An interpersonal neurobiology view of the diverse roles of culture in conflict

Abstract: In this paper Ian Marsh considers the complex interactions of culture and conflict through the twin lenses of interpersonal neurobiology and his experience of working with conflict as both hired gun (litigator) and peacemaker (intervenor). After briefly introducing the subject of interpersonal neurobiology and reflecting on the nature of both culture and conflict, he explores  the notions of culture as a cause of conflict and culture as an effect of conflict. He concludes by arguing that storytelling is our principal means of acculturation and offers a powerful tool in managing conflict. He does not claim any original thought here (but who knows?). Nor is this a comprehensive review of the relevant literature. Rather, as we often do in mediation, he simply writes in the hope that by illuminating familiar territory from new angles we may see in it things we have not seen before. [China Media Research. 2013; 9(4):58-65]

Keywords: Communication, complexity theory, conflict, culture, family business, interpersonal neurobiology, nonlinear dynamic system, storytelling

Interpersonal neurobiology

Interpersonal neurobiology (“IPNB”) is a consilient field of study (that is one which seeks common findings among independent disciplines (Wilson, 1998)), pioneered by Dr Daniel J Siegel at UCLA, which explores the ways in which relationships and the brain interact to shape our mental lives (Siegel, 2012a).

The IPNB view of that interaction is directly supported by research in a number of fields, not least
attachment theory (Siegel, 2012a), mirror neurons (Rizolatti & Sinigaglia, 2008), neuroplasticity (Doidge, 2007), and, most recently, brain-to-brain coupling (Hasson & colleagues, 2012).

IPNB seeks to balance subjective experience with science; to be consistent with science, but not constrained by it (Siegel, 2012a).


Siegel (2012b) describes culture as the social environment in which an individual lives. It shapes the context in which energy and information are shared among people by patterns of interactions, rituals of behaviour, communicative symbols, and structural aspects of the environment.

Hofstede & Hofstede (2005) also pick up the theme of rituals and symbols. For them, culture manifests itself in shared symbols (words, gestures, pictures or objects that carry a particular meaning only recognised as such by those that share the culture); heroes (whether living or dead, real or imaginary, who possess characteristics prized in the culture and so serve as role models); rituals (collective activities that are superfluous to reaching desired ends but which the culture regards as socially essential); and values (broad tendencies to prefer certain states of affairs over others.

How we make decisions may not, at first sight seem to be an incident of culture, but March’s (1994) notion of identity based decision making seems to me to be just that – and key to our present discussion. In this view, rather than being self-interested and rational, assessing the pros and cons of each option open to them and choosing the one that produces the best outcome (which March (1994) describes as decision making based on consequences), people ask: who am I? what kind of situation is this? and, what do people like me do in this sort of situation.

Whilst economists appear to continue to favour rational self-interest, the advertising industry seems to have decided that appealing to identity, to how “people like us” behave, to our cultural connections, may be more reliable.

I work mainly with family businesses and family offices (an organisational structure used by wealthy families to manage their collective affairs), around the world. However, it is not the ethno-cultural aspects those families that have taught me most about culture (challenging and educational as they have been), but rather the family culture itself.

If you don’t think of family as culture, recall an annual feast or festival that was important to you when you were growing up. Now think about the first time that you spent that time with someone else’s family. How did that feel? Different? Confusing? Wrong? Every family has its own way doing things, its own identity, its own culture.

Families are naturally divided vertically, into branches; horizontally, into generations; genetically, into bloodline and in-laws; and by gender. Each of these cohorts may also have its own way of doing things, its own identity, its own culture. Conflict between these groups, typically presenting around succession (ownership and control of the family’s economic capital), governance (power and influence over its future development and disposition, or the dominance of one value system over another) is commonplace, to the extent that 70% of wealth succession plans are estimated to fail (Williams & Preisser, 2003).

