New Zealand Law Society - Connection and Collaboration: An antidote to social conflict

Connection and Collaboration: An antidote to social conflict

Connection and Collaboration: An antidote to social conflict

A focus on connection and collaboration is not a focus on conflict avoidance as many probably assume – quite the opposite. It is to embrace the inevitability and desirability of many facets of conflict while addressing our approach to conflict. As Catholic Priest, Richard Rohr has said:

“We grow through necessary conflicts and tensions. I don’t think there is any other way. Dancing along a self-created primrose path will merely lead you to illusion and superficiality.”

A study of the underlying principles of both non-violent action and negotiation shows that we need to engage constructively with conflict. There is a transformative aspect to conflict which highlights the potential for meaningful change for all parties when conflict is handled collaboratively. As leading expert on negotiation and mediation William Ury states:

“We need more conflict, not less, to really uncover and address a lot of issues that are still not being addressed properly in this world … it’s about transforming conflict from its often destructive forms of violence and war to more constructive forms such as non-violent action and negotiation.”

It is how we respond to conflict that causes problems. Conflict can encourage open-mindedness and help avoid the tendency towards collectivist group thinking that many organisations and tribes in societies fall prey to. The key is not avoiding conflict, but learning how to manage conflict effectively so that it can serve as a positive catalyst, rather than a hindrance to society at large.

We can achieve this through collaboration rather than competition/aggression/violence/war.

“Collaboration is a habit of mind, solidified by routine, predicated on openness, generosity, rigour and patience. It requires precise and fearless communication, without status, or intimidation.” — Professor Margaret Heffernan

Professor Brené Brown in her book “The Gifts of Imperfection” defines connection as:

“The energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”

The connection economy

In spite of our current self-centred ego centric lives, connection is what we do better than anything else and what we crave far more than we know.

In his book “The Icarus Effect,” marketing guru Seth Godin asserts that we have moved from the industrial economy to the connection economy.

A lasting consequence of the industrial revolution and living in an industrial economy is that innovation and creativity have given way to precedent and process. The focus of business was on standardising production, achieving economies of scale, using interchangeable parts (and people) and serving the middle of the bell curve (aiming for the average). We were programmed and trained to think that what we did well was to follow instructions. The industrialist needed cheap, obedient labour, people who would sit still and do what they were told. Our education system dutifully provides such people.

Godin does not believe that we are very good at following instructions. He thinks that is a fallacy. Instead, we are very good at connecting. As a species we are one of the best on the planet.

But do we actually connect well? We certainly have huge resources for connection – just look at the growth of social media. Does that make us connected? Yes, superficially but not in a meaningful way that helps us grow, or benefits society and helps us deal with conflict.

Godin identifies four pillars in a connected economy:

  1. Coordination;
  2. Trust – earning trust is critical in the connection economy;
  3. Permission – you need the permission of the people that you want to talk to in order to engage with them;
  4. Exchange of ideas.

Godin puts it this way:

“What happens when we create an environment of connection, we create enormous value by combining all four of these things (coordination, trust, permission, exchange of ideas) into a network of people who want to pay attention to one another.”

Humanity fuels the new economy. Whilst technology enables us to transition to this new economy, it is connections in the new economy that are the focus. These connections are fuelled by a focus on humanity. Godin goes on to state that the four ideas are based on two principles:

  1. Generosity – because no one wants to trust or connect with a selfish person;
  2. Art – because we do not want to connect to someone who is going to do just what they did yesterday. It is the work of a human being doing something real and personal that might not work. The minute somebody gives you a map (a process, procedure or precedent) then it is no longer art.
We are wired for connection. It is in our biology and we need connection to thrive emotionally, physically, spiritually and intellectually

Building trust and connections are the hard (and necessary) part of working in the connection economy. That requires collaboration.


It seems that neuroscience supports Seth Godin and his comments about connection.

We are wired for connection. It is in our biology and we need connection to thrive emotionally, physically, spiritually and intellectually.

In his book “Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships”, Daniel Goleman explores the latest findings in biology and neuroscience and confirms that we are hard-wired for connection and our relationships shape our biology as well as our experiences.

Kelly McGonigal – in her TEDx talk “How to make stress your friend” – identifies the fact that when we are stressed we produce the hormone oxytocin. This is known as the “cuddle hormone” because it is also released when you hug somebody. Oxytocin in fact fine-tunes your brain’s social instincts. It primes you to do things that strengthen close relationships. Oxytocin makes you crave physical contact with your friends and family. It enhances your empathy. It even makes you more willing to help and support the people you care about.

But oxytocin is in fact a stress hormone. The pituitary gland pumps out oxytocin as part of the stress response, motivating you to seek support. So your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel, instead of bottling it up. Your stress response wants to make sure you notice when someone else in your life is struggling so that you can support each other. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.

Our innate need for connection makes the consequences of disconnection more acute and dangerous. The same can be said for convincing ourselves that we are connected when we are not. Technology in this instance is an imposter for meaningful connection – making us believe we are connected when we are not.

In her book, Brown concludes that we need to consider letting go of the myth of self-sufficiency. One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance placed on toughing it out and “going it alone”. While many of us may be willing to lend a hand, we are completely opposed to reaching out for help when we need it ourselves.

While connection and collaboration appear to be natural parts of humanity that should aid us in dealing with conflict effectively, we have put a number of cultural barriers in our own way. It will take conscious effort to remove those obstacles so we can use conflict to uncover and address issues.

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