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Bringing Peace to Chad

Bringing Peace to Chad

There are some mediators doing exceptional work, utilising their mediation skills and channeling their passion into making a difference at a local and international level. Find out how Nathalie Al-Zyoud decided to hop on a plane to Chad in central Africa, set up an NGO initially with the idea to help rehabilitate child soldiers. She had to change course pretty quickly when civil war broke out in Chad and her focus shifted to bringing peace to Chad. Want to feel inspired? Watch this interview.

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Full Transcript

Davies: Hi everyone, my name is Aled Davies, founder of, home of the passionate mediator. This is the place where mediators, aspiring, new and accomplished, come and learn from experienced mediators, practitioners and thought leaders from around the world.

People who we interview are incredibly generous with their time. They share their knowledge, their experience with you, so you can learn grow and improve your effectiveness, and hopefully be inspired to go out into the world, build your own success story, make a difference, leave a legacy. Maybe then you can come back onto Mediator Academy and tell us all how you did it.

I try to accomplish a couple of goals through these interviews. I want you to be inspired by the endeavours of others, to realize what’s possible with the right will and the right skill. I also want to extract some important lessons about how we, as mediators, can utilise elements of the process, the skills that we learned, and apply them in very different context.

Now, I can safely say that this interview ticks both boxes, because my guest today is the founder of Communities in Transition, an organisation committed to alleviating the suffering of those affected by conflict, by providing conflict prevention and resolution services.

She’s an internationally-recognised change leader with over 18 years of experience in the field of conflict management. Mediated a range of conflicts from family, workplace, community, as well as the re-entry of prisoners back into society.

And, before this, she created an organisation called ‘Caring for Kaela.’ It’s an international NGO, seeking to build a [inaudible 01:55]. I don’t know what’s going on with me. I’m struggling to find my words here.

Let me try that again. Before this, she created Caring for Kaela, an international NGO, seeking to build a foundation for peaceful and productive communities in Chad, through her track-two diplomatic efforts. She worked to bring conflict parties to the negotiating table and resolve Chad’s internal conflict.

She built a global advocacy network for sustainable peace in Chad, drawing on a variety of high-level stakeholders to pressure the government of Chad to open the lines of communication with armed opposition groups.

She also negotiated Chad policy changes with the UN, the USG and EU representatives, and provided a conduit for Chadian civic leaders to meet with several heads of state and participate in the peace process, led by the late presidents of Gabon and Libya.

Between 1995 and 2004, she worked in various supervisory capacities in the field of psychosocial rehabilitation, teaching violent offenders conflict resolution skills.

I’m really delighted to welcome Nathalie AlZoud to Mediator Academy.

Nathalie, welcome.

AlZoud: Hi, Aled, how are you?

Aled: I’m very well, thank you. This is the second stab we’ve had at this, and we’re away. Nathalie, thank you very much for agreeing to do the interview, and we found. . .

Nathalie: You’re welcome.

Aled: . . . each other on Twitter. we discovered – Twitter’s amazing for connecting with people all over the world. As soon as I read your story, I was immediately – I just thought, I have to interview you. You’ve got an amazing, amazing story. I want to find out more. I know people watching this are going to be really inspired by what you’ve accomplished, and what you’re trying to accomplish at the moment, as a mediator, setting up practice.

Before we find out what you’re doing now . . . No. Actually, let’s start there. What are you up to now? And then we’ll work our way back to where it all began for you. Let’s do that.

Nathalie: Sure. Sure. Well, as you mentioned, I just started a consulting company, which is a combination of my 20 years of experience in the field, and it brings together all the skills that I’ve picked up along the way. So, Communities in Transition is a consulting company that provides conflict analysis, conflict resolution and conflict resolution training services. So, this means analysing the context, identifying who needs to be at the table, and then providing the conflict resolution services to help resolve what is happening, and, them, of course, building capacity, so training folks to do that themselves.

Aled: I can see in your description there, you’re talking about getting people to the table. I know, with the work that you’re doing out in Chad, a lot of that was getting the right stakeholders sitting around the table. That must’ve been a real struggle at times. I want to find out a bit more about that, and, also, capacity building as well. I can imagine you getting involved in a heck of amount of capacity building out in Chad, and all that helping you now with your current venture.

So, give me an idea of the kind of customers, clients, that you would be working with in Communities in Transition?

Nathalie: So, our typical clients are donors and NGOs and multilaterals who work with communities who are in conflict, internationally. Folks were trying to help people who are involved in interethnic, inter-religious conflict, try to collaborate and to find a resolution to what is happening.

We also provide domestic mediation services for our human resource departments, to help employees work better together in those [inaudible 05:52] teams.

Aled: Okay. You’ve just given me a bit of an elevator pitch, haven’t you?

Nathalie: I’ve been practicing.

Aled: It sounded so coherent, and it rolled off the tongue. Have you spent a lot of time sort of really thinking about how you present yourself and the work that you do, or is that just something that just came to mind just then?

