During the summer of 2012 I had the privilege of spending two glorious weeks boating in Johnstone Straits and the Broughton Archipelago. We saw awe-inspiring scenery and displays of wildlife in their natural habitat. We witnessed orcas rubbing themselves on the rocks at Robson Bight; we saw two minke whales silently swimming through the fog covered water; we enjoyed watching hundreds of different birds, seals etc.
In Port MacNeill I met a young biologist who comes to BC every summer from Ottawa to lead ecology sailing tours in the area. He was very knowledgeable and passionate about the richness of the wildlife of BC and he related many stories of amazing close encounters with humpback whales, orcas, sea lions. I asked him more about humpback whales. He told me two incredible things in particular:
- Humpback whales are very intelligent. Like humans, they have a certain kind of neuron in their brains that has been found to be linked to empathy. In fact, in proportion to the size of their brains, they have more of these neurons than human beings! It never occurred to me that a whale could feel empathy for other beings.
- Humpbacks sing! They communicate with each other through complex and original songs. Each year the humpbacks in a particular region (Alaska for example) compose a new song which then is duplicated in other regions (Mexico, Japan). These songs have been recorded and compared. Centuries ago, these songs would travel for thousands of miles through the water. He told me that whales could communicate from one pole to another in those days. Today, however, human sounds (marine traffic, sonar in particular) are interfering with their ability to communicate with each other. He worries about the impact on the whales’ ability to navigate, find feeding grounds, locate mates and nurture family when the range and quality of their communication is significantly impeded.
This made me think about human communication and how our increasingly complex society is creating barriers to communication. We fill our world with noise, we multi-task like crazy, we use short-hand (TTFN) rather than full sentences, we rely on written communication instead of talking face to face. Interestingly, while technology has allowed humans to communicate easily over long distances, the quality of our communication is often diminished. I admit to texting my husband from one room to another in our home!
Many of the conflicts that end up in mediation began with poor communication. While I believe in mediation (obviously) as an effective tool to resolve conflict I have to wonder if in some cases that is too little too late. Is there a way that mediators can use their skills and experience to help human beings to improve their communication? I keep coming back to Bernie Mayer’s wise observation that there are many roles that skilled “conflict specialists” can play, including coach, advocate, educator etc. Perhaps with some help we can remove some of the self-imposed barriers to our own songs.
Kari D. Boyle, Executive Director, Mediate BC Society
Photo credit: animals.nationalgeographic.com