As the political temperature rises across the world, John Bell, Ivan Tyrrell and John Zada explain why they founded The Conciliators Guild, and their hopes for it.
TYRRELL: We are having this conversation on the day after President Donald Trump announced that he would withdraw the US from the nuclear agreement with Iran and re-impose sanctions. This event brings sharply into focus the very reason that we set up The Conciliators Guild: to get understanding out there about how human beings work and what motivates us, so that we can have more intelligent, effective diplomacy in dealing with world crises. We had the idea of setting it up about a year ago, when you, John [Bell], expressed to me your frustration about the lack of psychological knowledge in diplomacy.
BELL: What I have always noticed in my work – and, I think, Trump’s action on Iran is another mark of this – is that there is a way today of doing politics that is fundamentally and consistently dangerous and destructive. People go round and round in a labyrinth of gamesmanship, trying to gain supremacy over each other, and not really getting anywhere, other than feeling like ‘top dog’. At the same time, some deeper part of them has an inkling that there is another way to look at things, yet they don’t know how to do it, how to get there. One solution tends towards dialoguing and making each other feel better, hoping, with a wish and a prayer, that they will get to the ‘promised land’. The search for supremacy doesn’t work, as well as being very destructive, but neither does wishful thinking.
Thus, there is a big gap in the middle, something which we at the guild often call “the missing piece”, which is the more intangible, human,
motivational element. And that piece is not clearly identified in politics, not explicitly understood and so, inevitably, is not mastered. And because it is not mastered we get chaos. Our job, as you say – and, in my view, what is at the heart of the guild – is to get the ideas about human givens, and other ideas about basic patterns of collective behaviour, out there; get them more well known as explicit articulations of how people behave and what really motivates them, and how that can translate into politics.
ZADA: I came into this because John and I have long shared a keen interest in politics and, a few years ago, we grew more and more interested in psychology, because we discovered that this explained so much about the behaviour of collectives and cultures that were otherwise baffling. It dawned on us that understandings from the human givens approach to psychology are a means of clarifying something that is otherwise a mystery to many people – to the general public and even to those who work in John’s profession of diplomacy, in the sense that they don’t quite have the full picture. We saw, for instance, that unmet human needs in the Middle East, such as the need for security, status and autonomy, not only fuel conflicts between groups, such as with the Israelis and Palestinians, but also create upheavals domestically between rulers and their citizens – we have seen this in the Arab Spring, where it is clear that many youth in the Arab world were searching for dignity, or some respect from their leaders, and greater control over their lives and their future.
BELL: Although emotions are in plain view. they are so much a part of all of us that we don’t really consider their role. Diplomats sometimes implicitly recognise emotional motivations but little conscious attention is paid to them as a critical dimension to be mastered in politics.
TYRRELL: I think that everybody knows, somewhere inside themselves, when they are missing understandings. That’s why many people are attracted to the human givens in the first place, because it supplies the understanding about innate needs. People get interested in what we are doing because it explains so much.
BELL: Trump’s statement about Iran and the nuclear file and the likely destructive consequences serve as an example of why this kind of information is now crucial in order to improve our politics. It is not a luxury. People need to master their more hidden behaviour patterns. If we don’t, we will just keep sinking further. And, to go back to your point, Ivan, that people know when something is missing, we have seen a little bit of this in the feedback from the trainings that we have already done with people in the world of diplomacy. And we have seen it in the receptivity to the ideas from our advisory board. People know there is a missing piece. We just articulate what it is to them.
The other dimension to this, which will, I think, get explored over time through the guild, is that, while many people do have good intentions in politics, they don’t have good enough methods. Helping them improve their understanding of the mechanics of being human can help improve their methodologies. Right now, it is all rather random.
TYRRELL: We have made a good start.
BELL: Yes, we have already done two significant training sessions, one in London and one in Helsinki.
TYRRELL: The first one, the day in London, was run by Human Givens College in association with the then fledgling Conciliators Guild, and attracted a number of international diplomats and mediators. It was ambitious in its aims – we wanted to increase awareness of what war, terrorism and bullying, even the refugee crises, reveal about the human psyche, show ways to see through unhelpful political and cultural assumptions and, through recognising underlying emotional dynamics driving different behaviours, pave the way toward greater effectiveness in all kinds of conflict resolution efforts.