Most people belong to a number of these sub-cultures (IPNB would refer to them as different states) at the same time: I am “one of the boys”; I am my parents’ son; I am my children’s father; I am my siblings’ brother; I am “of the blood” of my father’s family, and an in-law of my wife’s. We can suffer considerable inner conflict if we are unable successfully to integrate these various states, if different groups with which we identify seek different outcomes from matters of common concern: for example, when a family is considering whether to retain, or sell, the family business or some other totemic asset, stereotypically identified as “the family silver”.

Like broader society, families have to cope with “immigration” (birth, adoption, marriage) and “emigration” (death, expulsion, abandonment, divorce). They must cope too with the stresses of diaspora and return, changes in the broader societies of which they form part and, of course, fluctuations in affluence (increasing affluence of the individual tending to decrease the need for interdependence and so collectiveness in families, just as it does in broader society (Hofstede & Hoftede, 2005).

Families, just like other social groups, are not utilitarian in nature, but are founded on “cultural continuity” and “felt connection” (McGilchrist, 2009). Moral values (our “sense of we”), McGilchrist (2009) argues, “are linked to our capacity for empathy, not reasoning; moral judgements are not deliberative, but unconscious and intuitive, deeply bound up with our emotional sensitivity to others.


Our most basic, evolutionary, drive is to survive, to reproduce, and to nurture our offspring to the point where they can do the same. That reflects in our behaviour as competition for resources, for power and influence, and for the dominance of our values over those of others. Conflict in that broad sense is, therefore, an inherent part of the human condition.

That being so, I tend to see conflict simply as part of the human dynamic to be managed, rather than as a problem to be solved. I tend also to avoid language such as conflict avoidance, conflict resolution and dispute resolution, which seem to me to reinforce a transactional view of conflict (perhaps not surprising given that, in the civil arena at least, the vocabulary is that of litigation, a field of practice that is fundamentally transactional in nature). I find it more helpful to focus on managing the relationship, the dynamic. Where a conflict specific term is required, conflict management suffices.

Siegel (2012a) sees relationships as complex dynamic systems, citing Boldrini and colleagues who assert that “the spontaneity, unpredictability, and self-organising properties of nonlinear dynamic systems are well suited to explain the notoriously spontaneous, unpredictable, and creative nature of human beings”.

Nonlinear here indicates that small changes in input can produce very large, and unpredictable, changes in outcome, something that intervenors in the conflicts of others should bear in mind! The positive side of nonlinearity in this context is that small changes in the way parties see their differences can bring about disproportionately large (albeit unpredictable) changes in their behaviour toward them.

Complex systems are also said to be self-organising. In other words, without any organising programme to follow, patterns arise from the interaction of the components of the system and the more a pattern is repeated, the more likely it is to recur in future. At the neuronal level, Hebb’s Law states that “neurons that fire together, wire together”. At the social level, repeated patterns of behaviour (particularly those with some emotional intensity) become increasingly more likely to be repeated, as witness, for example, recurrent patterns of abusive behaviour (whether of self or others) through the generations of a family. Such properties are described as emergent.

It seems to me that both culture and conflict are emergent properties of human society and, as we shall see, that conflict is also an emergent property of culture.

Returning to the practical, much mediation practice focuses on the “turbocharged negotiation” aspect of the craft, which assumes (to a degree at least) that the substance of the presenting dispute is key. Working with families, I find that this is often not the case. Litigation over a family’s wealth may simply be the only way that the family can find to articulate family issues. Indeed, in my experience, if one can restore trust and communication between family members, very often either the substantive issue falls away, or the family members become able to deal with it themselves.

Given that, and given also that the “threat” that triggers an outbreak of hostility need not be real (perception is everything, but may be mistaken), I would go so far as to propose that conflict is simply the breakdown of trust and communication between individuals, or groups of individuals. Indeed, is that not one of the lessons of the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:4)?

Culture as cause

Ramachandran (2003) sees culture as one of the hallmarks of the human species, suggesting that:

… somewhere around 50,000 years ago, maybe the mirror neuron system became
sufficiently sophisticated that there was an explosive evolution of ability to mime complex actions, in turn leading to cultural transmission of information, which is what characterises us as humans.

