Groupwork Centre Blog

Israel and Palestine… Superman’s not coming

We have a way, we humans, of breaking things into parts, as a way to understand what’s happening.

Take the human body. It’s one amazing structure that has many parts which all function together. While we can get a sense of the special function of that thing when we isolate it – an organ, or even a greater system within the body – it’s still a reduction of the bigger picture because our understanding of how that part works in connection with the whole is lost once we isolate it.

So it is in our conversations. We each hold a part because we are all contributors in the conversation, but our own view is only one part. It’s the way we see things. Sometimes we might be good at holding different ideas and opinions without being attached to them, but usually, because we’re human, things we hold dear to, we attach to. They become a part of us, and so we cannot give them up so easily.

What “I” believe in has a certain “rightness” that can, when the stakes are high, become something we then start to defend. When we do that, we lock that idea up so it can no longer be shaped by the perspectives of others, only confirmed by those who like it or rejected by those who don’t.

We have entered a binary realm where we now have a “contest” of ideas. It’s the classic “debate” paradigm and some part of us loves it. More than that, we can come to believe that the thing we are defending and fighting for is the one and only truth.

The tragic situation of Israel and Palestine is a case in point. The conversations people are having around the world are characterised by right and wrong narratives. As the conversations are held inside this realm, it’s virtually impossible to hold opposing views and see them as both making sense.


As a result, the polarity between people and groups fuels further negative thoughts, emotions and actions, shutting down any capacity for problem solving. In the online world, it manifests as people hating each other and the outright cancellation of those holding a different view.

Polarisation prevents us from holding complexity

When issues get polarised, our capacity to hold complexity gets lost along with our willingness to listen. The binary way of operating extracts complexity and replaces it with simplistic narratives: on one side we have the view that thousands of innocent people, mostly children, are being killed by soldiers. A ceasefire is the obvious answer.

On the other side, we have the view that includes: civilian deaths are the very unfortunate consequence of fighting an enemy that hides amongst its people so the fighting needs to continue until the enemy is eliminated.

I choose this deeply polarised issue deliberately, because even writing the words feels like you’re taking a side. What are we to do as facilitators in environments where this kind of intense polarity surfaces? How do we have conversations that can help create a willingness in people to both listen and be heard? Is it even possible?

Disengagement means disconnection

The troubling dynamic now emerging is that many people are protecting themselves from what seems like a no-win environment and disengaging from some conversations. They no longer trust that the spaces they are in – online or face to face – are safe enough to have the conversations that need to be had to find pathways through.

In that disengagement there is a disconnection from each other and a breakdown in the very fabric of communities which are built on conversations, and a willingness to accept different ways of seeing the world.

In Groupwork, we practically borrow from Rumi’s well-worn poem A Great Wagon which talks about a field “beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing”. It explains so well the realm that is non-binary, paradoxical and yet real.

Our adoption of the words is practical because as facilitators, we have the capacity to create spaces where people can step away from the binary and into a place where 2 very different views/opinions can be held together. This requires great facilitation when the stakes are high.

Helping people hear each other

One of the key things we need to help people shift into the nuanced and paradoxical “field beyond” is to help people to hear each other. From our experience, the very act of consciously hearing another and very different viewpoint, helps that view to shift from being “wrong” and “other” (ie binary) to one where people can start to see another perspective that makes sense even though they may not agree with it.

For this to happen a specific and mutually agreed process is needed whereby those involved have to repeat back the words they hear from the other person to ensure that they have accurately heard them. They are not allowed to paraphrase what they have heard, they must say the actual words they can remember hearing for this process to really work.

Two things happen in this space. Firstly, the person being listened to hears their own words repeated back to them with a query: “Is that right? .. or “I heard you say …”, giving them a chance to acknowledge the respondent and qualify/modify the words.

In that moment they begin to experience what it feels like to be heard. To hear your own words repeated does something to you. It’s amazingly validating. You know the person has heard you because they’ve said what you just said!

How perspective begins to shift

The second thing that happens is the person repeating the words back changes subtly. Something about saying the words of the other person lays down in them a glimpse of the perspective they have not been able to see or agree with. They take on a bigger view because the truth is, it is only in the binary world that right and wrong exist as absolute truths. Everything becomes a moving feast when context and lived experience are associated with a perspective.

When we repeat the words that we may not agree with spoken by another as their truth, part of us picks up that perspect and that truth. Black and white, right and wrong, fact and fiction all begin to dissolve.

In the seriously disruptive and polarised times we are in, we have to dig deeper into finding common ground, connection and a degree of mutual respect, before we try and “fix” things. This is the big challenge of facilitators working in polarised spaces. Solutions rarely emerge that are worth anything where there are still strong emotions and disconnection between those involved.

Many truths, not one

A very real question we need to ask groups and the individuals within them is: can we do the hard work of breaking from our own strong opinions as the truth, and instead start looking for context and understanding when we hear a different view? Because if we can, then maybe we can begin to shift from right and wrong ways of seeing to new ways of seeing that, despite everything “makes sense”.

If we can find out what’s behind another person’s way of seeing, we might be able to stay in reach of each other. What’s been their life, their story? What’s shaped them and how is it different to what’s shaped me?

In the answering of those questions maybe there’s the hope of seeing the person first and their story second. And then maybe from there, real solutions may start to reveal themselves as we slowly move towards each other with compassion.

We all need a little validation. Validation has a magical quality of helping people to change, for the situation to change, because it creates a willingness to be open to the other. It’s not about agreeing or disagreeing, it’s about connecting.

More than our stories, our opinions or anything else, we need to know that we as a person have value and are seen by others. We need confirmation that turning up in this life is worth something. This is why validation is one of the greatest gifts we can give to others.

Erin Brockovich famously said: “Superman’s Not Coming”. Even though we act collectively as if there is going to be someone who will arrive and solve all our problems, the reality is it ain’t going to happen.

It’s up to each of us to save ourselves and each other. In these times, we each need to do something within the walls of our own world where we have the capacity to at least influence a few people or organisations. If we do it with real kindness, real Love, the change could be truly remarkable.

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