Aernoud Bourdrez / Lawyer: "Cut the blame, embrace the pain."
The question “What is a conflict?” has kept lawyer Aernoud Bourdrez busy for a decade. The catalyst for his engagement with this question is as unexpected as the fact that his first interest was art, and that he turned to practising law only after being turned down for a place at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy.
Interview by Daphne van Langen / Translation by Siji Jabbar
Photography by Jerome de Lint
Do you remember the first significant conflict you mediated? Yes, I was 17 years old and the conflict was between my mum and my grandmum. They often had major disagreements over my father. It was the typical mother-in-law and son-in-law dynamic, but I was of course too emotionally involved to see the pattern or make much of a difference.
What were your parents like, and how did they shape you? My parents are both 81 now, so they lived through the Second World War and were shaped by the experience. You still see evidence of this in what they’re like today, in their frugality with food, for instance – they save their leftovers. They had four kids to look after, so they gave their attention to their family rather than to the outside world. They were honest and kind, without pretentions, frills or fuss, and they gave us all the space we needed to be ourselves. I never felt any weight of expectations, which was liberating.
What’s your most significant memory from your childhood? The winter of ‘78! Skating all day in the street in front of the house. I’ve always loved skating. We didn’t own a TV back then, but my parents always rented one during the Elfstedentocht (the 120-mile, eleven-city cities tour held in the province of Friesland when natural ice allows), which suggested to me that it was a really important event. I skated the tour myself in 1997, one week after the official tour, and my parents couldn’t have been more proud.
You were the youngest of four kids. Was studying law a bid for attention? I’ve always felt the need to understand whatever’s going on, and that probably did have something to do with being the youngest – the need to guard against being bamboozled. Working things out still thrills me. Home life wasn’t super-competitive, but as the youngest, especially as I was also physically small, you learn to establish your presence. Lawyers often turn out to be the youngest of their siblings.
How did you feel on your first day as a lawyer? I discovered how little I knew within a short while of being at Allen & Overy, a big law firm. I’d been kidding myself for years that I was nothing like my colleagues, whom I saw as stereotypical lawyers. But all along I’d merely been conforming to what I thought a lawyer ought to be, rather than developing my own identity based on my convictions and interest in the law. I did find my way, eventually, and I’m one of the few from those early years who still practice law.
One of your areas of expertise is conflict resolution. What’s your definition of a conflict? It’s the difference between having a regular confrontation and having one laced with blame. Conflict develops from the latter, and that’s when things get interesting. Take the animated children’s series Buurman en Buurman (English title: ...and that's it! Pat and Mat); something goes wrong in every episode, but the two characters never fight. Compare that with Gordon Ramsey’s programmes, where his response to anything is to blame someone else. Blame creates need and loathing, and when we fail to escape those chains we end up like Donald Trump.
If you want to be free from the pain that foments conflict, you need to understand – as the Buddhists do – that your pain has little to do with other people. I always try to remember that the way other people behave towards me has less to do with me than with them. If you were to slap the Dalai Lama, he’d probably ask what he could do to help.
Is your approach to conflict different to that of your colleagues? Most lawyers are not aware that they work in the conflict industry. As lawyers, we have to deal with conflicts and, contrary to most lawyers, who see conflict resolution as a single discipline, I’d rather take a more holistic approach, which can help us understand the whole spectrum. It involves neurology, psychology, anthropology and the economy, among other things, all of which you need to take into consideration if you want to understand any conflict and find the right approach to resolving it.
Can you give us an example? Sure. There’s a wonderful example of a woman who suspects her husband of cheating on her and hires a private detective to get some evidence. Her suspicion is confirmed and she waits outside the hotel until he and his mistress emerge, upon which she runs him over with her car. But she then jumps out of the car in distress, crying, “Oh John, what have I done? Please, don’t die!” The anecdote illustrates the theory that assigns the brain stem the primary function of survival and a different part of the brain the responsibility for generating thoughts like: “Am I behaving sensibly?” It’s why we sometimes have two conflicting responses to an emergency.
