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C. Ford: Finding the Heart of Peace

Essay published in Dialogue & Alliance: A Journal of the Universal Peace Federation
Vol. 26, No. 1: Spring 2012

How do Palestinian and Israeli teenagers make peace through basketball and discovering the secrets of self-deception?

For the last decade the conflict resolution field has been looking at ways of going beyond mere management of conflict toward a long-term process that transforms it – peacebuilding.[1]

Transforming attitudes and ultimately behaviors of parties and communities is a significant challenge. Conflict resolution theorists and practitioners have noted for some time that a general lack of empathy, combined with the psychological changes that occur in individuals and groups as a result of hostile goals and escalation provide a major obstacle to meaningful peacebuilding.[2]

As official negotiators and politicians try to use available diplomatic tools to manage the conflict, any type of conflict resolution requires an effort to change the reality on the ground as well as in the negotiation room.

Dennis Ross, the chief American Middle East peace negotiator during the Clinton era, wrote that one of the major lessons he learned from the failed Oslo peace accords was that negotiations cannot succeed if “there is one environment at the negotiating table and another one on the street.”[3]

People-to-people programs that break down barriers between publics need to be promoted. Programs that bring together students, teachers, journalists, artists, and others in cooperative ventures are necessary for breeding greater familiarity, for making it harder to demonize, and for eroding stereotypes between the publics. All of us talked a good game when it came to people-to-people programs. Yet our investment in these programs in terms of time, money and effort was far too limited. We focused far too much on the leaders and negotiators and far too little on the publics for each side. To be sure, peace cannot be negotiated from the bottom up in these societies. But peace will not come only from the top down either.[4]

Out of this paradigm come a number of grass-roots level peace workshops and dialogue groups that attempt to change the discourse on the ground in an effort to further the goal of peacebuilding.

While there are many noble efforts going on across the globe, the jury is still out on how effective they are in the long term.[5] To engage in effective people-to-people peacebuilding, especially in areas of deep-rooted conflict, third parties have several significant obstacles to overcome in early encounters between the parties:

1. How do you create a space where parties can come together in a way that meaningfully overcomes prevailing group stereotypes and creates a sense of shared identity?

2. Once the parties engage each other, how do third parties create an atmosphere that overcomes our tendency to engage in self-justification when confronted with cognitive dissonance?

For the last two years The Arbinger Institute has been working closely with PeacePlayers International (PPI) in the Middle East in an effort to address these obstacles.

Founded by two brothers, Sean and Brendan Tuohey, in 2001, PPI’s stated goal is to bridge divides in communities through the game of basketball. They combine principles of teamwork and cross-culture encounter in an attempt to lessen stereotypes toward the other and create a sense of self awareness about how each participant plays a part in conflicts in their personal lives and in the region.

PPI has found success in conflict riddled places like Northern Ireland and South Africa. But could it make a similar impact in the Middle East?

The early results suggest that there are challenges. Why the kids who participate in the program often have profound attitudinal changes toward the enemy, that change is centered on specific relationships. In other words, an Israeli teenager may begin to see his Palestinian teammate as a person and may abandon his stereotypes toward him. However, that same Israeli teenager may continue to see the larger Palestinian population as dangerous and may continue to hold the same stereotypes toward them.

In late 2007, PPI began partnering with The Arbinger Institute to create a conflict transformation curriculum to help participants in the program broaden their perspectives by seeing more and more people from the other side as people.

Here is how it works.


There is a long-standing belief in the peace-building world that inter-group contact, mingled with sustained dialogue, can be effective in dissolving stereotypes and prejudice, creating empathy between conflicting groups.[6]

While dialogue becomes the process through which parties experience the other side’s worldview, critics argue that reduction in stereotypes and dehumanization that comes from participation in dialogue groups is temporary and that long-term change is unlikely because participants must re-enter their own worlds and face social pressures to return to societal norms.[7]

In cases of protracted, deep-rooted conflict, parties increasingly perceive the “other” as a collection of every objectionable quality known to the group. Rampant negative stereotyping and dehumanization of the other are common.[8]

In such environments, certain studies indicate that, “inter-group contact strengthens identification with the in-group and increases anxiety toward out-group members.”[9]

