Suppose your roommate (or spouse), Chris, leaves dirty dishes in the sink.

Do you:

  1. Wash them noisily, so Chris gets the point?

  2. Say something sarcastic to Chris?

  3. Wash the dishes, say nothing, and stuff your anger and frustration?

If A, B or C are your go-to responses in a stressful situation, Alexandria mediator Sherry Bruckner suggests there is Option D.

And that is to pause. Take time to assess your feeling at seeing the dishes in the sink and understand it. Maybe you have a need for order. Or for support. Understanding your own response will help you advocate for what you need instead of creating more turmoil in your home.

“It’s thinking in advance the result you want to create,” said Bruckner during a free, introductory online training session, called Peace Building 101. “It is not easy.”

Seeing both sides

Bruckner offers her course at a time when Americans have become so polarized that some high-profile thinkers are wondering if our nation is falling apart. We hurl dehumanizing names at each other and disagree about what is real and what is not. Even a pandemic, which would have united our country in a previous era, has underscored our divisions.

Bruckner says her approach, called compassionate communication, can scale up or down, allowing people to communicate effectively over dirty dishes as well as over guns and abortion.

“I think it’s universal,” she said. “That model has also been used in the Middle East, in major conflict there. ... I’ve been to Israel and it’s a lot more peaceful than people think. I felt more safe walking around Jerusalem than I have felt in some places in the United States.”

Bruckner, who practiced law for 20 years, has gotten back to her first love, building peace.

“I feel like I’ve been doing peace work since fifth grade,” she said. “I was the person who had the blessing and curse of seeing both sides. … I tend to be that person today that people call when they’re in a conflict.”

Often, people just want to know that they’re heard, that their point of view matters.

Her work has been influenced by the late Marshall Rosenberg, founder of the global organization Center for Nonviolent Communication.



‘Murderer!’ one man yelled

In an online video clip, Rosenberg tells the story of his visit to a Palestinian refugee camp, where people had been living for years. As soon as he was introduced as an American, a man hollered, “Murderer!” at him. Another one called him “Assassin!” and a third yelled “Child killer!”

Rosenberg could have taken offense, tried to defend himself and walked away, shaking his head.

Instead, he tried to connect with how the men felt. He had noticed hundreds of tear gas canisters lying on the ground within the refugee camp, with “Made in U.S.A.” written on the sides.

“Sir, are you furious?” he asked. “Are you needing a different kind of support from my country than you’re getting?”

The man began talking to him and Rosenberg then learned that the camp needed sewage and better housing.

“Within an hour the guy that called me a murderer invites me to a Ramadan dinner at his house,” Rosenberg relates. “I had to see the human behind the names he was calling me.”



Drop the labels

One of the first things Bruckner says in her introductory class is this: “Peace is created from within.”

But even if you haven’t achieved inner peace, you can still show up in a peaceful way, she said.

“General awareness is really really important,” she said. “Just being aware of our thinking. When we encounter a person, are we seeing a person, a human being who has needs, or are we seeing a black man, a cop, a Republican or a Democrat?”

These labels might not be helpful nowadays, but they come from a time when humans had to immediately label a threat — a poisonous snake! An enemy with a club! — in order to survive, Bruckner says. Our reaction triggers a well-documented fight, flight or freeze response.

“We either attack it, the person or what’s going on, or we run from it or we freeze up and do absolutely nothing,” she said.

She urges people to be curious about other points of view, not with the goal of proving them wrong, but as a way to learn what the other person’s needs are.

Listening first and talking second also helps. And while people might think they look strong by arguing their point without listening, it is actually more difficult to sit down and try to understand each other, she said.

“Any person can be a peace builder whoever they are, wherever they are, if they are compassionate and clear,” she said.