But if culture has enabled us to achieve so much, it also has a dark side. By creating Us, we inevitably create not-Us, the Other. The challenge with that is that the evolutionarily older parts of our brains, the brainstem (of reptilian origin) and limbic system (of mammalian origin), are programmed to respond to Otherness – and are much faster, if cruder, in operation than our so-called higher, neocortical, functions (of primate origin); stopping to analyse whether that shape on the forest floor is a poisonous snake or a fallen branch would not bode well for survival! Moreover, whilst the neocortex may have an inhibitory function (sometimes called our free won’t) it appears this is shut down by excessive arousal (and also by alcohol and narcotics), causing people to “feel something intensely and act impulsively” (Siegel 2012a).

So, when we perceive Otherness, it is likely that our fight/flight/freeze response will activate, and all the more so if we have had an unpleasant experience of that form of Otherness in the past.

In fight mode, we become edgy, perhaps even hyperactive, as the sensitivity of our early warning systems is turned up. We become angry, aggressive, as our bodies are fuelled for the fight. We become less caring of others (caring what happens to your enemy does not aid survival). And our critical faculties turn down; we become much more certain of everything (battle is no place for doubt), something we see regularly in all conflict. The subcortical brain does not conceptualise; it may cause you to react in exactly the same way to a neighbour who plays his music too loud in the middle of the night as to an approaching mugger brandishing a carving knife.

In flight mode, we become wary, timid, fearful. Heartbeat and blood pressure increase to give our muscles more fuel to run. We sweat more to shed the extra heat that will generate. Libido decreases (not really the time!), and we shed any excess weight that may slow us down, perhaps suddenly emptying both stomach and bowels.

Freezing appears to be a response to a perceived existential threat and can lead to a complete shut down of the body, feigning death, enhancing passive avoidance (Porges, 2001). Children hide from monsters by covering their eyes (if I can’t see the beast, it can’t see me). Adults are little different, except perhaps that we tend to hide more in our minds. Threats need not be physical (or real) to be experienced as existential. I have seen successful, driven, entrepreneurs absolutely paralyzed by the thought of retirement; they are what they do, so what will they be if they stop doing? The result is denial, an inability to engage, and an inability to analyse or make decisions.

But it doesn’t stop there. We humans are not just aware, we are aware that we are aware, and we may also react to the way we react, possibly adding a dose of fear or shame to the mix; a real double whammy!

At the extreme, our reaction to Otherness drives us to apartheid (pretending there is no Other? A freezing response, perhaps?), annihilation (fighting to the point where there is no Other), and to assimilation (potentially a well intentioned “why don’t you become one of us?”, but also aimed at the ending of Otherness).

As I have said, we all belong to many cultures, even within our own families. The fact that I may see my cousin as one of us (cousins), does not mean that she has the same view. To her, she may be one of us (who has to work in the family business), while I may be seen as one of them (who simply hold shares in it and take their dividends), and who (as she sees it) are free to do what they want with their lives.

Nor does the fact that we were all “people like us” yesterday, mean that is true today. Yesterday, my father may have seen us as “me and my boy”; today, after I have suggested he stand down as CEO of the family firm and let me take over, it may be “I have no son”. Culture is never linear, always dynamic; small inputs, very large, unpredictable outputs … .

Culture as effect

We humans have a deep need to make sense of the world as we experience it. It seems that the right hemisphere of the brain is critical to reasoning about incompletely specified situations and is not at all phased by ambiguity. The left hemisphere, however, craves certainty, and needs to be right (McGilchrist, 2009). Indeed, Ramachandran (2003) argues that our “conscious life … is nothing but a post-hoc rationalisation of things [we] really do for other reasons ”.

So, on the one hand, we have a talent for making good decisions based on incomplete information; on intuition. On the other, we seem to need a conscious view of the world that makes sense to us, that we can live with more easily, and we constantly reinterpret/rewrite our memories to that end.

