Stoicism as an Essential Conflict Management Technique


Much of what risk managers do on a daily basis is deal with conflict. Before conflicts arise, we use our knowledge and experience to imagine potential conflicts. We try to determine how likely they are and how high the stakes might be. After the conflicts are resolved, we dissect them and analyze them and do our best to learn from them. Before and after a conflict, it is easy to keep a cool head, but in the midst of a conflict, stress and emotions run high. Seasoned and rookie risk managers alike would be wise to keep an essential conflict management technique in mind: stoicism.

Not all claims turn into conflicts. Often both parties agree on liability and the valuation of damages. As risk managers, we try to resolve claims as efficiently and as fairly as possible. But inevitably, conflicts do arise. We are all familiar with the usual red flags. Among them are soft tissue injuries that allegedly resulted from low-speed auto collisions and slip and falls that appear staged when the video evidence is reviewed. Such claims must be investigated and denied when not supported by the evidence. But conflict can also arise when everyone agrees on the facts of the case and does not agree on the valuation of damages. If you sell concrete to someone who uses it to make a driveway and a minor defect in the concrete causes rusty-looking stains, do you owe that person the cost of ripping out the driveway and installing a new one? These kinds of claims usually lead to conflict, and when they do, we are wise to turn on the stoic within us.

The English word “stoic” comes from the Stoic philosophers of ancient Athens. Their ability to control and suppress their emotions is legendary and made them the political and military leaders of their great city. But the roots of Stoicism can be traced back even further to a philosopher named Heraclitus who insisted that being “even-minded” was the greatest virtue. In the midst of a conflict when the stakes are high and the emotions are higher, there is nothing more important than remaining even-minded. This is as true today as it was then and applies to a wide variety of professions from military leaders, to police officers, to risk managers. Staying calm, cool and collected in the midst of conflict is easy to say and hard to do. The best way to accomplish it is to do what the ancient Stoics did: focus on your role.

But no matter how well you play your role and remain even-minded, it is very likely that other people involved in the conflict will let themselves be driven by their emotions. Expect this from people in your own organization and from people on the other side. Remind them of the facts and try to focus their attention on the resolution process. Their emotions may distract them from their role, but do not let it distract you from yours.

Star Wars fans will remember the advice Obi Wan Kenobi gave Luke Skywalker in preparation for his encounter with Darth Vader: “Bury your feelings deep down Luke. They do you credit, but they could be made to serve the Emperor.” The people you are facing off against may very well be good, honest people, but Obi Wan’s advice still applies. Bury your feelings deep down. Grow a thick skin. It is essential for a successful resolution.

Stoicism in Practice
A few years ago, when I was working as a risk manager for a mining company, we had a freight train verses tractor-trailer matter that required a healthy dose of stoicism. A bulldozer was being transported from one plant to another on a lowboy trailer, and while traveling through a rural area of Kentucky, the trailer bottomed-out on a railroad crossing. Fortunately, no one was injured.

Our driver’s account of the accident, in retrospect, seems humorous. It went something like this:

“As I was crossing the tracks, the trailer bottomed-out. I put it in reverse, and it didn’t move. I began to realize that I was hopelessly stuck on a railroad crossing, and about that time I heard the train horn. What could I do? I opened the door, climbed down, ran about 20 yards down the road, turned around, and watched the train hit the rig.” 

 It may be hard to stop a train, but on that day, we did it. The train itself suffered no damage. But there was damage to the crossing signals and our tractor-trailer unit. The bulldozer was unscathed, but diesel fuel did escape from the trailer fuel tank, killing a small area of grass near a home adjacent to the crossing.

It was a clear case of liability. We had a duty to know the route well enough to prevent this. The damages to the crossing signals were quickly accepted. We were relieved to know that the train engine itself was not damaged. I was confident that I could resolve the liability aspect within the reserve I had set until I received a call from Mr. Brown.

Mr. Brown was the home owner who lived near the crossing. He said that he had a water well between his house and the site of the crash that he used for cleaning and bathing. Since the crash, a strong odor of diesel fuel emanated from the water. My heart sank. It seemed that my company’s carelessness had contaminated this man’s well, and I wondered if we had an even larger environmental problem. Mr. Brown thought the best solution was for my company to run a water line from his house to the nearest water main about a mile away. If we did not agree, he would sue us. Over the phone he seemed like an honest man, and if we did contaminate his well, his demand was understandable. But I knew I had to thoroughly investigate the case. To do so effectively, I needed to activate my stoic persona and focus on my role.

After taking Mr. Brown’s recorded statement, I explained that an investigation was necessary. He was impatient and argumentative, but I insisted and he eventually agreed to cooperate. I assembled a team, and we investigated the site. Photos were taken of the dead grass which extended two feet from the railroad tracks. There was a wide area of healthy, green grass (at least 50 feet of it) between the dead grass and the well. The green grass area was also photographed. Core samples were taken of the soil at multiple depths and at various places between the site of the crash and the well. A piece of white absorbent material was exposed to the well water, which produced a red stain on the material. Mr. Brown looked over our shoulder during most of the site investigation, making snide remarks as we worked, but we remained focused on collecting evidence.

The results were conclusive. The photos of the green grass area proved that the fuel did not travel along the surface of the land to the well. The soil samples were all negative for diesel fuel proving that the fuel did not travel underground. But the smoking gun was the stain on the absorbent material. Diesel fuel sold for use in licensed road vehicles is clear. But diesel fuel sold for off-road use in equipment such as bulldozers has a red dye additive. The red dye was clearly visible on the absorbent material. The fuel did not come from our tractor, and the tank on the bulldozer had not ruptured. Clearly our crash did not contaminate Mr. Brown’s well. Our environmental experts determined that the fuel spill was too small to warrant a clean-up operation.

In this case, stoicism helped me investigate the case objectively and collect the evidence necessary to support our denial. When I called Mr. Brown, his reaction was revealing. During our conversation, it became apparent that he knew about the two types of diesel fuel, but he thought the bulldozer’s tank and not the tractor tank had ruptured. He apparently contaminated his own water well in an effort to defraud my company and force us to pay for a long, expensive water line. I explained to him the significance of the evidence we collected, and he simply dropped his claim. No suit was ever filed.

Searching for a Fair Resolution
When in a conflict, it is natural to think that the goal is to win, and in cases like Mr. Brown’s claim, there are clear winners and losers. But for risk managers, most of the time a better goal is a fair resolution for everyone. The longer a conflict drags on, the costlier it is in time, energy and resources. When in discussions and negotiations with the other side, be a good listener and seriously consider new information and new evidence. Let the opposition know that you are committed to a fair outcome for everyone, and try to persuade them to make it their goal as well.

Stoicism is just one technique among many that every risk manager should keep in mind when managing conflict, but it is an essential one. People new to risk management need to master it, and seasoned risk managers need to remember to practice it. It helps us gather evidence and reach fair resolutions. It also takes some of the stress out of stressful situations.

Wade Bond

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About the Author

Wade Bond is the assistant director of risk management at the University of Alabama. He has more than 20 years of insurance and risk management experience and has worked in the financial sector, the mining industry, the trucking industry and higher education.


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