You seem fairly reflective, in addition to your interest in motive. Might you not have been better off becoming a psychologist? But then I wouldn’t have had all the tools I currently have at my disposal as a lawyer. I like being a lawyer who gets to negotiate. My job allows me to study all the motives at play in a situation and open legal proceedings if it proves impossible to resolve a conflict any other way. I prefer to see the latter as a fallback option, though, because while a lawsuit will yield a solution, it doesn’t actually resolve the underlying problem.
Let’s talk a bit about your other interests. We understand you’re an art lover. How did this develop? I became interested in photography when I was about 14, and started taking photographs at Amsterdam fashion shows when I was 17. I did that for a couple of years, visiting shows by Frans Molenaar, Max Heymans and Frank Govers, and that interest led me to art. I’ve always been fascinated by people who create for a living, because their work is a product of an intrinsic and creative drive, which I find a lot more interesting than, say, what a CEO does.
What sort of art do you collect? Modern art. Lots of photography. I’m a huge Dana Lixenberg fan; she lets her personality come through strongly, yet manifests modesty and subtlety in her work – a certain sophistication and dedication. I love it when an artist gives you the means to see society in a way you wouldn’t otherwise have considered, such as Martijn Engelbregt did when he wrote an anti-telemarketing counterscript that allows you to turn the tables on telemarketers.
Have you visited the Voorlinden Museum? Yes, and I liked it, but – and I need to phrase this carefully – it felt like a collection for beginners; art with a high associative attractiveness. Almost entertainment. My kids loved it – perfect day out. It’s not a criticism; it’s just that some exhibitions resonate more than others. I’m fascinated by conflicts, so I’d love to have been a fly on the wall to hear the conversations between the museum’s owner Joop van Caldenborgh and its former director Wim Pijbes and be privy to how things went so wrong in just the space of a few months.
As a youngster you’d hoped to enrol at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy, but your application was rejected. Yes, that’s true. But then I made lots of decisions as a youngster that I didn’t fully consider, which is probably typical of youth; you live very much in the present, and without much thought for the consequences of your actions. If I’d immersed myself in the admissions process, I might have been able to deliver what they needed to see – the question, of course, is whether you’re supposed to approach the admissions process that way. Besides, I suspect one of the aims of an art education at that level is to break down your structured approach to thinking, whereas I’m the sort that needs structure. Fortunately, I can express my creativity via my profession and my other interests. I have a strong, authentic connection with everything that I do, even if it’s not immediately apparent.
You turned a loss to the art world into a gain for the legal profession. These are very different disciplines, though, aren’t they? Not entirely. It’s with creativity that you distinguish yourself as a lawyer. Whether you’re trying to find a legal solution to a problem or negotiating a matter, you need to think creatively to make a real difference. I’m glad I became a lawyer, and that it remains my number one interest, alongside writing and collecting art, which provide an outlet for my creativity.
What else do you derive from writing? It’s an interesting process, publishing a book, because you have complete freedom to determine its content and form, and choose the form that enhances the content. I devote quite a lot of time to choosing the right designer. I published a book about contracts with the typographer and graphic designer Melle Hammer, for instance, who’s an absolute perfectionist. The design is based almost entirely on a couple of fonts, yet it is an object of pure beauty. It was voted one of the 50 best-designed books last year.
You mentioned in an interview with YourLab that you’ve been taking things a bit easier of late. That’s right. I was being overwhelmed by my drive and a fair bit of anger. I identified too much with my clients, and, as a result, would find myself trying to crush the opposition, until it dawned on me one day that this couldn’t possibly be healthy. I caught myself in time, but couldn’t escape the fact that I had become less kind than I used to be. I’d been composing angry letters in my head, and had become more impulsive and reactive during negotiations.
And how are you doing now? I read this article the other day that said that while the motto “work hard, play hard” sounds cool, it’s no way to live. You’re better off taking a more measured approach to work. So I now make sure I have a quiet lunch break every day. I also bought myself a vintage racing bicycle, and look forward to the daily ride to work, even if it’s no more than a 2 km ride. I want to enjoy life rather than rush through it as if something’s chasing me.
I took part in a ten-day Vipassana meditation course a short while ago where I learned that it’s possible to experience pain in the absence of conflict. Apparently, the two are not inherently linked. Now when I’m angry with my kids, I know it’s me, not them, and give myself a moment. My diet is also much improved. I used to eat purely because I was hungry, but I now pay attention to the nutritional value of what I eat. My body notices when I eat anything that isn’t good for it.