If, when you say, or do, something I feel hurt, my left brain will likely fill in the blanks by telling me that you must have intended to hurt me; the logical, literal, left knows all about cause and effect. If, when I remonstrate with you, your response is to apologise and to tell me that nothing could have been further from your mind, my left brain’s need to be right will probably cause me to accuse you of not even being willing to take responsibility for the consequences of your actions! (Interestingly, if instead you acknowledge my hurt and ask why I feel that way, you will probably re-engage my higher brain functions and bring me back from the cliff edge (Creswell & colleagues, 2007; Rosenberg, 2003).

If you don’t calm me down, I will probably then seek comfort from my nearest and dearest. My life partner (if I have one) will likely have learned to listen to everything and to hear nothing, to nod and grunt in all the right places, to comfort and to soothe my furrowed brow. Whatever she says, I will likely come away believing she has reaffirmed my status as wronged party, reaffirmed the rightness of my cause. After all, she above all is “one of us”, so what else could she think (and if she does express a contrary view, I may well go into freeze mode!). (She too could use empathic questioning to calm things down).

Now I am like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner who “stoppeth one in three”, telling and retelling my story, and with each telling I am reaffirmed in my view of what has happened, embellishing it a little further, enriching my rightness, deepening your offence. It is perhaps worth noting here that what weremember also depends (in part at least) on why we are trying to remember it (Schacter, 1996).

As I do so, I am not simply forming some utilitarian coalition of the willing, but seeking a group of
fellow travellers, of believers in the cause. Winning the battle becomes a key value that we share. Our meetings take on a ritual, liturgical, quality as we tell and retell the story of the original slight and all that has happened since: I had a client once who could only talk effectively about the current state of affairs by first relating (his current version of) the entire saga from its beginning. We make heroes of others who have suffered like us in the past – particularly if they prevailed. We find totemic value in physical objects related to days that go well for us.

Our vocabulary changes too. We become claimants or plaintiffs. We may become our side or Team Ian. In our minds, we likely become victims (victims see the presenting problem as the Other’s fault, and often tend to do nothing about it on the basis that it is for the Other to fix it – a freeze response?). Whatever the label, it is a group to which you do not belong. You are no longer part of our “sense of we”, those to whom we feel a moral obligation. You and yours stop being referred to by name, or by your relationship to us. You become defendants, the other side, even perpetrators. We may even find some more insulting term for you which, if you discover it, you may well adopt as a badge of honour. This dehumanises, demonises, you so that over time we can shed any empathy for you; we cease to care that you suffer too. You are thoroughly excommunicated – as, no doubt, am I and mine by you …

So, each party to a conflict seeks to build a cohesive group, with all the markers of culture, around him. But there is another culture developing here too, one to which everyone involved in the conflict belongs, the culture of those who fight. Many years from now, when we all look back on the then long settled fight, that culture may be a place of reconciliation. Then, the culture of those who fought may be a good thing, perhaps even an honoured thing.

For now though, that culture has a darker side. We have all seen the movies where the Cold War warriors on both sides conspire to frustrate the diplomats because endless conflict is what they crave. Terrorist groups around the world offer the resourceless and powerless identity, meaning, purpose, making them what singer Vin Garbutt once called “trigger happy hooligans with patriot’s disease”. But we see it at a more mundane level too. I worked with a family once where a third child, John, had come along 10 years after his elder siblings. They were away at boarding school as he grew up, so he never really got to know them. When he got to that age, Dad had lost most of his money, so John never got the expensive education, the help with the first house, or the start in business. But years later, when Dad died having made both a second fortune and a second family, John’s brother and sister needed him on side in the fight for “a fair share” of that fortune. Now they couldn’t do too much for him. He was surrounded by expensive professionals and, when he said jump, they just asked how high?  And someone else paid. Deep down, John knew that when the fight was over, things would go back to the way they were before. He had no desire to see this war come to an end and (I believe unconsciously), John very subtly sabotaged every deal that was put on the table.

