Forgiveness in Northern Ireland: Facing the Truth

The BBC documentary presentation, Facing the Truth (2013) tells the story of the beginning of reconciliation between estranged parties that experienced ongoing strife and political, ethnic and sectarian violence, referred to as ‘The Troubles’, in Northern Ireland that began in the 1960’s. This conflict was primarily political, such that Unionists and Loyalists, who were mostly Protestants by faith, wanted to remain as part of the United Kingdom.  However, the Irish Nationalists and Republicans, who were mostly Roman Catholic by faith, wanted Northern Ireland to break away from the United Kingdom and join with the Irish Republic.  In this documentary, South African social rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Archbishop Desmond Tutu moderated a ‘difficult conversation’[1] between convicted extremists and victims from both sides of ‘The Troubles’.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu used very specific peace-building skills as he moderated these talks.  One important skill that he used is his knowledge of body language and mannerisms.  Body language often speaks volumes.  For instance, body language communicated a great deal when maimed constable Michael Patterson met with Irish Republican Army (IRA) unit leader Tommy McCristal.  Mr. Patterson entered the discussion forum with lightness, exhibiting an air of confidence, and he was smiling with bright eyes as he took his seat.  When Mr. McCristal entered the room, a few moments later, his mannerisms indicated that he was distressed.  He had an air of arrogance that communicated self-consciousness and defensiveness.  His eyes looked worried and sad.  He was clearly uncomfortable with the situation.  Mr. Patterson was filmed looking directly at Mr. McCristal, examining him closely, inquiringly.  It is clear that the men were at odds with one another.  Yet Desmond Tutu’s demeanor was one of soft-spokenness, kindness, openness, and acceptance.  He presented himself as non-judgmental.  By these actions, he offered a safe space and opportunity for each ‘side’ of the conflict to tell his version of the story, and to do so without defensiveness.

Constable Patterson entered the conversation in a very different frame of mind than did Mr. McCristal.  Patterson, when asked, did not identify himself as a victim of a terrorist attack but as being injured in the line of duty, instead. His role as a police officer allowed him to view his injuries through a lens of dignity and self-respect. While in contrast, McCristal identified himself as a victim.  He said that the reason that he joined the IRA was because he was attempting to create unity and to change an unjust system.  He spoke of a need to walk the streets and of very few jobs. From this view, it seems that the Irish Nationalists were experiencing economic inequality that they wanted to redress. McCristal justified the violent actions of the IRA saying, “we had an objective here, and it was to create a united country (Facing the Truth, 2013).”  It was this attitude of victimhood that permitted McCristal to target members of the British armed forces with violent protest actions. An attitude of victimhood led to violent actions and years of being stuck in emotional turmoil for McCristal, while an attitude of acceptance of injury allowed Patterson take responsibility and move on with his life.

Although McCristal initially justified violent retaliation to injustice, he said that he began to question his role with the IRA when he participated in the killing of two of his neighbors, John Graham and John Hana. He knew these men well, and felt sorrow for their deaths and their families’ resulting loss and pain. He said that he realized that they were “filling the graveyards” but that no one was “winning” and there “had to be an alternative” to the violent methods for protest and social change (Facing the Truth, 2013.).  McCristal expressed a desire to find a point that they could all agree on and move forward, admitting that they were not there yet, but hopefully they would get there.  It was the realization of the humanness of John Graham and John Hana that led McCristal to question the armed struggles, or ‘The Troubles’, as they were called.

Patterson also expressed a desire to move away from conflict.  He stressed the need for acknowledgement and acceptance of responsibility.  He said, when questioned, that McCristal’s doubting of his past actions was OK, and that it is “where they are” although “it doesn’t bring back my arms” but “if that is where they are in their healing process, that is OK” (Facing the Truth, 2013.). Patterson, even though he lost so much when he lost his arms, was able to have a positive attitude because he was able to accept and take responsibility for the situation in which he currently found himself.

An attitude of acceptance seems to be a key factor in aiding a process of forgiveness and healing.  When McCristal heard Patterson discuss this acceptance without a desire for retaliation, he seemed to become more hopeful saying, “maybe we are going to achieve something here” with “more people thinking like that . . . maybe that’s how we are going to achieve something (Facing the Truth, 2013.).”  Both men communicated a willingness to accept what is, and be accountable to what has been done.  Both men feared that if reconciliation was not achieved in their generation that the younger generation would repeat history.  Both Patterson and McCristal expressed a desire to reconcile and a willingness to take on that responsibility as a way to not pass this struggle on to future generations.  It seems that, in this circumstance, a willingness to take on responsibility grew out of an attitude of acceptance.

