If Chimps Can Mediate So Can We

Conflict management is key for society. As a society we generally use an interventionist approach i.e. police and courts, parents intervening with kids, bosses, or upper-level managers intervening with employee conflict. Of course, I write and speak about using a mediator, in certain situations, to help people settle their own differences rather than having a solution imposed on them.

Our practice focuses on the workplace and the family. These areas are mini “social groups” that function on their own as a subset of the larger societal group and the world at large. The more these mini social groups can find effective ways to handle conflict the more society and the world will benefit. Communication is such a big issue for people in conflict because during a dispute what they “say” is not usually what they “mean.” I have written about this phenomenon previously and will simply reiterate that a skilled mediator brings a leadership quality to the table by taking control of the “conversation” and using his or her skills to dissect the communication and bring out what each party actually means. The results are usually big “aha” moments for the parties involved and a new way of seeing not only the problem but self and others.

The earlier we start to implement a mediation-type process – with our kids in the home, at school, on the playground – the better communication skills these mini-groups will develop. Additionally, we will begin to train people to access their moral selves such that when they see a conflict they will feel more inclined to get involved – to police in a different way. They will become bystanders who feel a moral obligation to get involved with the aim of clarifying the communication such that all parties present can work on solving the problem. Think of the ramifications of this kind of thinking and what it means for the advancement of society.

On that note, the inspiration for this article comes from a study done on chimpanzees by a team of researchers at the University of Zurich. They state that chimpanzees often mediate a conflict without the “mediating” chimps deriving any immediate advantage from their efforts. Read the full article here. Not only was I not surprised by this news but it made me think about selfish human desire, fear, need for control, and a host of other negative traits that we humans allow to get in the way of effective conflict management and continually keep us using others to “impose” solutions on our conflicts rather than using others to help us solve the conflict. We can speak after all – something chimps cannot do.

In this study, high-ranking male chimps and some female chimps, neither of whom were personally involved in the conflict, would step in to make their presence known and attempt to stop the conflict through a threat of some sort or placing himself or herself between the conflicted chimps. This was enough to end the conflict in a fair amount of situations. This mediating behavior would draw aggression from the conflicted chimps but that was why the mediator was usually a high-ranking chimp. According to the article:

The team said it was astonishing that chimpanzees were able to mediate in a conflict, without themselves deriving any immediate advantage from their efforts.

“The rarest and most interesting form of conflict management is policing, that is impartial interventions by bystanders, which is of considerable interest due to its potentially moral nature,” they said.
“These results suggest that the primary function of policing is to increase group stability. It may thus reflect pro-social behaviour based upon community concern,” the team wrote.

Clearly the chimps – who do not speak like us and do not have our thinking brains – are aware of the need to get involved to maintain peace even when their own interest is not at stake. And, as the researchers suggest, the results suggest pro-social behavior. Do we show pro-social behavior when we enter the game of litigation? Does that process suggest pro-social behavior? Not usually. As evolved as we are, we should recognize that when we are in conflict our perspective is skewed. Knowing that, we should consider a pro-social process like mediation which skill builds and empowers people to come up with their own solutions promoting a better, more sophisticated social order. That has got to be better than“These results suggest that the primary function of policing is to increase group stability. It may thus reflect pro-social behavior based upon community concern,” the team wrote.

So the next time you are watching some chimps at the zoo, sit down for a minute and decide whether you want some high ranking human (maybe even one that is too hairy) to come in and beat his/her proverbial chest and break up your conflict or whether you want to remember you are a human, after all.