Culture as tool

A Third Culture

In intercultural mediation we talk of creating a third culture (assuming a two party conflict) for the purposes of the mediation (Kalowksi, 2011). That is usually done with a view to managing the frustration (on the one hand) and the offence (on the other) that can arise between high and low context communicators; between those from high power distance cultures with long “chains of command” and those from flat, self-starting, groups; between highly individualistic parties, all about me, myself and I, and collectives who need consensus before they move forward; and so on (Hofstede & Hofstede, 2005).

I believe the tools of culture can be used much more broadly, to help Each see the Other as One of Us Who Manage this Problem. At one level that is, of course, simply an appeal to our common humanity. That is the only cultural group to which we all belong, but it seems to be the hardest to invoke. Something more intensely felt is usually necessary.

Much of my work is not involved with patent conflict at all. It is with families who wish to develop their capital (be it financial, human, intellectual, social or spiritual) collectively, harmoniously and cohesively over generations. They face a significant challenge. It is said that every non-indigenous culture on the planet has some saying equivalent to what I was taught as “clogs to clogs in three generations”. That is something the statistics go a long way to bear out: only 30% of family businesses survive in to a second generation, only 10% to a third, and only 3% to a fourth (Ward, 1987). Some seek help.

For me, the heart of this work lies in finding ways to reinforce the family’s cultural identity, to bind them together, and to show them how to have the conversations that really matter to them, and to deal with their differences, in a collaborative way. I do that in no small part through the power of storytelling.


Gottschall (2012) argues that stories provide both the grease and the glue to human society). Damasio (2010) suggests that storytelling evolved from the inner storytelling we all do to create our very sense of self, as means of making our shared cultural norms “understandable, transmissible, persuasive and enforceable”, ie to give culture its continuity. Our brains are essentially model making machines, constructing virtual reality simulations of the world that we can act on (Ramachandran, 2003). Stories help us do that by providing grist for that mill. As Gottschall (2012) points out:

Stories universally focus on the great predicaments of the human condition. Stories are about sex and love. They are about the fear of death and the challenges of life. And they are about power: the desire to wield influence and to escape subjugation.

But isn’t this what culture is all about? Surely culture, how we do things around here, is just shorthand for the diverse solutions that different groups of people have come to for collectively dealing with those great predicaments. When we talk about what people like us do, we are unlikely to be talking about the laundry or the supermarket shopping. We are talking about things that really matter to us, things that are emotionally important, heartfelt, visceral. And we know from experience that you can’t change emotional entrenched behaviour by logic or conceptual argument (were that not so, smoking would long since have died out and the UK would not be facing an obesity pandemic). As Heath & Heath (2008) put it:

If you make an argument, you’re implicitly asking [the audience] to evaluate your argument
– judge it, debate it, criticise it – and then argue back, at least in their minds. But with a story
… you engage the audience – you are involving people with the idea, asking them to
participate with you.

So, our inner stories help give us our sense of self (Damassio, 2010). The early stories we hear, parental reminiscence, help us create “a shared past with others, from which [our] personal past emerges” and through which we also attain “a shared perspective on how to interpret and evaluate experience, which leads to a shared moral perspective” (Fivush & Nelson, 2004).

Stories then are the tool we use to pass on to our young our rituals, symbols, heroes and values, the primary elements of culture that bind us together. Stories also stimulate our mental simulations. They tell us how others have dealt with similar situations in the past, and help us to simulate similar courses of action and evaluate how things might play out for us; and they also help us simulate other options, Plans B to Z, our best alternatives to a negotiated agreement, to explore how each might make us feel, and to help us choose between them.

Just as importantly, I believe that stories provide us with our richest source of metaphor, and it is metaphor that allows us to speak the unspeakable, to talk (obliquely) about the taboo, and to fire simulation in the resistant Other.