A couple of people from a mediation organisation in Helsinki, called Crisis Management Initiative, came to that day and they were so impressed that, as they left, one of them said to me, “See you in Helsinki”. I didn’t think she meant it but, in fact, we were invited over quite soon afterwards to do the training there.
BELL: What to me was most fascinating was how the basic ideas of human givens really caught on with them, not only for their work but also for them as individuals. It is so basic in a way that it impacted their own outlook on life and, if we think about it, that is the ultimate effect. It means that the people who walked out of that room are more informed about themselves and, therefore, will ultimately be able to perform their role, no matter what it is, in a much better fashion. The ideas are that foundational.
ZADA: And now some new possibilities have arisen from our efforts.
BELL: Specifically, in June 2018, we are going to be delivering the training at the European External Action Service, which is the European Union’s diplomatic service. This is the service that helps the head of EU foreign affairs – the holder is currently Federica Mogherini of Italy – to carry out common foreign and security policy for the member states. So that is highly positive for us, obviously, because it is an important international institution. We have also got requests in the pipeline from elsewhere in the world.
So, what we teach in the workshop is beginning to grow in influence. The other equally important dimension of the guild is that we have a senior advisory board of experienced diplomats, mediators and politicians, people with a lot of political experience from around the world who are interested in our ideas. We are planning to get them together soon, to launch the ‘guild’ aspect of The Conciliators Guild – a forum for likeminded, constructive people, interested in these ideas, to work together to fully take them on, disseminate them and, importantly, bring other likeminded people on board as well. So this is just the beginning for the guild.
TYRRELL: As John [Zada] alluded to earlier, we want these ideas to trickle down from powerful people because, when powerful people are seen to respect these ideas, that is when they will spread to the universities, the rest of the education system and the general public, through the media. Those members of the general public who quickly see that this makes sense will, as a result, be able to talk about politics and crises across the world from this psychological angle, and so the understandings will gradually spread to others.
ZADA: Another way of putting it is that we are trying to make these ideas part of political culture, enabling them to get disseminated so that people who don’t work professionally in these fields can recognise their own motivations and their own behaviours vis-à-vis politics, and thereby gain clarity about their own reactions to situations. This applies to cult thinking and behaviour, to conditioning and brainwashing – all these sorts of things that go on that haven’t been properly defined in public circles, thereby getting people to have a bit more control over their lives, in a sense. Because, if a lot of political behaviour is attributable to unconscious motivations, by bringing those motivations to awareness you are in effect allowing people the chance to better channel them, if that is what is required. You are giving people more control.
TYRRELL: It is about creating a lingua franca. Let’s take the example of attention, for instance. We have a limited amount of attentional energy available to us every day and so where we direct our attention is really critically important. That isn’t taught in schools. Some people seem to know it and use their attention more effectively than others but that understanding isn’t yet part of a lingua franca. There have been some excellent books that particularly cover the impact of social media and screen time in this respect – showing, for instance, just how much effort is made to capture people’s attention purely to sell them stuff. That is treating us like sheep – no, actually that is an insult to sheep.
BELL: We are in discussions with several diplomatic academies across the world which have shown interest in our workshops. These diplomatic academies, part of foreign office ministries around the world, are where diplomats are trained and it is where we want to direct our energies.
TYRRELL: And not only does this mean that the next generation of diplomats may have very different core understandings than they do now but the current crop of diplomats have continuing professional development requirements, like the rest of us, so the understandings will reach them, too. But it is going to be a slow process, as they have lots of things vying for their attention.
BELL: We have to be realistic about what we are doing and how we are doing it, and we have to recognise that most of politics, international or domestic, is a process of manoeuvring for resources and influence. That is its general nature – that’s politics. Fine, we recognise that. What we want to do is add a dimension that makes innate needs and other understandings of human behaviour a reference that will ultimately change behaviour patterns. We are adding another way of looking at what they are doing.
