Learning from our First People – using Yarning to Resolve Conflict

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This Blog presents an opportunity to showcase the work of our students as the next generation of researchers and dispute resolvers. I am delighted to post another example here. Over to you, John..

John Lidbetter

My name is John Lidbetter. I am a fourth year Actuarial Studies and Law student at UNSW. I began learning about yarning whilst studying ‘ADR in Practice’, a law elective at UNSW taught by Dr Rosemary Howell. I am extremely grateful for Rosemary’s guidance and assistance on this topic. I welcome any comments or suggestions the reader may have.

Conflict resolution is not new. All cultures have a conflict resolution tradition, offering opportunities for learning to current academics and practitioners. Australia’s First Peoples have powerful tools to resolve conflict; these techniques have been refined over centuries, which provide opportunities for us to do things differently and better in the ADR space.

This blogpost focuses on Aboriginal traditions of yarning. Yarning involves written and oral storytelling, which emphasises joint discussion of the past in order to build a relationship between the storyteller and listener.[i] Digging into the literature reveals some powerful benefits which Yarning makes accessible to ADR professionals. In particular, yarning provides effective strategies and tactics which enable us to more deeply understand other parties’ perspectives. Additionally, Western forms of ‘narrative mediation’ already acknowledge and adopt narrative practice – recognising the benefits of storytelling. These benefits are worth digging into a bit more deeply.

Yarning to promote mutual understanding

Why are we compelled by stories which arouse our emotions? One explanation is that emotional stories invite us to empathise with the storyteller’s perspective. If we can empathise with the storyteller, we may become more inclined to listen and understand the individual’s point of view. Yarning provides a medium to communicate emotion and understand competing perspectives as it involves describing experiences and personal stories. For example, Tara June Winch’s novel, The Yield, illustrates the impact of returning to a home that is becoming repossessed by a mining company. Through describing personal experience, Winch creates a connection with the audience which invites readers to learn from the storyteller’s message. In Winch’s case, we begin a process of understanding the cultural significance of land for Indigenous peoples.[ii] In the ADR space, the learning opportunities are limitless; telling stories allow us to listen and understand each other’s’ perspectives – facilitating the resolution of conflict.

Repetition and Silence

However, to resonate with another person’s perspective, we must be able to digest the information. To digest new ideas, we often need time to pause and think. If we have time to process what is said, we become better equipped to understand our counterparty’s perspective and brainstorm ideas. However, studies suggest that Anglo-cultures view silences and pausing negatively – inhibiting our capacity to retain information.[iii] Learning from yarning may help resolve this deficiency.

In the Aboriginal yarning context, pauses are not interpreted negatively; instead, silence is used to reflect.[iv] Furthermore, repetition is often used in yarning to reinforce the underlying structure and logic of new ideas.[v] By incorporating silence and repetition into our repertoire, we enable ourselves to understand complex factual scenarios and interests to a greater extent. In doing so, we become more likely to understand our counterparty’s perspective – assisting in the resolution of conflict.

Inclusive Language

It is often easier to work together on a problem when both parties feel included in the process. Yarning provides subtle techniques which enable our counterparty to feel engaged in the conversation. For example, in the historical novel, Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe uses plural personal pronouns such as ‘we’, ‘our’ and ‘us’ in his dialogue.[vi] By including the audience, the reader does not feel alienated or accused. Instead, inclusive language avoids what Fisher and Ury describe as ‘the people problem’.[vii] By separating the people from the problem, we ensure both parties fight the same issue, together. We could all benefit from including, rather than excluding our counterparty as it facilitates collaborative discussion which may facilitate conflict resolution.

How Does Narrative Mediation Incorporate Yarning?

