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Embracing Diversity

03 August 2018 - By Paul Sills

Part 1 — Introduction

The issue of diversity is both a huge challenge and a great opportunity.

Cultural diversity in particular is essential to our growth, our ability to solve problems and to innovate. But so often when faced with diversity our unconscious judgement of others who appear different to us makes it all but impossible for us to collaborate and solve problems. The more judgemental we are the more fundamentalist we are.

Through the avoidance of challenging topics (political correctness) we have created an environment that hinders our ability to be comfortable living and working with those who are different from us. Political correctness has arguably become a bigger problem than the problem it was intended to address. While the original intent may have been good – to encourage tact and sensivity to the feelings of others around issues of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, physical abilities, etc, – the effect of political correctness has been to make everyone avoid these topics altogether.

By eliminating discussion and acknowledgement of diversity issues, we have created a bigger problem. Rather than being politically correct and censoring our language to avoid sensitive words and topics, we need to be mindful of how our attitudes and actions are influenced by prejudices, privileges, and stereotypes, and also how our words actively influence the reinforcement and embodiment of those prejudices, privileges and stereotypes.

So. how can we celebrate diversity and use it to collaboratively benefit human-kind in the resolution of problems and disputes? That seems an impossible task in today’s climate.

Let’s start with a couple of definitions.

Diversity can be said to be:

  • The quality or state of having many different forms, types, ideas, etc,
  • The state of having people who are different races or who have different cultures in a group or organisation.

Culture is another key term in discussions about diversity. I use the word ‘culture’ in its broadest sense, and in an all-encompassing way – we each have an individual culture, businesses and organisations have a culture, as do gangs, cities, regions and nations. These cultures mould us, create our identity, our ego and give us our sense of belonging. But they also cause us to see others as different, as not fitting within our culture, our tribe, our group, and to judge that difference – often negatively. This may cause us to fight to protect our tribe, our identity and the values we think define us. That is because we see our values, identity or morality being challenged.

I am talking about diversity in its broadest sense whether the differences are cultural, economic, social, ideological, or other. The same considerations apply to most, if not all, forms of diversity because it is the perceived differences between the parties that result in the challenge to identities, values and moralities.

We live in a society where we tolerate diversity far more often than we embrace it. Tolerance can be defined as “the ability or willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behaviour that one dislikes or disagrees with.”

Mere tolerance of diversity – in any form – cannot be the benchmark for interaction between people in today’s global village.

The ability to successfully resolve disputes that involve diverse cultures must encompass understanding and respect. It is not enough to simply tolerate people who are different from you because that maintains distance, whereas conflict resolution requires movement toward each other. We must strive for a true understanding of the people we interact with, which has become increasingly diverse as technological advances enable communication and transactions beyond what was previously practical. Globalisation is not going to go away. Diversity within relationships (personal and business) is inevitable.

True acceptance of diversity means understanding that each individual is unique, recognising our individual differences, and the advantages of those differences. These differences can emanate from race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, political beliefs or other ideology. It is the explanation of these differences in a safe, positive and nurturing environment that is at the heart of resolving differences through understanding, acceptance and respect. It is about understanding each other and moving beyond simple tolerance to embracing and celebrating the rich dimensions of diversity contained within each individual.

In order to understand our differences we also need to look at why we think we are different and what it is within us that drives us to judge those that we perceive as being different.

The next question for dispute resolution practitioners is whether traditional mediation techniques can be employed successfully when dealing with issues of diversity. If not, then what might work? Alternatively, is it that disputes involving issues of diversity cannot be mediated at all?


Paul Sills paul.sills@paulsills.co.nz is an Auckland barrister specialising in commercial and civil litigation. He is also an experienced mediator. This is the first in a series of articles on embracing diversity. Read Part Two, Part ThreePart Four, Part Five and Part Six.

Last updated on the 3rd August 2018