TYRRELL: So it could be said that we are strengthening the foundations with some solid psychological and behavioural knowledge, which wasn’t really part of their upbringing.
BELL: The best example is in the area of violent extremism and its causes. It is very simple to explain: if you don’t consider the basic motivations of violent extremists at the emotional level, you are missing a huge chunk of the remedy. That is a very clear example of what policy makers need to do more and more – and they are inexperienced at working at that level.
TYRRELL: You mentioned before that politics is largely about a jockeying for resources and influence. Even in that context, there is value to be derived from taking account of the human givens.
BELL: Absolutely. The more the practitioner understands his or her own emotional needs and those of others and adds them into the equation, whatever the situation, the lower the emotional temperature, the clearer the practitioner’s mind and their ability to see a larger context and, therefore, the more efficient and effective the solution arrived at. We are helping to move them away from obsessions and the fixated mind.
TYRRELL: It’s an educational task for the whole human race, really. Civilisations come and they go. We need to look at that picture, take the big helicopter view of what is happening. Civilisations initially go through a creative burst of conquest and commerce, as John Glubb talks about – he was a British soldier who transformed the Arab Legion into the best-trained force in the Arab world and was also a scholar, who published much about how empires and civilisations work. As he explains, we reach a point at the top of a civilisation’s power where people become apathetic and complacent, and degeneracy sets in. That is where we are now, in the downward arc. So we need to understand what stage different cultures are at – for example, China is in the ‘conquering’ stage – the rising stage of civilisation – but that is clashing with those in decline, like America and Europe.
I think it is important, if we are, as it seems to me, in a downward spiral of degeneration, that we learn to take a long-term view and realise that every age and culture is derived from its predecessors and adds some contribution of its own – particular characteristics, skills and qualities – and passes them on to its successors. It is all part of evolution, which gives us hope for a better world eventually.
Ours is a technological civilisation whereas previous civilisations have majored on other specialisations: military conquest, administrative arts, religion, trade, poetry and philosophy, etc. So the long-term refining of humanity, a process of which HG work is a part, will include the technological skills that we have introduced. The problem is that when you are in a particular culture it’s hard to see what stage it is at.
BELL: Yes, all cultures bind and blind. We are all members of cultures, so our identities blind us to some degree or another, and in international relations that is an absolutely critical factor. At what point do you go with your culture, your national identity, blindly, and at what point do you open up to the world? That is an art that you are not going to manage before you know how the ‘cult in culture’ works, how collectives can be blind to certain aspects of collective behaviour and very open to others, as psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains very well in his book The Righteous Mind.
In our trainings and workshops for diplomats, we describe these dimensions of group behaviour so that, in international relations, cultures can be less blind towards each other – literally. As we are seeing in the Middle East today, the blindness is getting deeper and deeper and deeper. There is no evident desire to go back and take a look at why we are fighting and what we are actually after, other than supremacy. So, in my view, this identity issue is absolutely crucial.
ZADA: Looking at world events through the lens of needs throws a whole new light on many things. One example is the recent development on the Korean peninsula, which can be partly traced to attention seeking. We have been discussing among ourselves lately how some of the behaviour of the North Korean regime seems connected to their lack of needs getting met as a collective. For instance, take the need for attention: the missile tests and all the belligerent dialogue provide a way for them to engage with the international community to make up for their isolation. Trump, through how he has been responding, has, in a way, forced and nudged them to engage with the world in a different way.
TYRRELL: He was talking to them in their own language, a more bullying language. The ruling family in North Korea has been bullying their people quite cruelly for a long time, and their people had just accepted it.
ZADA: Jonathan Haidt explains very clearly how our political motivations, of whatever colour, are tied to certain moral intuitions that arise long before moral reasoning comes into it. He talks about “foundations”, which are each like a continuum – for example, the care/harm foundation, the authority/subversion foundation, the loyalty/betrayal foundation – and shows how people at the opposite ends of the political spectrum put more weight on some than others. He also talks about the rider and the elephant, the former being our conscious reasoning and the latter the 99 per cent of our mental processing that happens outside of our awareness. I think Trump inadvertently through all his messaging, belligerent though it was, spoke to the ‘elephant’ of the North Koreans – whether that was primarily through fear or just conveying the sense that the United States are not going to play their attention-seeking game. So that caused the North Koreans to rethink their method of engagement and thus allowed them to choose a different way of engaging with the world.
