No Conflict, No Reconciliation

By Gene Knudsen Hoffman
Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 29 No. 3, Summer 1989

[Editor’s introduction — 1989:]  GENE KNUDSEN HOFFMAN has been a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation for more than 30 years and has written articles for its magazine Fellowship.  She now serves on its Advisory Council. In 1983 she created its U.S.-U.S.S.R. Reconciliation Program. Her early life was devoted to the arts: theater and writing. She has been an actress, columnist, feature writer, and author of an autobiography, From Inside the Glass Doors.  She received her M.A. in Pastoral Counseling and in 1967 cofounded the Santa Barbara Night Counseling Center.  In 1978 she founded the Gathering Place Peace Resource Center for nonviolent action. Today it has become the Peace Resource Center of Santa Barbara.  This affiliation led her to visit peace centers in Western Europe, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Japan, and Israel.  Upon her return she wrote articles and made two national speaking tours describing her experiences.  Her most significant teachers are her seven sons and daughters and two grandchildren, who helped her to recognize the need for peace for all children.

    The fields for reconciliation are vast.  Few of them are seeded. Reconciliation seems always something we are going to get to — tomorrow. I see conflict as the hidden wound of today.  Wherever I have worked, wherever I have lived, there has been this secret sore, unacknowledged, draining our energies. 

    Personal conflict means people see things differently and both people feel they are right.  Other times people are in different predicaments and have opposing needs.  There is no single cause of conflict, but it usually results in anger.  I think anger is a message that something is threatening us and we feel helpless. Conflict is not the threat, although how we handle it can be.  It can be either energizing or debilitating.  Conflict can be a significant teacher.  Through it we may come to reconciliation. Reconciliation is the bringing together of that which has been sundered, set apart. How might we resolve conflict?  How do we bring separated people together again?  Here are some Ways: 

    First we need to understand that there is often a deep fear of exposing differences and admitting conflict. The admission of differences and conflict in a relationship often shakes our comfortable assumptions.  How often do we stay with the hurtful familiar instead of daring the unfamiliar? A common response to feeling hurt, rejected, or ignored is to continue in an uncomfortable denial, doggedly proceeding without resolution, smothering feelings, seeking to make things right by being nice.  Often we peace people are so disturbed at being angry that we refuse to acknowledge conflict and try to appease.  It does not work. 

    Sometimes we try to reduce the anxiety by quick forgiveness, thinking it’s necessary to forgive and forget as rapidly as possible. This does not work either, for we deny the unresolved issues.  They remain and continue to poison the relationship. 

    Sometimes we try confrontation, which is a healthy move.  But if we do not take into account the condition of our opponent, if we do not understand his/her fears and anxieties, if we do not speak carefully to his/her condition — reconciliation does not take place. Our opponents can easily feel their share of truth is rejected, and the conflict persists. 

    When I have these first intimations of differences, discontent, or resentment, I need to honor them.  I must not discard them as mean, petty, or shameful.  I feel these are messages telling me something is wrong and I must look at it.  I believe my first responsibility is to seek to change myself, to deepen my understanding, to examine my motives.  Sometimes a shift in my perception can accomplish the healing. 

     If this is not enough, then I must take it to the person with whom I am in conflict and seek to settle it by care-fronting, telling the other person what is going on in me as carefully as I can.  If this doesn’t resolve the difficulties and the anger continues, it is time to ask someone to mediate the differences.  An outside person who cares for both of us and does not take sides enables me to be more responsible for what I say.  Both of us can try to talk without inflicting hurt upon one another.  Using a mediator enables us to look at unpleasant, possibly unwelcome, perceptions without feeling the compulsion to act on them.  The mediator’s presence can enable each to listen with less fear blocking the communication. 

     If the conflict cannot be resolved by these means, the next step could be to have the mediator meet separately with the conflicting parties, interpreting each to the other. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen master and peacemaker, has suggested this process: 

     Reconciliation is to understand both sides, to go to one side 
     and describe the suffering being endured by the other side; 
     then to go to the other side and describe the suffering endured 
     by the first side. 

    Of course the desirable outcome is to have both people acknowledge their differences, come to a new resolution of them, and emerge more loving than before.  If this does not happen, they probably must separate and work individually to forgive and understand the other and themselves. 

    I believe the time is here when peacemakers need to focus on reconciliation.  We are surrounded by conflicts in our lives and in the world. I find many of our efforts to resolve them are adversarial, which simply means they set a person or a group against another person or another group. 

    I have been looking at Central America.  It seems to me that most of our Peace actions there have been against U.S. policy and against the Contras.  I wonder if we could have done something besides oppose. (Peace Brigades and Witness for Peace did much to stand with the Nicaraguans and Guatemalans in their suffering and guide people to safe places.)  Perhaps focusing on building the new society in the United States instead of attacking the old might have begun a transformation.  Perhaps we need to be the changes we want to see in others (Nhat Hanh, 1988).  This is much harder than asking others to change, but it might reduce the fear that often leads peacemakers (in the words of Henri Nouwen, 1982) “to attack the forces of death directly and to underestimate their power …. Then the same fear that leads the war makers to war starts to affect the peacemakers; the strategy of war and the strategy of peace become the same and peacemaking has lost its heart.” 

    Here I want to share with you some of the thoughts of Adam Curie (1981), British Quaker and long-time mediator in Third World countries from his stunning booklet called True Justice. 

