What is Training?

The word seminar comes from “seminary”, denoting a seedbed, and is commonly used to describe a form of teaching that combines instruction and discussion. Training is a seedbed, but it isn’t instruction. It is a seedbed of critical thinking, an exercise in understanding rather than mastering, of liberation not trepidation. Peacebuilding or nonviolent conflict transformation (In the early post-war years, when the threat of direct violence was high and pervasive, we used the term nonviolent conflict transformation. Peacebuilding, a broader term than conflict transformation, also includes fields of action that are not obviously related to conflict transformation) training is a meeting place for people from mutually hostile communities. Training is not learning which recipes to use in order to transform conflict or build peace; it does not offer knowledge gained elsewhere that participants (not trainees!) need to acquire; rather, it encourages them to re-examine what they already know, compelling them to deconstruct their own attitudes and those of others so as to understand them and reconstruct them while taking into account different experiences and perspectives. Training should involve struggle, with yourself and with others, not in order to come out victorious, but in order to understand, to clear away layers of prejudice, stereotypes, myths and the fear of getting hurt or rejected, and in order to gain a new awareness that will enable you to recognise the human in people belonging to the “enemy” group. New knowledge and awareness leads to self-transformation, allowing us to recognise the need to change our society and make it more just.

The training pivots on the assumption that almost everyone has a capacity to sense injustice. Thus, in any given situation, almost everyone will agree that starving a child is unjust, as is expelling a family from their own home and preventing their return. But in real life such injustices occur on a daily basis and far from causing anger or revolt, they often find support. This happens because the situation is contextualised, because our assessment of the situation is influenced by prejudice, stereotypes, previous experiences with a member of the group that we identify as either victims or perpetrators of violence, by unsupported assumptions, and often by our fear of standing up to our own community, i.e. the majority. The outcome is that injustice against members of the other (enemy) group is often perceived as deserved and justified, with a reference to “what they did to us”. This results from, on the one hand, collectivising guilt, assigning it to larger groups of people perceived as belonging to one community; and on the other, from collective self-victimisation where we consider our own group an innocent victim, which is the precondition for tolerating the violence committed in its name. The violence that arises from projections of righteousness and guilt is pervasive, most often taking the shape of structural violence (discrimination and violation of basic rights) that sometimes escalates to direct physical violence.

If our aim is to reduce violence and create a more just society, then awareness of that hidden portion of violence preceding its direct physical manifestation needs to reach a larger number of people in order to create potential for change.

This rationale is logical and easily understood by most people; however, when it comes to changing attitudes and, by extension, behaviours (the ways we put our attitudes into practice), personal experience constitutes an important foundational element of change. As a rule, people are most sensitive to the kinds of injustice they have themselves experienced; they are quickest to recognise the kind of injustice they have felt on their own skin, the kind that experientially hits closest to home. That is why, in addition to discussing rational views and theories of change, an important part of the training is devoted to acquiring personal experience that is emotional as well as rational.

Encountering people from the “enemy” group is in itself emotional, because the reality of dialogue with people from the other side is an uncommon event that usually entails both fear of getting hurt and fear of hurting someone else. Such a set-up creates tension, people feel constrained, hampered by a fear of conflict, unfamiliarity with points of disagreement, or they simply fear the response from the other side that is, in their own minds, likely beset by various prejudices. That is why it is important to create a safe space at the training, allowing people to freely express themselves if they feel hurt and encouraging them to do so constructively, without casting blame and instead making an effort to understand the views from the other side as well as their own feelings. Since it is very difficult to deal with your own feelings if you are beset by fear or anger, the use of decontextualised exercises is recommended. These provide an emotional experience and experiential learning, where participants enter a safe space to cooperate and communicate with others, including those from the enemy side, and have an opportunity to receive and give criticism in a non-threatening way in order to practice understanding themselves and others. As a rule, this part of the training results in a strong feeling of belonging to the group; people are thrilled to find that different belongings do not prevent them from understanding each other, they recognise similarities in behaviour and identify their own mistakes without anyone judging them for it.

