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Therapists, politics and humanitarian principles

"I applaud Gabrielle Rifkind’s article, ‘Western diplomacy and psychology’, in the November issue of therapy
. Its inclusion is very important, as many therapists do not realise they have the psychological knowledge and experience to equip them to play a vital role as guardians of humanitarian principles."

Volume 18
Issue 9
November 2007

  • Category: Features

Many skills from the therapy room can and should be used to foster political engagement among nations where Western diplomacy has failed

  • Western diplomacy and psychology

  • by
  • Gabrielle Rifkind
  • The purpose of this article is to explore how Western diplomacy is failing, and to draw on my own experiences as a psychotherapist to offer some insights to apply to political conflict.

    In the final decade of the 20th century the world seemed poised to establish peace. Within the past decade, that mood has shifted. The freedoms that have come with globalisation have increased the vulnerability of the most defenceless people in the world, while technology has outstripped mankind’s emotional maturity. The new century may prove to be more destructive than the last.

    I lived for years with a deep sense of frustration at my own impotence in the political process and struggled to move beyond this. I wanted to develop and analyse the links between the psychological and the political world, and, given the current preoccupation with political violence, deepen my knowledge of what motivated such behaviour, not to excuse it but to understand its root causes and thereby forge a more considered path of response and possible intervention.

    To do this, I had to learn a whole new political language, yet I was able to transfer many of the skills I already had. It was possible to translate what I knew from my cumulative life experience and make effective use of my understanding of human and group behaviour, and its relevance to the political process, particularly as applied to areas of conflict in the outside world. I became committed to the links between human motivation, human needs, and the human potential for destruction and creation, rather than adopting the usual political and strategic frames that do not take any of these into account. I wanted to explore what contains and stimulates violence, and what makes people wish to re-engage in society. A psychological understanding is very relevant for decision-makers – it is necessary to understand human motivation and human needs when attempting to impose political solutions.

    I found the strength to take bold initiatives that surprised me. In my journey from the safe enclaves of Hampstead and its protected world, I travelled to Beirut to meet with Hamas and Hezbollah. This included visiting the Hezbollah headquarters and the territories that have been bombed in the 2006 South Lebanon war. I was taken there by the Iranian leadership, who played a role in funding and strengthening Hezbollah as an organisation. I also visited Iran, where I met with some of the country’s hardline leadership.

    Whilst at one level this opened my eyes, at another level it was very familiar territory – and key to my engagement was my capacity to listen and understand the motivations of these groups. It is too safe and easy to isolate particular groups as part of the ‘axis of evil’, too simple to place the blame outside ourselves. We have a responsibility and commitment to understand why groups reach these extreme, polarised and hardened positions and what will change their experience.

    The psychological and the political
    As a psychotherapist, I try to help clients get beneath the surface of their symptoms and learn to differentiate between these and their inner conflict. If they can access inner conflicts, they will be more able to take control of their lives and less likely to express themselves with those specific symptoms.

    All this can be applied to the political process. So, for example, to read political violence as an end in itself would be an oversimplification. We should look behind the political violence and try to understand the needs that are not being acknowledged: often behind this is marginalisation, dehumanisation and humiliation. The violence may be seen as an autistic communication, a non-verbal one that does not address the real issues that offer the possibility of change or resolution of conflict.

    Our understanding about human relationships, how people change and how people manage tensions, conflict and differences is as relevant to a political forum as it is to a psychological group. So I created new political spaces, enabling others to express themselves and listen to one another in a different kind of environment that doesn’t involve rhetoric and platitudes and rigid thinking.

    As a group analyst,I constantly assess people for suitability for a particular group.I hold in mind both their individual needs and the needs of the group.I also have to think about the chemistry ofthegroup.Inpsychotherapy terms,it’s not advisable to have people with the same problems in the same group– forexample,peoplewhoare depressed –becausethiscan leave the group paralysed.Itis often helpful to have both aggressive and depressed energyinthegroup,because this offers a creative mixand also the opportunity for people tochangetheirposition. When constructing political groups, the aim is a rich potpourri of difference. For example, it would be important to have female voices when talking about nuclear deterrence, or voices from different generations rather than the same political veterans or elders. One may also need highoctane energy combined with more reflective voices in order to activate more dynamic thinking and the creation of new thinking.

    As a group analyst, I have learnt that change can be a slow process – people often have deep patterns that are difficult to overcome. This can be equally true in the political process, and while we may look for an attractive quick fix to change things, it might not offer real change – depth of change is necessary in a society for it to be sustainable.