Nathalie: No. Absolutely, because I’ve done a lot of different things in the field of conflict management, and, so, figuring out what exactly I love to do the best in this field, is what I’ve been trying to figure out. So, all of that energy is – CIT is a result of all of that energy and hard work of internal analysis and internal soul-searching of ‘What about this field do I really enjoy doing?’ because conflict management is huge, and you can do tons of stuff and be involved in resolving conflicts. So, it’s really trying to hone down what exactly I like best and where I think my skills could be more useful.

Aled: Yes. So, what is it you really like best about the work that you do? What is it that really gives you that sort of fire in your belly or whatever?

Nathalie: Because all my life, as a kid, I’d been accused of troublemaking. I was always the one that was targeted as starting all the sibling rivalries, sibling conflicts, and I always left the room and then people were fighting behind me. So, I’ve always had to conquer that kind of label. So, my passion really is to see how anger changes, how folks who are in conflict with each other are able to transform their relationship and then collaborate on an agreement.

When I discovered mediation in 2003, that was really the epiphany for me. To be able to have the techniques and skills to shift people’s perception of each other, so that they can see where the other one is coming from, and then work on figuring out how to resolve the problem.

Aled: So tell me . . .

Nathalie: So that’s . . .

Aled: Sorry. Sorry. Tell me about that epiphany moment, that 2003. What was it that gave you that . . . ?

Nathalie: Well, I ran into a programme in the heart of Baltimore, a community mediation program that taught, for free, folks in the US, it’s typically 40 hours of basic mediation training, and they have an excellent experiential program, training programme, that takes you step-by-step in the process of mediating and the skill of harnessing conflictual energy or being able to de-escalate folks, or helping folks be heard, kind of disentangling the position, the issues, the values, the feelings. Really breaking it down for folks, breaking that narrative down, so the other party can better hear and understand where the other side is coming from. Then really how to make folks, who can’t stand each other, work together.

I had never been in a place where explained it so well and broken it down into actual skills and tactics that anybody can really do and learn.

Aled: So, downtown Baltimore. Now, Baltimore is where The Wire . . .

Nathalie: Yes.

Aled: That’s where that’s shot. Right? Okay.

Nathalie: Yes.

Aled: So, already have got an image in my mind. Help me out here. How do you go from downtown Baltimore, community mediation, into facilitating peace in a Central African country?

Nathalie: Well, downtown Baltimore, I ended up via my parents. I’m actually originally from Belgium. So, we used to move from country to country, and, for some reason, Baltimore is where we ended up. So, I ended up working with juveniles and violent offenders, after coming out of undergraduate, and worked a little bit in Boston. I came back to Baltimore to work in various residential and locked facilities, trying to help youths rehabilitate themselves and re-integrate their community.

So, I wanted to take those skills to Chad, or abroad. So, initially, the objective was to open up a psychosocial rehabilitation programme to help child soldiers. So, with a few of my . . .

Aled: Hold on. I’ve got to slow you down here. You’ve gone from working with violent offenders to ‘Now, I need to take all these skills to start working with child soldiers in Chad.’

Nathalie: Yes.

Aled: There’s a missing link there. Did you wake up one day and think, you know, a calling, ‘I have to go to Africa and do something there’? Or what? How did . . .

Nathalie: At the age of 14, I always knew I’d be working in Africa. I didn’t know it was going to be on conflict. I didn’t know it was peace building. I mean, I did know I could’ve been selling pizzas over there. I had no idea, but I always knew, from young age, that I be doing something in Africa. So, I always had an affinity for the continent and for the people in Africa.

Aled: Okay. So, the work that you did in Baltimore, then, and working with rehabilitating violent offenders, have I got that right?

Nathalie: Yes.

Aled: Okay. Tell me a little bit more about that, how mediation helped you in that kind of work. What was challenging about that work? Because, I’ve got to be honest with you, I couldn’t do that work. I would struggle with that, doing that sort of stuff.

Nathalie: Mediation came afterwards. At the time, the way you were taught to de-escalate these children is with verbal de-escalation skills, and, if all else failed, restraints.

Aled: Okay.

Nathalie: So, a big part of my day was spent restraining juveniles, from stopping the fight or from throwing property around for from stabbing each other. So, it was just, really, a very chaotic and violent environment, and, I’ve got to say, having now learned mediation, I’ve never had to restrain anybody, still, since.

So, it was very primitive skills that they – and this was 20 years ago, you know . . .

Aled: Sure.

Nathalie: . . . and how to manage these violent children, and all this in the context of points and structure and rewards and things like that, but, then, also having locked rooms, what they called ‘a banana suit,’ where you actually wrapped children and restrain them, and I think some of these things still happen right now.

So, I wish I had had the mediation skills at that point.

Aled: Okay.

Nathalie: Those came at the end of my career in Baltimore and at the beginning of my career in Chad. So, they were kind of that intersect skill that I picked up before when I left to go abroad.

Aled: Yes. So, you just decided one day, ‘I’m going to Africa, and I’m going to work with rehabilitating child soldiers in Chad’?

Nathalie: Yes. So, I had this dream to go to Africa, and, for many years, I had tried to send out hundreds of resumÈ to find a job, had several times sold everything, was ready to move, but never got hired or never found an opportunity to go there. So, I decided to create my perfect job, which is what I’m doing again, now, and decided to figure out, ‘Well, if I were to have my perfect job, what would it look like?’

