The famous English movie, Pride and Prejudice, demonstrates clearly the outcomes of both these issues when dealing with people. Pride is a dangerous and destructive force, and as many a historian will affirm, pride always precedes a fall while prejudice blinds the mind to rational thinking and logic, fairness and decency.

When dealing with people in conflict, I often see both these attributes at work. Pride underpins their position; they are not going to concede or even compromise. They are right - the other party is wrong. It is only by testing their position with carefully framed questions and gently encouraging them to analyse their options in private, that they may have the courage to re-assess without losing face. Sadly, pride is an inherent trait of the human character. This is evidenced by history with mass “acts of pride” ending with tragic outcomes. Hitler believed he was right, his pride preventing anyone from challenging his authority and position. Prime Minister Blair and President Bush believed they were right and committed the US and UK to war. Napoleon, Charlamagne, Caesar, Stalin and many other European rulers were driven by pride and prejudice ending in large scale conflict and loss of life.

Prejudice is that flaw that so often causes us to label people or put them “in boxes.” We see a black kid with a hoody up and automatically assume certain things about him. We see a man on the streets, sleeping rough, and our prejudiced thinking makes a raft of assumptions. Prejudicial media reporting leads us to believe things that are not true. Prejudice blinds our thinking, leading to assumptions that so often are so wrong.

In dispute resolution, I find prejudice can create blockages that are often only removed by encouraging parties to spend time building rapport and getting to know each other. In a recent case where two companies had merged, the senior management had to assimilate their respective corporate cultures and this presented great challenges. Assumptions were made by both sides which, when carefully explored, proved to have little foundation. In exploration it soon transpired that their thinking was prejudiced by previous experiences. As they sat around the boardroom table, egos and pride flared, and the poor chair (me) had a tough time keeping order!

When gently questioned and given time to express the important interests that lie behind positions, even the most virulent egos and pride may begin to recede allowing the real legitimate concerns to be expressed and understood. Frequently, pride is also a self-defence mechanism, protecting the person from the fear of the unknown or a prejudicial assumption of impending trouble! We can’t always succeed in resolution work; some people are simply so proud and arrogant they just won’t listen to reason - so one can only wait for them to fall and be humbled by life and circumstances. My recent experience demonstrated there is no substitute for calm dialogue to disarm pride.

Through a process of careful exploratory questioning, people felt able to open up, and the others soon learnt their prejudiced thoughts actually had no merit. This principle is described by Martin McGuiness, ex IRA leader and now in the Irish Government, who wrote; “if I were asked what is the main requirement for a successful conflict resolution process, I would zero in on one ingredient: dialogue. Once people, even enemies, open themselves up to a process of dialogue, then slowly, bit by bit, bridges can be built.”

by Howard Stern

Operating primarily in the UK and Europe, Howard works exclusively in conflict and dispute resolution. His work follows a 25 year career in project management, training and development. Howard is a member of the British Civil Mediation Council, accredited by the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution as a mediator, and affiliated with various NGOs. His love of travel and the great outdoors has taken him to many places, sometimes in pursuit of his wider professional interests in international politics, and to explore the global pressures facing society as it copes with rapid population growth.