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Mediation Perspectives: Using Religious Resources to Teach Negotiation and Mediation Skills (Part 2): Christianity

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Mediation Perspectives is a periodic blog entry that’s provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts. To keep up to date with the Mediation Support Team, you can sign up to their newsletter here.

The purpose of today’s blog, which is the second of a multi-part series, is to illustrate how Christian religious resources can be used to teach negotiation and mediation skills. (To learn about the broader criteria of applying these resources, see my previous blog here.) Specifically and provisionally, what I would like to focus on here is what the Bible says about the ‘when’ and ‘how’ to negotiate and mediate. The ideas that follow were inspired and tested in a workshop in 2016 organized by the Zimbabwe Peace and Security Program with the Heads of Christian Denominations (HOCD) representing the main Catholic, Anglican, Evangelical and Apostolic Christian church formations within the country.

When to negotiate: The contingency model outlined in Moore 2003 (see below) argues that there are different ways to deal with conflict and disagreement, including 1) dialogue, 2) negotiation, 3) mediation and 4) going to court. Choosing the best approach depends on the type of conflict being addressed, the willingness of parties to join the resolution process, and the degree of ‘interventionist power’ held by a third party. If we ignore exceptions, here’s what typically happens as you move from dialogue to going to court (i.e., as you move from Numbers 1-4): conflicting parties tend to be less willing to engage with each other;  the power of the third party interventionist tends to grow; and the outcome tends to move from win-win to lose-lose. But what happens if you take this left-to-right or Numbers 1-4 sequence and do two things: make it a top to bottom sequence and match it up with the biblical verse found in Matthew 18:15-17? If you do this, you’ll see a striking similarity of ideas:

Mediation model of when to use which conflict resolution approach (e.g. Moore 2003) Biblical reference on when to use which conflict resolution approach (Matthew 18:15-17)
Dialogue, negotiation   If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.
«Facilitative» mediation But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.
«Directive» mediation» If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church;
Alternative approaches, moving to court and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

When discussing the link between this biblical verse and which conflict resolution model to use at the ZPSP workshop in Zimbabwe, there was a general consensus that linking the two approaches made sense. The criteria of being open to listening is important, although the question remains what is meant by “treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Does this verse reflect the norms of the times, or also the way Jesus Christ actually dealt with these people?

How to negotiate: There are four negotiation principles that are outlined in Roger Fisher and William Ury’s book “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In,” although some of their core ideas are present in earlier publications, including those by Thomas Gordon, and in various cultural and religious resources.

The first principle is to separate the people from the problem. The idea here is that if one wants to negotiate, one has to believe in the changeability of the problem under dispute, and of the behavior of the stakeholders involved. As long as one disputant sees his or her adversary as someone who should be kicked out of the room, sacked from a job or even killed, there is no point in negotiating. A biblical version that resonates with this idea is “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7), the words that Jesus spoke to stop a crowd from stoning an adulteress to death. Following the ‘two-way road’ idea mentioned in my previous blog – that the Bible talks to negotiation principles as much as vice versa – the verse points to a self-understanding of one’s own mistakes as a prerequisite for not condemning others, being open to negotiation, and changing behavior. If one is 100 per cent sure one is absolutely right, and has never ever made any mistakes in one’s life and all mistakes are done by others, then why should one negotiate? Belief in the changeability of behavior, self-reflection and self-criticism, thus, are preconditions for negotiation.

The second principle is focus on interests, not positions. The idea here is that if two people confront each other only with positions – understood as statements about what each person wants – the negotiation process will stall. To move ahead, one has to focus on interests, understood as concerns, motivations, and the reasons why one has taken a specific position. This notion resonates with the biblical verse: “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out” (Proverbs 20:5). The biblical verse highlights how the process of moving from positions to interests requires genuine insight. What comes across as a rather dry and technical idea in the jargon of negotiation, takes on a greater humanity in biblical language. The verse also stresses relationship- and trust-building and creating a space for others to feel comfortable so that the “purposes” of their heart can come forward.

The third principle is invent options for mutual gain. Rather than aligning on the best option that first comes to mind to solve a conflict or disagreement, this principle highlights the need to slow down and brainstorm multiple options before deciding on the ideal one. One of the biblical verses that resonates with this principle states: “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). Destructive, violent conflict often blocks creativity and even the belief that there is a way out. For religious people, belief in God as a source of creativity and that the seemingly impossible is indeed possible can enrich the notion of brainstorming options for mutual gain in a negotiation process. Indeed, this principle shines a very different light on what negotiations are all about: they’re not a give-and-take bargaining process, but a joint search for creative ways out of the mess one is in.

The fourth principle is to insist on using objective criteria. The idea here is that if one can find and agree on criteria that are independent of the will of the actors who are negotiating with each other, this will help them properly assess their options. In a water conflict, for example, the upstream country may want low water quality standards and the downstream country may want high water quality standards. If they can agree that the World Health Organization drinking water standards are acceptable (criteria that are independent of who would benefit from them), the odds of a successful negotiation obviously improve. A biblical version that resonates with this concept is: “Blessed are they who observe justice” (Psalm 106:3). Of the many verses about justice and fairness in the Bible, one point they consistently make is that the criteria of fairness or justice that seem to help the other person in the short-term, which is often the case in a negotiating process, also benefits those who observe them even if they are not immediately beneficial. They are, in short, a blessing.


The interaction between negotiation principles and biblical texts written some 2000 years ago is an enriching experience. It provides a different way to read the Bible as well as a how to make sense of mediation and negotiation methodology. The interaction is most enriching, however, if the people involved are from within the same religious tradition; if the religious approach is discussed in a peer-review process; if one adopts a two-way form of learning between sacred and secular texts, and if one takes this tack to increase the accessibility of ideas rather than to impose norms.

About the author

Simon J. A. Mason is a senior researcher and Head of the Mediation Support Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich.

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