So, I picked a country, used the skills that I already had in rehabilitation and figured, ‘Okay. Well, let me see if I could transfer that over there.’

Aled: Right. Okay. So, did you set something up before you go to Chad? Did you arrive in Chad and decide, ‘Okay, everyone. I’m here. I’ve arrived.’

Nathalie: Yes. No. Well, I mean, you have to do the legal paperwork to establish an organisation to be what you call 501(c)(3) here to be able to receive grants and funding. So, I did do the initial paperwork, and, while all of this is going on, I did have a small job with Doctors Without Borders in Chad, and that’s how I was introduced to the country. It only lasted three months, and came back to find out that the paperwork for Caring for Kaela had been approved and then picked up Caring for Kaela from there, but that’s how I found Chad.

And Chad, at that time, was at the bottom of every index that you can imagine, huge poverty, and in 2005, it was just becoming an oil-producing country. So, there was great opportunity to see this country kind of get out of poverty, so a huge opportunity for development and investments.

Aled: Caring for Kaela. Who is Kaela?

Nathalie: So, Kaela’s my God-daughter. She’s a child that I helped raise since she was born. She was also a child that was born to drug addicted parents and whom I tried to adopt. Unfortunately, the system did not allow me to do that, and, in trying to help rescue her, I lost contact with her. The parents were very angry, because I reported some activities that I had seen, that I felt were not healthy for her.

So, the pain of losing her kind of brought on Caring for Kaela, with the idea that you can’t adopt every child that’s hurting, but you can do something about the society in which they grow up in, and, when I look back at Kaela, I wish I had worked more with the parents, as opposed to trying to see how I could rescue Kaela.

These are some hard lessons you learn as you grow up, but it brought out an organisation that was able to impact a lot of people. So, in the long run, it was good, and I had lost track of Kaela and Kaela found me a few years ago through Facebook. So, amazing what technology . . .

Aled: I thought – in the conversations that we’ve had leading up to this interview – I thought of asking you about the background to to Caring for Kaela, where the name came from, and it just occurred to me now – and I really appreciate you being open with me, and, wow, what a story.

Okay. So, you’re in Chad. I’ve got to say, it strikes me, Nathalie, you must have – your cup of compassion must be overflowing. Do you feel like that?

Nathalie: No. Not too much. No. I don’t feel that at all. I feel like I wanted to start a business and I wanted to have a meaningful impact, but it was a business venture. The business side did not work as much as the impact that we made. A lot of the work that I did was for free, for food. I worked for the Chadians for food. That’s how I always characterise myself.

But it became a passion, and I’ve always thought that you need to do what you love. So, I don’t think I’m different or more compassionate than others. I just feel like I have less experience, so I tend to rely on others’ expertise, which is what made us so effective. We want to Chadians to find out what they needed for their country, as opposed to coming in as an expert and saying, ‘Well, we need ABC to resolve this complex conflict.’

The initial step, when I landed in Chad, was, ‘Okay. Well, who are you, as people and what you need?’ and that’s why it became an initiative that was involved in peace building, because, when the country went to war and we had initially looked at psychosocial rehabilitation program, what Chadians were telling us was that this was no longer their priority, and even though we could’ve been helpful helping orphans and helping child soldiers. At the end of the day, what they needed was security.

So, to honour these authentic relationships that I had started to build, we shifted the priorities of the organisation towards peace and security.

Aled: Okay. All right. What I’m thinking, as you’re talking, I’m thinking about that epiphany moment that you had in Baltimore, what you learned through your mediation training and how you started to apply that in the work that you – that initiative and that organisation that you started in Chad.

You went in there and decided, rather than be an advocate as, not necessarily be an advocate. But tell them what they needed, you had to do a lot of listening to find out what mattered to them.

Nathalie: Yes.

Aled: And put to one side, – suspend your sort of judgment and what you thought was right and what was needed, just to be curious and really find out what priorities they had.

Nathalie: Yes. I think that’s very similar to the mediation process. You come as a unbiased, impartial third-party, and the sustainability of an agreement depends on your ability to not give advice, to not direct the process, to not shape it in the fashion you think it should go.

The first thing that I realised was that I’m not Chadian, I have no sense of their history. I can learn it by books and reports, but I cannot grasp the essence of being Chadian and what that meant in that complex environment, and I cannot grasp the solutions that are within your reach, and that make sense for new environments.

I think, at the mediation table, it’s the exact same thing. I meet folks for a couple hours a day, maybe a few sessions, but, at the end of the day, I don’t know much more about them. I don’t know the history. I don’t know their problems. I don’t know their successes. I don’t know what they fought in the past. There’s so much in a’s person’s psychological makeup, behavioural makeup and social makeup, that I just cannot grasp. So, for me to say that I could give you advice on how to resolve your conflict, I think, is a little presumptuous.

What I love about the mediation process is that it’s entirely participant-driven, so that I’m facilitating a problem-solving process, but the content is entirely that of the participants. So, at the end of the day, the agreement becomes what they have forged, what is realistic for their situation, and not what I’m judging about their situation. So, that’s same approach that I used for Chad.

