Can trust and forgiveness emerge in wartime?  The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 brought this question into sharp focus. Even as the conflict continues, political discussions about post-war recovery and reparations are underway, while international entities broker prisoner exchanges and supervise grain trades. Any large-scale international post-war coordination will require some sort of trust and forgiveness between groups. But how realistic is the hope of reconciliation?

Feeling Understood as a Component of Reconciliation

Our recent research in Ukraine suggests that feeling understood by an outgroup fosters reconciliation. Outgroups are social groups to which one does not belong. Ingroup members feel understood when they think that outgroup members understand and accept their perspectives, including their beliefs, values, experiences, concerns, and identity. In short, they believe that outgroup members 'get' them. In our research, Ukrainian citizens are the ingroup, and Russians are the outgroup.

In close interpersonal relationships, feeling understood predicts relationship satisfaction, life satisfaction, and feelings of acceptance and joy. In intergroup contexts, feeling understood also predicts intergroup trust and optimism. We wondered whether feeling understood predicts trust and forgiveness of outgroups over time amid large-scale, violent intergroup conflict, such as that in Ukraine.

Felt Understanding, Trust, and Forgiveness in Ukraine

Our study was conducted from May to August 2021, prior to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.   This was the seventh consecutive year of armed conflict in the Donbas region. We recruited Ukrainians from urban areas, and gathered data at three times, each separated by approximately six weeks. In total, 743 people of different age groups, gender, geography, and social status participated at all three times, so we were able to track changes in their answers over time. We asked Ukrainians about their national identities, whether they felt understood and positively regarded by Russians, and whether they thought Russians could be trusted and forgiven. The three-wave design allowed us to test whether increases in feeling understood predict increases in trust and forgiveness, and whether increased perceived positive regard explained this link.

Results showed that increases over time in the belief that Russians understood Ukrainian perspectives ('they understand us') were associated with increases in the perception that Russians regarded Ukrainians positively ('they like/respect us'), which were in turn associated with increases over time in trust and forgiveness.

Our findings suggest that feeling understood by out groups may be the starting point of reconciliation.  Any attempt to bring groups together in dialogue or contact, even when well-meaning, could be alienating rather than reassuring if it does not enable people to feel understood.

Feeling understood involves outgroup members recognizing the needs and experiences of ingroups.  To this end, when outgroup members address ingroup experiences of suffering and injustice rather than avoiding them, feelings of being understood should increase, potentially leading to forgiveness and reconciliation.

In the context of the Russian-Ukraine war, our findings can explain why Ukrainian intellectuals and poets refuse to participate in events or panels together with Russian positioners or dissidents. From the perspective of Ukrainians, their agency and grievances are ignored, while Russian counterparts propose some ideas of reconciliation without understanding and addressing the needs of Ukrainians.

Readers must keep in mind that our study was conducted before February 2022, when Russia openly attacked Ukraine and conducted countless atrocities. Since our study was conducted, the conflict in Ukraine has deepened. Post-invasion, almost 70% of Ukrainians reported a personal loss as a result of the war, a threefold increase since our study. In this context, a conversation about trust and forgiveness cannot be discussed as an abstract construct.

We do not say that Ukrainians and Russians should simply talk about feelings. We understand that issues of war crimes and reparations must be addressed first. Nevertheless, our findings signal that if reconciliation is to be achieved someday, it will likely need to involve the recognition of needs and experiences as a basis. Our results also caution that any attempt to bring groups together in dialogue or "contact," even when well-meaning, can be alienating rather than reassuring by Ukrainians if it does not enable participants to feel understood, such as by avoiding rather than addressing experiences of suffering and injustice. Feeling understood seems to be a powerful social psychological mechanism for forgiveness and should be considered in other contexts beyond the Russia-Ukraine war.

For Further Reading

Brik, T., Livingstone, A. G., Chayinska, M., & Bliznyuk, E. (2023). How feeling understood predicts trust and willingness to forgive in the midst of violent intergroup conflict: Longitudinal evidence from Ukraine. Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Livingstone A. G. (2023). Felt understanding in intergroup relations. Current Opinion in Psychology, 51, 101587.

Tymofii Brik received his PhD from Carlos III  University of Madrid. He works as Rector (provost) at the Kyiv School of Economics. He is also a National Coordinator of the European Social Survey. His research interests include religiosity and local governance in Ukraine.

Andrew G. Livingstone is Senior Lecturer in Social Psychology at the University of Exeter. His research interests lie in social identity, emotion, group processes, and intergroup relations.

Maria Chayinska is a Ukraine-born researcher in social psychology. She received her double PhD from the University of Milan-Bicocca and the University of Limerick. After completing her post-doctoral research at the School of Psychology, at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile (2022), Dr. Chayinska joined the Department of cognitive, psychological, and pedagogical sciences, and cultural studies, at the University of Messina. Her research experience throughout Latin America and Eastern Europe addresses mobilization of national identities in various contexts.

Evgeniya Bliznyuk is a Ukrainian social researcher, founder, and CEO of Gradus Research and Corestone Group, organizations that conduct online surveys and social media monitoring.