Better Conversations – Get Connected

The root cause of many disputes is a lack of communication leading to judgments and assumptions about the motives of others. Barrister and mediator Paul Sills writes, failure to communicate effectively is a fundamental barrier to effective negotiation. The parties involved in disputes need to have better conversations with each other. We will explore why and how over the next few issues. This is part 1 of 3 parts. Read part 2 here.Paul Sills

Building connections with people is a difficult but necessary part of having better conversations. This is often referred to as “establishing rapport”, but that term may suggest an element of artificiality that is not present when there is genuine connection.

We have a conditioned bias towards talking, and a real issue with making ourselves sufficiently vulnerable to actually listen and learn (we think vulnerability is a sign of weakness). If we listen at all, we listen autobiographically and relate everything back to our own worldview. This limits our ability to move beyond ourselves in order to connect with others, and is, therefore, a barrier to effective communication.

Our individualistic culture encourages this conditioning. We do not understand or value our connection to others, nor what we gain from being part of a collective. We are encouraged to think and act from a position of self-interest. Paradoxically, in spite of our egocentric lives, connection with others is what we can do better than anything else and what we crave at a deep physical and psychological level.  It is not easy to overcome this cultural conditioning, but understanding the role and importance of human connection can help.

We are wired for connection. It is in our biology and we need connection to thrive emotionally, physically, spiritually and intellectually. Brene Brown defines connection as:

“The energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”

Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection. Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden Publishing (pg 19).

Neuroscience supports this. As Daniel Goleman writes, the latest findings in biology and neuroscience confirm that we are hard-wired for connection and that our relationships shape our biology as well as our experiences (Daniel, G. (2011). Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. Random House).

Kelly McGonigal, in her TedX talk “How to make stress your friend”, identifies the fact that when we are stressed we produce the hormone oxytocin (known as the “cuddle hormone” as it is released when you hug somebody). Oxytocin influences our social instincts and primes us to do things that strengthen close relationships. The hormone makes us crave physical contact with friends and family. It enhances our empathy and makes us more willing to help and support people. The pituitary gland secretes oxytocin as part of our flight or fight stress response. Why? Our body is motivating us to seek support; nudging us to tell someone how we feel, instead of bottling it up. This response to stress is more evident in females than males.

One barrier to connection is the cultural importance we place on soldiering on and “going it alone”. While we can all see ourselves lending a hand occasionally, we resist asking for help when we need it.  As Brown concluded, we need to let go of the myth of self-sufficiency.

Our innate need for connection makes the consequences of disconnection far more real and dangerous. This includes convincing ourselves that we are connected when we are not. Technology in this instance is an imposter for meaningful connection. Do we connect well? We certainly have huge resources for connection – just look at the growth of social media. Does that make us connected? Yes, superficially but not in a meaningful way that helps us grow, benefits society and helps us deal with conflict.

Allowing ourselves to be connected will lift some of the barriers we have placed around ourselves that obstruct the exchange of information and ideas.  Fewer barriers will result in more effective communication, and better dispute resolution outcomes.


Paul Sills is a barrister with over 20 years’ experience working in global litigation markets. Paul is also an accomplished business leader, having been involved in a diverse range of companies (as CEO or director) including the marine industry, global health care and international freight. Paul has been engaged in mediations both as a legal advisor and as a client since 1995 and as a mediator since 2010. These have included multi-parties and complex issues surrounding Treaty of Waitangi settlements, aviation disasters, leaky homes, construction and receiverships. With a unique understanding of the challenges businesses and individuals face and drawing on his years of commercial and legal experience, Paul provides timely and cost-effective solutions for his clients. Paul’s appointments include Associate Member of AMINZ, a member of the panel of mediators for the Marine Industry Association, Triathlon NZ Age Group Adjudicator for 2015 and 2016 and a member of the panel of mediators for the New Zealand Law Society. Paul is approved to assist with the Society’s Early Resolution Service, as well as standard track mediations. As a barrister Paul maintains both an active commercial litigation practice and a comprehensive mediation practice. Contact Paul at or connect via Twitter Twitter or LinkedIn LinkedIn

For more information visit Paul’s website