Aled: And how did you feel about changing direction in the organisation? You’ve gone in there with an intent to help rehabilitate child soldiers, and now there’s a civil war breaking out. You can see another priority emerging. I mean, how did you feel about that change in direction?

Nathalie: Personally, it was very clear that that needed to occur for me, but, as an organisation, you work with other folks. So, it was convincing the board of directors that this was the necessary shift. So, what we basically conceived of was a holistic approach to peace building, because peace is a state of mind that has to occur at the individual level, but it also requires a community of support and then a government that promotes it. Then, of course, you have the international community that could either interfere or support peace in a country.

So, we’ve always looked at peace as a holistic type of process. So, once the board caught onto that vision of maintaining the health of the child, allowing him to develop a sense of internal peace and then broadening our intervention to the community approach, the national approach and then international intervention, then they were completely on board.

Aled: When you say ‘Peace happens at an individual level,’ say a bit more about that.

Nathalie: Well, you look at complex conflicts and you look at all the components, and it can be quite overwhelming. I mean, these are international actors that have – who aren’t even in Chad, who interfere with the peace process. Then you have governments who are either corrupt or despotic, and then you have communities that either have a tendency to be violent or not violent, but, at the end of the day, when you dis-aggregate all of that, you end up with individuals who are making choices, whether these are presidents, whether these are ministers, whether these are community leaders or religious leaders or whether these are just people on the street – these are individuals making choices, and, when you have people at the table, you have individuals who represent certain entities, but these are still individuals making choices.

So, to make it more palatable, you need to deal with those individuals and their perceptions of the world and how you’re going to shift them towards collaboration. So, that’s kind of what I see when I talk about individual’s . . .

Aled: Okay.

Nathalie: . . . state of mind.

Aled: So, you’ve got key stakeholders sitting around the table, and, at track-two level, they are players, and it’s important for you as that facilitator, that broker, for them to be able to reach a state of peace in themselves sitting around the table?

Nathalie: No. I don’t really see my role there, because I think that may be a longer process, but there has to be a glimpse of a possible solution, and a solution that’s not violent and that brings about peace. So, I think that the process of really absorbing a state of mind that is peaceful, that is Zen, I think is probably a longer process that I can’t do it the mediation table, but it’s a state of mind that I’m trying to have folks reach for a moment, while they’re negotiating the peace process.

But, just to be clear, I never got to the negotiating table in Chad. That’s why, when I came home, I went into it full force, trying to mediate, because the conflict got stopped militarily. So, we never got to the negotiating table. We were doing a lot of work to get there, but we never got to it.

Aled: Okay. So, tell me a little bit about the work that you were doing in Chad, in terms of peace building, and I’m interested to see where does it fit or where did it fit with elements of the mediation process. Would overlap with elements of the mediation process?

Nathalie: Yes. The work in Chad was, essentially, broadening the voice of civil society, of Chadians, because stakeholders were making decisions about the peace process in Chad that were against the best interest of Chadians. They were basically saying, ‘No negotiation with the armed opposition,’ and we felt that a dialogue between the government and the armed opposition, including political parties and civil society, could be beneficial for the country and kind of talking about those taboos and resolving some of these issues.

So, what we were doing, in trying to make sure that Chadians had a voice, we help them build leverage. So, what I did is educate NGOs that were working in Chad, but working with refugees from Sudan, regarding the internal conflict in Chad.

And once we built consensus with DC-based NGOs, around some priorities for Chad, then I built a coalition of NGOs that spanned between DC, New York, Brussels, Paris and Chad, to build leverage for these Chadians and to have a unified voice for the international community to be able to hear us, as far as what we wanted. Which was this inclusive dialogue, bringing all parties to the negotiating table.

So, mediation skills were extremely helpful in helping to build internal consensus between NGOs who were very different. Some worked on education. Some worked on health. Some worked on [inaudible 25:51]. And building consensus around what was a priority, which was security, and then building inter-group consensus to be able to have these different organisations collaborate and say, with one voice, what the Chadians wanted to say. Once that coalition, that international coalition, was built, then it was a matter of exercising that leverage to help shift governmental policies. Once the governmental policy shift, then you can really do some things.

Aled: Yes. Can I ask how old you were during this period?

Nathalie: Whew. Well, I’m 40 now. So, I started, what, about 10 years ago. I probably was about 30.

Aled: Wow. I don’t know why – I’m just thinking – I mean, I worked in Africa when I was in my sort of 20s, and I think just my youth, my naÔvetÈ, we have an expression ‘being wet behind the ears’ or being a bit green, where you’re quite naÔve. I certainly was, but I think it helped me take some . . .

Nathalie: Oh, yes.

Aled: . . . risks, and I was just curious . . .

Nathalie: Absolutely.

Aled: . . . what sort of risks . . . I mean, did you take many risks out in Chad?

