“I think the most important aspect of peacebuilding, conflict resolution is how we show up. Of course, it is relevant for us to have skills, but skills are only one piece of the puzzle. If we show up as peace, then there is a chance that we can create that. If we show up as anxiety, fear, then whatever skills we may have, we are still going to be contributing to fear and conflict.”

Henry is a peace educator, mediator, conflict coach, author, and TEDx speaker. He is the Co-founder of Living Peace Institute and currently serves as the Assistant Director for Education, Outreach and Conflict Resolution at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, USA. He is passionate about empowering people to have transformative conversations and brings a compassionate, intuitive, and mindful demeanor to his work. At Virginia Tech he is a part of the university’s civil rights office, with a task to direct the internal conflict resolution program which includes mediation, conflict coaching, restorative justice and organizational development. Henry also teaches conflict resolution, mediation and peacebuilding as part of Virginia Tech’s Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention.

A lawyer inspired by India

As a child of refugees from Ukraine, Henry started his career as a civil rights lawyer with one clear goal: to empower people who are underprivileged, marginalized, and do not necessarily have a voice. However, years of practice resulted in frustration with how the system works, not listening and engaging, but marginalizing people even more. Through the series of very powerful and personally transformative events, that started with a motorcycle, Henry ended up in India and became exposed to the teachings about non-violence, and creating peace. As he says, “everything started with a motorcycle. I was probably 7 or 8 years into my career as a lawyer. I was very good and very successful, but I was beginning to feel a little bit bored with what I am doing. It was hard to imagine that I will be doing it for the next 30 or 40 years, it was just tiring.” This journey to India is what Henry talks about in his TEDx talk, “What motorcycling in the Himalayas taught me about connection and dialogue”. Henry’s experiences in India are also one of the key inspirations for his book, Dis-Solving Conflict from Within, scheduled for release by Global Publishing Collective in 2021. 

I think it was after my 2nd visit to India when I came back and I knew I could no longer be a trial lawyer. I started exploring, I started to be involved in the collaborative and integrative law movement. And then when I took my initial mediation training, at the New York peace Institute, it felt like coming home. This was what I was seeking. It became very clear for me, that if I want to become even remotely competent in this field, I had to dedicate my full-time efforts to it.” It was a shift from focusing on everything that is outside, career, money, power, to turning towards what is within. And this radical shift resulted in completely new inspiration in life. As a lawyer, I was involved in so many destructive conflicts, and sometimes even in the best-case scenario, the most I could do was win money, but I could do nothing to repair very complicated relationships. With new motivation, Henry left the job as a partner in a law firm and started a new practice committed to peacebuilding. 

Expanding Skillsets

He also started taking additional courses on mediation at the New York Peace Institute, when he eventually started to work as a Senior Mediator, Facilitator, and Conflict Coach. The ancient yogic teachings empowered him to find a way of integrating the practice of conflict resolution and mediation with the inner work, and through that emerged a process that Henry co-created with Danish coach and author, Annette Birkmann, called Dis-Solving Conflict from Within™. Departure from a very traditional western problem-solving-based approach to mediation and dialogue became in many ways Henry’s life’s work, and the transition itself was very challenging. “I had to give up a very successful career for something very uncertain, for many people felt very abstract like it had a lot of potential reasons to fail. What I deal with now, are complex, multi-party conflicts, often involving very significant culture and identity issues.”

Dis-Solving Conflict from Within™

As Henry explains, the basic assumption of this process is that the source of every conflict is within us. And then whatever is happening on the outside is a reflection of what is happening within. If we are truly interested in transforming conflict, we cannot just try to manipulate the situation to suit our needs, or even to persuade others to come to our side.

“In many ways in our culture, we see conflict as a fire, that we must avoid, escape, or control,” says Henry while explaining the process itself. “If we think of fire, we learn that there are 3 elements of it: oxygen, heat, and fuel. I think these elements correspond very much to conflict.” Oxygen is the narrative, a story that we all have. Everything and anything in our life is a narrative, and no conflict is possible without a narrative. The next element is the fuel, which is attachment. When we create a narrative, we become attached very quickly, and that forms an identity. If someone attacks our identity, it feels very personal because it feels like an attack on us. We do not distinguish between our changing narratives, which are sometimes more, sometimes less important. The third element, heat is an emotion. In the western approach, we are very focused on putting a label on emotion, fear, and anxiety. Those are the 3 elements. 

People who trigger us are like matches. They start up the blaze. These matches can fall into gasoline or can fall into the water. Who is to decide whether they fell in, gasoline or water? Where do all these things happen? They are happening within us. What we perceive as the fire, is actually the fire alarm that is alerting us to what is happening inside. According to Henry’s experience, the correct thing to do when the fire is burning within us is to create space. The more space we can create between our narrative, identity, and us, the less rigid is our attachment to that identity and the more open we are to interact with others and accept that our narrative is not the only correct one. 

A Need for Connection

On the other hand, this approach does not teach us to be completely detached from our identity, and here Henry illustrates it by comparing it to watching a movie in the theater. When we are watching the movie, we can be very attached and sympathize with a particular character, have very strong feelings and yet we have an understanding that it is happening on the screen. When it is over, we are going to move on.”

Creating a space where our attachment is not rigid, can help us to engage with each other in conflict, and transform from identity to shared humanity. In the whole process, it is also necessary to move from position to needs. The difference between those two can be illustrated as an iceberg. The tip are positions. Under those positions, over the water are interests, which can provide an understanding of why we have certain positions, but they don’t necessarily create a way of resolving a conflict. Right at the water level are emotions. Mediators need to engage with emotions and provide space for them as they are important messengers to our needs. Then we have values and needs which are towards the bottom of the iceberg. According to Henry, our needs are the same, no matter of politics, ethnicity, and narrative. There are always needs for security, autonomy, authenticity, connection, beauty, meaning and expansion. If we can shift from arguing about positions, and start having a conversation on what our needs are, the very nature of the conflict changes. 

The role of MBBI

“MBBI was on my radar for some time. Being part of the conflict resolution community, coming to the US as a refugee, having done some work internationally, I was naturally drawn to the organization, but there were periods in my life that I thought I might not be able to get involved. I followed Kenneth Cloke for a very long time and consider him to be a major inspiration for my work. When I started at Virginia Tech, I finally wanted to make myself available, and commit to the incredible work that MBBI is doing. As he further adds, the aspects of MBBI that inspired and raised his curiosity, was MBBI’s involvement in Ukraine, and the approach to resistance for conflict resolution and dialogue in certain countries, that the organization is facing.

Henry was also involved with law enforcement as a part of the team that offered training for the New York Police Department, and currently is a part of the MBBI Police Community Relations Working Group. It focuses on strengthening the connections between local communities and its police force, through dialogue and training provides a space to share ideas and connections based on mediative processes. “In my view, the way to address various issues is to engage, conduct a dialogue, and this corresponds with the goal and mission of MBBI. I am incredibly excited to meet other meditators from around the world and to be a part of the community. MBBI is doing deeply transformative work on behalf of marginalized communities around the world, by creating a space for dialogue. I cannot think about more meaningful work, and work that I feel more connected with on a personal level.”

Article by Maciej Witek, MBBI Writer