree on any topic: In this multi-party environment, the participants all expected to be heard, but none was willing to listen. In order for this mediation to succeed, I needed to convince everyone involved to listen to the other side.

To get to the core distrust, during each caucus I asked specifically about events that each side framed as the turning point in their relationship. One group talked at length about a specific incident, and then the members of the other group, separately, described their own version of the same incident. While they focused on facts, I perceived crucial differences in value systems. They didn’t understand that the center of their conflict was how differently each group interpreted the larger community’s religious code of conduct. One group believed in strict adherence of the faith code, while the other inclined toward a more moderate application. Taking time and extending the information-gathering phase of mediation allowed me to get a clear view of what each group cared about and valued, and after providing feedback to both sides, it also allowed each side to understand more deeply the other’s motivating core beliefs and values.

In working on cases involving religion and faith, even when I wish to fast-forward the mediation conversation to the future, I find that respecting the pasts of parties’ specific religious institutions and communities has deepened my own understanding of the conflict, helped me create more trust and connection with parties, and been critical to motivating everyone to find a shared solution.

Religious identity. For many people of faith, religion goes beyond a simple belief process or practice and extends to personal identity. Because cultural identities are intertwined with our worldviews, divorcing our cultural identity from decision making is not an easy process.

With this in mind, faith-based conflict resolution makes sense for many religious adherents, but for some, it might not be a comfortable choice because it represents something that goes against the essence of following the religious tenets of peace and peacemaking. In other words, just accepting the fact that a conflict exists may mean acceptance of the fact that the congregation has failed in maintaining order and in assisting others to maintain order. This internal inconsistency might challenge the basic cultural identity of the group and, as a result, make the conflict more difficult to solve.

In a second case I worked on, the people on one side of the dispute were arguing among themselves because the dispute went against their fundamental tenets. “We should not pursue litigation in this matter since fighting in court, especially over our religious matter, can and will bring tension within our community and will defame our community,” people on this side of the case told me. “Our congregation and our faith believe in resolving all conflict amicably and keeping the brotherhood alive. Yet a few of our members claim that we are losing by not litigating.” Hoping to get to the heart of such a basic disconnect, I tried to separate their religious identity from the conflict resolution process and reminded them that mediating or litigating was a choice they needed to discuss thoroughly themselves before proceeding. In this case and others like it, I have learned that addressing the value-based religious positions that parties adopt during their conversations is key to helping them confront the core dispute that brought them to the table.

Working with the “true” facts and the use of caucus. At the core of every conflict is a story. In any mediation, listening to the other party’s story requires both a mental shift and a change of attitude. But at the center of any religion is a statement on truth, so a successful mediation involving religious principles or institutions requires a dramatic shift in people’s version of truth as well as a story line that allows everyone to move toward a more amicable path. However, when the conflict itself involves religious values or religious practices, the issues may be a constant reminder of faithfulness toward the personal truth.

In one of my cases, the parties came to me with different stories about the use of wood in the main door at a church. In the joint session, accusations quickly became personal. I knew I needed much more information before I could be helpful, so I suggested private caucuses, which proved a wise decision because those private meetings provided a huge amount of important information. The caucuses slowed my process for several days, but the delay was worth it.

In all kinds of cases, parties may be hesitant to share private information with a mediator, but often this very kind of information allows parties to save face and provide honor. This is especially true in religious conflicts, where, as noted before, the core conflict involves both personal and group identity. With effective use of caucus, religious parties can enjoy the safe space they need to share their personal stories surrounding faith and conflict.

Addressing emotion and generosity. In my research, I have been particularly interested in the concept of generosity. While studying the concept, I learned that every major religion promotes spirituality-based approaches to mediation and conflict resolution. I also found deep connections across such faiths: for example, the practice of generosity. Each faith has its own version of the Golden Rule: “Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.”

A compassion-based mediation process provides the parties clear process wins, a kind of Golden Rule benefit, over the traditional process of litigation. One other big advantage is that the parties may enjoy being part of the mediation.

One of the key benefits to belonging to a faith-based community is being able to understand the values and religious texts of that community. Utilizing that shared text as a source of guidance and direction throughout the mediation garners legitimacy between parties and promotes buy-in from both sides.

ABA Section of Dispute Resolution

This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 12 of Dispute Resolution, Fall 2018 (25:1).

For more information or to obtain a copy of the periodical in which the full article appears, please call the ABA Service Center at 800/285-2221.


PERIODICALS: Dispute Resolution magazine, published four times per year; Just Resolutions eNews, electronic newsletter published ten times per year.

CLE AND OTHER PROGRAMS: Annual spring conference, the world’s largest ADR conference; advanced mediation, arbitration, and negotiation training institutes; monthly teleconferences and webinars.

BOOKS AND OTHER RECENT PUBLICATIONS: Early Neutral Evaluation; Structured Negotiation: A Winning Alternative to Lawsuits; Beyond Smart: Lawyering with Emotional Intelligence; The Organizational Ombudsman: Origins, Roles and Operations—A Legal Guide; Appellate Mediation: A Guidebook for Attorneys and Mediators.

Sukhsimranjit Singh is managing director of the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution and assistant professor of law and practice at Pepperdine Law.