Scilla Elworthy on How to Break Cycles of Violence

Three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee Scilla Elworthy has spent decades working in peace-making. Founder of the Oxford Research Group and Peace Direct, Scilla also advised Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Peter Gabriel & Sir Richard Branson in establishing ‘The Elders’, a group of global leaders working for peace and human rights.

In dialogue with Walter Link, she discusses the Cycle of Violence, and the critical role of self-awareness and inner work in breaking the cycle.

To watch the full episodes click here for PART 1 & PART 2.

Scilla Elworthy - GlobalLeadership.TVWalter Link: In your work, you drill down behind the first impression of the terms war & peace, and behind the first impression of the image you see on the television, to understand what is behind peace and war. Just tell us some more about that.

Scilla Elworthy: What I pieced together, mainly from observing what was happening in the ’80s and early ’90s, was what actually is the cycle of violence? We talk blandly about a cycle of violence, but what does it consist of? And so I put together a diagram, which is in a book that I wrote with Gabrielle Rifkind called Making Terrorism History. A cycle of violence starts with an atrocity. And the result of an atrocity is terror, immediately. And then that distills down into fear, and fear becomes grief when the shock is over. And grief hardens into anger. Unless something is done, anger hardens into bitterness and bitterness into revenge and revenge into retaliation. And then you get another atrocity, and the cycle goes around again.

Scilla Elworthy Cycle of Violence

And this can happen over a period of hundreds of years. I mean, people in the Middle East still remember what happened in 1400. And so the depth of these, the effect of these shocks, is profound. And so what we find, more and more, is that action has to be taken on a human level, even on a psychological level, to deal with the trauma of war, to help heal it.

First of all, you have to provide physical safety for people. You have to stop them being shelled or shot at. And then you need to provide some political safety, some peacekeeping troops, or some way of enabling them to feel that things are going to settle down. But the most important thing really is the next two stages, which is providing psychological assistance. And that might seem soft, but it’s not at all: trauma work, trauma counseling, enabling people to meet eventually with people who have harmed them.

Scilla Elworthy Intervention

Walter Link: So this leads us to the necessity, really, if you are interested in peace-building and in breaking the cycle of violence, to enter into the deep humanity that’s present in both the victims and the perpetrators who often themselves have come from cultures of being perpetrated. Tell us more about your insight into the psychological and even spiritual dimension of violence and what we can do to transform it, to replace it.

Scilla Elworthy: I’ve come to the deep conviction after, what, about 40 years or so in this kind of work, that it’s essential that those who want to work in areas of conflict first of all deeply work on themselves. So the higher the level of self-awareness, the better the work is going to be. Put in another way, my level of effectiveness will be calibrated to, will be a direct result of, my authenticity or my level of self-knowledge.

It’s essential that those who want to work in areas of conflict first of all deeply work on themselves. So the higher the level of self-awareness, the better the work is going to be.

And the reason I say that is because, when you are either in a very violent situation, you have to be very present because, if you are just obsessed by your fear, you’re going to be paralyzed. We all know how the throat closes up, the brain loses blood, blood drains to the heart, and you freeze or you run when perhaps what you should be doing is calmly walking into the middle of it with a sufficient calm that you can bring calm about.

And Aung San Suu Kyi is the model of this, how she dealt with many of those very violent situations in Burma. And the other part of it is that many of the people in what I would call the helping professions and those who want to make the world a better place, or save the world, are driven by anger or fear. I certainly was. And unless we really address that in ourselves, we tend to project it out onto our colleagues and accuse people. I don’t know how many charitable organizations are riven by misunderstanding. And energy drains out when people are fighting each other when, with a little bit more self-awareness, they would be able to handle internal disputes much better.

Scilla Elworthy: The difficult thing to do is to have the presence of mind in the moment to [step outside the cycle]. You know, when somebody cuts in front of you in your car, to have the training – it’s like training – I believe that meditation is so vital for this. It’s almost like training for the Olympics. And it’s as tough as training for the Olympics because you’re training yourself to be present in the instance when something happens.

The difficult thing to do is to have the presence of mind in the moment.

Walter Link: Right. And as in the Olympics, in the instance is too late to start with the training. I support a lot of leadership development for people who work in very intense situations, from business or from civil society or politics and other fields. And what they discover, of course, is that if you try to fix the situation or yourself in the moment of the intensity, then you just have what you have. If you have worked over days, weeks, years to develop, for example, an inner spaciousness, an inner compassion, an inner intelligence to respond differently to a situation, then in the crisis situation this will be easily and naturally available to you.

And I think that’s the profound shift of perspective also in regard to education and the development of people that we need to consider to also bring in this inner dimension and the interpersonal dimension rather than just a kind of intellectual dimension. And you have worked, of course, a lot with education at various levels and I wonder what you have to say about that, how peacemaking, peace building and the kind of deepening of our human potential can be furthered in these educational environments.

Scilla Elworthy: What you’re saying is so true and it’s in families that we get to practice this because it’s in families where we feel those tensions building up. And they are deeply rooted. They got right into our childhood. And so if we can practice on what we would call nonviolent communication – and this is a wonderful training by Marshall Rosenberg that’s now available all over the world – to actually communicate with those with whom we have severe disagreements by speaking only in the first person and telling each other what we feel and what we need rather than pointing a finger.

Graphics from “The War on Terrorism” by Scilla Elworthy & Paul Rogers, The Oxford Research Group, September 11, 2002

To watch the full episodes click here for PART 1 & PART 2.