Peacebuilding Practices: Part 2 – Coffee Tables and Capital Punishment: Peacebuilding to Resolve Personal & Societal Conflicts
Welcome to Part Two of our series on peacebuilding practices at Hartford International University for Religion and Peace. Today, we’ll investigate Paraphrasing as an everyday skill for building understanding. This piece is co-authored by Phoebe Milliken, Faculty Associate in International Peacebuilding, and Anastasia Nikitara, MA student in International Peacebuilding (MAP). This bold text is written by Phoebe. The plain text is Anastasia.
Reflective Listening in Peacebuilding
Let’s start with a quick definition: paraphrasing, sometimes also called reflective listening, is summarizing without judgment both the content and the feelings of what someone said to you. The point of paraphrasing is to help someone feel understood.
So if Robert says to you, “The town councilors all need to have their heads examined! The school budget makes no sense, the roads are falling apart, the fire department is short-staffed, and yet they spend all their energy on the issues at the Recreation Center! At the town meeting tonight they will be hearing from me, and I won’t be Mr. Nice Guy!” You could paraphrase, “You are deeply frustrated with the town government who you see as ignoring the important issues. You need them to hear your concerns.”
Now, you might feel rather differently about the town council, but your paraphrase is not the place to judge his opinion. Once Robert feels you understand him, he will be more open to your appraisal of the school budget. Feeling understood by you can also help him moderate the tone he takes at the town meeting later. Paraphrasing, even when practiced by only one conversational partner, can slow down and cool off a fraught discussion. Feeling understood decreases the stress hormone cortisol and allows us to better engage the pre-frontal cortex, the rational part of the brain, which helps us evaluate our own perspective1. Thus paraphrasing is a fundamental peacebuilding skill that promotes constructive conversations on everything from coffee tables to capital punishment.
Coffee tables? I’ll let Anastasia explain.
Using Peacebuilding Skills to Build Understanding and Relationships
What happens when HIU Masters in International Peacebuilding students go home and need to apply the peacebuilding skills we are cultivating to what can feel like the hardest battlefield of all, our own personal lives? This is the question that I, a Greek Christian Orthodox, had to face with my American Jewish friend and housemate, Marni (who uses they/them pronouns). Rather late in the first semester we had a housemate meeting about household chores. This was great – except for the part where I did not fully express my needs and casually agreed to everything.
Our new cleaning schedule sometimes worked well – and sometimes it didn’t. Small miscommunications kept happening without me saying anything. It was not long before the big emotional outburst came. One morning I walked into the house and saw the coffee table full of personal things that did not belong there. That was the last straw for me. I furiously typed a long and audacious text to our group chat, tagging Marni, making sure they would see it. Marni requested we talk about it in person, which we did, after giving me some time to calm down.
I decided to use all the new skills I had learned. Active listening, paraphrasing, expressing needs, trying to find our common ground. The talk was long and very emotional, just like my text. But there was a big difference. Instead of expressing my opinion of what they did wrong and holding them accountable for it, this time I was expressing my needs and how I felt when certain things happened.
In place of trying to make them do things the way I needed, I listened and understood their needs and point of view. We communicated what was important to us. We found common ground as to how we wanted the house to be. By the end of the conversation, it was not even about the things on the coffee table. It was about our coexistence in the house and how we both care about each other’s experiences. We did not meet halfway. I walked all the way to them and they walked all the way to me.
We never made a new household chore schedule. At some point, we even erased the old one. Some days our house looks like professionals cleaned it and some other days … well, you get the picture. Since that talk, my relationship with Marni has improved tremendously. We embrace and prioritize our relationship as housemates and friends, and that is what makes our coexistence here much easier!
Anastasia and Marni were already friends and housemates, just like Doaa and Elena in the first blog of this series. As we all know, though, friendship doesn’t prevent conflict when people have different needs. Anastasia and Marni employed the skills they are learning, such as paraphrasing, to navigate conflict and improve their relationship.
Paraphrasing works just as well for discussions of societal issues as it does for interpersonal ones. When I teach paraphrasing, I first demonstrate it in a conversation about capital punishment. This led to raised eyebrows this year, as just the day before the tight-knit MAP student group had had their first big argument – about capital punishment. After the demo, pairs of students practiced paraphrasing on hot topics on which they disagreed, like capital punishment, abortion, legalization of marijuana, trans women in sports, etc. The feedback after the exercise? “This really works!” “I have new respect for the other side of this issue.” “We found a way to agree!” “I have never had a conversation like this before.”
Like so much of peacebuilding, the concept of paraphrasing is simple and the practice is hard. It is hard work well worth the effort. Sometimes paraphrasing can lead us to solutions (“We found a way to agree!”). Sometimes it leads to an understanding that promotes peaceful coexistence, even without a solution. Anastasia and Marni’s house is only spotless on some days. But their friendship is beautiful.
About Hartford International
As a pioneering, interreligious, international university, Hartford International has helped thousands of people find peace within, and many thousands more find peace with each other. At HIU, we engage in robust religious studies, including a Master of Arts in International Peacebuilding, and meaningful interfaith dialogue to deepen our beliefs, respect our differences, and help bring peace to the world.
1 Balboa, N., & Glaser, R. D. (2019, May 16). The Neuroscience of Conversations. Psychology Today. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/conversational-intelligence/201905/the-neuroscience-conversations