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3 Tips for successful mediation of faith-based disputes

Conflicts involving religion present unique challenges to mediators.

Sukhsimranjit Singh, a specialist in cross-cultural dispute resolution, explains that in disagreements involving faith, the opposing parties typically hold strong expectations for what is right and what is wrong, which tend to raise differences above commonalities.

Moreover, religion often inspires particularly passionate actions and opinions that can be difficult to navigate.

Singh, who serves as managing director of the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine Law School, advises on how to overcome these hurdles in a recent ABA Dispute Resolution Magazine article, “Best Practices for Mediating Religious Conflicts.”  In it, he shares pragmatic advice drawn from more than a decade of practice in the area.

Here are a few of his pointers:

1: Slow down. 

Religious conflicts revolve around people’s most sensitive beliefs, stoking passionate responses that can cloud the core dispute at hand. Singh cites the example of a case involving two congregations in a large religious community. In this instance, each group firmly declared that its “religious orientation” was right and the other side was wrong.

“In this multi-party environment, the participants expected to be heard but no one was willing to listen,” Singh recalls, noting the deep distrust and feelings of disrespect among members of both sides due to past comments and actions.

“In another dispute, I might have asked the parties to review their stories in opening session and then immediately tried to help them move on in a private caucus,” Singh says.

But as much as Singh wished to fast-forward the mediation conversation to the future, he instead invested days sifting through the hurt feelings and emotional innuendo to uncover the core source of distrust: each congregation had a different interpretation of the community’s code of conduct.  

“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.”

2: Understand historic orientations.

In conflicts involving faith it can be especially helpful to learn as much as possible about the past histories of the parties involved in dispute, Singh says.

Doing so can provide a clearer understanding of the motivating core beliefs and values at play. And it can help the mediator more accurately identify the position of each side and help the opposing parties confront the core dispute that brought them to the table.

Armed with solid background, the mediator can better help one side understand the other. “When it comes to religion, I believe that the essence of mediation practice is helping people understand and possibly shift their positions, and I find that this often involves challenging parties’ strict views from multiple standpoints,” Singh explains.

Singh says that respecting history, specifically the pasts of the parties’ specific religious institutions and communities, not only deepens his understanding of the conflict at hand, but it also helps him “create more trust and connection with parties, and has been critical to motivating everyone to find a shared solution.”

3: Use faith-based tools.  

Singh stresses the importance of a mediator’s approach. “Language is always important in discussing and resolving disputes, and this is even more true when religious beliefs are involved,” he says. “When personal values are up for discussion, what someone says can take on greater meaning and help bring people together – or drive them further apart.”

In faith-based conflicts, it can be particularly challenging to even get the parties to listen to one another.  “Because cultural identities are intertwined with our worldviews, divorcing our cultural identity for decision-making is not an easy process,” Singh explains. Even just listening to the other party’s story can require both a mental shift and change in attitude.

The use of texts and other faith-based tools common to both sides can help bridge the parties. Singh notes that “utilizing shared text as a source of guidance and direction throughout the mediation garners legitimacy between parties and promotes buy-in from both sides.”

Elaborating further, Singh says that “every major religion, in its own way, promotes spirituality-based approaches to mediation and conflict resolution. I also found deep connections across such faiths: for example, the practice of generosity.”

Citing the insights of Karen Armstrong, a former nun who has written extensively on the topic, Singh says that most faiths have their own version of the Golden Rule, “always treat others as you wish to be treated yourself,” and introducing such concepts to the mediation can greatly help advance the conversation forward.

The last word

Singh says he approaches each mediation situation with caution and respect. “Religions are complex, and within each religion, people have different levels of adherence, and these individual differences make practices and beliefs even more subjective,” he says. “With such wide diversity of values and belief systems, one thing is for sure – no two mediations will be identical.”

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