By Roger Knowles, Deputy President of the PSASA
“War is the natural state of man.” This quote from Thomas Hobbes – introduced with a lively little story – formed the foundation of the talk.
Man is inherently combative; the history of warfare over the ages underlines this assertion.
It’s not all about war, however. Closer to home, our lives are also beset with conflict – fractured marriages and other close relationships attest to this, as do conflicts between neighbours. The aggression between drivers on our roads, sports fans (and their team players, managers and communities), the simmering (or blatant) conflicts in workplaces and those on a wider front, between communities, regions and even countries, further support the argument that man’s default position when faced with conflict, is to fight.
Actually, man displays a pitiful array of just two automatic choices – fight or flight. Either way, there is just one winner – and often, the damage done to both sides is horrendous.
Conflict always has a high cost. The cost of warfare is astronomical; the Second World War cost about 4 trillion dollars in today’s money and the cost of the ‘War Against Terror’ is about the same, so far. This may be a bit unreal for the man in the street, as smaller battles have smaller costs. However, a neighbourly dispute or a divorce can cause absolute ruin – not just in your private life, but also in your business.
The physical and emotional cost of conflict is very high too, for the individual. Our built-in reaction to conflict, the so-called flight-or-fight response, is useful when faced with an emergency, but our bodies are ravaged by a daily onslaught of many situations that our bodies perceive to be emergencies.
While it is obvious that certain disputes must inevitably be fought out, there is a better way for most conflicts. Not just the so-called win/win approach, as this usually represents compromise, a mechanism that usually ends ion neither party being fulfilled; both may be losers.
There is a better way – collaboration. Most of the most powerful achievements of mankind have been the result of collaboration, which can lead to ‘victory to the power of two’ – often, all parties will achieve more than they ever imagined.
However, collaboration is not always easy to achieve, and may be excluded by our old enemy, the emotional response to conflict. Anger and other forms of emotional response often exclude the possibility of creative, collaborative thought – man defaults to the “my way or your way” mentality. There is a solution, however, to emotional impasse; mediation.
The process of mediation involves the introduction of a third person or group, to facilitate negotiation and work through conflict. The mediator/s must be trained in the process, skilled in dealing with emotional issues and independent, or ‘neutral’. Different form the other processes such as litigation or arbitration, mediation allows the parties to reach their own conclusions – the mediator may not make a decision or award; he or she must steer the negotiation process, assisting both parties to express their cases and appreciate the issues and feelings of the opposition. The process operates at individual, group, community and even international levels.
Mediation is coming to South Africa in a big way in 2014. Apart from the 50 or so statutes that require mediation, there are decisions of the High Court, and the imminent introduction of new court Rules requiring mediation. More and more contracts contain mediation clauses. Everybody will need to understand the process and know how to participate. In time, it will lead to cultural change.
Roger Knowles ( is uniquely qualified to speak (and train) on this topic, having been a practising lawyer for over 30 years. He has also been a professional speaker for more than 12 years and is the Marketing Director of The Mediation Company (Pty) Limited.
Read more about Roger Knowles.