    The Palestine-Israel conflict is a good example. We see how any imposed peace deal that did not sufficiently prepare and take into account the people and engage them in the process made for a volatile situation. It was not by chance that after the collapse of the Camp David peace process we saw the outbreak of the second Intifada – a huge chasm exists between the voices of the people on the ground and political elites. Whether in my consulting room or on the West Bank and Gaza, people have to be engaged and feel committed and invested in the process. And this takes time and care.

    In my work as a psychotherapist, I see people act self-destructively and become prone to depression if they have lost hope. Again, we can see parallels to the political process – when there is loss of hope and people carry no investment in their future, we see an increase in political violence, which is, in part, the belief that there is nothing worth valuing or protecting in the community. Decision-makers need to understand human motivation and human needs when attempting to find political solutions.

    Focusing on the Middle East
    The Middle East quickly became my main area of focus and I began to set up different initiatives and projects with the intention of influencing the political system. This involved, for example, getting representatives of Political Islamists together with members of the British Establishment, or persuading Palestinians and Israelis and the international community to work on the obstacles to the peace process in the Palestine-Israel conflict. As a psychotherapist, I am trained to seek and understand what goes on for both sides – it is dangerous to blame one side without understanding the interactions that take place between all the parties, and being aware of how each side impacts on the others. This can be equally true of a political process where history and experience accumulate and grow over time, deeply influencing how nations behave and react to one another.

    My aim with the politically oriented group has been to push the boundaries of current thinking, to break ossified assumptions and  introduce an environment where creative thinking is encouraged. I wanted a different kind of conversation to emerge, one that offered the possibility for something new and fresh, sustaining people’s engagement and persuading them to be involved.

    The failures of Western diplomacy
    The West’s model of realpolitik in which we negotiate from a base of national interest now needs to be analysed as to whether it is serving our common interest. Firstly, Western thinking suggests superiority of its civilisation, which allows us to impose our agenda on others. From the Middle East, this looks hypocritical and self-serving. An example of this would be Britain replacing its nuclear warhead Trident while simultaneously arguing that Iran had no right to become a nuclear military power; or the US perfecting its Star Wars nuclear defensive shield with vigour and being surprised by Russia’s reaction.

    Secondly, Western diplomacy involves a set of assumptions about how people will react and what they want – but this shows little understanding of war-torn countries that have been involved in endless conflict. A clear example of this would be the invasion of Iraq, where the Americans believed the troops would be welcomed. The US had not factored in that the legacy of Saddam’s tyranny, exacerbated by years of Western sanctions, made it inevitable that, even after the fall of the authoritarian dictator, there would be huge needs for revenge, retaliation and the avenging of wrongs that had been suppressed.

    We are now seeing a backlash against power used in this form, not least as a result of globalisation and mass communication. This has led to the rise of groups who have been historically marginalised and excluded from the political process, demanding engagement. We can see this in the growth of the Islamic movements and the asymmetrical repercussions.

    Thirdly, embedded in Western diplomacy are fine ideals about what we consider to be reasonable behaviour. Our language is around conditionality. For example, if you do this, then this will happen. Two good examples of this are the West’s diplomacy with both Iran and Hamas. The West says it will not negotiate a wider political bargain with Iran unless she suspends uranium enrichment. From a Western perspective, this seems eminently reasonable, as the concern is that Iran will continue her nuclear programme irrespective of talks and will play for time. From an Iranian point of view, uranium enrichment is part of her bargaining chips. Moreover, she’s not prepared to accept conditions imposed by the West in which the negotiations take place. Iran is particularly sensitive to the asymmetrical power relationship and will therefore not accept conditions set down by the other side. She is trying to establish the negotiations on a more level playing field and more strategically to her advantage. Here, we see power politics at play and a model of those with the most power imposing their agenda. Such negotiations are conducted more like a strategic game of chess with winners and losers and a very high price paid as the consequence. What would it look like if the security anxieties of all the parties involved in this conflict were placed on the table to find an agreement that addressed the concerns of all groups? Or if the West changed its approach, and started to treat Iran in a more respectful way, allowing Iranian leaders to save face at home?

    In the case of Hamas, after its victory in the elections in 2006, Western governments refused to engage with Hamas unless she fulfilled three conditions, those being recognising the state of Israel, renouncing violence and respecting all previous peace accords. Again, to the West, this seemed eminently reasonable. However, this development was dependent on a maturational process that could involve Hamas’s transformation from military to political actors. This transition does not take place overnight, not least because governments are elected into power because of their resistant stand. What is not fully understood by Western governments is that these positions are taken as a result of cumulative trauma that has been a result of endless conflict. Such groups do not and cannot transform overnight because of the extent of disturbance in their societies.