Nathalie: Oh, absolutely. I think you’re entirely right. Just kind of that youthful and that naÔve kind of risk-taking spirit was critical in me taking . . . At that point, I wasn’t married, so I didn’t have any baggage. I was by myself. So, I could just hop on a plane and go to Chad, and, many a time, I was in the middle of the desert on the back of a motorcycle, with trucks passing me by, with huge arms and teenagers manning these weapons. You do that when you’re young.

And I think that not having preconceived notions about how to resolve this crisis was tremendously helpful, because all the solutions were within the Chadian people. So, that’s what I helped release. I helped release, in them, the solutions that they had in them already, and helped do that in a fashion that was coordinated and allowed them to be effective.

The Chadians I worked with ended up participating in three track-one peace processes. So, they were, eventually, considered as the experts on the conflict. They met with several presidents. They met with with their own presidents. We were the only ones who got a written agreement by the president of Chad to meet with the armed opposition. So, they were quite successful.

Again, I’ve got to say, we were all doing this from my living room and from their living rooms, but this was completely . . . Yes. As you can see, ‘Hey,’ just kind of ‘let’s try to figure this out.’

Aled: It’s amazing what you can accomplish that with so limited resource, . . .

Nathalie: Yes.

Aled: . . . but with a big heart, with a big intent, . . .

Nathalie: Yes.

Aled: . . . with a real passion and a drive.

Nathalie: Yes.

Aled: It’s amazing what you can accomplish, the things that you can. . . The people that you can reach.

Nathalie: Yes.

Aled: What an amazing story.

Now, there must’ve been challenging times, difficult times. Have you got any specific stories or examples that you can share, things that you found challenging out there?

Nathalie: Well, I think what I found shocking, for one, is, just in this decade, to still have these parallel governments making decisions for the national government. France was the ex-colonial power, and there was a tremendous amount of work, dans les coulisses, as you say, pulling strings, to have the Chadian government go left or go right. So, that was shocking. I thought that was an era that had disappeared, but that was . . .

And figuring out how to move the French so we could achieve results with the Chadian government, was a tremendous feat. I mean, I don’t think we were able to move the French. I think we finally decided, ‘Well, let’s just deal directly with the Chadian government, because that’s who we need to engage.’

So, navigating these international stakeholders and trying to figure out, within this political landscape, who were our allies, who were the spoilers, who could we work with, who could we trust and who could we not trust, and how do you kind of pull the button or shift the pieces so that you get what you want? I mean, that was tremendously challenging, because there are so many moving parts. So, that was difficult.

Aled: Okay. Your departure from Chad. What was that experience like? Kind of ending, closing, walking away?

Nathalie: It took two years. I probably left Chad two years after I should have left Chad. The conflict subsided around 2009. I left in 2011, and, by 2009, it was clear that the opposition was coming home, one by one, and that they were just trying to negotiate a seat in government and nothing would happen.

So, it was difficult. When you pour your heart into something, you really immerse yourself in that culture, in the being and the culture of a people, and you start living with them, the marriages, the death, the anger, the fights, the family bickerings, and you really, it becomes part of you. So, leaving that – it was like, ‘Oh, well, wait a minute. This was a job. This isn’t me. I’m from Belgium.’ So, it was very difficult, because I really had extricate that part out of me.

So, I stayed probably two years longer than I should have. When the country was going toward stabilisation and reconstruction activities, I had to make a decision, ‘Do I go now into development or do I take Caring for Kaela and go towards another conflict?’ but I didn’t feel like I had the tools to go to another country.

A lot of the stuff that I was doing was very intuitive, was based on relationship. So, it took two years to make that decision, to realise that I didn’t have a place in Chad. The conflict was over and I needed to do something else.

Aled: When you say that a lot of the stuff you were doing was intuitive, what do you mean? Can you say a bit more about that?

Nathalie: Yes, because I had picked up these skills to deal with folks who had different positions. So, whether it was through mediation, whether it was working on psychosocial rehabilitation, I had picked up all these skills that allowed me to work with folks who don’t agree with me, and help them come to kind of an understanding. So, I didn’t have kind of the model, a stakeholder map or a conflict analysis or all these tools that I have now learned going to Hopkins, but all these neat little tools where you can fit answers into a box and then it helps you come up with a solution.

So, I didn’t feel like I could duplicate what I had done. What I had done in Chad was build relationships and then be authentic to those relationships. I was helping folks build a strategy with things that they were telling me. So, the relationships that I had built were the essential component of the strategy.

Aled: Okay. So, key to your work over there was your ability to build trusting relationships, . . .

Nathalie: Yes.

Aled: . . . which, again, I think, as a mediator one of the things that’s important, I think, is our ability to build the kind of relationship, very quickly, with parties, where they feel, ‘You know what, Nathalie, I can be open, I can be vulnerable in this conversation. She’s not going to take advantage of my vulnerability in this conversation. And she’s going to make sure that the other parties aren’t going to take advantage of me being vulnerable,’ to be able to establish that kind of connection with people quickly, . . .

Nathalie: Yes.

Aled: . . . obviously depending on the nature of the mediation, . . .

Nathalie: Yes.

Aled: . . . but you felt that’s the kind of – that was something that was naturally, you had a natural ability to do that or something that you are consciously investing in or just something else?

