In the introduction to his book Law and Warfare, legal anthropologist Paul Bohannan suggested (p. xii) that “There are basically two forms of conflict resolution: administered rules and fighting. Law and war.”
It’s a stark contrast and an interesting provocation; but of course it’s simplistic and it leaves out the other option: talking. And maybe we’re faced with another kind of polarity: fighting (either literally or through the gladiatorial contest of law) or talking.
The assumption of much of the recent decades of work in dispute resolution has been that the latter is always preferable and is, in most cases, attainable. The objective of this work, ranging from negotiation through to civil conversation projects and dialogue workshops, is to keep the conflict at bay through talking. At the heart of the familiar models of negotiation and mediation is this assumption that, through talk, we arrive at an accommodation of our respective needs and in doing so we best articulate our reasoned and reasonable expectations.
However . . . in the same way that we now ask whether we share the same cognitive processes of reasoning and perception, it might be asked whether talking is necessarily the best way to facilitate thinking and reflection. [Think about it this way for a moment: we all know someone – we might even BE that someone – who doesn’t really know what they think until they talk it out; and the very process of talking might finally clarify the thought, even if it takes others on a convoluted journey.]
I’m drawn to this question by coming across a fascinating article by Heejung S. KIM, “We talk, therefore we think? A cultural analysis of the effect of talking on thinking,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2002, Vol. 83 (4), pp 828-842. The assumptions she tests in her reported research are ones that I imagine are familiar to most mediators – talking is good; talking is a way of clarifying one’s thinking; silence is often indicative of being withdrawn and uncommunicative; dialogue and conversation are foundational dispute resolution and peace-building resources.
Now, the research – more of which in a moment – doesn’t oblige us to abandon this goal of keeping the fires of dialogue burning. But it does oblige us to question whether talking is equally attached to and formative of thinking for the archetypal Westerner or Easterner. There’s a link to earlier comments on Nisbett’s work for me, in recognising different cognitive patterns in Asian and Western societies – broadly characterised as either holistic and contextual or rational and analytical. In drawing this distinction, none of the writers assumes to privilege one over the other: this is more an exercise in reinforcing the fact that, at times, we do think differently. [On this, see the anecdote reported by Jeff Bean in his blog http://www.beyondthecourthouse.com/2009/07/funny-thought/].
Without trying to capture the sense of the whole article, which is well worth reading, I just note a few points that I think are relevant for mediators working cross-culturally, and for those of us thinking about ways in which mediation in Asia might be a different beast from its cousins in the West.
This is also relevant in education – as Kim points out – in that the model of contemporary education involves participation, speaking up in class, developing verbal confidence and competence. And the failure to meet those norms is likely to have the student seen as underperforming, reluctant or – worse – recalcitrant.
First, Kim – like Nisbett- distinguishes two key modes of thinking:
- the analytical-cognitive, with a tendency to break the objects of thought into component parts; and
- the holistic-contextual, with a tendency to see patterns rather than parts, and relationships rather than separable items.
The tentative conclusion drawn from this distinction is that the former style of thinking is more likely to be developed through verbalisation – and conversely, that verbalisation will not typically impair thinking. So, getting people from this cultural world to “think through problems” will be familiar and comfortable – as will be the problem solving style that breaks issues into apparently separable parts.
Equally, for the latter style of thinking – holistic, contextual – the thinking process is not always easy to verbalise and indeed thinking or problem solving might well be impaired by an expectation to think out loud:
“Putting together these findings on the effect of verbalization on different types of cognitive tasks and cultural difference in the mode of thinking (i.e., holistic vs. analytical), it is reasonable to hypothesize that East Asians who tend to use holistic thinking would be negatively affected by talking, but European Americans who tend to adopt analytical thinking would not be negatively affected by talking.” 
Secondly, as a matter of education and upbringing, Western children are more likely than their Asian counterparts to have been encouraged to speak up: socialisation patterns differ in relation to expectations about talking or its perceived counterpart, passivity.
Kim devised three different tests to explore the hypotheses about differences in talking and its impact on thinking – specifically to determine whether (for sample European American and East Asian American students) talking while solving problems had a negative impact on thinking; and whether there were beliefs about talking and thinking from early parenting style.
As indicated before, the research shows that, for European American students, talking is more likely to be seen as good for thinking, and talking is less likely to distract from the process of thinking. The results of the problem solving exercise were also tested for the impact of culture on the time taken to complete the exercise or the accuracy of results – and culture was seen to have no effect in this regard. But it does have an impact on the levels of perceived interference or facilitation that talking provides to thinking.
“Thus, people who were engaged in practices that emphasize talking tend to share the belief that talking and thinking are closely related, and also report that language is important in their thinking, and also those who claimed that talking is important in their thinking, tend to indeed think better while talking than those who did not. . . . In other words, it is plausible that people from a cultural context where talking is considered to be important and beneficial for thinking might be more likely to process their thoughts through language, whereas people from a cultural context where talking is considered to be less important and harmful to thinking might be less likely to process their thoughts through language.” 
Third – and this too is a point relevant for both educators and mediators: people from those cultures less given to overt articulation might regard too much talking as a way of drawing unnecessary and inappropriate attention to oneself. The cultural style reflected in degrees of expressiveness is also likely to be linked to values of individualism (for the more outspoken and verbal) and collectivist (for the more interior ones).
The message for the mediator in all of this is that we cannot necessarily assume that “talking it out” is a natural or easy thing to do for all participants; nor that it is socially appropriate to draw attention to one’s own alleged interests in this way. Nor can we assume that the more silent participants are not engaged and thinking through the issues – but in perhaps quite different ways.
Nor, it must be said, can we readily assume that the more articulate and verbal participants are actually making a thoughtful contribution to the problem solving: the “noise-to-signal” ratio in any communication will be a variable commodity!
Mediation emphasises the value of talking and of a particular cognitive style of problem solving. Recent scholarship in comparative dispute resolution points to diverse styles and models in relation to factors such as mediator roles, levels of authority, expectations of mediator neutrality. But we now have good reason to think about the differing ways in which we think and especially ways in which we may talk about our thinking.
“When there is the assumption that talking is closely related to thinking because good thinking is defined as analytical thinking, people will build their institutions, such as school curricula and teaching philosophy . . . and formulate social practices, such as child rearing . . . or interpersonal evaluation . . . according to the assumptions. Talking will be encouraged and emphasized by parents and teachers to make their children better thinkers, and being articulate becomes a sign of good thinking. Tasks such as talking while thinking are made natural in this cultural context. Thus, these institutions and practices that implicitly represent cultural assumptions about talking and thinking contribute to the development of an analytical thinking style that can be most aided by talking and foster individual minds in which there is a close connection between talking and thinking.” [839, references omitted]