    A new political language is therefore needed that recognises trauma, especially in trying to promote dialogue between groups who are not behaving according to our rational and objective criteria. It might be necessary to factor in that traumatised communities will not think and act rationally, and this may profoundly affect their political judgment. All of this needs to be considered when entering into dialogue with these groups. The long-term impact of deep shame and humiliation on people’s psychological structures and how this affects political discourse is frequently underestimated.

    For instance, most political leaders and their supporters have suffered the endless violence of war and each family would most probably have a family member killed by this conflict or in prison. It is only through the process of stabilisation of the society, improvements in conditions on the ground and the possibility of hope that people become able to change their minds. Many lessons here can be learnt from Northern Ireland where the paramilitary groups took several years to renounce violence; theirs was a gradual metamorphosis from the  threat and real use of violence as a part of their identity, to finding other ways to engage in the political process in which they were to have real power and influence. Like it or not, it is necessary to start where people are at and not where we want them to be.

    Practical insights
    I was involved in three dialogue meetings with the leadership of Hamas and Hezbollah in Beirut – held in the context of these groups wishing to change their pariah identity. We were there to help support their transformation from being military organisations to becoming political actors.

    Engaging with these groups, however, demands that our expectations are not shaped by our own experience of living in stable societies. These are groups that have been part of an endless cycle of violence. Their whole psychic structure has emerged out of using violence as a means of establishing power. They have both used violence and been the victims of violence, and this will have profoundly affected the way they see and organise their worlds. They are not going to operate according to the same code of conduct as we do. They have been traumatised and are likely to be edgy, nervous, suspicious, living a bunker existence fearful of a possible assassination, and susceptible to feeling exposed and humiliated. We might need to work hard to win their confidence if we are to engage in serious dialogue. This may be antithetical to our instincts particularly if they have been men of violence.

    It is also helpful to think about what the experience of being a resistance group might mean: years of fighting against the dominant political and military culture, and a frame of mind used to rejecting ideas rather than engaging with them. The challenge is to create the conditions to encourage more positive engagement. To engage in negotiations, a degree of compromise will be required.

    The use of language was also addressed in the meetings – how could we support them to speak a new language? The language of conflict uses hatred as political cement. This political rhetoric is the antithesis of individuation and encouraging people to have minds of their own. It takes real leadership to shift the rhetoric to self-reflection and not blaming the other side but taking responsibility for what can be done in one’s own community to bring about change.

    What did we learn?

    • The importance of listening. Many groups turn to violence, as they do not know how to get heard. It is important to listen and engage with their experience and demonstrate respect.
    • Not to react through a Western lens. It was important to not have preconceptions or even expectations of the outcome; to build a relationship and deepen our understanding of why they saw the world in a particular way and why they had resorted to violence as a way of getting heard.
    • Not to assume a one-off meeting. If common ground was to emerge, trust in our mediating presence would need to build up in a structured way over a period of time and a process emerge.
    • Working in a climate of resistance. These groups, who are described by the West as terrorist organisations, see themselves as resistance movements with years of using military means as a vehicle for communication.
    • We must support their transition – from resisting or blocking political initiatives to finding ways of engagement as political actors, using language as a means of getting heard.
    • They may fear betraying the people in their communities. They may fear civil war or being killed themselves if they go on with certain initiatives. In such situations, support can be given to the leadership of these groups to think about how to engage in a political process and address the anxieties of their people.
    • These communities have been traumatised by endless conflict, and will not be operating according to the same parameters as those living in stable societies.
    • Irreparable personal loss will cause responses and behaviour that do not meet the requirements of international diplomacy. So we need to stay engaged in the process for as long as it takes.

    If we are to be serious about trying to create a less polarised world and lessen the potential for a clash of civilisations, the West needs to be serious about finding ways of engagement with groups who do not reflect our value system and often represent ideas that are alien and unacceptable to us. This demands that we find a new form of introspection in which we create forums where we don’t demonise each other but find ways of listening. We might have to engage with ideas and beliefs that we find difficult and that don’t fit comfortably with Western values and our version of modernity. I only hope that the political elites beyond the therapy world read this!

  • Gabrielle Rifkind is a Group Analyst and Human Security Consultant to Oxford Research Group. She is coauthor with Scilla Elworthy of Making Terrorism History (Rider, 2006).

    This article is based on a keynote speech at the 2007 BACP Annual Training Conference.

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