Favorable conditions to any group contact have to exist in order to reduce stereotypes or change hostile goals. Unstructured, casual contact isn’t enough to change negative attitudes. The contact must have some direction and purpose and be structured in such a way where intimate contact with the group takes place. The groups must have (and perceive) roughly equal status, at least during the intervention. Institutional support from the government, community, religious leaders or family is essential to the success.[10]

Most importantly, according to a number of studies, the parties must do more than talk. They must engage in activities that help them develop and pursue superordinate goals.[11]

Muzafer Sherif coined the term “superordinate goals” to describe the process by which two competing groups develop goals “which are compelling but cannot be achieved by the efforts of one group alone.”[12]

As two conflicting groups coordinate and then cooperate toward superordinate goals, Sherif found that tensions between the groups, along with the stereotypes both sides held, dissipated.[13] He concluded that group contact, even with dialogue, can lead to further argument and recriminations without superordinate goals.  However, when superordinate goals were present, communication between groups moved in the direction of reducing conflict.[14]

Favorable information about a disliked out-group tends to be ignored, rejected, or reinterpreted to fit prevailing stereotypes. But, when groups are pulling together toward superordinate goals, the out-group is seen in a new light.

Superordinate goals can help create a sense of shared identity. The two groups become, in a sense, members of a new group that is less likely to become antagonistic toward one another.

Sport is one medium through which identities can be re-imagined and cross-cutting bonds formed. Sport, writes John Hoberman, “exercises a deep hold on the human imagination which is virtually universal and which does not seem to vary from society to society at this level of emotion.”

Sport and the construction of national identities are inextricably linked. However, there are a number of ways in which sport can help create new superordinate identities. Alan Bairner argues that understanding the ability of sport to fuel ethnic nationalist identities also gives us clues concerning how to negate its influence. More importantly, advancing the cause of civic sporting identities may lead to peace since “the emotions [sports] inspire . . . may possess an integrative potential that helps people to live together more harmoniously.”

In PPI’s work, both Palestinian and Israeli participants get the opportunity to mix with each other once a week. Playing on the team with someone from the other side has had a profound effect on the participants. Instead of destroying each other they know have to find ways to work together to win.

Their play on the court has been combined with Arbinger’s conflict transformation process off the court, in an attempt to help the participants overcome self-justification.


Conflict resolution theorist John Paul Lederach writes that the key to conflict transformation is to find a way to get the parties to re-imagine themselves in a web of relationships, even with their enemies, which explores, painfully sometimes, what has happened in the past, and most importantly, what is possible in the future.[15]

The question becomes how to get parties to re-imagine themselves after years of engaging in powerful self-justifying narratives about their own and the “others’” roles in the conflict. Those narratives usually have two things in common:

1. A strong narrative about the “other” that creates “an image [of] the enemy as a single unified entity, the members of which are all equally bent upon [one’s] downfall, equally evil, and equally implacable in the their pursuit of a set of unjust and immoral goals.”[16]

2. A strong self-justification narrative that excuses negative treatment or contentious actions against the “other.” This leads to excessive blaming that places the entire fault of the conflict at the feet of the other.[17]

Combined these two narratives are an explosive mix in a dialogue setting. Any threat to the positive self-image of the group as the “right” or “humane” ones usually only serves to reify the negative stereotypes that the group originally held. Meanwhile, any positive qualities that the “other” may possess that doesn’t corroborate the stereotypes they previously held is rejected as an anomaly or perhaps a mask that the other side is wearing.

These strong psychological forces create what Arbinger calls self-deception – the problem of not knowing, and resisting the possibility, that one has a problem.[18] The implications of self-deception in the realm of social conflict are immense.  How can conflict end if both sides feel strongly that it’s the other side that needs to change?

Self-deception, and its psychological sister self-justification, become the engine that fuels, sustains, and ultimately makes conflict intractable.[19] As two parties engage in self-deception toward each other, they actual cooperate in escalating the conflict in a process called collusion.[20]

In collusion, the parties actually invite the very behaviors they say that they hate the most. At every opportunity to end the conflict, they unwittingly keep it alive. While they claim that the conflict has made them miserable, insecure and alone, the need to be right combined with the fear of admitting that they may be part of the problem keeps them from stopping the conflict cycle.[21] To quote a famous line from the Middle East peace process, they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity for peace.

