Ukrainian mediators work to bring understanding to conflict despite challenges faced by ongoing war
Training program encourages looking within to find a way forward
NEW YORK, Dec. 2022 – When Ukrainian mediator Tatyana Bilyk approached the Center for Understanding in Conflict (CUC) about conducting training for conflict-resolution professionals still operating in a war-torn country, the organization’s co-founder, Gary Friedman, had to pause to consider how to advise mediators working in such a tumultuous environment.
“I was quite intimidated,” Friedman said. “I’d never worked on a program with people at war.”
Friedman and longtime colleague and Zen Buddhist priest Norman Fischer tried to imagine what it was like in Ukraine and the unique challenges mediators faced while attempting to bring together parties in conflict embroiled in the uncertainty and violence of war.
“We talked a lot about how to humble ourselves,” Friedman said. “Besides the agony, they were surely experiencing, we didn’t know what the participants would be like or what they already knew. It was a big unknown, so we had a lot of conversations about how to bring ourselves into the moment and see where it went.”
A RELATIONSHIP BUILT ON MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING
Years before, Bilyk, now a mediator, trainer, and supervisor at the Mediation School, League of Mediators of Ukraine, and the Association of Family Mediators of Ukraine, was accredited by the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution in the United Kingdom as a business mediator and from MiKK eV International Mediation Center for Family Conflict and Child Abduction as a family mediator. In 2010, she began to develop a mediation practice centered on working with families.
“Working with families made me realize that the tools I had learned mediating business disputes were not as effective in helping people in everyday life,” Bilyk said. “Since family mediation was not as developed in Ukraine then, I began looking beyond our borders for practical training.”
Bilyk’s search led her to multiple mediation models, including Robert A. Baruch Bush’s book The Promise of Mediation and the understanding-based approach of CUC co-founders Gary Friedman and Jack Himmelstein in Challenging Conflict: Mediation Through Understanding.
The Understanding-Based Model is an alternative to mediation styles where the mediator may be more of an evaluator or arbiter. Instead, it emphasizes that the people ultimately in the best position to determine the wisest solution to a dispute are those living the problem.
“Thus began my love for Gary’s practice,” Bilyk said. “At that period of my practice, I had just touched on the issues of self-reflection and understanding, but he already had a whole model clearly explaining the processes.”
Friedman recommended Bilyk start by reading his book Inside Out: How Conflict Professionals Can Use Self-Reflection to Help Their Clients to begin understanding how a mediator’s inner experience, their humanity, was crucial to serving parties in conflict.
Bilyk had planned on attending an Inside Out: Self-Reflection for Conflict Professionals Intensive (SCPI) training seminar in Talloires, France, taught by Friedman and Fischer, when war, as it ultimately does, stopped the march of time, and began its all-consuming invasion of her life.
Where many people would abandon their professional development plans in the face of war, Bilyk doubled down and asked if Friedman and Fischer would be willing to bring their program virtually to her group of over 50 mediators in Ukraine.
“Unprecedented crises require unprecedented solutions,” Bilyk said. “Mediators now find themselves in a situation of extreme necessity to work with the emotional side of the conflict caused by the parties’ stress and trauma before they can discuss the issue’s core.”
MEDIATING AND TRAINING IN THE MIDST OF CONFLICT
“With the beginning of the full-scale invasion of the Russian troops into Ukraine, we were all horrified,” Bilyk said. “We could not believe that this was now our reality. But after the initial shock, we realized there was work to do.”
UN Refugee Affairs estimates that over the past six months, more than 11 million people, almost a third of Ukrainian citizens, have fled the country, triggering the largest migration crisis since World War II.
“With that comes acute stress and trauma that has affected family relationships, where children suffer the most,” Bilyk said.
By working to unite the efforts of family mediators from different cities across Ukraine into one project called Family Mediation During the War, Bilyk has formed a coalition of conflict-resolution professionals dedicated to supporting Ukrainian families and working through disputes caused by the war.
“Many families found themselves separated by distance and alienated emotionally due to overwhelming feelings caused by the horror experienced during occupation and evacuation,” Bilyk said. “Being in basements during the shelling, family and friends’ deaths, home and job loss, illness, and other stress factors has disrupted social cohesion and broken trust.”