The next step involves examining value-based differences and discussing sensitive social topics. This is a step back into reality. Having gone through an experience where we were able to understand and recognise each other as people, we return to the issues that divide us in real life. Divisions arise along different lines: ethnic divisions, men/women, attitude towards LGBT rights, interpretations of the past, conservative versus liberal outlooks, and so forth. The power of the previously created cohesion is now put to the test, and depending on the extent to which it is shaken, some time can be allotted to re-fostering it or to deepening interaction towards an analysis of current social problems related to cross-border cooperation (e.g. dealing with the past, national prejudices, etc.) in combination with those that are common to the whole region (patriarchy).

With the newly acquired insight into our own modes of behaviour and a better understanding of the view from the other side, we go back to looking at everything that divides us as societies and consider possibilities for overcoming these issues primarily by asking what doesn’t work in our own society, and how it leads to injustice, instead of resorting to the usual mechanism of blaming the other side. Instead of abstract and seemingly irreconcilable objectives, we set up sub-objectives, smaller steps that can contribute to a common aim; at the same time, recognising allies on the “enemy” side reveals a hidden strength we were not aware of before.

Encouraged by the experience of reflection, self-reflection, dialogue and cooperation with “enemies”, the participants are often left unaware that these newly acquired insights and knowledge will make them sensitive to injustice in their own communities where they will not have recourse to the circle of support they felt at the training. This is why it is necessary to bring the participants out of the training in a way that will remind them of what is waiting for them at home, so that they can mentally prepare for that return and come up with things that they can do to make their action against injustices and for social change more realistic and sustainable.

To that end, the path to change that we usually traverse during the training is:

  • The participants and trainers get to know each other in an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual learning. Voicing different opinions is encouraged over the pretence of harmony.
  • We work together to identify decontextualised injustices (which is quick and easy and creates a feeling of togetherness and trust).
  • Situations are contextualised in political reality, which leads to reservations, conflicts, fear and insecurity that consequently eats away at the previously created feeling of togetherness.
  • Space is created to experience situations while taking on roles (empathy for different views and experiences), which encourages expressing emotions that enable a better understanding of one’s own as well as others’ mechanisms. Through this experience, people acquire new knowledge, because the basis of learning is not just rational argument but sometimes quite irrational, though no less real, feelings (of fear, closeness, etc.).
  • Modes of behaviour in conflict are analysed based on personal experiences and compared with the social processes they resemble.
  • Analysis and discussion are used to seek ways to bring about social change that would entail the involvement of the participants themselves and that focuses on concrete practical opportunities for change instead of abstract notions that depend on someone else.
  • The participants prepare mentally for returning home and dealing with the discrepancy between their newly acquired sense of empowerment and motivation to fight for a more just society and the apathetic environment that awaits them at home.

What the training will amount to also depends on the approach of the people running it. It may have results contrary to those presented here if the approach fundamentally departs from the principle of nonviolence.

The Principle of Nonviolence at the Heart of the Approach to Peacebuilding Training

The methods presented in this Handbook are neutral in terms of values. They do not contribute to peacebuilding in and of themselves, nor do they necessarily help people learn to address conflicts in a nonviolent manner. What is more, the same methods with a different approach and a different set of values directing the training process, if at odds with a dedication to nonviolence, can be very destructive and result in deepening prejudice, hurting the participants and dismantling trust. Peacebuilding and nonviolent conflict transformation are not aided by the methods used at the training, but rather by the system of values espoused by the training team. The role of the trainers in that respect is not to present the values of nonviolence, but to live them. Respecting the inherent dignity of all people, upholding equality, encouraging everyone to find their space and supporting them throughout this process are all ways to put into practice the values of nonviolence. Furthermore, members of the training team have the same rights as all other participants in the discussions, they wait their turn to express their opinion and have no right of precedence. The training team is responsible for managing the process, but in terms of the actual activities, they participate just like anyone else, relating their experiences, thoughts and feelings on an equal footing; they do not assess the participants, but instead encourage a distribution of responsibility for the joint work being done and take care to manage the burden of authority that comes with their role so as not to encroach on the space and freedom of others. The training team should also make room for disagreement and understanding different viewpoints among members, not as a pre-arranged performance but as a real space that can serve as an example to others. This is because criticism and self-criticism are essential components of that readiness to re-examine which lies at the heart of nonviolent action.