Solving the self-deception problem lies at the heart of Arbinger’s work. Parties cannot engage in meaningful dialogue and problem solving without first breaking the cycle of self-deception, self-justification, and collusion.

To help kick start the process we spend two full days with the Israeli and Palestinian youth exploring these issues. Each group goes through a facilitated process that explores the contours of self-deception, self-justification and collusion in the context of our personal lives. With this understanding, they then learn how to overcome self-deception and break the cycle of mutual blame and self-justification.

The goal of the workshop is to create a space, outside the narratives of self-justification and self-deception, where the participants can look at the conflict in a new light.

Each group leaves the workshop with an assignment for the next day of group work together – can they try to see the other side as people instead of objects?

Over time, the participants meet together to apply the Arbinger model to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The two groups explore, together, the way they see each other when self-deception and self-justification take over. They then develop their own collusion model to describe how they personally participate in the escalation of the conflict.

The process ultimately leads to the participants taking turns creating a new narrative about how they see both themselves and the other in a way that encourages cooperation and continued dialogue.

The participants often report being profoundly impacted by the process.

“The material helped me to become a better human being and player,” Amir, a participant in the program said.  “It helped me to understand that we are on a team, and not one."

“I realized that I need to try to see people more as people, and to consider them as equals,” said Khaled, another participant. “It taught me how to deal with people in a better way."

Finding the Face of Peace

To get to true people-to-people peacebuilding, two elements must exist, not only among the parties enmeshed in conflict, but also within those attempting, from the outside, to build peace. Without them, peace is impossible.

The first is to provide a space where groups can re-imagine themselves in a more positive relationship with the other. Without this space, it becomes difficult to parties enmeshed in conflict to imagine any alternative to the cycle of hatred and violence they currently employ.

Second, is the ability to engage conflict in that space in a way that overcomes the obstacles of self-deception. Changing your narratives and self-justifying images isn’t easy, especially when faced with the fear that your enemy won’t change with you.  Still, blaming the other will do little to “convince” the other side that they need to change.

To get to true change requires humility, self-awareness, and a sense of interdependence. These acts emerge from a voice that says in the simplest of terms: “I am part of this pattern. My choices and behaviors affect it.”[22]

To the extent that these two elements are present in people-to-people peacebuilding programs, societal relationships can be re-defined and peace has a chance when done in conjunction with formal track one diplomacy that addresses the structural and political realities on the ground.

Without out effective people-to-people peacebuilding, diplomats can negotiate all they want, but peace won’t take hold in the hearts of the people. It may take years to create this environment in troubled communities and within ourselves, but they lie at the heart of peace.

Chad Ford is the Director of the David O. McKay Center for Intercultural Understanding and an assistant professor of International Cultural Studies at Brigham Young University – Hawaii. He has been working as the lead consultant for The Arbinger Institute on social conflict projects throughout the world. For more information about Arbinger, visit:

[1] See Chad Ford.  “Peace and Hoops: Basketball as a Role Player in Sustainable Peacebuilding” Willamette Law Review, Vol. 42 No. 4, pp. 712-714.

[2] See Dean G. Pruitt and Sung Hee Kim, Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement, pp. 102-113 (2004).

[3] Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace, p. 769 (2004).

[4] Ibid. p. 770.

[5] Mohammed Abu-Nimer. Dialogue, Conflict Resolution, and Change, pp. 1-9 (1999).

[6] Pruitt and Kim, pp. 181-82.

[7] Ross, p. 911.

[8] Vamik Volkan, Blind Trust: Large Groups and Their Leaders in Times of Crisis and Terror, p.107 (2004).

[9] See Pruitt and Kim, p. 182, citing studies done by Greenland & Brown (2000) and Pettigrew (1998).

[10] Ibid., p. 177.

[11] Ibid., p. 178.

[12] Muzafer Sherif, "Superordimate Goals in the Reduction of Intergroup Conflict," p. 63. American Journal of Sociology 349, 355 (1958).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., p. 356.

[15] See John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace 5, 75-86 (2005).

[16] C. R. Mitchell, The Structure of International Conflict, p. 108 (1981).

[17] Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), p. 59 (2007).

[18] Arbinger, The Anatomy of Peace, xvii (2006).

[19] Ibid., pp. 50-56.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Arbinger, Leadership and Self Deception, pp. 91-103 (2002).

[22] Lederach, p. 35.