In another discussion between victims and offenders of the Irish ‘Troubles’ that was moderated by Archbishop Tutu, involved family members of a slain teenager and a convicted murderer of a different teen who was murdered decades earlier.  This discussion involved the family of eighteen-year-old Gavin Bret, who was a child of a mixed Catholic/Protestant marriage.  Members of the Ulster Defense Association (UDA), a loyalist paramilitary and vigilante group, murdered him in a drive-by shooting in 2001 because they assumed he was Catholic.  This discussion also involved Alex Calderwood, a UDA member who at seventeen years of age, twenty-one years before the murder of Gavin Bret, murdered another teenager, Alex Reid, because he was Catholic.  Mr. Calderwood met with Gavin Bret’s family after having served his jail sentence.

At the beginning of the meeting, Gavin’s father Michael questioned, “Why do these things occur? (Facing the Truth, 2013).” Alex Calderwood felt the need to start at the beginning, discussing when and where he was born, providing context by doing so.  He did not like to admit at that present time that he was raised to be a bigot and hating Catholics, whom he believed at that time were all members of the IRA.  He said that he joined the UDA at sixteen years of age because it provided him with ‘identity’ as signified by a blue jacket with a fur collar.  Wearing that jacket meant that he was “one of the big boys (Facing the Truth, 2013).” Calderwood said that he “wanted to be the same as everyone else” and he admitted, “I joined because I wanted to kill Catholics, and I don’t make no bones about that (Facing the Truth, 2013).” He explained that at seventeen and a half years of age, he was drinking heavily at clubs and this was when he came across a group of Catholics who were being detained by other UDA members.   The others left and he was alone with one of the Catholic boys, and Calderwood explained to Gavin’s family, “I set myself up as judge, juror and executioner and took that young man’s life (Facing the Truth, 2013).”  He said that he believed at that time that the Catholics would have responded to him in the same way.  It was clear by Calderwood’s discussion that he was young and impressionable and he was acting on social prejudices that he had learned.  It was also clear that his attitudes and beliefs had changed since his youth.

Calderwood’s attitudes toward the Catholic community changed while he was incarcerated.  He, at twenty-five years of age, requested the governor to provide to him a teacher so that he could learn to read and write.  When he began reading, he gained information about Catholics that he did not have access to before.  For example, he learned that not all Catholics were members of the IRA. He also learned that Catholics were people, too, who had families that they cared for, and who cared for them. Up until the time he learned to read, he was dependant on the information that was provided by others, in order to form his opinions.  Receiving instruction in reading has allowed Mr. Calderwood the opportunity to learn and make decisions based on what he has learned, and this has altered how he views the conflict in Northern Ireland.  He now wishes to be a part of the healing process.

Key elements that led to the seemingly amicable conclusion of these discussions were the creation of a safe space for the sharing of each side of the story and the result of skillful and effective moderation of the discussion.  The issues were very sensitive ones, that were likely to lead to defensiveness and continued conflict. For example, when Calderwood stated in a rather matter of fact way that the reason that he hated and killed Catholics was because that was how he was brought up, Gavin’s father replied that he could not understand that.   Calderwood attempted explain again, justifying his position, but was interrupted by a moderator who acknowledged Mr. Bret’s feelings and position, “But he is saying that he can’t understand that (Facing the Truth, 2013).” That was an important moment. The feelings and position of an injured party need to be heard and acknowledged as valid.  When Gavin’s motherPhyllis said that Calderwood came across as very complacent, she also explained her own position of facing discrimination and yet still being able to respond with love, as evidenced by her own mixed marriage.  The Brets have chosen to overcome their past and love one another, despite their differences, and from their perspective, they cannot understand the degree of hatred that shaped Calderwood’s actions.  Mr. Calderwood offered a sincere apology, “I can assure you from my own perspective that I am very deeply sorry for any hurt that I have caused anyone during my time growing up, and I do apologize that I have come across as complacent because I certainly didn’t mean to do that (Facing the Truth, 2013.).” This was a very sensitive issue, but when conflicting parties are provided with a safe place and an effective method of communication, in order to share their differing perspectives, there is greater likelihood that they will be able to arrive at a common understanding that may lead to a process of healing and reconciliation.  This is what took place between Calderwood and the Bret family.

