Here's how we negotiate our way out of tribalism

Safe spaces and sharing our stories are key to resolving the conflicts we see today

Daniel Shapiro
Jasper Johnston
Research Assistant, Harvard International Negotiation Program
Ethan Harradine
Student, Harvard University
Balim Barutcu
Student, Harvard University
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

Many sessions at Davos this year have observed the same frightening fact: the past several years have seen a surge in state and non-state violence, threatening people’s lives and contributing substantially to global poverty and the immigration crisis. What can be done to improve the situation?

At the heart of this shift is an uptick in tribalism, which has washed across countries and cultures with the tides of globalization. As people experience a seemingly ceaseless merging of old and new, familiar and foreign, they tend to retreat into physical, digital and psychological communities where they feel safe and comfortable. They revert to tribes.

Why is it so hard to overcome tribalism?

First, decision-making becomes based not on logic, but loyalty. A threat to a single person in a tribe is a threat to the whole group, exacerbating identity-based differences and escalating conflict. We view the other’s identity narrowly and simplistically – “they are a threat” – and so see no use in collaborating. This dynamic is what Daniel Shapiro calls the “tribes effect”, an adversarial mindset in which each side is convinced of its own rightness and insulates from learning about the other’s perspective.

Second, when tribes clash, the richness of identity is reduced to a single differentiating factor: are you an insider or outsider? We support the insider and demonize the other. We fail to see the social and political divisions within each tribe, just as we fail to engage a wide variety of stakeholders who could positively influence efforts at conflict resolution.

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Third, tribalism leads parties to fight for their own substantive demands (“terms of a deal”), while little attention is given to healing the sociopolitical fractures that structurally underpin the conflict. Thus, even if a tribal clash results in an agreement, the underlying dynamics persist, often underground or in new forms such as in racial or class divides.

So what we do to address modern tribalism?

1) Get interested in identity. As stakeholders in the conflict come to better appreciate each other’s stories of grievance, the forces of tribalism start to fade. Disputants come to see each other as human beings with complex motivations and morals, and identity turns from a source of division into a basis for unity. Learning about the other side’s story takes courage – it may go against a disputant’s fundamental values and may cause them to be seen as a traitor to their own tribe. These risks can be reduced by organizing safe spaces for identity-based storytelling between sides.

2) Engage a diverse set of stakeholders to disrupt the tribalistic mindset and address the broader issues at stake. Inviting otherwise unassuming stakeholders to engage in a conflict is the equivalent of holding up a mirror not only to the stakeholders, but also to the conflict itself, revealing dynamics that may not have otherwise been apparent. Organizations such as the World Economic Forum have already taken positive steps towards promoting dialogue by bringing together a diverse array of parties from government, business, civil society and international institutions. We believe this multi-stakeholder approach to conflict resolution warrants greater adoption.

3) Address the substantive and identity-based elements of conflict. We have been building a process to do so, which we call “systemic dialogue”. This approach helps parties jointly problem-solve their differences and repair the torn social fabric. Depicted in the diagram, the model supports the inclusion of a diverse set of stakeholders, the transcending of overt differences through the sharing of identity narratives, and the mending of deeper societal divisions through constructive action.

While the details of systemic dialogue are beyond the scope of this article, we believe this new form of multi-stakeholder dialogue holds great promise for healing the tribal divides that are plaguing our world.

Daniel L. Shapiro, Jasper Johnston, Ethan Harradine, and Balim Barutçu of the Harvard International Negotiation Program

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