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Human science bolsters peace mediators in their work

Published on Tuesday, 14 January 2020

The job of the peace mediator is to act as an interface – a sort of user interface – between the parties to a conflict. The success of the work demands that the peace mediator has the ability to understand the parties as psychological and cognitive individuals and groups, whose actions are determined by different goals, needs, emotions, and designs. The basis of a successful peace process is trust. But how do you build it?

CMI’s Communications Officer Antero Karvonen.

Trust is the most important single factor for a functioning peace process and durable peace. Trust in the mediator, trust in the peace process itself, and trust between the parties involved. In a peace processes, trust has to be earned and it will only be built up over time. It can also break down in a flash. But unless you have it, it’s impossible to achieve a lasting peace.

Without some degree of trust, it is difficult for the parties to a conflict to make moves towards peace, because such moves always entail risk. The greater the risk, the greater the degree of trust required. As with a disarmament process, there is an enormous risk to either side, and it can’t be made without trust in the fairness of the end result and in the rules of the game.

Trust is a cognitive phenomenon

What is trust? It is hard to articulate an exhaustive definition. The reason is obvious: concrete trust is a synthetic judgment that combines a number of different factors in different cases and situations. It involves cultural, contextual, historical, social, individual, psychological, cognitive – even neurobiological influences.

What is common to different manifestations of trust is its psychological quality: trust is ultimately an individual experience. It can therefore be subject to psychological and cognitive concepts and understanding. With cognition, individuals evaluate, present, and judge things and events for themselves. Cognition combines sensory perception, emotion, knowledge, and action into a cohesive entity that yields synthetic judgments, such as trust. Trust is always a combination of different factors, so it must be constructed from multiple angles simultaneously. The two key factors at play are emotion and reason.

Why do we trust?

Trust is based on emotion and reason. In human thought the two sides merge, which means that both must be encouraged. The skilled mediator creates situations where emotional, social and rational trust between the parties can begin to take root.

For example, dialogues are not just technical discussions in a conference room, rather the role of the mediator also extends to coffee breaks, dinners, and other more casual social situations. In part, the role of the mediator is to facilitate human interaction, which lays the foundation for social and emotional trust.

The rational facet of trust is constructed differently. There is a need for a shared history of commitments and small or large gestures between the parties, the sum of which will lead to rationally based trust. Small but successful partial solutions can have a deeper role than is readily apparent. Their implementation creates a basis for resolving more difficult issues.

The best results are achieved when confidence is built keeping in mind both dimensions. For the peace mediator, this requires careful planning, an understanding of human thinking, and the sensitivity to respond to situations that require them.

Broader trust needed than only between the parties involved

There must also be trust in relation to the peace mediator and the peace process.

The parties’ confidence in the peace mediator is generated through such things as the peace mediator’s frankness, openness, impartiality, and competence. Reputation and prior expectations are also decisive. Indeed, CMI’s work is largely based on its reputation as an impartial and honest broker. Legitimate trust in peace mediators and the organisations they represent is the anchor of the peace process, which at best provides a safe harbour when there is a conflict defined by deep distrust and uncertainty.

Such examples demonstrate that professional conflict resolution requires multi-disciplinary and versatile expertise. Political or conflict analysis alone is not enough; social and psychological skills are required to build and maintain trust between parties. Such work is made easier by applying scientific knowledge of the principles of human thought.

This article was originally published in Finnish in Vieraskynä section of Uusi Suomi. The article is part of a collaboration started by CMI and Uusi Suomi.