Report on the “Building Better Business Relationships: Peacemaking as an Essential Business Tool ” business matters lunchtime talk given by John Sturrock on 13 November 2013.
business matters is very grateful to DWF Biggart Baillie LLP who hosted the event and provided a buffet lunch for those attending.
To hear recordings of John’s talk (two parts), use the icons at the foot of the page.
John started his talk by quoting from a book which he, in his own words, “holds in the highest esteem” – “Mediating Dangerously” by Kenneth Cloke. The quotes which John used highlight the fact that, in conflict situations, everyone involved has a different perception of what happened. Each side tells stories that are accurate and honest for themselves while being inaccurate and dishonest for each other.
Everyone views the world from inside out and finds empathy and honesty difficult for those whom they detest or by whom they feel detested. We often desire to make ourselves appear right by making others appear wrong. Everyone wears a mask which can only be observed from the outside. We respond to attack egocentrically, suffering from self-doubt, poor self-esteem and denial.
John emphasised the idea of masks by displaying one which he had acquired on a recent holiday in Venice. He placed it in view of the audience and invited us to remember a final quote from Cloke that “probing beneath conflict masks is dangerous because those who put them on fear taking them off”.
People can find it difficult to be authentic. John unpacked this and teased out the fact that we are sometimes ashamed of who we actually are and therefore use many layers of masks in our dealing with others to try and conform to who we think we should be.
John used Cloke’s insights as a starting point and emphasised that in order to blossom at what we do in our work or in our private lives we need to learn how to take our masks off.
Peacemaking is the most important thing we can do – John stated this quite categorically and indicated that it applies with our life partners, our business colleagues, with clients, with contractors. He briefly widened the context to include making peace with the natural world given the impact of climate change.
He postulated that, unarguably, our futures, whether they be as individuals, companies or societies, depend on our peacemaking abilities. In a business context our futures depend on building even better business relationships and peacemaking as part of this is indeed an essential business tool.
John was quite candid – from his own personal experience he believes he should understand what he needs to do in the area of peacemaking; he also knows he fails regularly but is convinced that we all need to keep on trying – determination, persistence, aspiration were the key words that he encouraged us to adopt.
John introduced us to the concept of the “third sider”, a term used by William Ury in the book of that title. The third sider is someone standing outside of a dispute, conflict or problem who can help us to see things that we ourselves often cannot see (or do not want to see because of the way that we are wired).
John then laid out the three themes which his talk would cover:
He asked each person present to make the talk relevant to themselves by thinking of a current difficult situation they were facing and apply what was to be said to that situation, asking questions such as “why are we in this situation?”, “why do people fall out?”
More and more in recent years the answers to these questions have been found in the area of neuroscience – for example we know that humans are wired for “Fight or Flight”. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman (in Thinking, Fast and Slow) calls this “system 1 thinking”. We react under pressure to threat – we tend to make assumptions and jump to judgements quickly – often based on preconception and prejudice. We miss things which are obvious – here John alluded to the Gorilla and Basketball video on YouTube. If you haven’t seen it, then use the icon at the foot of the page and watch to see what John meant. We miss things because we either don’t see them, can’t see them or don’t want to see them. We also look out for material supporting our own preconceived ideas – we will tend to favour this and discard the other viewpoint. This is called confirmation bias and can have significant adverse consequences on our decision making.
System 1 thinking can lead us to think that people are out to get us – we attribute malice to a comment or action or, indeed, lack of action whereas, if we did a similar thing, we would excuse ourselves with an explanation to justify what we did. This is called attribution error. We tend to devalue the advice or input from others who appear to be on the other side – reactive devaluation.
John commented that he had used the expression “the other side” a number of times in making these points where, in reality, there is no other side – only differing perspectives. He highlighted this with some recent examples from his own work, indicating that sometimes problems can be traced to events in the past. Often problems are rooted in the people involved rather than in just the impersonal facts – we are good at imagining and magnifying “slights”.
Problems are not usually simple straightforward binary issues – “unless you’re a zebra, things are not black and white”.
Summarising, John said “there’s pain everywhere – how do we help to heal it?”
That’s where humility comes in – we get things wrong, we live in a state of imperfection. Acknowledging and accepting this is a great release and gives us freedom. How does this translate into what we do? – we need to step back and pause in our thinking. This is, according to Kahneman, “system 2 thinking”. It engages our rational, sensible, reasonable mind. It invites us to check our assumptions, challenge our conclusions, and revisit our judgements. John sounded the cautionary note that it is, however, all too easy to slip back into our default system 1 way of thinking.
This will lead us to select our language carefully – every word carefully chosen for its task. This works in even very small ways. A word here or there can build up or destroy. John recalled asking the question “what do you say when you don’t know what to say?” and receiving the answer from a fellow delegate at a conference, “say the kindest thing”.