But I believe there is more to it even than that. Our stories, our narratives, are incredibly important, but so to is the process of storytelling. Our stories may tell of our symbols and rituals, of the deeds of our heroes, and exemplify our values, but it is story-telling that provides Gottschall’s (2012) glue, the Heaths’ (2008) stickiness. I do not dispute that reading a good story, or watching a good play or film,
connects with us emotionally. We learn of a death, and weep. We hear music and tap our feet. We see a fight and our bodies move to parry and riposte. We see someone fleeing the monster and we duck every branch that appears on screen.

This is the miming, the mimicry, that Ramachandran (2003) refers to. We learn from these things, and that learning may stick because of the emotional connection, but (mostly) we do not bond with the characters in the play, however much they engage us. This is not because the brain distinguishes between fact and fiction (mostly it doesn’t), but because we only develop social bonds when we are in close proximity to one another (Porges, 2003).

Benjamin (1936) describes storytelling as “the ability to exchange experiences”. Siegel (2012a) puts it so:

The storytelling and story listening process often involves the essential features of  social interaction and discourse. The teller produces verbal and nonverbal signals that are received by the listener, and then similar forms of communication are sent back to the teller. This intricate dance requires both persons to have the complex capacity to read social signals, to share a subjective experience of mind, and to agree to participate in culturally accepted rules of discourse. Stories are thus socially co-constructed.” [emphasis supplied]

It is now estimated that those “nonverbal signals”, ie posture, gesture, eye contact, facial expression, prosody (the rhythm, stress and intonation of speech), and the timing and intensity of response, comprise more than 90% of human communication.

When we think of storytelling we shouldn’t be thinking of infants sitting cross-legged around their teacher as she reads for the hundredth time from the same book, but more of college students just home from their skiing trip, all talking at once, sharing photos and videos, singing the songs they sang (all at once), retelling the bad jokes they shared, each absorbing the others’ related experience and
contributing their own; all of them coming away with a different experience of a holiday that finished before that conversation started. Each has their own memories of the holiday, but they also now share a collective memory of it. Like a good tweed the myriad different colours can still be seen if you look closely, but the overall effect is magnificently different.

If relating our narrative lets us feel heard (assuming an active, empathic listener), sharing our story (both as narrative and emotional experience) allows us to feel felt (ditto), and that is probably the most powerful thing one human being can do for another: to feel how they relate viscerally, emotionally, to something that has happened in their lives, and to enable them to feel that, to know that we know.

Being there

We cannot just listen passively to the Other’s story. To become part of the story we need to listen deeply, empathically, curious as to why the Other sees the world differently than we do (and even identical twins do); open to whatever we might learn in the process, accepting of the Other whoever or whatever they might turn out to be (particularly if they turn out to be someone other than the person we wanted), and always compassionate towards them (Siegel, 2007). And we need to do that whether we are intervenor or stakeholder.

My work with families turns very much on that: exploring their individual and group stories and helping them weave them into a single narrative; helping them nurture those stories through an ongoing process of being physically and mentally present for each other and sharing each others’ lives. This is not storytelling as a relating of historical fact, more a relating of myths and legends in an emotional
context (but as our memories seem to have an element of the mythic anyway, what else could it be?), and a relating too of our dreams, our future stories; where we are headed being just as important as where we come from.

What is most interesting to me in all this is that in learning to be present for, and to attune to, each other in this way, we appear to learn (albeit unknowingly) to engage the middle prefrontal cortex of the brain which is linked to both the limbic areas and the brainstem and can inhibit their reactivity (the free won’t effect), and which has been shown also to mediate our ability to balance our emotions, to be flexible in our responses, to soother our fears, to create insight (my sense of me), empathy (my sense of you), moral awareness (my sense of we), and intuition (Siegel, 2007), increasing our ability to deal reflectively and collaboratively with our differences.

When we are fully present for another, we also seem much better able to read the Other’s non-verbal signals; to map (mimic) more accurately in our own body and brain what is happening in the Other’s; which is key to making the Other feel both heard and felt.

