Negotiating with sociopaths

I’ve started a part-time qualification in dispute resolution. The following is a post I wrote for our introductory paper’s discussion forum. Thanks to Dave Pollard for the transcript and for the link to END:CIV.


Well, it’s a fascinating time to see the world through a dispute resolution lens, with plenty of it in the news this week – dispute, that is, if not resolution.

One story has been Lucy Lawless and Greenpeace occupying the derrick of a boat headed for oil exploration in the Arctic. That made me wonder how ADR studies relate to the really big picture.

A couple of themes from this course arise in the excellent documentary END:CIV (it’s pretty full on and has a provocative thesis). For those not inclined to watch the whole 1hr 15minutes, here are some relevant parts:

49:30 – 1:02:00   (Dave Pollard has made a transcript of this bit and you can find it indented midway down this blog post  )

As noted in our readings, interest-based/problem-solving approaches aren’t going to be much good against someone in a powerful position and determined to use a competitive approach.

To quote from the film:

“The problem with persuasion as a strategy is that it only works on people who can be relied upon to act from their position after their minds have been changed. The problem is that we’re not dealing with individuals who can be convinced or persuaded. We’re dealing mostly with large abstract social organizations and corporations which are basically sociopaths. You can’t argue with sociopaths, with those who are benefiting from the economic system. You have to stop them through some form of force, violent or non-violent…..

What most states try to do in these circumstances is define the elements of the opposing movement that are most easy to control and co-opt, and negotiate with and hand over some power to them in order to continue the existing system “

(I mentioned to my mediator friend this idea that ADR isn’t going to be much good against corporations which are by nature sociopathic, and he replied that yes, there seems to have been a marked increase in sociopathic behaviour by corporations in the past 6 months…)

Another relevant section is the five minutes or so from 32:10, which speaks to issues of representation and the drawbacks of  processes not open to public scrutiny. Respectable, reasonable, professional negotiators from large environmental organisations in behind-closed-doors negotiations with corporate interests, settling on ‘dubious terms’ (I struggle to find the right language to describe the signing away of indigenous people’s lands and the business-like carving up of our earth). Unfortunately going to court might not help much given the well-established rights of humans and corporations to subjugate nature, even to suicidal ends. Still, Lawless et al getting themselves into the justice system could be more helpful than Greenpeace entering into the “productive discussions” that Shell would have preferred.

Another highlight of the film is the parody of Star Wars as if written by environmentalists, from 37:40, “Star Non-Violent Civil Disobedience”. Dealing with the ultimate sociopath. Very funny if you don’t mind a little gallows humour.

Yours nonviolently, (well, as nonviolently as possible),



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