Managing Tribe-based Conflict

At its core, a tribe is held together by the need for safety and well-being. Individually, each member has the same need… it’s what draws us to this or that group. Adolescents feel the pull most keenly, for they are all too aware of the pitfalls of not belonging, and the sense of well-being that comes from feeling wanted and safe.

In order to be accepted into and fully belong to a tribe, we must take on and adhere to a tribe’s beliefs. The tribe may have employed rational thinking in the construction of those beliefs, and individually, we may use rational thinking to justify them, but the beliefs are nevertheless built on that core need for safety and well-being.

When we’re in conflict, beliefs and passions, pushed by our core concerns, become evident. The carefully constructed balance between rational thought and emotion shifts. We become defensive; we shift the argument into one about our stance or opinion on the subject, rather than staying with the issue that’s on the table. In essence, we’ve begun to argue unconsciously about who we are and what ‘our crowd’ is about. Once that happens, we’ve positioned ourselves to see the person we’re in conflict with as someone who doesn’t belong: as the ‘other’; the lesser… all of which makes it easy to dismiss their perspective.

Although it is far easier to dismiss another person’s perspective than it is to see it, dismissing the perspective is narrow-minded and limiting – and often dangerous: a closed system between me, myself, and my tribe.

So how do we step away from the closed thinking? How do we put our tribal affiliations temporarily to the side, and see things from other perspectives?

  1. Name the conflict
    If you find yourself thinking: “S/he comes from such and such country”, or “S/he follows that religion”, or “S/he is one of those kinds of people” ‒ you’ve slipped into an identity-based conflict based on tribal affiliation.
  1. Take a step back
    Last month’s article about identity-based conflicts stressed the importance of taking a breather. It can be as simple as saying: “I need a break. Can we continue discussing this later?” Then, go off on your own, take some deep breaths, and reflect on the situation. We recommend going off on your own (at this stage) because talking to someone else about the conflict at this early stage will often keep your emotions high and your rational thoughts low. Our tendency when speaking to others about an identity-based conflict is to seek validation rather than seek advice on how to resolve it. After self-reflection, the odds go up that you can get a benefit from talking to others about it.
  1. When you’re calmer, force yourself to find or remember something you really like about the person… something you can identify with; something that lets you shorten the distance between who this person is and who you are; something that lets you form a temporary tribe with them. Don’t be surprised if you’re resistant, for at the safety and well-being level, you may perceive such thinking as a kind of tribal betrayal ‒ but do persevere. You can like and even approve of people from other tribes and still remain loyal to your own.
  1. Restart the conversation with that better frame of mind.
    It can be as simple as saying: “I think things were getting off-track. Can you say more about…”

The ability to come out from under the umbrella of tribal affiliation; the ability to see the other person and their perspective, and the ability to resolve a conflict, can actually strengthen our bonds to the tribe. Most surprisingly, it can also strengthen our standing within the tribe, for understanding others is a tenet of wisdom. And tribes ‒ your tribe, my tribe, their tribe ‒ respect, honour, and prize wisdom.

Suggested Reading

Banaji, M.R. & Greenwald, A. (2013) Blindspot – Hidden Biases of Good People. Random House, New York

Implicit Association Test:


1 comment

  1. Hi Peter,
    Thank you for your interesting article. We just had a seminar about unconscious bias by mrs. Banaji which was absolutely fascinating. Two take aways for me were that you should not only be aware of negative unconsious bias, but also of the positive kind. “She is probably right, because she belongs to my tribe”, without using the appropriate level of questioning to get to the truth. Secondly, that your mind often sees what is wants to see or not sees what it does not expect to see. Unbelievalbe how limited we are in that respect. Think the basketball/ape test. Which will probably also affect your conflict situations and influence our ability to hear what the person from the other tribe is REALLY saying.

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