Embracing Diversity Part 3: Why Are We Different?

Paul Sills

Barrister and mediator Paul Sills explores what it is that makes humans different in Part 3 of his 5 Part series on diversity. In Part 1, he provides an introduction to the series, while in Part 2, he highlights the importance of understanding and accepting differences.


Humans are diverse, different, a collection of individuals inhabiting the planet and all competing for our share of what’s available.

The previous article in this series posited that this statement is true, and not true.  To understand that paradox it is necessary to examine diversity on two different levels:  our experience of being part of a complete whole and diversity as part of the human condition.  The previous article discussed the unity aspect.  This article deals with diversity as part of the human condition.

Why do we judge others, belong to groups and identify with one form of religious expression but not others? Why do we express ourselves so differently and view those who are not “the same” with suspicion or worse? Where does our diversity of expression come from?

The answer lies in our conditioning.

“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits”

– William James


We are what we repeatedly do

– Aristotle

A habit is an idea that is fixed in our subconscious mind and causes us to act without any conscious thought. A paradigm is a collection of habits. Our paradigms cause our habitual behaviour. As much as 95% of our reaction to events in life is habitual –unconscious, repetitive, conditioned reactions to external stimuli (including people).

Most of our conditioning occurs between five months in utero and the age of six, when our conscious minds are not developed and we have no independent ability to decide what we wish to accept as being true for ourselves. Rather, our environment and the conditioning of those around us are the key influences on how our identities form. Numerous examples exist: how we vote, our religious beliefs, the tribes we belong to – all follow clear lines of inter-generational and tribal conditioning and all mould us.

Taking a step back, there are two parts to our mind: the conscious mind and the subconscious mind. The conscious mind is connected to the world around us through our senses. We grow up being taught to live through our senses to gather information. In these formative years everything we see, taste, touch, smell and hear is absorbed directly into our subconscious mind. We inherit the habits and paradigms of our environment and the people closest to us. The vast majority of us carry this same conditioning through our entire lives. Everything we experience through our senses tends to reinforce our conditioning.

Our subconscious mind will expresses whatever is impressed upon it. It is not deductive and accepts as true for us anything that we are able to impress upon it from our conscious mind and our thinking. The expression of our subconscious mind then becomes our actions and behaviours – the results of our life.

Our subconscious mind is the engine that generates what we feel and how we act. Our conditioning is a key part of our ego/identity – it creates the person that we think we are and is the place where our judgments come from.

Without intervention our identity becomes a closed loop and we will unconsciously react the same way to similar external stimuli over and over for the duration of our life. We have known this for thousands of years, but the western world has been slow to understand its importance.

The thought manifests as the word;
The word manifests as the deed;
The deed develops into habit;
And habit hardens into character;
So watch the thought and its ways with care,
And let it spring from love
Born out of concern for all beings…
As the shadow follows the body,
As we think, so we become.

Indian philosopher & religious leader (563 BC – 483 BC)

How we are educated and taught to think in the West plays a large part in our conditioning and ultimately our judgment of others. Our focus is on rational thinking which has its origins in Greek philosophy and in particular the work of Aristotle, Plato and Socrates. Greek philosophy introduced us to critical analysis and deductive reasoning (the process of applying logical principles to given premises or general facts to derive a specific fact).

This way of thinking has had a deforming effect on Western culture and education and has encouraged the West to be an individualist versus collectivist society. This strong sense of the individual has become a key part of our conditioning and means that we are trained from a young age to see ourselves as separate and different. Our judgments come from this conditioned space. It is our individual identity, our ego, that dictates how we see the world if we let it. And we will unconsciously “let it” unless we consciously intervene in our conditioned thinking processes. Cognitive behavioural therapy is based on this interplay between the conscious and subconscious mind (essentially how we think, feel and act).

So, it is our predominant thoughts, feelings and emotions that form our identity, our culture and our judgments. It is the way we look at others and situations that dictate what we see around us and what happens to us.  Our lives become self-fulfilling because of the conditioned way that we think and feel on a daily basis.

It is a paradox of the human condition that all the cultural associations we identify with and think define us are actually the cause of the expression of diversity and the reason we are so quick to judge those who we perceive as different to us. Instead of judgement we should simply be seeking to observe and understand what is going on.  When we judge we do not learn anything new, and we make it more difficult to move toward mutually acceptable resolutions to conflicts.

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 paul.sills@paulsills.co.nz or connect via Twitter Twitter or LinkedIn LinkedIn

For more information visit Paul’s website https://paulsills.co.nz/