The Holocaust Survivor Who Made Resolving Conflict Her Life's Work

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Elisabeth Seaman signs copies of her book Conflict: The Unexpected Gift at Books, Inc. in Mountain View. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

On this International Holocaust Remembrance Day, let's take a moment to appreciate one local Holocaust survivor in Mountain View who’s made it her life’s mission to help people resolve conflicts.

Elisabeth Seaman, née Rosenthal, was born in 1938 in Rotterdam to German refugees fleeing the Nazis. After the Germans invaded Holland, they sent Seaman’s family to a concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen.

Her father died  just months before World War II ended. She was six years old. After the war, together with her mother, Seaman embarked on a peripatetic childhood, moving to London, then El Salvador, and finally the San Francisco Bay Area, where she studied at UC Berkeley.

Seaman says her mother’s attitude about the Holocaust and its aftermath helped frame the experience for her. "My mother figured that she had to go on with life, and if she went around being angry and holding grudges, that wasn’t going to be very helpful."

Seaman adds, "Not that she condoned anything of what was going on. She certainly condemned the actions. But I also learned that people are basically good. When you think of a baby -- when they’re born, they’re wonderful, they’re new, they’ve got tremendous potential. Then things change them during their lives, and they may turn out to do cruel and terrible things.”

Passport photos of Maria Rosenthal and her daughter Elisabeth, circa 1946.
Passport photos of Maria Rosenthal and her daughter Elisabeth, circa 1946. (Courtesy of Elisabeth Seaman)

That early experience would eventually lead Seaman to a three-decade career in professional mediation, and a personal commitment to helping resolve conflict before they develop into catastrophes. “I’ve always been interested in any thing that can help make peace between people. I took to [mediation] like a duck takes to water.”


Among other things, she's co-authored a book called, Conflict: The Unexpected Gift.  She says, "It’s our firm conviction that a set of practices designed and intended to help people become more skillful at resolving conflicts is one way we can nudge the world, one strengthened relationship at a time, towards solving the growing number of problems that result from breakdowns in interpersonal relationships."

Seaman says conflict resolution involves a few basic principles that can be surprisingly tough to put into practice.

For starters, we all need to listen better. "When people think they’re listening to somebody, they’re not, really. Usually, they’re just thinking about ‘What’s the next thing I’m going to talk about?’ or ‘How I’m going to respond,’ and don’t really take in what the other person is saying."

Two people observing the same set of "facts" perceive them differently, through the filter of their particular life experiences and unconscious biases. You can offset or reduce conflict by checking in with the other person, summarizing what you think you understand about their perspective, and then asking if you got it right.

Four generations of Elisabeth Seaman's family, three of which survived the Holocaust, pose for a photo in 1959.
Four generations of Elisabeth Seaman's family, three of which survived the Holocaust, pose for a photo in 1959. (Courtesy of Elisabeth Seaman)

The other big challenge: taking responsibility when our actions harm others, starting with a genuine apology. Not "‘Oh, I’m so sorry you feel badly about this.’ But rather, ‘I’m really sorry that whatever I did hurt you.’"

These exercises in humility construct a bridge, provide an invitation for the other person to do the same; ultimately, to find common ground. I ask if she's encountered incorrigible narcissists, but Seaman says she steers clear of labeling people, or "limiting what the possibilities are for them."

International negotiators use these same skills, Seaman notes, to solve far more complicated problems than the ones that afflict our families and neighborhoods.

"The aim is to help people resolve things, two at a time. And then hopefully, each of those people can go on to help others," Seaman says.

It's tempting to argue that, in this era of political polarization, many of us don’t want to find common ground with obnoxious family members, neighbors, Facebook friends, or politicians. But try saying that to someone who's survived as much as Elisabeth Seaman has.