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Bound by Conflict, Separated by Restraint

Bound by conflict, separated by restraint, what a wonderful dilemma for us mediators!

This is the sub-title for the conflict section in the Museum of Adelaide in South Australia’s display on conflict and its management amongst an aboriginal tribal group in South Australia. It is part of their exhibition on ‘Webs of Relationships,’ and as a mediator I was immediately drawn into both the possibilities, and impossibilities, of such a suggestion.

Here in one sentence is the conundrum we often face as to which process works better, the ‘own it, name it, clear it,’ process suggested by Psychotherapists, or this model, suffer in silence and restraint?

I watched the video with great interest and it showed two examples of this proposition in action.

The first was a visiting or ‘wondering’ tribal group that was crossing another’s tribal area. When they met the ‘resident’ inhabitants both groups set about a highly ritualized display of physical prowess and weaponry but no physical contact took place because each group was ‘separated’ by the ritual restraint of delivering the first blow. Finally a member of the wondering group recognised a mutual totem, a depiction of a Kangaroo on one of the resident group’s shields, and then began a discussion about the mutual totem and therefore lineage until both sides were involved in this evolving discussion as a common lineage was discovered and their actions moved from being warlike to peaceful.

The second example was a group or Clan that split into two groups to operate their tribal lands. One group became the ‘managers’ and the other the ‘owners.’ In the example depicted both parties were fully dressed in ceremonial attire, the managers, who apparently had a large number of grievances against the owners, began hurling fairly heated insults and threats at the owners who remained ritualistically submissive and restrained throughout the whole process, which seemed to end only when the managers became exhausted by their venting. Apparently at the next ‘event,’ the roles are reversed and the owners get to exhaust their frustrations on the managers, and all without any physical violence.

This whole process made me think about the words of wisdom from Professor Luis Diaz, that “there is no life without co-existence, and there is no co-existence without confrontation.” Here it was being demonstrated by probably one of the most primitive people’s on earth, and they had the confrontation managed to a degree that was? Well what was it? Good manners? Good social skills? Active Listening? Or just a very successful survival technique? I guess whatever the answer, it is also part of the question, does conflict need to be resolved? Mediated? Managed or just survived?. In the case of this tribal process everyone doesn’t get to live happily ever after as they do in the fairy stories, but they do get to live with a relative degree of harmony and a high degree of safety.

The other thought that came to mind while watching this process was that of an anonymous quote that I picked up quite some time ago, and which I use as a byline on my note pads to remind me of a really important underlying principle that is easy to forget. The quote is “The reason people fight, is because they’re both right.” And this tribal process allows for the fighting to be like shadow boxing, it’s not physical, it diffuses the all heat and no light process, and at the end the situation is restored to normality with no physical casualties.

If amongst the options as mediators we look to manage the process to enable the parties to reach an agreement, do we try and ensure that their agreement survives what I call the ‘Frank Sinatra’ test? and that is the ability for the parties to be able to look at themselves in the mirror the next morning, smile, and say or sing  “I did  it my way.”

Personally, after mediating full time for twenty years, I see a lot of benefits in the ritualized restraint process, because it embodies the ‘own it, name it, clear it’ option. I know it’s our job as mediators to manage the conflict regardless of the path it takes but I also think that the aboriginal ancient ritual of restraint reflects what used to be known as good manners or social skills, or simply respect for another person’s point of view, the ‘both right’ concept, and sitting through disharmony to regain harmony.

There’s a lot for us mediators to contemplate in being ‘Bound by conflict and separated by restraint.’


David Bogan

David Bogan is an international mediator who mediates in several countries and across several jurisdictions. He does public presentations, usually on Health, Banking, Risk & Complaint Management and recently took part in an international panel with mediation experts and Law Professors Eric Galton and Kim Kovach of the USA discussing… MORE >

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