Conflict-Induced Autism

I grew up on the edge of a coal mining area so an understanding of union matters was probably learned from an early age. My grandfather was a mine engineer and was the only manager in the mine ‘who could talk to the men’ when there was trouble, so maybe it was hereditary too. I worked much of my life in labor relations in one of the most difficult automotive plants in the world. Most of my fellow managers had worked their way up from line worker jobs, and so they too intuitively understood the union and the workforce in a way that the output of elite universities or the off-spring of rich parents simply couldn’t.

Yet when we got into labor relations’ conflict my fellow managers lost any sense of the union and work force. They lost any ‘theory of mind’ about what was driving the other side, and become hopelessly positional and adversarial: we are right and the union is wrong and must be defeated. The union felt the same. But for some reason, I never went through this shift. I could always understand where the union was coming from, even if I didn’t accept what they wanted as valid, possible, whatever. I knew who paid me and whose side I was on, but never had any problem at least understanding the other side’s point of view. Indeed sometimes in order to deal with it if they were a bit unclear themselves, I would put their arguments into my words and say: ‘is this the problem?’ And they would say: ‘yes, then you agree?’ And I would say: ‘I understand but that doesn’t mean I agree.’

And I saw a huge range of interests around the economic viability of the plant, safe working, good quality production, where management and union/workforce interests were aligned, even identical, though they rarely realized it in their win-lose game playing.

It always fascinated me, this onset of mind blindness about the other side that came down like a fog on management and unions, while I could see what was going on quite clearly. One of my friends in the US military when I talked to him about it said it was like turning off the radar when you have been bombed. The military know only too well the need to ‘know your enemy’ and exactly what he is thinking, but few other conflict professionals seem to get this if they are on one side rather than impartial mediators.

So since I left that world of labor conflict 24 x 7, I have spent time trying to understand what happened. I have come across and studied autism: the development disorder in children, who are unable to form a theory of mind, or have empathy for others. And so in 2004, I met with one of the world’s leading experts on autism, Professor Simon Baron Cohen of Trinity College, Cambridge and it became clear that what is hard wired into children on the autism spectrum is very similar to the mind blindness about other people’s minds I saw in conflict. Except that my fellow line managers and union representatives were not normally mind blind, or autistic. It was just when conflict tipped over into a certain level of adversarial contesting that both sides became mind blind about each other. You see the same thing in marriages: partners who get on quite well most of the time, press each other’s buttons one day and go into a place where they can no longer see where the other is mentally and that’s when really destructive marital rows take place and they are hard to move out of without an adjournment to allow re-setting of each other’s empathy take on the other partner.

So I have developed a theory that conflict is difficult because of the situational autism, the conflict-induced autism that it generates the moment we think we are in a win-lose game with someone else and we need to stop ourselves finding anything of value in what they are saying. We use the mind blindness to become highly self-righteous, and of course in doing so we lose sight of any common interests we might have with the other side. Like we live on the same planet and need it to survive, if the issue we are facing is one of nuclear war for instance. And we lose any sight of the interests the other side has that would help us make a good deal. Indeed it is very hard to invent creative solutions to conflict, if you blind yourself to the other side’s interests and just focus on your own positions, your demands as my colleagues used to do in labor relations.

And I am now working on a research project to test my theory of conflict induced autism by simulating conflict in an fMRI brain scanner. I will post the results in due course. I am indeed a practitioner looking for a good theory and then testing it.

PS: I am no better than anyone else in my personal conflicts on this score; it is only as a conflict professional, that I seem to do better. 🙂 I am working on the personal ones!

My grandfather’s mine in South Wales:


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Processes, Creativity and Conflict, Economic Conflict, PERSONAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION: CREATIVE STRATEGIES, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Conflict-Induced Autism

  1. This is fascinating work – and a fascinating theory – I am really looking forward to the results!

    • Trisha, it’s probably a three year research program, so a while to wait for final results and UCLA and I are still waiting for the money to be approved by the Foundation we sought funding from. 🙂 But hey I have waited this long….in the mean time I am always pragmatically trying to find ways to overcome conflict induced autism in practice: it’s what happened in South African peace process and should be replicable….though not every major conflict has a empathetic Mandela….

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