Nathalie: Both. I was constantly investing in it, and I had a natural ability to do that. I think, what mediation taught me is to do that in a shorter amount of time, because it took a year, year-and-a-half, to build trusting relationships with, I ended up selecting four Chadians that were kind of the core group, and it was a lot of heart aches and difficulties in trying to find who were the core people that I could work with. So, it took a long time. I mean, there’s a lot of mistrust, a lot of internal division. So, it was very hard to find folks with whom you could work with.

Actually, the mediation process gives me a platform to do that much quicker. So, I would say, when I came back from Chad, I actually retrained as a mediator. I was like, ‘Well, this has been very useful, informally, in my career, but I need to really refresh my skills.’ So, I came home. I did the training again, completely, from A-Z, and started focusing specifically on the component of resolving conflict, not so much on how to bring parties to the table, but how to build that relation very quickly, so folks can trust that you’ll be impartial, and then help them move forward in their disputes.

Aled: What was it like doing that training again, with all that experience behind you?

Nathalie: Oh. It was great. It was fabulous. I’m like, ‘Oh. Wait a minute. That’s where I had learned that.’ It was kind of like, ‘Oh. Yes. I remember this, and this is why I’ve been doing this. This is where I picked that up from.’ So, it completely reconnected me to the 2003 training, and it kind of made me a little more systematic and professional about my skills.

So, I’m a very technical mediator. I think there are skills that people can learn to mediate. I don’t think that this is a field of personalities, where folks need to trust a person that they will resolve conflicts, but it’s actually a technical skill that can be taught to a number of folks, and that it’s not just individual-based.

Aled: When you say you’re quite a technical mediator, what you mean by that?

Nathalie: Well, the training that I went through teaches specific skills on how to do reflective listening, how to help folks move through the process of mediation, so how to gather information, how to help people understand each other, how to identify the issues that need to be resolved, and then how to help them brainstorm and find solutions. So, they give you skills along the way on how to help folks do that. So, I rely on those skills.

The programme also gives you a – how do you say that? – they evaluate you. So, they evaluate you on those skills. So, they’re very focused on the . . .

Aled: Objective?

Nathalie: Yes. Very objective, and they’re very focused on the quality of the service of the mediators that they train, to make sure that folks are picking up certain skills that they can use at the table to help folks shift their perceptions.

Aled: Okay. I was asking, because I’m curious. I’ve been doing a couple of interviews, recently, and a lot of reading around one particular idea on narrative mediation. Have you come across narrative mediation?

Nathalie: No. No.

Aled: Narrative mediation is very interesting. It comes from roots in narrative therapy.

Nathalie: Yes?

Aled: Essentially, people have conflict stories. They come to the table with stories, and mediation is a storytelling kind of process. But it’s very interesting, because the role of the mediator is to help enrich the stories and challenge some of the stories and create another, help them create another narrative, a much richer narrative that’s got a lot more information that challenges, maybe, some culturally held assumptions around gender and so on.

But, also, the mediator – if the parties are coming with stories, so does the mediator. The mediator has a story about mediation, about who they are, about what’s important to them, and I guess, I’m curious, certainly when I hear a word like ‘technical,’ it just makes me think, ‘What does that look like in a mediator? Does that mean that we are more sort of task-driven, more mechanical, more transactional, in the way that we mediate, and less relational, or . . . ‘

I guess I’m kind of, I’m coming back to my comment earlier at the start of this interview, about the levels of compassion. There was an assumption that I had that you must have to have even had the idea to go and do the work that you did out in Chad, to stick at it out in Chad, in those conditions. Without any rewards, other than to make a difference, to leave Chad a better place than you found it. So, I wonder if some people are more naturally suited to mediation, because they have an innate sense of compassion, an innate sense of wanting to do the right thing. The skills that you learn on top of that, then, just enhances the quality of your effectiveness.

Nathalie: No. I mean, I do think that some folks are better suited for the trade than others. I don’t know if it’s necessarily compassion. I think it’s, if anything, a psychological understanding of emotion is probably a skill that’s very useful, because knowing where folks are emotionally and what they say to save face and what they say when they been triggered, or a button has been pushed, and how to harness that tension and shifting that tension. These are emotional processes. These are psychological things that are occurring within a person. So, I think, if anything, that kind of background is useful.

There is varying mediation styles. The one that you mentioned is definitely one style. There’s facilitative, there’s inclusive, there’s evaluative styles. None are better or worse than the other. I think it really depends on the type of conflict that you’re dealing with and the type of people on which one would suit them best. I mean, at the end of the day, it’s how you help folks with their problem. It’s not imposing a one-size-fits-all strategy.

But when I talk about technique and tactics, it’s not so much that I’m task driven. I don’t think agreement is the final outcome and I’m looking for, but it’s knowing that I have skills that help disentangle that narrative. So that I’m able to extract components out of that position so that I can isolate the feelings from the values, from the issues, to help folks hear each other and focus on what needs to be resolved. As opposed to responding to body positions or tone of voice or emotions.

