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Why don't we do what Atticus Finch advises?

Updated: Dec 16, 2021

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is still studied by most US American children at some stage in their education despite the many attempts to ban it by school boards. Its strong language (including use of the n-word) and discussion of rape are the most common reasons given. I suspect Lee’s depiction of bigotry in the Deep South is not appreciated by many of its White denizens.

A school board in Mississippi banned it in 2017 for making people "uncomfortable". It was also on the England and Wales GCSE curriculum until Michael Gove had it removed in 2014. Even so, it remains one of the UK's favourite books. So why is it that so few people these days follow the advice that Atticus Finch gives his daughter in perhaps its most oft-quoted lines?

...if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Why is it, to use a less racially-charged metaphor, that we find it so difficult to put ourselves in other people's shoes? To see the world through their eyes? To understand why they are, to us, voicing stupid opinions, offering absurd arguments, believing obvious lies?

Is it that we are stuck in our social media silos communicating only with people who think like us, cancelling anyone who doesn't? This appears to be today's received wisdom. I'm not so sure. Have we really become less curious about how others think and behave? After all, before Covid-19 hit, more people were travelling outside their own country, for work or pleasure, than ever before. Did they travel in bubbles, oblivious to the new places and people around them?

I learned the value of climbing into someone else's skin in my first month at university in 1971. I had just come back from a year teaching in Botswana. The first society I joined during Freshers' Week was the Anti-Apartheid Society. The second was the Debating Society. The third-year student tasked with finding people willing to debate approached me early on. He asked if I would like to speak at the debate condemning the racist policies of the South African government (we said racialist in those far off days). "Right on, man!", I probably said. "That's cool, man," he no doubt replied. "You'll be arguing against the motion and in support of the South African government." Before I had time to refuse, he explained the Society's reasoning: "If you are forced to argue in favour of something you don't believe in, you'll learn why some people do believe in it. Know that and you can then look for the weaknesses in their case, and use those when you are arguing against them."

He was right. But that was not the main thing I learned. In finding out why the South African government imposed such a vile regimen on their country's disenfranchised Black, Asian and mixed-race inhabitants I gained a greater understanding of the fears and needs of those White voters, especially the Afrikaners, who had brought the National Party to power. Without addressing those fears and trying to find ways to meet those needs there was little chance of anybody persuading the government or its supporters to abandon apartheid. Arguments based solely on logic don't persuade people to change their minds.

Nelson Mandela and the leaders of the African National Congress knew that when, in May 1990, they began official negotiations with the still-White South African government. I recommend reading the detailed accounts of how Mandela conducted those first negotiations. Did he start by producing a list of demands? No, he spent much of the time discussing history. The history of the Black people and his own tribe, the Xhosa? No; that of the eleven Afrikaner men in front of him. He impressed them with his knowledge, some of it picked up from his jailers during eighteen years on Robben Island, where he also tried to learn Afrikaans. He talked of their ancestors’ battles against the British as much as those waged against his own people. He was walking around in an Afrikaner’s skin. The Afrikaners had expected to be negotiating with a Marxist terrorist who hated them. Instead they were dealing with a man who knew how much they had suffered under British rule. They were charmed.

If only the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, had done the same as Mandela almost seventy years earlier. It was 11 July 1921. The British Government and the leaders of the self-proclaimed Irish Republic had just agreed to a ceasefire in the brutal guerrilla war which had been going on in Ireland since January 1919. It was time for the two sides to negotiate. The following week Lloyd George, met the Irish Nationalist leader, Éamon de Valera, in London. They had four meetings that week in which they tried to agree the framework of a treaty that would give most of Ireland her independence. They made little progress and it wasn’t until October that the British and Irish started formal negotiations again in London. Although Lloyd George attended these later meetings, de Valera stayed in Dublin. The Irish leader’s absence from the negotiations made it easier for him to repudiate the Anglo-Irish Treaty after it was signed in December 1921. In fact, the terms of the treaty were not that different from those proposed by de Valera himself. Nor were they much different from those proposed by Lloyd George to de Valera at the end of their week of meetings back in July. Hence, many people have asked why the two men could not have reached a tentative agreement at those talks.

Some of you may, I hope, be having a feeling of déjà vu after reading all but the first sentence in that paragraph. I’ll come clean. It’s lifted from a book on international commercial negotiation a Danish colleague, Søren Hilligsøe, and I wrote in 2013-14.* We needed to find a title which reflected the central message of our book: only by learning the real needs and wishes of the other side can you get a good deal for yourself. By chance I read about the negotiations between the British Prime Minister and de Valera and in particular the comment by a frustrated Lloyd George about the Irish leader’s negotiating style

“Negotiating with de Valera is like trying to pick up mercury with a fork.”

When de Valera was told of this remark, his response gave us the title of our book:

“Why doesn’t he use a spoon?”

Historians have long argued about what really happened in the meetings between these two men. Lloyd George had a good idea what he wanted to achieve and how he was going to get it. But he does not appear to have been that interested in what might motivate an Irish patriot like de Valera**. Lloyd George was a Welshman, whose first language was Welsh. As a young man, he had campaigned passionately for Welsh autonomy within the UK. So, one would think, here was someone who would understand the emotions that were driving de Valera to demand total independence from the UK for all of Ireland. But instead Lloyd George complained that the Irishman kept referring to what the British had done to the Irish three hundred years earlier under Oliver Cromwell and since. He could not see the relevance of such ancient history to their discussions. The British Prime Minister was a highly experienced and successful negotiator but in this instance he failed badly. He stuck to his predetermined plan and appears to have made little attempt to understand the person he was dealing with, nor adapt his negotiating style nor change his tactics to achieve an agreement. He was not prepared to switch from a fork to a spoon.

The consequences for the ordinary negotiator of not being prepared to adapt their style or change tactics can be serious but are seldom life-threatening. Lloyd George's and De Valera’s failure to reach agreement in July 1921 had momentous consequences, as anybody living on the island of Ireland will tell you. That failure cost many lives and blighted many more, right down to the present day.

So, what should we do to get inside the skin of someone with whom we wish to reach an agreement or just get along? Learn their history and language, as Mandela did? Us simple folk haven’t got time for that. There is one “trick" to play above all others:

Ask the person questions about themselves, about what you are both discussing, and listen, really listen, to the answers. Let the questions emerge naturally from the answers and not from some prepared list. Don't hurry it. Don't interrupt. Let them finish what they want to say. You'll be getting inside their skin. And you know what? Atticus was right. You may be able to get along with each other. Only connect.

* a pdf version can be sent to you for £18 if you write to me at

** though he was born in New York and his father was Spanish.


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