Despite the apparent benefits arising from yarning, how can we know that storytelling techniques will translate to successful conflict resolution in the ADR space? Well, we can consider the use of storytelling in Western ‘narrative mediation’ contexts. Narrative mediation styles have incorporated aspects of yarning. The important similarity between yarning and narrative mediation is the joint emphasis upon telling personal stories. Both processes promote the power of storytelling as an ends in itself, which inadvertently facilitates successful conflict resolution. Neither processes pressure parties into settlement, which frees individuals to focus upon mutual understanding, rather than bargaining. In doing so, narrative mediations enable parties to reconcile their differences through utilising the power of joint discussion of personal stories. As a result, narrative mediation processes are highly successful in resolving conflict due to the acknowledgement of the power of yarning.

Where do we go from here?

Learning and adopting new forms of communication styles is difficult. However, adding yarning to our repertoire may allow us to better resolve conflicts and maintain stronger relationships. The main benefit of telling our stories is that it humanises the conflict. At its core, conflicts are relationship-based. We can disarm and relieve tensions through sharing our personal perspective. In doing so, we may create a connection and achieve mutual understanding, which better equips us to resolve conflict. Interestingly, there is scarce academic research concerning yarning in the context of dispute resolution, or its connection to Western forms of narrative mediation. Consequently, this blogpost aims to spark discussion and further research about how we can maintain better relations with others through acknowledging and learning from yarning.

[i] Lynore Geia, Barbara Hayes and Kim Usher, ‘Yarning/Aboriginal storytelling: Towards an understanding of an Indigenous perspective and its implications for research practice’ (2013) 46(1) Contemporary Nurse 13, 15; Dawn Bessarab and Bridget Ng’andu, ‘Yarning about Yarning as a Legitimate Method in Indigenous Research’ (2010) 3(1) International Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies 37, 38; Tyson Yunkaporta, ‘Aboriginal pedagogies at the cultural interface’ (PhD Thesis, James Cook University, 2009) xiii.
[ii] Tara June Winch, The Yield (Hamish Hamilton, 2019) 33–4.
[iii] Michael Walsh, ‘Conversational styles and intercultural communication: an example from northern Australia’ (1991) 18(1) Australian Journal of Communication 1, 2.
[iv] Ilana Mushin and Rod Gardner, ‘Silence is talk: Conversational silence in Australian Aboriginal talk-in-interaction’ (2009) 41 Journal of Pragmatics 2033, 2033.
[v] Tyson Yunkaporta, ‘Aboriginal pedagogies at the cultural interface’ (PhD Thesis, James Cook University, 2009) xvii.
[vi] Ibid 14.
[vii] Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2nd ed, 1992) 13.

4 thoughts on “Learning from our First People – using Yarning to Resolve Conflict

  1. Great post John. It is very good to have a post on this important topic, to see what you are learning class with your excellent teacher and to glimpse the future of dispute resolution work in your post.

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  2. I really enjoyed this post. My practice over the years has changed so that each party to mediation has an opportunity to give their story uninterrupted by the parties or me as mediator. Initially I tried to guide the party’s statement by using clarifying questions and reframing. I now just let the party go, because it is important for them to have their say while the other party listens. We all have a story to tell, sometimes we just haven’t been given a chance to tell it.
    Well done for reminding us of the significant skills we can learn from our indigenous brothers and sisters.

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  3. Thanks for sharing this and I think there are a plenty important and inspiring points made.
    Especially the acknowledgement of the role of silence in yarning and its potential in mediation resonates. I think there is a risk that we equate narrative mediation with story telling, as in my understanding, the narrative within the narrative mediation process serves another purpose, is met with another focus than the story in yarning. but that might be just my limited understanding of it.
    More importantly, it would be great to see processes like yarning, etc integrated into mediation training, so that our landscape becomes much, much richer …

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  4. A thought provoking post by John.  Similar to the Aboriginal traditions of yarning, Fiji and other Pacific Islands have the concept of Talanoa, among other traditional approaches, to solving differences and disputes.  Talanoa is to have a conversation, share ideas, skills and experiences through storytelling. An inclusive and transparent process which helps build empathy and collective decision making. 

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