John recounted some of his work with the GB Olympic Team in the run up to the 2012 Games as an example of the huge difference that very small margins or words or actions make. Another sporting example John gave illustrated how just taking that second longer to compose yourself before speaking or acting makes all the difference. That is the challenge for us also.
Moving on to courage – if everyone in the room agrees at the same time with a proposition there is likely to be something wrong. Citing the examples of the Challenger spacecraft and the Titanic, John highlighted that the problems experienced in these examples were known about but no-one had sufficient courage to raise the issues and be seen to “go against” those in charge. Standing up against the crowd, against peer pressure, is difficult but absolutely necessary at times.
Courage, coming from the Latin “cor” for heart, leads us to the French “coeur” and on to “encourage” – to give heart to. Tips to achieve this include:
- Listen – two ears and one mouth, use them in that proportion
- Learn to ask appropriate and bold, searching, compassionate questions
- Ask what we could do that could make a positive difference
- Model the courage to ask the questions rather than provide the answers – leaders should do this
- We are all called to be learners – to listen attentively, respond respectfully and assimilate carefully
Somehow or other we have to separate the people from the problem, preventing us from taking things personally when we receive comment or feedback, and learning to be careful in our own delivery and communications with others.
If we give dignity and respect to those with whom we are dealing then that allows us to be rigorous with the problem itself. We can phrase our comments along the lines of “this situation hasn’t worked out – let’s look at the facts and analyse the problem” rather than “this has gone wrong and it’s your fault” which is perhaps the default position most of us take.
We should focus on interests and needs rather than positions. John talked about his involvement with the various parliaments across the United Kingdom where he works training Members in effective scrutiny; how to ask effective questions. Asking “why am I asking this particular question?” is important. If, for example, Members ask “what benefit is this for the people of Northern Ireland/London/Scotland? What do the people in these areas really need?” then it could be said that they are behaving more as parliamentarians than politicians.
A principle which John touched on was “give to gain”. Citing a book by Adam Grant (Give and Take) he suggested that those who give unilaterally in situations without expecting a return are likely to be the most successful. It is, however, very important to consider how this is done or it may fail. Making a thought-through concession during a dispute without overtly asking for a return may, in fact, lead to others reciprocating, if not immediately, then at some time in the future.
All of this requires us to set aside our own egos and that takes real courage.
John paused and challenged us to think about the situation we had identified in our own lives and ask ourselves:
- What is the one conversation I now need to have?
- Who do I need to speak to?
- What am I going to say?
- How am I going to say it?
- How will I be different?
He highlighted a Protocol for Respectful Dialogue which he had prepared some months ago and which is now being adopted in some businesses as a useful tool. Access a copy using the icon at the foot of the page.
John moved on to the final topic in his talk – vulnerability. This is a difficult topic but one which, over the past few years, has become increasingly credible and accepted within the business world. Still, however, we fear loss of face, we fear humiliation and retribution, we are worried about being blamed, that in some way we might not ‘belong’. We no longer feel respected or part of the organisation.
John shared a personal experience which caused him to feel extremely vulnerable but highlighted a huge learning from this. Paradoxically, in the recognition of our own vulnerability comes freedom and a strength, not arising from hierarchical position and coercion, but rather speaking of hope and love. He quoted C S Lewis, “to love is to be vulnerable”. John suggested that this is appropriate to consider in our everyday business relationships – in terms of the fact that we all need connection – he drew our attention to an emerging theme within some current writing, following on from IQ and Emotional Intelligence (EQ), that of Spiritual Intelligence – not from a theological, religious or denominational standpoint but from the basic fact that all of us have a deep sense of needing to belong. To be part of something and be free to love.
John quoted from Heidi Baker, a radical Christian working in Mozambique, saving the lives of orphans. She states that our lives can be benchmarked against the question “have we loved the person nearest to us at any moment?” Translating this into business terms, what would that look like? How do you engage with, encourage, relate to and involve that other person in such a way that they feel valued, valuable, respected and dignified? Answering these questions will enable us to be better peacemakers.
Having effective peacemakers is vital for our businesses and our communities.
Returning to his theme of masks, John finished with some quotations from Brene Brown. He referred to a talk from Brene on TED talks and encouraged us to listen to her talk on vulnerability – link at the foot of the page. John quoted from her book, The Gift of Imperfection, highlighting that we live in a blame culture, used to finger pointing. We spend so much time ranting and accusing that we fail to develop real accountability when dealing with problems that arise. We major on self-righteous anger rather than compassion. She suggests that it would be better if we could be kinder but firmer. Setting boundaries and holding people accountable for their behaviour rather than constantly blaming them would be a better way of behaving.
Concluding, John reiterated the importance of humility, courage and vulnerability and suggested that accountability and responsibility are also major topics for consideration.
We have to be prepared to take risks – to dare greatly. Quoting from a speech given at the Sorbonne by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910 entitled The Man in the Arena, John said “it is not the critic who counts… …the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… …who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again… …who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly”.
On that note, those attending expressed their appreciation for what had been an immensely enlightening and challenging talk.