Daily psychological traumas across Ukraine have led to increased personal conflicts and broken family relationships, accelerated and deepened by the horrors of war.
“All these factors have influenced the necessity for family mediators to use integrative approaches to working with a traumatized Ukrainian population,” Bilyk said. “People who are, at the same time, also providing psychological support to the conflicting parties to help restore social cohesion to work out a mutually acceptable resolution and way out of the conflict situation.”
Considering the high traumatization of Ukraine’s population, Bilyk said that mediators need to recognize people prone to emotional outbursts and have the skills to work through such states. Working with different aspects of trauma and understanding the level of traumatization caused by events experienced is critical in determining the most effective interventions in the conflict.
“The mediator’s success and our survival as a nation are increasingly dependent on our ability to listen with empathy,” Bilyk said. “We need these skills to help parties return to non-violent communication, solve problems together, negotiate and reach a settlement in the best interest of all family members.”
This process depends directly on the mediator’s ability to self-reflect and maintain an open approach while facing their own experiences and being under the stress of the war and the parties to the conflict.
“It is impossible when plunging every day into people’s suffering and loss not to suffer from a traumatic experience of your own,” Bilyk said. “Our mediators need additional resources for resilience to develop self-reflection and coping strategies while reflecting on their effectiveness and seeking help from specialists, such as psychologists or supervisors, when necessary.”
These factors have led to the need to use new tools for working in mediation, a practice that Bilyk calls Crises Mediation which trains mediators in new techniques while holding psychological support groups twice a month, as well as supervision meetings with international experts for support.
ADAPTING THE PROGRAM FOR UKRAINIAN MEDIATORS
Friedman and Fischer agreed to teach and began adapting their Inside Out program to meet the unfathomable challenge of mediating during wartime.
“We had to admit that we couldn’t even imagine what it was like for them with bombs dropping, electricity out, and not having enough food while people around them were dying,” Friedman said. “How could they pay attention to an Inside Out program?”
Bilyk was not concerned and believed that Friedman’s 40 years of experience teaching the Understanding-Based Model, 25 spent with Fischer incorporating mindfulness practices, would come to bear and be of benefit to mediators working in Ukraine.
“Tatyana had so much confidence in us and believed whatever we shared would be terrific,” Friedman said. “She wanted her people to be uplifted and feel some peace and hope and to be able to develop skills that would be practical and relevant to their unique experience as wartime mediators.”
Another major challenge was that translators would need to be present throughout the program, which would have to be translated from English to Ukrainian and back again through discussions, mediation exercises, lectures, and group work.
“In some ways, the most breathtaking part of the program was the translators,” Friedman said. “They did a simultaneous translation that was so unbelievable and heartfelt that Norman and I thought we were speaking Ukrainian. There was not one blip between us, not even a nanosecond before we would finish a sentence. The translators, both named Olena, were simply incredible.”
At around 9 p.m. in Ukraine, participants from across the war-torn country gathered for the four-hour virtual program while living through the shock of being invaded and attacked by external forces on a scale many professional mediators cannot even imagine.
Attendees had studied Challenging Conflict and Inside Out and were familiar with the basics of the Understanding-Based Model, so Friedman and Fischer focused on the inner work required to be self-aware and open to experiences, thoughts, and emotions that can either help or hinder in a mediation setting.
Part one of the four-part program focused participants on presence, being in the moment, and not being distracted by what is happening outside or gnawing fears, past tragic events, or anything else that could move them away from the present.
“We did that through a guided meditation that Norman led,” Friedman said. “He has probably done this a thousand times, but this one was profoundly different. It was about being there in this war-torn place and being present with deep suffering and agony, and experiencing yourself with a beating heart and desire to help people despite the chaos that surrounds you.”
Many participants had never experienced mindfulness exercises before, and the moments of silence moved them as Fischer took them through the guided meditation.
“Some participants said it was the first moment of peace that they had experienced since the war started,” Friedman said.
“For me, this was also my first experience with guided meditation,” Bilyk said. “I also cried at the end of the meeting because to defeat the ‘dragon’ – the main thing is not to turn into it yourself. In the current conditions, it is essential to remain human, which applies to all Ukrainians; otherwise, everything else is meaningless.”