    He drew his inspiration from this quotation from the book of James 3:18: “True justice is the harvest reaped by peacemakers from seeds sown in the spirit of peace.”  I find it inspiring, too. 

    “I begin,” he writes, “with a concept of human nature based on the belief that there is within each of us a divine element…, and this God within is ever available, awaiting our call to help us restore the harmony …. Our access to this deep mind [of God] is blocked by the rubble of prejudices, fears, memories of hurt, confusion, humiliation, likes and dislikes. And above all, by misinformation about [the Divine presence].” 

    Adam Curle sees three present obstacles to peace that are our various stages of development.  One is the quiescent stage where the oppressed are unaware. Next is the revolutionary stage where people are aware of their oppression and want to throw it off. Last is the conflict of equals — conflicts between neighbors, businessmen, nations. “Today,” he says, “we are in the stage of revolutions.” 

     How do we approach these conflicts? 

     Believing that reconciliation is the only true basis for peace, Adam Curle recommends that we act “from awareness of the good in others [so] we will promote the expression of the good.”  This, of course, springs from remembering the divinity that exists within each human being.  In the mediation sessions we must practice “the absolute necessity: attentive listening.”  We must be “inwardly still and as receptive as possible [so we can] hear exactly what is said.” 

     If we listen in this way, “we not only ‘hear’ the other person, but we communicate with him or her through our true nature.”  And “we must remember that this true ‘nature’ exists in members of the other side, those we oppose.”  As Paolo Freire wrote of unjust people: “they, too, are maimed by what they are doing. They, too, must be rescued.” 

     The primary purpose of the peacemaker is to liberate the victim and to free the oppressors from the degradation in which they are trapped as well.  “Peacemakers [need to] affirm that they are on the side of all who are caught in the trap of war, whether as civilians, soldiers, or political leaders.  The only enemy a peacemaker may know is the belief that human problems can be solved through violence.” 

     Here I shall leave Adam Curle and consider protest and resistance versus reconciliation.  I believe protest and resistance are important.  They are not reconciliation.  They can be preludes to it.  Protest is a way of announcing that an injustice is being committed.  Protest says “Look! Help! This must change.”  It can be an act of courage that stands bravely against the violence of unjust deeds.  Resistance, like protest, is a way of saying “no.”  It is a call to awareness; it can be a first step toward nonviolent action.  All through history, saying no to an unjust power has been an act of supreme courage.  Many have died for it.  Both these may open ways to reconciliation. 

    The question before us is: “Do we soften the heart of our opposition by protest and resistance?”  My response is: rarely.  Softening the heart of our adversary seems to require other actions.  I believe that to soften the hearts of those opposed to us, we must approach them with loving concern and an effort to see things from their point of view.  In this way we may, perhaps, invite the healing presence within them into the world.  Of course we may fail, but Gandhi taught us that it is not ours to determine the fruits of our actions.  It is ours to trust that we may have planted some seeds on fertile ground, but we do not know when, if ever, they will be harvested.  “No matter how small a thing you do,” Gandhi reminds us, “it is very important that you do it.” 

     Many of us have dealt with hard hearts–often our own. Many of us have despaired of ever changing them.  Here I want to share the attitude of John Woolman, the Quaker abolitionist who lived in the 19th century.  As Daisy Newman said, “Unlike his predecessors in the anti-slavery movement, Woolman did not condemn the slave-holders.  He spoke to his hosts out of such tenderness and deep humility that they could take no offense, for it was clear that he sympathized as much with them as with the slaves.” 

     Now, for a last thought.  There is a Buddhist saying, “If you feel anger and aggression against someone, give that person a gift.”  What kinds of gifts might we bring to the Contras or Oliver North? Is there some kind of service we might perform that would acknowledge our connections instead of our separation?  Is there something we could do that would show them the humanity we wish they would show others?  Understanding?  Respect for their divine potential?  Inviting their concern for others because we express our concern for them?  Listening?  Perhaps these are gifts we can give–even to those whose actions we oppose. 

     To feel connected, encouraged, of value, with meaning–these are gifts we can give one another.  They can help restore our sanity and hope. This is the substance of reconciliation. 

     None of this will come to pass if we do not put reconciliation into practice, moment by moment, day by day. If we choose to be reconcilers, then we must choose to study and practice this work. And then we might be given the gift of transformation we are longing for. 



    1. This is a revised version of an article published in the May 1988 issue of Friends Bulletin. Reprinted with permission. 


Arnett, IL C. (1980). Dwell in peace. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press. 

Curle, A. (1981). True justice. London: Invicta Press. 

Gandhi, M. (1964). Gandhi on nonviolence. New York: New Directions. 

Knudsen Hoffman, G. (1983). Loving the stranger. New York: Fellowship. 

Knudsen Hoffman; G. (1988a). Spiritual base communities in the USA.  Madison, WI: Interhelp. 

Knudsen Hoffman, G. (1988b). Ways out, The book of changes for peace. Santa Barbara, CA: John Daniel & Co.

Nhat Hanh, T. (1987, Winter) Techniques of reconciliation. Buddhist Peace Fellowship Newsletter.

Nhat Hanh, T. (1988). Being peace. Berkeley: Parallax Press. 

Nouwen, H. (1982). The spirituality of peacemaking. Fellowship Magazine. Nyack, NY. 

Return to Gene Knudsen Hoffman Essays & Articles Homepage 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email