It was from that Man I Learnt Humanity…

by Ben Thomson

These were the purported words of Abraham Lincoln when reflecting on the impact Robert Burns had on him.

From a man such as him, heavy praise indeed.

Alongside inspiring the likes of Bob Dylan and John Steinbeck, Burns is probably best known for Auld Lang Syne which is belted out (in tune or otherwise) across the English-speaking world and beyond each new year.

Among his seemingly endless collection of works, there is great wit, wisdom and humour, brought together with an incredible turn of phrase, command of imagery and no small amount of genius.

Despite my Scots bias, I think very few would disagree.

So, where’s the connection to the world of dispute resolution, negotiation and conflict management?

Before coming to work for CEDR, I remember very clearly telling my dad (a Burn’s fanatic) all about what the organisation does, particularly in the aforementioned areas. He didn’t say anything at first and then rattled off these lines:


O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

It wad frae mony a blunder free us,

An’ foolish notion


In these, the final lines from his poem, ‘To a Louse’, Burns makes the following point (roughly translated).

What a wonderful thing it would be to be able to see ourselves through the eyes of others and how this would free us from many mistakes and foolish thoughts.

Although written in 1786, this idea is as relevant to human relations and interpersonal communication then, as it is now.

Self-awareness and understanding, when involved in a dispute, are powerful tools for building bridges and in helping to create constructive, meaningful dialogue.

How am I coming across to the other person?

How is my manner being received?

Are my words landing as I wish them to?

What of my body language and the message it might be sending?

To reflect on these points alone when engaging with others, particularly if the dynamic is hostile, would help enormously to foster a healthier conversation.

More widely, in a world that is rife with anger, distrust and misunderstanding, applying this simple message from an 18th Century Scots poem, even some of the time, would go a long way to beginning to heal the wounds of division we see at a local, national and international level.

So, why not try it in your next mediation or negotiation, or the next time you are faced with a difficult workplace conversation?

Or even put it to the test in the most challenging of situations … dealing with friends, family and flatmates!

It can’t do any harm…

Wherever you may be this Burn’s Night, and whether you celebrate it at all, I hope you found this little reflection interesting.

And to any Burns aficionados out there, are there any other lines of his that apply to our world of dispute resolution (We would be happy to hear from those who want to quote other international poets in aid of better conflict management…)?

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