Barrister and mediator Paul Sills commences an article series, Changing the Way We Argue. This introductory piece will explore the topic, Our Approach to Conflict. Conflict should not be avoided, but should be engaged with constructively, he writes. Paul recently presented on the topic, Cognitive Bias in Ethical Decision-Making at the Property Law and Commercial Decision-Making Seminar in Auckland.
Conflict is not intrinsically negative, and may be the pre-cursor to both constructive and positive change. The context in which conflict arises, and the way that we deal with it, will ultimately decide whether conflict is cathartic or destructive.
Many believe that war is embedded in our very nature. This conclusion is based on the tendency for modern societies to go to war, and on observations of how those living a pre-agricultural “hunter-gatherer” life supposedly behave. Observations of the sometimes violent behaviour of our closest living relative – the chimpanzee –also support this theory.
However, a study of tribal societies that live by hunting and foraging found that war was an alien concept, and not an innate feature of primitive people. The study found that although such hunter-gatherers are far from peaceful, they are not warlike. Most violent deaths are at the hands of other tribesmen, not “foreigners“. While we may well be murderers, we do not appear to be the warriors of anthropological legend.
Compared to modern, “developed nations the study found that most “primitive” people were quite peaceful and concluded that war was probably not common before the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago. Archaeological surveys have also reached this conclusion.
Five pre-conditions have been posited for turning peaceful tribunal people into the war-prone societies of recent centuries:
(a) Moving from a nomadic to sedentary existence – often tied to agriculture;
(b) A growing regional population and increased pressure on resources;
(c) The development of a social hierarchy;
(d) Increased long-distance trade, particularly in high value goods; and
(e) A severe climatic change that breaks down the subsistence base.
In warless societies of hunter-gatherers, social organisations do not extend beyond family and a network of kin. In contrast, hunter-gatherer societies that make war have larger and more defined groupings such as clans. It seems that identity with a group or tribe makes for a sense of collective injury and a desire for collective retaliation.
Given that all five pre-conditions are present in our society today, and are intensifying as time goes on, how can we avoid an escalation of violent conflict?
The existence of conflict is not the issue – it is our response that is the problem. Conflict encourages open-mindedness and helps avoid the tendency towards collectivist group thinking that many organisations and tribes fall prey to. The key is not to avoid conflict, it is to learn how to manage conflict effectively so that it can serve as a catalyst, rather than a hindrance to society at large.
“We grow through necessary conflicts and tensions. I don’t think there is any other way. Dancing along a self-created primrose path will merely lead you to illusion and superficiality.”
Conflict should not be avoided, but should be engaged with constructively. There is a transformative power within conflict because it can bring about meaningful change for all concerned when it is handled well. As William Ury stated:
“We need more conflict, not less, to really uncover and address a lot of issues that are still not being addressed properly in this world … it’s about transforming conflict from its often destructive forms of violence and war to more constructive forms such as non-violent action and negotiation.”
Some of the ways that conflict benefits us include:
(a) Conflict encourages new thinking – many people enjoy constructive conflict and argument as a stimulus for new thinking;
(b) Conflict raises questions on both sides of an issue which can result in new ideas that benefit individuals, organisations and society. There is a constant need to question or challenge the status quo and conflict represents an opportunity to reconsider how we do things;
(c) Conflict builds relationships –being thought of as agreeable may seem ideal, but encouraging conflict can strengthen relationships through better connections, understanding and respect;
(d) Conflict can create a climate of innovation that encourages creative thinking and novel solutions to issues;
(e) Conflict beats stagnation – avoiding conflict means avoiding change. This is a futile exercise we all practice but should stop. We need to embrace change to move forward.
As the five pre-conditions place ever more pressure on modern society, our tendency to solve conflict with violence may increase. We see this playing out every day on the news. We need to challenge how we engage with each other and other tribes over resources, conflicting issues, beliefs or points of view.
Paul Sills is a barrister with over 20 years’ experience working in global litigation markets. Paul is also an accomplished business leader, having been involved in a diverse range of companies (as CEO or director) including the marine industry, global health care and international freight. Paul has been engaged in mediations both as a legal advisor and as a client since 1995 and as a mediator since 2010. These have included multi-parties and complex issues surrounding Treaty of Waitangi settlements, aviation disasters, leaky homes, construction and receiverships. With a unique understanding of the challenges businesses and individuals face and drawing on his years of commercial and legal experience, Paul provides timely and cost-effective solutions for his clients. Paul’s appointments include Associate Member of AMINZ, a member of the panel of mediators for the Marine Industry Association, Triathlon NZ Age Group Adjudicator for 2015 and 2016 and a member of the panel of mediators for the New Zealand Law Society. Paul is approved to assist with the Society’s Early Resolution Service, as well as standard track mediations. As a barrister Paul maintains both an active commercial litigation practice and a comprehensive mediation practice. Contact Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect via Twitter or LinkedIn.