BELL: These understandings can constitute elements of a paradigm shift. There is an error out there in Western political thought and in international relations, which John just referred to, which is that politics happens at the level of the rational and of clear interests. And it also happens mostly through coherent structures: government institutions, legal structures, the courts. But the reality is that there is this elephant, as in Haidt’s analogy, or this iceberg, an analogy that we at the guild often use to express the same thing – that almost all of what is going on is beneath the surface. There is this massive, instinctive motivational component to human behaviour that is not only extremely active, it can completely override our more rational selves. And if nations, leaders and citizens are unconscious of it, don’t understand that it is there, or else don’t understand how it works or happen to fall into it by accident, like Trump, because he is so instinctive and impulsive, then it rules us. We are not masters of our own destiny. We are being ruled by parts of ourselves that we have no clue about.
I see our job, in the guild, as to crystallise that stuff, to get people to know more about it and, ultimately, to be in control of it to some degree. That is a new paradigm and it sits in contrast to the rational paradigm.
The other important thing to say is that there are demagogues, numerous ones who instinctively know how to play the emotional card, and they are successful. I see it as our job, tough as it may be, to show that the negative demagogues are taking the elephant in the wrong direction. It has got to go somewhere because it is part of us, but we are going nowhere until we know how to ride the role of identity and culture in our lives, and the basic human needs that they attend to. The role of meaning is another huge one that needs to be recognised.
Ironically, it is the progressive left that tends most to ignore all this, because they tend to be materialistically and economically deterministic. The assumption among many liberal and left-leaning people is that, if material issues are taken care of and the state can utilise rights and the law properly, then matters will settle. This can go a distance to address issues of justice and unfairness – or corruption; however, if the state is also coercive and imposes itself on citizens by these very means, or if issues of a more organic culture are ignored, trouble will follow. Recently, in Catalonia we have seen how the Spanish central government has decided to deal with a need for greater autonomy in that region with a legal response – nothing has been solved. There will be no solution unless the central government attends further to Catalonian needs in terms of their identity, the ‘elephant’.
TYRRELL: There is an idea that historian Jim Penman has which supports what we have just been talking about; governments reflect societies more than societies reflect governments. They are reflective of our deeper emotional sides.
ZADA: This goes back to the need to get the ideas out further than the elites, so that there is cultural social change that can lead to better choice of leaders and better political systems. It is not enough to work just at the governmental level. Societies need to transform too. Work at both levels will affect the other. It’s the boomerang effect.
TYRRELL: Yes. When ordinary people are muddled and preoccupied with frivolity, politicians are going to be muddled. If we have got a population that doesn’t know where it is going and are only interested in entertaining themselves and spending money, the politicians aren’t going to be very good. So, to bring this conversation to a close, how shall we sum up where we are trying to go in the next year?
BELL: For me, it is very straightforward. We want to do as many workshops of the type described as we can and get these ideas out to policy makers and diplomats as broadly as possible. And we want to enlarge the guild – we have a small base of interested people who want to work with these ideas, but we want it to grow. And, frankly, we need to have the financial capacity to do so, so any help is very gratefully accepted.
John Bell (Director of the Conciliators Guild) is the director of the Middle East and Mediterranean Programme and the Eurasia Programme at The Toledo International Centre for Peace (CITpax). He is a former Canadian and UN diplomat who has served in Ottawa, Cairo, Beirut, Jerusalem and Gaza.
Ivan Tyrrell (Director of Strategy for the guild) is director of Human Givens College and editorial director of Human Givens.
John Zada is a freelance writer, photographer and journalist with an interest in
politics, psychology and culture. He has lived and travelled extensively in the
This article first appeared in the Human Givens Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1, 2018.