Psychology in action

The Art of Building Peace

The following is an interview with Zachary Metz, Director and Chief of Peace Building at Consensus, a consulting firm that provides research based advice and training in conflict resolution, peace building, and negotiation advocacy.

By Amena Hassan

by Amena Hassan, Communications Manager, APA Office of International Affairs

The following is an interview with Zachary Metz, Director and Chief of Peace Building at Consensus, a consulting firm that provides research based advice and training in conflict resolution, peace building, and negotiation advocacy. Prior to joining Consensus, Zachary was the Director of Education & Training for Columbia University’s Center for International Conflict Resolution where he was responsible for the educational elements of CICR’s international and domestic programs and projects. He continues to teach The Applied Workshop in International Conflict Resolution at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). Throughout his career, Zachary has consulted to United Nations agencies and to a wide variety of international political and civil society leaders. He began his career with a focus in domestic conflict resolution, working as a mediator, trainer, and program director with the Northwest Institute for Restorative Justice and the Dispute Resolution Center.

While peace building and conflict resolution may appear to be intangible concepts to some, Zachary Metz has made them his life work. As a mediator, professor, trainer and program director, Metz has worked for various agencies throughout the United States, with local and domestic programs, and at many international sites. His current work at the consulting firm Consensus, in New York City, is based on providing practical tools and techniques of mediation to individuals, groups and organizations in practical ways.

It was during his early experiences in Northern Ireland on a peace studies program, that Metz became interested in international conflict resolution. He then went on to do similar work in Jerusalem to study what he terms “identity based” conflict. “In Jerusalem and Northern Ireland, I think the similarities are along identity lines. I think there’s a sense that what 'our group' does is seen as in pursuit of a normal life, peace and justice, whereas anything that 'their group' does is seen as a violation of what 'we' see as right, and so they are not to be trusted,” explained Metz. “Both conflicts have changed quite a bit since the nineties. Northern Ireland has moved towards a state of peace and the problems are now more economical, which is a major shift from the former identity issues. However, in Israel and Palestine the conflict has become only more complicated.”

Metz, who also teaches at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), describes identity based conflict as a dispute that is framed not primarily over resources—although it may be also be about access over resources—but as cutting through a society along identity lines. “Generally experienced, historical disputes have been expressed through identity and there is a lot of social psychology that is involved in trying to understand that,” he said. “The distinctions between us and them becomes stronger and then may eventually appear as intractable. In such cases, language identity and ethnicity becomes more powerful than economic issues.”

Heads of non-governmental organizations, political leaders and international faith based groups regularly invite Metz and other members of the Consensus team to develop and deliver unique mechanisms that can effectively help those involved in the conflict to work through long standing societal disagreements. While each project is designed so that the design fits the need of the context, he stresses that the most effective means is through helping societies use their own tools. It is also important to build the relationship around trust, including the use of open ended questions, after defining and assessing the core needs of the group. The training backdrop is also a favorable environment for building this added trust.

“It’s best if you can create a super ordinate experience where everyone from groups A and B are involved in a training and it is not packaged and pitched as a mediation, which is very threatening to both the individual and the identity. Training is a lot less threatening this way, since who’s against education? It’s a very neutral modality and groups can use it to gently open the conversation in a slightly oblique way.” In his experience it is in this type of setting when groups in conflict begin to openly talk about the issues that they are facing.

“What we try to do in our work is find those mechanisms that groups have used in the past and help to strengthen that. It could be culture, tradition, religion, or a market that is functioning across enemy lines as relevant ways that can help withstand a flare up,” Metz states. “When conflict has come up within two villages we can help by learning from the lived experiences that the community has had in the past of resolving conflict so they can develop tools for the future.” Metz often helps bring in real life situations during trainings so trainees can discuss how they handled similar cases. “They could bring up an example between a goat herder and a land holder. My job is to see whether they can use that implicit knowledge and learned experience for other conflicts. It’s also important to remind groups of moments of peace, of heroes of peace, and symbols that have to be authentic for that group. Groups can forget that there were these moments or people. Part of change can simply be reminding.”

It is also essential, in Metz's opinion, for peace builders to not rush into an already volatile situation. “Because deep conflict tends to be long term I’m not a big believer in rapid intervention that is emergency-driven. I don’t think that is all that effective.” Metz says his job is to create a network and to facilitate capacity building over long periods of time and more urgent situations require other types of involvement. “In an emergency situation people need a different kind of intervention, such as food or shelter. When people are shooting at each other we need to stop that before we can do other work. It’s very difficult in a moment of acute violence. Psychologically these individuals are at their most escalated state and to intervene you have to get them off the cycle of violence.”

With a background in international affairs, Metz states his work is heavily influenced by social psychology. It is through psychology, Metz says, that he is able to identify the dynamics at work and clarity on how to handle them. “Social psychology teaches us about the phenomenon of how conflict happens and the meaning people make of it. Columbia University social psychologists and colleagues Morton Deutsch and Peter Coleman are leaders in the field. Conflict resolution comes into the picture when we are seeing what’s happening between groups—over who has access over water or historical colonial stratification in North Africa, for example. It could be about language and access to schooling in Algeria and access to multi-lingual education (French and Arabic).” Metz feels Morton Deutsch’s work is a seminal authority within the field of conflict resolution, touching on subjects such as violence, trust, attribution, and intractability. “Intractability means we experience the conflict as never ending; as historical and as comprehensive, meaning everything is infused with a sense of otherness. It has a tendency to creep backwards in history.”

For psychologists interested in the field of conflict resolution, Metz suggests they begin by attending trainings that give individuals a window to the practice. One effective framework has been developed by the Public Conversations Project (PCP) at To learn more about the innovative work of Consensus visit at or contact Zachary Metz here at his email address.