The creation of a safe place and effective communication process is what the talks with Archbishop Desmond Tutu are designed to provide. Archbishop Desmond Tutu began the discussions by speaking about the need for honesty.  He said that he was honored to be part of this healing process and welcomed the presence of all there.  He offered the first opportunity to speak to the victim, and he listened to the story of the ‘offender’ next.  The moderators probed with questions to bring out the perspective of each party. In this way, through honest, open, authentic and respectful communication, a third and more complete story emerged that was inclusive of many perspectives.  From this, both ‘sides’ of the conflict learned of each other’s experience and feelings and they each departed from the meeting with a more complete understanding as a result of their candid and respectful discussions.  This atmosphere of safety, honesty, openness, acceptance, and respect assisted the parties on both sides of the conflict to overcome longstanding lies and silence.  The creation of a safe place and effective method for honest and open communication between estranged parties is an important element of a peace-building process.


Facing the Truth (1 of 2). (2013). (Archbishop Desmond Tutu Moderates Talks with Extremists and Victims on both sides of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland) [Audiovisual Material]. Retrieved from

Stone, D., & Patton, B. (2010). Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. Penguin.

[1] ‘Difficult conversations’ is a term coined by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Sheen, members of the Harvard Negotiation Project, in their straightforward guide to negotiation and conflict resolution, Difficult Conversations:  How to Discuss What Matters Most (2010).

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Book Review: Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters MostDifficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Effective communication is important in daily life and in formal negotiations, yet conflict and therefore difficult conversations, is a normal part of human experience. For this reason, the need to learn successful communication skills so that we can better deal with the difficult conversations, which we all sometimes need to face, is quite clear. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most (Stone, Patton & Heen, 2010) is the result of years of work at the Harvard Negotiation Project, whose mission is to improve the theory and practice of conflict resolution and negotiation. In this text, the authors have explored those things that make certain types of conversations difficult, why folks tend to avoid these difficult conversations, and why they sometimes tend to handle them poorly. Additionally, Stone, Patton and Heen have provided a communication method, a particular conversational style, to be used as a guide in order to develop one’s own conversation style in a way that improves one’s opportunity of obtaining better outcomes from difficult conversations. This book is effective in making conflict resolution theory real to its readers. The authors do this by examining the structure of and then decoding difficult conversations, they help readers to understand how to reposition their ‘stance’ to be more open, and they also offer metaphors and real-life examples to demonstrate clearly, the results of their research. This book is written in an easy-going conversational style that makes it simple for readers to follow and understand the elements of conflict negotiation theory that the authors share.

Difficult Conversations is a straightforward guide that can be used for gaining the skills that are crucial in order to better deal with difficult conversations, such as asking for a raise, terminating an employee, or discussing family conflicts. The intent of the authors was twofold. It was, on the one hand, to help individuals find a way to break through difficult relationship dilemmas, while on the other hand, it was to fill a broader organizational need for change and adaptation that is an intrinsic component of an ever increasingly competitive, technologically advanced, and globalized world. The roadmap that these authors used combines a way of thinking about the particular conflict issues with a certain manner of speaking and listening, or conversational style. The goal of this conversation style is that we may initially understand, to a greater degree than before, the complex nature of conflict, and then because of this we will be better positioned to begin a difficult conversation. Additionally, it is the authors’ intent that we learn how to do this while minimizing stress. It is also their purpose that we learn how to keep the conversation constructive and focused on effective outcomes that, many times, lead to real problem solving. The authors have described how these conflict resolution techniques may be effectively applied to both interpersonal relationships and how they may also be applied at an organizational level in order to shape improved difficult conversations.

One way that Stone, et al. (2010), make real the results of their research on the theories and practice of conflict resolution and negotiation is that they have ‘decoded’ the structure of difficult conversations, revealing that there is more to a difficult conversation than what one says and what one hears. This concept is explained as a difficult conversation actually being three separate conversations that take place simultaneously. They describe the ‘what happened’ conversation as one that involves disagreement between parties and as one that concerns what events took place. The feelings conversation is about uncovering and acknowledging the emotions of each party, while the identity conversation is an internal dialogue concerning what one wishes to believe, and what one wishes to present about himself/herself to others. In addition to the three conversations, the authors explain, there are also three stories running concurrently with these conversations. There is one story (and perspective) for each participant, plus a neutral story that sees and understands from a neutral point of view. Each of these stories contains its own version of the ‘what happened’ conversation, the feelings conversation, and the identity conversation. Examining the structure of a conflict reveals the many perspectives, the identity issues, and the need to have one’s feelings acknowledged. It also reveals that all of this is tied to each point of view. Finally, when all of these elements and perspectives are combined together, this makes up a more complete picture and understanding of reality than what one might otherwise consider without having applied the practice of conflict resolution methods. Understanding the structure of a difficult conversation helps one to develop a more neutral and realistic view of a difficult communication so that he or she may enter such a conversation in such a way that it has a better chance of being well received.