So, my technique is in my ability to be able to really disaggregate these positions into these various components. I’ve always been a very relational person. So, it is a technique that can sound very robotic if it is applied as such, but you have to have a human component, and you have to adapt yourself to the style of the folks who are at the table. So, that relationship and that ability to relate is also crucial.

If you can imagine two dots that are separated on a piece of paper – I see my rÙle as kind of helping to figure out what that middle zone is. So, this dot is the entrance that this tunnel, and, when we’re in a conflict, we have tunnel vision. There’s so much that we don’t see. We only see a very narrow perception of what the solution is and, actually, how we can see the conflict.

So, my job is to expand that conflict lens, so to take this tunnel vision and really expand it until there’s a possible area of agreement, a possible zone of understanding. Where folks could find solutions that could meet everybody’s needs. So, that’s my rÙle, and I do it in a technical fashion. So, I’m actively listening, I’m reflecting, and I’m not paraphrasing; I’m saying what they’re saying differently, in a fashion that takes away the attacks, the feelings, but, really, represents them as honestly as I can, without adding my own bias. But allows me to say what they’re saying in a way that could be heard by the other party, and I think that’s a technical skill.

Aled: Yes, and I like that description, actually. It’s disentangling or disaggregating . . .

Nathalie: Yes.

Aled: . . . emotions, positions, data . . .

Nathalie: Values. Yes.

Aled: . . . values and so on, separating all that out. Something that you said . . . Well, I’m curious about how you have taken what you’ve learnt in Chad and are now applying it in the work that you’re doing now. I’m also curious to know how you’re taking advantage of that experience, those stories, that work that you did, to elevate yourself in the mediation world. I say that because, when I came back from Africa, I managed, I was very fortunate to get a mentor, a couple of mentors, actually, and one who was a mediator, a very experienced mediator.

I sat – he took me along to a commercial mediation that he was doing in a law firm somewhere in London, and I was, for the entire, I mean, I went there to sort of carry his bag, polish his shoes and make him cups of tea. I was just grateful for the opportunity. Okay? And I was just like a rabbit in the headlights for the entire day. I didn’t breathe a word. I was just listening and absorbing all this information.

At the end, we sat down. He wanted some feedback from me, and I thought, ‘Geez. You’re amazing. I was impressed with this, this, this and this. I wondered why you did this’. So, you know. And I said, ‘Do you have any feedback for me?’ and he didn’t say anything. I said, ‘No. I know. I just didn’t know what to say.’

He said, ‘Look. I think you’ve got the right attitude. I just think you need some more grey hairs.’ Now, I was young at the time. I don’t think I was even 30, and I took that to mean, quite literally, ‘Oh, well, I’m going to be in my 50s,’ although I’m sort of in my 40s now, early 40s. I’ve got a few grey hairs coming in. But I think what he meant was just, ‘Experience – You need more experience.’

You’ve got an amazing story, an amazing experience. How are you using that, now?

Nathalie: In the mediation field? Well, I mean, I’m discovering this field, as a consultant, for the first time. So, I always thought that it wouldn’t be a problem, because there’s so much conflict, and folks would really understand the use and the benefits of mediation. Whether it be on the workplace – you mentioned commercial mediation – throughout the international world. There’s tons of smaller conflicts that worked on, so that they don’t interfere with the bigger peace process.

So, I’m discovering this world, but, as I’m discovering this, folks don’t tend to understand what mediation is, and I’m just so surprised at the misconceptions that I’m hearing about what mediation is about, what it’s used for, what its benefits are. So, this entire world, which I thought all these grey-haired people had done such a great job kind of starting – there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.

And I agree, mediators tend to be these grey-haired white man, and I’m talking to a whole bunch of them, to figure out how they started, and a lot of them came out of governments, a lot of them came out of business, had worked with the World Bank and took kind of their career and moved on to mediation.

So, it’s tough when you want to start something from scratch. I will learn that with Caring for Kaela, but I think perseverance and guts and heart and passion for the field – this was kind of going to push me through and allow me to be successful. But a lot of work needs to be done educating people about the benefits of mediation at all levels, because the nature of conflict has changed. We no longer only require ambassadors to resolve interstate wars. You have all kinds of conflicts now, where independent mediators can be useful.

I think research is lacking. There’s very little research in the international world about the actual tactics and techniques of mediators at the table. I mean, it’s typically a confidential process that folks [inaudible 48:34] observe. So, there’s huge opportunities to educate people, to get more understanding of what actually works in the international work, and then to build standards.

Here in Maryland, there’s been a tremendous amount of work to try to establish definitions, just definitions, about different styles of mediation, of what mediation is and is not. So, defining and creating standards and guidance is about what mediation is and having kind of uniform international standards is another area that requires a lot of work.

So, I think there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity. I don’t know if folks are ready for young people, without too many grey hairs. I have a few myself, too, but I guess you will have to re-interview me in a year to find out if I was successful.

Aled: It’s a peculiar phenomenon, I think. I can understand, maybe, that you wouldn’t get someone leaving, with an undergraduate degree, starting out in mediation. It does seem like a field that you need to have a bit of life experience to be effective.