I believe that a similar approach (that is to say for the intervenor to focus primarily on building a single in-group of We Who Manage this Issue; to do that by listening deeply and empathically with curiosity, openness, acceptance and compassion to all involved; and through that identifying the symbols, rituals, heroes and values of each stakeholder, finding the stories that may best convey them to the others involved, and bring all together to share those stories and, hopefully, to weave a single piece from them) may be taken in many other situations than just family nation building. As I said earlier, my experience is that if one builds trust (cultural continuity, glue) and communication (felt connection, grease), the stakeholders can manage their own issues.

IPNB talks of health, harmony, flowing from integration, from the linkage of differentiated parts of a system, and so it is with any social system, not least families. The aim is cohesion, not homogeneity, to honour the differences between individuals, while promoting the linkages between them; think fruit salad rather than smoothie (Siegel, 2012a).

Patent conflict

But what of patent conflict, of differences that have already turned toxic before we become involved? I do not believe that is fundamentally any different. I approach such situations in much the same way, seeing my role as to bring all the stakeholders into the room ready, willing and able to have the conversations they need to have.

I begin working with each individually, hearing (and becoming part of) their stories, looking for the cultural indicia that I might focus on to build the shared (“third”) culture later in the process. For the stakeholder this is about self-awareness, insight, his “sense of me”.

I move on to explore perceptions of the other, pragmatically to flush out whether there is real interdependence here or not (if you don’t need the other to meet your needs, what are you fighting about?), but also to raise the notion that we do all experience the world very differently; to introduce uncertainty, shades of grey, into what has often become a world of black and white, but at the same time using those cultural indicia to find points of commonality, Us rather than not-Us. For the stakeholder, this is about other awareness, empathy, her “sense of you”.

As I move to bring all parties together, I coach them in their storytelling, partly to give them practical support which they often need, but partly also to help them create stories that tell what needs to be told, but which will also start to interlace one with the other, so that the Other once again becomes One of Us. This is about collaboration, moral awareness, their “sense of we”.

Heroes can be in short supply in these situations but, going back through the family history, there are often common ancestors (real or mythic) who, even if they may not have behaved well, are at least well respected by all parties: “What would Great-Uncle Simon have done?” is a potentially great cohesive question; when they all put themselves in his shoes they take on a fresh, and shared, perspective of the problem. Sometimes, the intervenor may have to take on the role of hero. After all, what else is modelling the behaviour one wants from the parties?


In conclusion, I would propose that:

  • Human society is a nonlinear dynamic system;
  • Culture is an emergent property of that system;
  • Each culture/in-group is also a nonlinear dynamic system;
  • Conflict is an emergent property of both human society and its subsets, ie of culture;
  • Conflict is a dysfunction in the system, the breakdown of trust and communication within the group, which leads (at best) to an inability to collaborate;
  • Conflict is more effectively dealt with as a negative property of the system to be managed, rather than as a problem to be (re)solved, or a deal to be done;
  • Rebuilding trust (glue, cultural continuity) and communication (grease, felt connection) within the group enables group members to deal with their differences collaboratively;
  • Storytelling is the primary means by which we build, and rebuild, trust and communication within the group;
  • Storytelling is an interactive, sharing, process requiring Each to be mentally and physically present for the Other;
  • Presence requires that we attend empathically with curiosity, openness, acceptance and compassion;
  • Self-awareness/insight/my Sense of Me leads to Other-awareness/empathy/my Sense of You which leads in turn to collaboration/moral awareness/my Sense of We.

I have heard some say that attending skills and emotional intelligence cannot be taught. I disagree. I tend to the view that these abilities are innate in all of us (or at least in the non-clinical population) and can be developed with training.

Finally, I would propose that the families all around us, but particularly those that choose to work and play together and to pool their resources, are worthy of greater attention from those who would study culture, communication and conflict.

Correspondence to:
Ian A Marsh
familydr Limited
Central Court
25 Southampton Buildings
LondonWC2A 1AL

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First published in China Media Research. 2013; 9(4):58-65. China Media Research is published by the American Chinese Media Research Association and the  Communication Studies Institute of Zhejiang University.

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