Experiential exercises are set up so as to demand action from the participants in a way that simulates everyday life, and the exercises are then evaluated find out different actions are seen as constructive, useful or harmful – e.g. which disrupt the process of understanding and trustbuilding or even provoke violent feelings among some participants. Often this joint analysis of behaviours and interactions can at first cause a feeling of embarrassment, anger, hurt and/or a feeling of being manipulated by the trainers, because participants are brought to see their own behaviour as something they do not like. On the other hand, participants at the receiving end of such behaviours may come to see the evaluation as a righteous comeuppance, a moral victory on their part, thereby consciously or unconsciously inciting competition among the participants. In addition to defining “correct” and  “incorrect”  behaviour,  such  competition also  entails  moral  censure  and  moral  superiority. This introduces a whole new level that is no less important than the initial input provided by the experiential exercise. The training team must bear this in mind and manage it with just as much care as the experiential exercise. It is paramount (especially at the start of the training) to deal with issues of how we experience our own mistakes and those of others and what kinds of reactions they provoke in us. Participants should be reminded that seeing mistakes is the first step to self-improvement, the kind of improvement where we don’t aim to be better than others but instead better towards others and towards ourselves. If we manage to overcome the learned model of behaviour where life is just about competing with others and fighting for narrow personal interests, we will glimpse a different world, an opportunity to actively participate in building a more just society. This shift in thinking is by no means easy and is far from the path of least resistance, because it is likely to be met by a lack of understanding and discord within our own environments, but it will also provide opportunities for cooperation with people of similar convictions across conflict divides, for giving and receiving support and mutual inspiration, and for transforming conflict.

The aim of the training is, on the one hand, to give people the opportunity to become aware of injustices they were blind to before and then to encourage them to open up conflicts in situations where they see an injustice, but to do so constructively, nonviolently, without the intention to humiliate, defeat or destroy the other side. The principle of nonviolence that is fundamental to peacebuilding training asks that we respect the human dignity of our opponents and make it an integral part of any action against injustice. The aim is to remove injustice by trying to win over those opposing us, those who either knowingly or unknowingly support the injustice, and turn them into allies. Refusing to define those we come into conflict with as enemies is the basic premise of this approach.

A set up in which we see ourselves or our group as good and just and naturally inclined towards justice, in contrast to our unjust and evil enemies, replicates the very matrix that produces injustice and stands in opposition to the principle of nonviolence. Attitudes toward righteousness account for the main difference between an approach based on the principle of nonviolence and an approach that can sometimes be found in groups who deal with human rights issues, who usually employ narrow legal definitions of victims and perpetrators, who can often be found collectively condemning and labelling, and who tend to see their opponents as enemies and judge them from a moral high ground. Peace activism is incompatible with the role of the righteous man or woman working towards a moral victory. The difference in approach to the shared aim of building a more just society can also be reduced to the presence or absence of a belief that most people are able to recognise injustice.

Training Objectives

The objectives of the training are defined depending on the group, the available time and the given context, as well as what will happen after the training and how much support or follow-up is feasible. It goes without saying that the thematic focus will also influence how objectives are defined, but every training has its beginning and end, and its sequence of steps in order to lead to the desired outcome.

