Painful truths need skilled communicators


Ulrike Schmid

Communicating painful truths without making other people’s learning processes more difficult – especially for those persons for whom it would be so important to understand what is being told.

It is decisive that the events of the past – often highly traumatic experiences – become accessible. But who would want to recognise themselves in such images of devastation? Especially if as individuals or a community, they bear some or most of the responsibility or did so in the past? How is it possible to talk about conflicted history without triggering resistance or even denial?

The first step towards consensus-based justice

Some people have a way with words: the skills to describe unimaginable suffering – including their own, even the suffering on the perpetrators’ side – and convey these realities, their own and others’, in such a way that most people are able to absorb and accept them.

Out of a willingness to stop denying, what may then evolve is the willingness – the desire – to understand how everything could go so badly wrong. This understanding is also the first step towards recognition of responsibility, towards non-recurrence and also towards non-retribution. And it is one of the first steps towards equitable and therefore (more) consensus-based justice.

The right words – what is said and how it is said – can bring about this transformation when facing the past. Local stakeholders who have the skills and the willingness to do this will have experienced this past themselves and have found a way to deal with it: they have reached a point of clarity. These people are a precious resource for their societies and for their efforts to deal with the past.

Those keepers of history lack support

In this blog, Constantin Goschler emphasises that historical narratives should not only be negotiated by experts. The local public must be consistently involved, he says, “not only as an audience but also as producers of historical meaning”.

These keepers of history are familiar with their country’s conflict – with its dynamics, its timeline and sequences over decades, its dilemmas and the related historical narratives. Often, they are older people who were themselves victims of violence and/or who lost family members. In some cases, members of their own families bear some responsibility for the violence, either through their own actions and decisions or because they failed to act. Unlike the problem-solving Counselling Teams, these skilled communicators operate at the discourse – the narrative – level.

They cannot perform this work – writing, story-telling, answering questions on the radio, in schools or before public bodies – all on their own. They need support – and sometimes they need help to deal with the stresses and strains of this role.

In addition, they need backing from others in the public sphere – journalists, members of civil society, (local) politicians, and historians at national and local level – who are willing to act as facilitators and as intermediaries of this history. Often, these stakeholders have not (yet) acquired the skills to communicate painful truths constructively. In their articles, programmes and discourses, it is apparent that they are working hard to be a thoughtful and moderating presence, even if the sensitivity of some topics means that they do not always succeed. It is obvious when they are triggered – when despite their efforts to engage in dialogue, they start to struggle and lose control.

International partners underestimate the pressure on local stakeholders

The constant strain that tensions and recurring crises place on local stakeholders is exhausting. This exhaustion is underestimated by international partners. The frequent oscillation between hope, overly high expectations and frustration wears people down – even these key stakeholders who are working for de-escalation in politics, civil society and the media.

The Nicaraguan psychologist Martha Cabrera criticises this blind spot in projects: local stakeholders are meant to help create more stability for a traumatised community, but it is often forgotten that they themselves are part of the community and may be themselves often affected by its challenges.

They need support, not only technical capacity building. They need support to develop the skills they need to cope with the pressure and manage the stress caused by their engagement.

The challenge – identifying skilled communicators

Can the German Government provide targeted support for these processes? Yes: the Federal Foreign Office can do so through acute crisis prevention and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) through its efforts to safeguard sustainability.

This takes time, although often not as much as we might think. The most important prerequisites that candidates must bring with them are a modicum of experience and the right attitude. The rest – conscious nonviolent communication, moderation and mediation, stress management with psychoeducation and the ability to recognise one’s own limits and deal with situations that push these boundaries – can be learned and developed with the help of mentors or networks.

The challenge: Identifying people who are – or who have the potential to become – skilled communicators.

Within the FriEnt member organisations and Civil Peace Service (CPS) Consortium, there are individuals who have spent many years in the field and understand the conflict timeline, the dilemmas and historical narratives. And there are those who have the necessary – peace-promoting – attitude, who know some of these keepers of history and can work with them during project scoping to identify others with this potential.

Capacity building for communicators, with external process support as a protective and nurturing framework, can help to de-escalate conflict dynamics in the public discourse if it provides targeted assistance for stakeholders who work in strategic areas that interface with the public, such as the media, or who are actively engaged as opinion leaders at local and national level.

Tackling hate speech and discourses that deny the past is a long-term task. So it is important to act quickly in order to find an alternative frame of reference, particularly for young people.

Dealing with history through commissions, writing history books, training teachers who support the new approach to history – all of these are essential for sustainability in dealing with the past. But they take time. Unlike these institutional approaches, which are not feasible during the precarious transition stage, capacity building achieves rapid results.

Time is pressing – the flow of digital information is already reaching the villages

History is now exploding into people’s lives via the Internet. In rural communities, digital technologies and smartphones are bringing this complex and highly conflicted history, with all its versions, interpretations and shortcuts, to the people – and especially to a young generation who, in many cases, are completely unprepared for it.

You do not need hate speech to heighten tensions. The “truth” is enough – for young people in these countries often have no idea about the events of the past. All they know is the official version, written by the past, present or successor regime and passed on in history lessons.

Some young people will have heard about torture and death within their own families – and learned that it is imperative to keep silent. Often, the culture of silence is so deep-rooted that even young people who are interested in their countries’ history do not know that their grandparents, their aunts or uncles were victims – or perpetrators.

Now this history is shared on the Internet in a highly politicised struggle against impunity or by victim groups who are keen to establish the truth. This important work can clash with non-recurrence in the conflict context.

Young people may spot names of family members on lists of victims – or perhaps they see a classmate‘s family name on a list of perpetrators, or vice versa.

And those for whom repression was a legitimate form of defence also speak out with their interpretations of history. Young people are told – sometimes very effectively – that it was (and is) necessary and that it was right to torture and murder the enemies of the nation. The challenge posed by these gatekeepers can only be guessed at.

What is left is the public space, where skilled communicators explain that before truth and justice are achieved, it is essential – and possible – to navigate this field of tension and why and how it can be done and that it can be done. History needs people – people with the skills to deal with history.

First published at PeaceLabBlog 20 December 2018

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Issue: Diversity/Dialogue

a. Peacebuilding requires the integration of conflicting narratives. To that end, these narratives must be transformed/made “fit for peace”. How can this be achieved?
b. How can diverse perspectives be made visible in social discourse – or in a museum? What is the connecting element in this diversity? How can relativism and arbitrariness be excluded?


Ulrike Schmid works as a freelance researcher and consultant on peacebuilding in West Africa. Her focus includes dialogue & reconciliation as well as exploratory missions on capacity building in stress management at the military and as a part of security sector reforms (SSR).