The following two sections centered participants on mediation practice through group exercises exploring the Loop of Understanding, which teaches how to show someone that you’ve understood them, and the Inner V, which works with judgments to keep them from blocking relationships with the people you are trying to help.
The final hour focused on motivations; why a mediator would want to do this work in the face of all the turbulence and chaos going on around them.
“When we did the motivation piece, the last and most powerful part of the program, they realized that they didn’t have to go far to be able to articulate the answer to those questions,” Friedman said.
Fischer led the group through a final guided meditation that brought participants back to when they were children and first saw or were aware of people being upset with each other and felt an impulse to do something about it.
“They went there in an instant and then brought it forward to the present moment,” Friedman said. “They ended up with a deeper, richer personal appreciation of why they were mediating and trying to help people and wanted to bring out the best in people and operate from the best of themselves knowing that they could die any minute.”
“I knew training with Gary would be valuable for our mediators,” Bilyk said. “But Norman’s guided meditation exercises made this meeting incredible. In this case, one plus one became hundreds of times more than two.”
Following the event, Bilyk was deeply moved and said that, for some, Inside Out was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that gave them a gift they could share with the communities they serve.
“I hope they appreciate the gift they gave to Norman and me,” Friedman said. “We were incredibly touched and could genuinely feel their situation. Tears came to my eyes. It was remarkable that they brought themselves to this despite whatever was going on in their lives. My heart felt wide open, even though I had no idea who they were when we began.”
MOVING FORWARD IN A TIME OF UNCERTAINTY
Attendees said they would continue mediating family disputes and disagreements even as war surrounds them.
“This was one of the most shocking parts for me,” Friedman said. “How could you possibly be worried about conflicts in the family when you may be facing the end of your life any minute?”
A normalization occurs as humans adapt to even the most horrible situations. Conflicts emerge around children, which parent will stay at home, whether one will leave Ukraine for their safety and leave the children, or who are just not getting along.
“Those are right there in shockingly normal ways that you would think wouldn’t be possible when you are under the exigencies of imminent death and all of the things that could happen,” Friedman said. “It was an amazing revelation to hear how normal they were, living their lives under curfew and attack just on the other side of my computer screen.”
Throughout the program, participants asked questions in an earnest attempt to learn more about the model and how they could use it to make a difference in their community, something not uncommon. What was unique was their openness to the concepts and hunger for guidance on embracing the process to have an immediate impact.
“They just got it,” Friedman said. “There was no ‘oh gee, what is this thing and how can it help in my life,’ or many other resistant or skeptical questions people often ask. There was no question in their minds that this was extremely helpful. They were urgently focused on bringing awareness of themselves and the world around them into every moment. Norman and I were stunned by how present they were.”
Traditional conflict resolution and training programs typically commit large blocks of time getting participants to be present and aware of being emotionally open and receptive to the principles of understanding needed to compel them to be in the moment when working with people in conflict.
“Then I realized they were so open and present because there is a war,” Friedman said. “Their experience of every moment and being alive is heightened. Their awareness in moments of crisis and tragedy and ability to be right there with us, pulsing with life and presence is because that is how they live every day under the threat of death.”
Translators for the program were: Olena Kovalenko ([email protected]) and Olena Petlovana ([email protected]).
Tatyana Bilyk, mediator, trainer and supervisor, Head of the Board of ITC “Mediation School”, co-founder of NGO “League of Mediators of Ukraine” and co-founder of NGO “Association of Family Mediators of Ukraine”, Contact of International Social Service in Ukraine, psychologist/psychotherapist.
Bilyk’s mediators work with Ukrainian families for free and need money to pay for translators and technical support for work and organization of different trainings. Professional mediators from outside the Ukraine interested in volunteer time to train or financial support are encouraged to reach out to [email protected]
Gary J. Friedman has been practicing law as a mediator with Mediation Law Offices in Mill Valley, California since 1976, integrating mediative principles into the practice of law and the resolution of legal disputes. Co-founder of the Center for Understanding in Conflict (formerly the Center for Mediation in Law), he has been teaching mediation since 1980.
Norman Fischer is a poet, author, Zen Buddhist priest and former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. As founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation (www.everydayzen.org), his work with meditation practice has taken him into many corners of contemporary American life including the arts, education, hospice training, education, and lawyering as a spiritual path.