It is not uncommon, of course, to see training organised in a disorderly way, or a seminar organised over the weekend and called a training, but such actions are ill-conceived endeavours by inexperienced people. You cannot expect people to work closely together and expose themselves to difficulties while cooperating with the “enemies” unless they have gained sufficient experience of difficult dialogue that leads to trust and builds the foundations for cooperation. This kind of connectedness is an integral part of motivation and such changes cannot occur overnight or in two days. Also, everyone works through experiences at their own pace and different people will have different reactions, which means that both enthusiasm and the seemingly opposite reaction of hesitancy can result from the same experience, but still serve as the precondition for thorough and long-term change.

The training does not aim to change people but to provide them with an opportunity to re- examine their beliefs, their social role, attitudes and behaviours. The training creates the necessary conditions by becoming a safe space, not in the sense that feelings of fear, hurt or hatred will be glossed over, but, quite the opposite, a space where expressing feelings and views will be free and enabled, to encourage not competition but understanding. The training does not impose views because the aim is for people to learn to resist views that are imposed on them and instead to re- examine themselves and recognise what they take as given and how much truth they truly find in the views they have espoused.

The aim of the training is for people to learn to understand others as well as themselves and their own feelings, and to channel their (re)actions in a way that will not pose a threat either to themselves or to others. Communication, understanding and conflict transformation are essential to peacebuilding, while constructively addressing the legacy of a violent past means contextualising peacebuilding, situating it within its necessary field of action. The objective itself is defined as a commitment to a process rather than as a final outcome, which means learning that there is no end to learning and self-reflection, that your “righteous” solutions or views are worthless if your neighbour does not see them as such. And that even our jointly created state of affairs (that we are satisfied with) is worthless if it does not have room for someone else to challenge it or if we ourselves do not re-evaluate it when we notice that it is no longer fit for purpose. The objective is to remain vigilant about injustice and to work in solidarity to remove it. The training functions as an intensive process of self-reflection in which the participants are ultimately free to espouse views that are in line with their own sense of what is just, and to do so without inhibitions, free from the judgement and authority of the training team. There is, of course, the assumption and expectation that once people recognise the ways in which they support or tolerate injustice against others, they will change how they act. But they themselves must decide how, when – and even if – they will take that step.

Scope and Limitations of Training

Training is a powerful tool for social change because it provides individuals with the opportunity

  • undergo a process of self-reflection and re-examine their own views,
  • acquire dialogue and cooperation experience with people from the “enemy” community,
  • gain knowledge about their own social context from the point of view of others,
  • acquire practical skills in communication, cooperation, conflict analysis and social change through activism,
  • link into stronger cross-border communities based on common values re-examined during the process of communication and cooperation on the most difficult and most painful issues from their respective communities, and
  • be encouraged to engage in activism for the purpose of constructively resolving social conflicts and building a more just society.

Not every peacebuilding training will be the same and it will not leave the same impression on every individual participant. That is why the issue of the scope and limitations is crucial when choosing the methodology to measure impact. The short-term effect is usually encouragement, even enthusiasm, because people experience something they had thought impossible – seeing so-called enemies work together and recognise in each other a commitment to equity. Another short-term effect is the suspicion of home environments, usually expressed as: “What did they do to you over there?”, diminished support in the local community, and the resulting heightened feeling of loneliness or hopelessness that often stretches into the medium term.

The precondition to social change is a process of personal change that can only take place when it stems from personal conviction. If in a professional capacity I advocate anti-discrimination attitudes, but do not uphold them in private, then my credibility is void and so is any chance of me being able to create space for personal change: the vast majority of people can ascertain credibility through the process of interaction at the training, and this is the basis for building trust, respect and possible cooperation.

That is why it is very important to clarify that in terms of professions (reporters or educators) people understand that they will not be participating as representatives of their profession but as complete individuals whose personal and professional integrity are inseparable. The fact that someone may use their profession to conceal their own convictions should not cause too much concern.