Recently, my brother reminded me that when we were kids, whenever our mother caught us fighting, she would march us into the kitchen, take two chairs and seat us so that we were facing each other with our knees practically touching, and there we would be made to sit, under her watchful eyes, until we made up.
At first, we would sit with arms crossed, barely breathing, looking everywhere but straight ahead. We would stealthily kick each other in the shins, or stick out our tongues and make faces at each other. Sometimes, we’d close our eyes just so we wouldn’t have to look at the other’s “ugly mug.”
“Well?” our policing mother would ask. “I’m not apologizing because he pushed me first,” my brother would say. “Liar!” I’d shout. “It doesn’t matter to me,” our mother would say, “because you can’t leave until you work it out.” Invariably, after a while, we’d each crack a smile, laugh and assure Mom that things were good again.
Some may agree with my mother that her kitchen diplomacy was an effective technique to resolving conflicts between her children. Others may say that it wasn’t conflict resolution at all; that my mom wasn’t actually assisting us in resolving our “issues.” We simply grew weary of arguing about them.
The lesson I came away with is this: At some point, the fighting needs to stop, and the best way to do that is to put the antagonists on a level playing field, governed by the same rules, with a neutral third party making sure that that rules are adhered to, all with one clearly defined objective: to secure a peaceful outcome.
Now, had my mother decided to be an enforcer and impose her will on us by punishing our fighting or, God forbid, try to decide which son was more culpable than the other, the hostility would not only have continued, it would have increased. Plotting, posturing and “getting to Mom first” (sort of like “filing first” or “knowing the judge”) would have been new tactics designed to gain advantages in our sibling wars, with dubious chances of success (I don’t think you need to have met our mother to know what I mean by that). Instead, we knew that before we could get on with our lives, our mother would make sure we had resolved our conflict right then and there.
It seems to me that the same lesson can be applied to any high conflict situation, whether it incurs at home, at work, in our communities, or even on a national or international stage. You can’t have peace when someone is kicking you in the shins or making faces or sweeping the bank accounts or gobbling up your allies’ territory. Only by working in an environment where “tactics” won’t do anyone any good can you hope to explore and find a lasting peace.