A second way that Stone, et al. (2010), make real conflict negotiation theory is by the use of metaphors. For instance, in their introduction to the book, they compared a difficult conversation to war, when they wrote that there is “no way to throw a hand grenade with tact or to outrun the consequences (p. xxx).” The metaphor they used paints a violent image of the conflicts that can sometimes arise from difficult conversations. This assists the readers to appreciate that how they choose to use their words is critically important. The metaphor helps readers to better realize that if used ineffectively, words might be construed as an attack.

Additionally, Stone, et al., also explain that in order to prevent a message from being interpreted as an attack, one can consider, and possibly adjust, one’s negotiation stance. They present having a difficult conversation as, not so much one of ‘delivering a message’, but instead as one in which folks are engaged in a ‘learning conversation’ instead. They illustrate the fundamentals of the learning conversation: the need to know the purpose for entering the conversation; the reasons why one should enter the conversation from a neutral perspective; the value of using good listening skills; the importance of expressing oneself clearly; and finally, the goal of problem solving. They sometimes teach methods that at first seem counter-intuitive, such as, that in order to be heard, one must first learn to listen well and practice good listening skills oneself, then the other party is more likely to respond by listening in return. They show us that by entering a conversation with curiosity and the intention to learn about the other party we may find that their perspective is real and perhaps even valid, too.

Lastly, there are many real-life examples of the communication methods that Stone, et al., suggest. For example, instead of entering a conversation from one’s own (limited and judgmental) perspective, that begs a return defense such as, “Listen, Michael, say what you will, but the problem on that financial brochure was that after all the work I did, you treated me badly, and you know it!” one could instead use an approach that comes from a more inclusive third, or neutral perspective, such as, “Michael, I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened between each of us on the financial brochure. I found the experience frustrating, and I suspect you did as well (Stone, et al., 2010, p. 221).” It is clear that the second example has the potential to be much more effective because it is much less confrontational. Real life examples such as these allow the reader to witness the theory in action as a real-life dialogue. They can even perhaps internalize their own reactions to such statements and ‘feel’ which might be more effective.

In all of these ways, the authors bring to life the theory of conflict resolution and negotiation and make the practice real for their readers. They have decoded the structure of a difficult conversation, and by the use of metaphors and real-life examples, they help readers to understand exactly why and how they should enter a difficult conversation as though it were a learning conversation. The result is that the reader is able to see how communication is much more than just delivering and receiving messages, because they can then see how it also consists of learning about and relating to one another in a more real and authentic way, which then leads to collaborative problem-solving.

I am grateful to these authors for making their research so accessible in an easy to read format that provides real life examples that bring conflict resolution and negotiation theory to life in a truly meaningful way. As a result of reading Difficult Conversations, I have begun to notice a transformation in my own thought process. This is altering the ways in which I think about others, and myself and this has changed the ways in which I interact with others, too. For example, I no longer assume that because I know that I am right, and because ‘their’ view is different from mine, therefore, they must be wrong. Instead, I am able to take an ‘and stance’ and by doing this I can see how both perspectives theirs and mine, may have validity. I can also now see the difference between the intent of a message sent and the impact of a message received. Therefore I am less likely to assume that I know what another’s intent is, based solely on the impact that I happen to feel. I now take all of this new knowledge into account when I deal with others. I have begun to effectively use this knowledge in my own interpersonal relations at home and at work to diffuse potentially difficult and stressful conversations. I have become more effective at maintaining a constructive conversation that is focused on effective outcomes, and I have, as a result, become a better problem-solver. It is clear that the authors have been very effective in meeting their goal of offering a way to help both individuals and organizations by offering them a method that breaks though difficult relationship dilemmas. For that, I am truly thankful.

Stone, D., & Patton, B. (2010). Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. Penguin.

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© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.