How To Prepare For And Deal With Conflicts Through Contracting


Wednesday, 6.24am

Sheffield, U.K.

“In my experience, people are usually fired for reasons having to do with budgetary constraints, incompetence or not fulfilling the terms of a contract. – Michael Shermer”

At the very heart of human society, underpinning every community is the idea of a contract, an agreement to act and be in a way that works for all of us. The word “contract” seems like an intimidating word, bringing up visions of complex wording and hard-to-understand concepts but there is a difference between the form and expression of a contract on paper and what it actually means for us. And what matters is what we believe because that leads us to take one action or another.

Entering into a contract

Recently our children wanted a treat, to get something they wouldn’t normally get. So, we asked one to write a contract, set out on paper what they would do in exchange for this treat. We ended up with a brief set of terms, essentially promising to be good, do homework and go out when asked. The other child was asked if he would sign the contract and he rushed to do so, although I did caution him to read it first.

He didn’t and then realized after signing that he didn’t want to agree to doing his homework and then tried his best to get out of the deal. He put forward persuasive arguments, including that he shouldn’t be expected to sign his first contract without making mistakes, it wasn’t fair to hold him to it.

We resolved the issue through negotiation and eventually figured out that he was open to doing his homework later, not just right now, and things were okay again after that.

What this little vignette showed me is that even with a simple domestic situation contracting is an activity fraught with conflict. There are many situations where we have to sign long legal documents and we go ahead without fully understanding what we’re signing up to. Sometimes it seems irrelevant, like most software contracts. What exactly do you sign up to when you accept your phone’s terms of use? The risk of getting something wrong seems low. At the same time I prefer to use Free Software for all my work because I don’t like having to agree to those terms because I don’t know what they are.

Is the law any help?

The formal system of law and lawyers and contracts has never seemed all that useful to me. Lawyers seem to spend a lot of time working through what should happen if really bad things happen. Or they try and make sure that you can do something without someone else being able to challenge you. They come across as instruments of power or instruments of denial rather than instruments of agreement. At some point we appear to have moved, as societies, from contracting our own agreements to having professionals do it for us. That makes sense in some cases, because the professionals know what usually goes wrong from having experienced a number of situations and so they can tell you what to put in to deal with those common situations. For example, if you’re buying a house and the seller hasn’t disclosed that there is a fault with it you want to make sure you’re able to do something about it.

That previous paragraph has contradictions – are lawyers useful or not? They are when what you want them to do is point out where the traps are in the road you’re planning on taking. What do you do if an employee steals from you, if they don’t do their job, or if you don’t get paid your share. But you have to also ask yourself why do things go wrong in the first place? Why do people not keep to the terms of the contracts they’ve agreed?

The law in your heart

A more useful idea I came across is that of a “psychological contract” – an unwritten set of expectations that govern our social interactions. We expect to be treated fairly and when that doesn’t happen we are hurt and upset. Once again you can see this clearly with children because they don’t hide their anger when they see a psychological contract being broken.

I experienced this a few minutes ago. Last night we promised one of the little people a green apple but there was only one left in the basket this morning. So, I cut it in half, which one could agree with because he was getting half an apple but the other found issue with because he had expected the whole one. What made it more complicated was that the one who was happy with the half had also had all the other green apples, so had taken more than his fair share. But do you look at the history of consumption or the fairness of division in the moment? From such simple conflicts you get generations of instability with consequences you can see if you look anywhere in the world today.

What matters to us is how we feel about what is going on, which then leads to our reactions, anger, fear, a desire to retaliate. And we try and manage, even avoid those emotions through rules and contracts and agreements. And they work much of the time, or they don’t matter much of the time and as long as we go ahead and do what we’re supposed to do things eventually work out. Unless they don’t.

Pistols at dawn

We are biologically built to defend our territories. You might think it’s a male trait but females will fight to protect themselves and theirs equally fiercely. We saw an example of this in Kenya. A group of lionesses were stalking a herd of buffalo and the usual method is to try and isolate a weaker one, usually a calf. But the mother was having none of. A group of buffalo, with a calf close on the heels of the mother repeatedly charged the lionesses, forcing them back and eventually into a retreat.

Disputes have often come down to personal animosity and two hundred years ago you would have met at dawn and dueled to death. Life is different now and most people wouldn’t see that as an option and duels take place in courtrooms instead. Perhaps that’s because we do have more experience in setting rules that work most of the time. Or perhaps the institutions that have survived are the ones that set better rules and those have endured.

For example, there are members clubs out there that have been going for a while perhaps even centuries. Their rules have changed over time. At one point they probably didn’t admit women or people of color. Few would still claim to do that overtly, even if they practice one kind of discrimination or another. I saw an interesting thread on Twitter about why someone would object to Voter ID. After all, surely you couldn’t object to something that cuts fraud. The articulate response from one person was that there is nothing to suggest that voter id would stop fraud. What it would do is stop a whole lot of poor people who find it hard to get official ids – they don’t drive, attend college, have a passport – from voting at all. Unless you give every voter a free id your only purpose in doing this is to enable only rich people to vote – and that’s a naked political tactic.

Rules of engagement

We aren’t born knowing the rules of how to get along. We’re taught those rules as we grow up in society. But societies are different and when you move from one to another you learn new rules. I am often taken aback by people who have experience of only their own society look down upon other societies without really taking the time to understand the other’s history. At the same time there are things that are wrong, things that shouldn’t still happen.

But they do, and people stoke up fear and hatred because it’s easy to do. For example I saw a message recently that suggested a particular community was growing and posed an increasing threat to the rest of society because of their extreme views. The post suggested the whole community was a threat and if you took it at face value, as many people might, you would be scared. At the same time you have to realize that in a free society people spend a lot more time watching shared cultures on TV than they do in their own culture. Extreme views are often held by a small group of individuals, most want to get along in their societies and get on with business.

I suppose what it comes down to is that you have to participate in your society and if you want things to be different or if you want your traditions to continue then you have to decide if you are willing to do something about it. You have to engage with your society and community if you want to avoid or deal with conflict when and if it arises.

Let’s look at how that’s done in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

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