Nathalie: Well, to manage human relations, I think you need life experience. Most mediations I do, I have no idea what the conflict is, and I don’t know – these people are ready to jump at each other’s throats or are going to be very peaceful and talk civilly and collaborate easily. So, I have no idea, and to be quick with your reactions, to know exactly how to shift these different psychological processes and then change them into a collaborative work, that takes, I think, a little bit of experience.

But I think if you start off as an undergraduate, and then partner with a community organisation where you volunteer, and you can quickly get 50, 100 mediations under your belt, you start to develop some understanding of how people fight and then how to help them work together. So, I think, at the end of the day, the art of mediation, in and of itself, is something that can be learned and should be more of a trade. I don’t know why it’s not.

Here in Maryland, particularly, the field is flooded with pro bono people, and, for those who are paid, these are personalities. So, folks tend to have contracts because they trust in a person and they know that this person is good. So, it’s not necessarily that, as in the legal field, you need a lawyer, see you have a few to choose from, but I don’t know. It’s the perception that I’m getting right now as I’m discovering this field, that the consumer is more attracted to people whom they trust, as opposed to a process that they understand.

Aled: Yes. No. It’s very similar over here in the U.K. It’s generally who you know. If you’re a mediator who’s got a reputation, you tend to get most of the work.

Okay. So, you talk about guts, perseverance, some of the attitudes that are going to carry you forward, the things that you’ve learned from Caring for Kaela out in Chad, just going there, having an idea, going after it with tenacity, wanting to make a difference. So, those are the, that’s the spirit, that’s the kind of drive that you need. What are the sort of specifics – what are your top three priorities, in terms of building your business, going forward? What are the things that you’re going to take forward?

Nathalie: So, I think the thing that I have to take forward our things that probably have nothing to do with mediation, and that’s a business skills, business, marketing, sales, knowing how to pitch your service, knowing how to convince somebody that you know they need this. So, these are the skills that I’m trying to develop right now.

Unfortunately, every time you start a business, it’s typically like that. You end up wanting to do something that you love, but you also end up carrying or wearing a lot of different hats that you initially didn’t want, you didn’t think you were going to wear.

So, the key to developing a business is how do you market yourself, how do you make yourself attractive to folks and how you make yourself known? So, these are really the things that I have to focus on, now to build a business.

Aled: So, surely those skills, I guess in a different form, were skills that you cultivated out in Chad. I mean, you had to convince people. Well, I don’t know. Did you have to do much convincing and selling that they needed some help or needed some support or that you can help them or . . . I suppose you needed people to bankroll your initiative. I mean, how did you do that sort of convincing?

Nathalie: No, it was different, because it was conflict, so people were losing their lives. So, the work was necessary. So, folks took onto that. It’s very different, because you’re not pitching a product. You’re pitching an outcome or – it’s less tangible. So, working for peace, everybody’s willing to hear you, everybody’s going to give you a few minutes to hear what your solutions may be.

Right now, I feel like I have a product that I’m trying to sell. So, I feel like it’s bit different. But I think the thing that is similar is, how do you frame what you’re selling into something that’s received by the other person? So, instead of focusing on the value of being impartial or the standards that apply or my ethical standards that I use in mediation or the process. I think, the work that I’ve had to do is how does the consumer perceive, or why would they want to use mediation? So, there’s always that kind of that exercise of walking in the other person’s shoes and trying to figure out where that perception comes from and how they perceive what you’re offering.

Aled: Yes. Okay. Nathalie, I’m still – I would love to find out a lot more about your ventures out in Chad, and I’m still really feeling quite move, actually, just by the spirit that you have and the goals that you’ve strived for and are continuing to strive for, and I’m feeling really inspired. It just goes to show, if you got an idea, you can make a massive difference, with very little resources. You just need to take some action. You need to jump on a plane, metaphorically speaking, start talking to people, find out what people’s priorities are and work towards something that people want, rather than something that you think people want.

Nathalie: Yes.

Aled: And that’s – amongst many other things – that’s what I’m taking away from this interview.

Nathalie: Well, great.

Aled: Nathalie, if people want to reach out to you and find out more about the work that you did in Chad, find out about what you’re doing now, just at the very least say ‘Thank you,’ what’s the best way for them to reach out to you?

Nathalie: So, the best way to reach out to me would be to go through the website and look at the ‘contact us’ information email. So, the website is, and that’s probably the best way to find out about myself and the work that we’re trying to do, and then through the ‘contact us’ tab, you can usually reach me.

Aled: Okay. Are you sure that ‘contact us’ is working?

Nathalie: Well, we’ll double check it.

Aled: Okay. All right. Well, I’ll put that URL and any other contact details, I’ll put your Twitter account, as well, under there, so people can Tweet a thank you, and I just want to be the first to say thank you, Nathalie, thank you very much.

Nathalie: Well, you’re welcome.

About the mediator

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Nathalie is the founder of Communities in Transition (CIT) and currently works as CIT’s Senior Mediator and International Conflict Management Consultant. She is an internationally recognized change leader with over 18 years of experience in the field of Conflict Management. Nathalie has mediated conflicts ranging from workplace, family, and community disputes, as well as the re-entry of prisoners back into society. Nathalie graduated from J... View Mediator