Margaret found a job for me when I left priesthood. I was unemployed, just reading and writing at home. I had been a priest for almost thirty years. Switching professions or starting something new did not appeal to me or even seem possible. But I needed something to do, something to engage my mind and occupy me. One evening Margaret came home and gave me the local paper and pointed to an advert. There’s something you could do, she said, and of course she was right.
I followed up that advert and I became a mediator. I joined Family Mediation here in Stirling, and found myself sitting in a room with a co-mediator and sitting opposite to us was a mother and father who were separating and who needed help to be able to talk to one another about their children.
I worked as a mediator for thirteen years, sometimes as a co-mediator, sometimes by myself. Some clients were quiet and slow to talk, while others were volatile and verbally abusive. In their emotional upset they often expended their energy in useless accusations and recriminations. Nothing good can ever come of this.
I was trained to speak in positive terms. At first I thought to myself, is this some kind of ‘be nice strategy’ that is meant to overcome all our negative and angry vibes. I soon learned that this is not the case at all. Positive language is the only way to make progress in our human relationships, to speak in terms that always express a positive intention. Negative language is always offensive to the other side, and leads to an endless round of attack and defence.
We are not asked or expected to develop friendly terms with someone we no longer like, but when we have an enemy we still need to be able to talk to that enemy in words that will advance the process that both parties need to advance.
So, if a father wants to see his children more often, instead of saying, ‘You never let me see the children,’ – an accusation that only invites mum to defend herself – he can say, ’I would like to see the children more often.’ Then the mother might say, ‘I am willing for that to happen, but I have some concerns about who they might meet and how well they will be fed.’ Each issue needs to be expressed in positive terms that allow the other party to engage.
These thoughts come to me now as we watch with sorrow the brutal destruction of life in Ukraine. Mediators and negotiators are urgently needed to step in and for the fighting to stop. Russia and Ukraine are neighbouring countries and they need to find a way to live as such.
Meanwhile in the wider world we all need to learn how to live peacefully side by side with one another. In this matter we all need to learn how to speak to our enemies in ways that do not exacerbate relationships. Negative and insulting language only adds fuel to the fire.
When Jesus said, ‘Love your enemy,’ he was not advocating that we ignore our natural feelings of dislike, but that we rise above those feelings to do good to those who treat us badly. It is a powerful thing to do. It advances the peace of the world.
It is a job that all of us can learn to do.
20 March 2022