How Reality Television Teaches Conflict Resolution Skills

Sharon Sutherland

This article first appeared on the CoRe Clinic blog in February, 2014 and summarizes some of the topics that Sharon Sutherland will be covering on Monday, May 26 at the Dispute Resolution Conference: And Now for Something Completely Different...

At last week’s CoRe Speaker event, Wendy Lakusta and Sharon Sutherland offered their ideas about the ways in which reality television can teach positive conflict resolution skills. Wendy and Sharon focused on four areas of interest:

  • Good examples of both negotiation and mediation skills;
  • Psychology lessons;
  • Lessons on cultural awareness; and
  • Lessons gained by staging/competing in a reality show.

Our speakers emphasized that they had struggled to limit their examples in all categories, and found that in developing their presentation they came across startling numbers of other possibilities. In essence, despite any questions about the “reality” of reality television, the genre does present a wide range of examples of human nature in conflict.

Good examples

Wendy and Sharon highlighted a few shows that provide examples of good negotiation skills on a regular basis, and a few that offer glimpses of good mediation skills. In particular, Canadian Pickers and Pawn Stars were discussed as shows that showcase negotiations in every episode. Sharon complimented Canadian Pickers as a show in which the stars engage in creative negotiations, but never forget that they are involved in an iterative negotiation. While they might be able to take advantage of an unwitting seller, the “pickers” always seem to recognize that televising themselves taking advantage of sellers is not the best way to build trust for future deals. Instead, they engage in creative negotiations that demonstrate “expanding the pie” and “bundling” strategies to ensure deals that account for both parties’ interests.

As a contrast, Pawn Stars showcases negotiators who do seek to “win”, but do so within a framework that meets an entirely different (and typically unspoken) interest of the vendor: the vendor knows exactly what they are getting into and may even know they are being taken advantage of while agreeing to a deal, but they are also getting to appear on their favourite television show. Wendy pointed out the large number of articles and online analyses of Pawn Star negotiation lessons, and highlighted the observations of John Greathouse on the “teachable moments” the show offers each and every episode.

Psychology Lessons

Wendy and Sharon then led the group through discussion of the psychology lessons for conflict resolution professionals that can be taken from reality television. Sharon suggested that Survivor alone could provide an entire course in cognitive barriers to negotiation. While Sharon selected just a few examples for the purposes of the talk, the topic could easily lend itself to a much longer discussion. One of the most amusing examples was the cognitive dissonance edit of comments from participants in the first season. Anyone who watched the first season – and millions did – will recall the seemingly bizarre disconnect between the people who formed an alliance (and eventually became the final four) and the people who persisted in believing that no one would align to win the game because it was “unethical”.

Wendy then discussed the potential to study high conflict personalities in many reality tv series. While there may be limited value to simply watching for bad behaviour, there are both excellent examples of people dealing effectively with others’ bad behaviour and opportunities to gain a better understanding of the triggers that might lead to high conflict behaviour. Wendy identified Amazing Race‘s season 23 winners Jason and Amy as exemplifying good decisions in not engaging with high conflict couple Tim and Marie despite considerable provocation when Tim and Marie stole their cab. Instead, they chose to “keep their enemies closer” and managed their own anger in order to avoid being sidetracked by the other couple’s high conflict style.

Cultural Awareness

The considerable controversy surrounding Big Brother, season 15, and the racist and homophobic comments made by several house guests opened up an interesting discussion of race, in particular, in social media and more traditional journalism. Wendy and Sharon noted that the careful editing by CBS of episodes that aired the racist remarks to ensure that they included some form of critical discussion (usually through other house guests), ensured that such comments were not simply aired unchallenged. While the time allotted for the speaker event did not allow for a meaningful deconstruction of even a single example of the blindness of privilege or the impacts of race, gender, age, sexuality and other identities on human interactions, it was clear that many shows offer examples that would lend themselves to such analysis.

In the linked version of their Prezi, a particularly fascinating tribal council in Survivor is shown. This segment offers a rich discussion starter for issues of race, privilege, and class assumptions coupled with critique and questioning of assumptions by the show host, Jeff Probst. It is easy to imagine showing this short scene and using it as an educational tool to discuss these issues at the length they deserve.

Learning by Doing

Finally, Sharon made a few brief comments about the making of the two CoRe Challenge fundraisers that were carried out in 2005 and 2006. The experience of making a reality television program was a fascinating learning experience, and led both Sharon and Wendy to comment that the job of the editor in such shows is not dissimilar in some ways from the role of the mediator. In both roles, one works with the words of others – often in conflict – and seeks to edit and reframe the comments with a specific purpose in mind. That purpose may vary: reality television editors will have different purposes one from another, and mediators may be much more focused on reducing conflict than capturing its essence for dramatic effect. Nonetheless, editing is a key task in shaping both the program and the mediation, and it is possible to enhance our reflections on the mediator’s role by watching carefully the effects that are created by editing in reality television. We may believe that our editing is much more benign, but it behooves us to acknowledge the degree to which we affect outcomes through our own editorial processes.


Sharon SutherlandSharon Sutherland is currently an Assistant Professor at UBC Faculty of Law, and is also a mediator and conflict resolution trainer. She has been a leader in the design and development of collaborative decision-making processes and training programs in BC. Amongst her contributions to the field of mediation, Sharon was one of the original Program Managers of the Court Mediation Program, designer and Manager of Development of the Child Protection Mediation Practicum and a founding member of CoRe Conflict Resolution Society. In recognition of her contributions to the field, in 2011 Sharon was awarded Mediate BC’s Susanna Jani Award for Excellence in Mediation.

Sharon will be leaving UBC this summer, after 14 years of teaching, in order to pursue a wide range of interests in dispute resolution including:
• Increased mediation practice
• Development of “impasse breaking” tools for collaborative decision-making
• Collaborative games development
• Online dispute resolution across a variety of platforms and practice areas

Sharon blogs about impasse breaking and creativity for mediators at and is Vice President and Speaker Series coordinator for CoRe Conflict Resolution Society. Sharon is hosting a Game Jam on May 9-11 at UBC.