That sounds very mindful. Are you interested in spirituality? I don’t feel particularly spiritual, and I'm not religious. I think it has more to do with our tendency to reflect more on how we live once we pass 40. I’m 45 now and would like to make choices that reflect who I really am. I don’t want to hit 50 only to realise that I should have chucked it all in and opened a bed and breakfast.
Is that a possibility? I’m not entirely sure. It’s tempting to stay where you are once you know the drill, and resolving disputes still gives me a great deal of satisfaction. The best resolutions are those that not only mend the relationship between the client and the opposite party, but actually improve it. However, practicing law isn’t the be all and end all; it always has to do with conflicts, after all. I’d like to try my hand at something different, but I keep returning to law. I considered becoming a spin doctor in New York, for instance, but soon discovered that politics didn’t suit me at all.
You’ve got twins. Has fatherhood changed you as a lawyer? Before the twins arrived, I thought it might temper my ambition, but it hasn’t. I have, however, become more flexible and milder; it doesn’t feel like such a big deal if things don’t go exactly according to plan. My kids have taught me a lot about resolving conflicts. I‘d been doing it wrong by using words like “no”, for instance, but “no” gets you nowhere with kids, and it’s even more unhelpful in resolving conflicts. Also, having to explain my work to my kids has forced me to do what’s right and what I believe in, because I, of course, want to set a good example for them with respect to professional conduct.
How do you resolve conflicts at home? By asking questions. And by listening. I read in Gary Noesner’s book Stalling for Time (My Life as a FBI Hostage Negotiator) that listening is the most cost-effective way to get the most out of any situation. So I practice this at home, taking care not to approach negotiating whose night off it is as if it’s a legal case. It’s interesting to contemplate the fact that we no longer raise kids with the authoritarian “thou shalt”, yet we must nonetheless make it clear that not everything is negotiable. It’s important for kids to know there are boundaries.
What fills you with the most pride? Being a very good lawyer or tax specialist feels great, but your real value lies in your creativity. Thus the resolutions I’m most proud of aren’t the one that reveal how smart a lawyer I might be, but rather those that involved a creative approach with a solution that went beyond the problem.
Could you give us an example? I got into a dispute with my neighbours over noise. My floor was just about adequate with respect to how much sound it let through. We both had insurance coverage for legal expenses, so I asked my insurance company how much they’d pay for a lawyer; they gave me their budget. Then I asked my neighbour’s insurers the same question, and found that both companies would end up spending more than the cost of a new floor in getting answers to who’s wrong and who must bear the burden. My neighbour’s insurers were initially reluctant to chip in, until I explained how much time, money and frustration it’d save everyone. So both companies paid for the new floor, a solution that rose above the problem rather than getting bogged down in proving who was in the wrong.
Not all conflicts end this satisfactorily, though. How do you deal with those? Unfortunately, I still find it hard to accept that things won't always go the way I’d hoped. The catastrophe of the Trump administration has shown me that some things cannot be justified, even if they can easily be explained. In such cases, I console myself with the knowledge that I did the best I could.
Looking back at the period when you made a conscious decision to take things a bit easier, what advice would you give someone who was successful at what they did, but was being consumed by it? Ask yourself if you still believe in what you’re doing and make sure you avoid the pitfall of wondering whether you’re successful or not; because that’s a mindfuck, and can only be determined by other people, who will base their opinion on criteria of their own. Vipassana meditation has been a great help to me in understanding this.
What advice do you wish you’d been given? I wish I’d understood the lawyer’s role in a conflict much sooner; understanding what a conflict is, for instance, recognising common patterns and understanding what to do to break them. This requires deep knowledge, especially, besides expertise and a bit of talent. I’m gaining that knowledge now, but I wish I’d have had it much sooner. I'm now trying to figure out how to share this knowledge.
But haven’t you already done so with your bestseller Think Like a Lawyer Don't Act Like One – The essential Rules for the Smart Negotiator? Yes, and we're expanding the concept to a series: Think like a designer, Think like a parent, etc. It’s fun, putting books like these together, but my ambition is to use my knowledge in a broader way across society: work with the municipal council, for instance, or the association of insurers, or airlines.
To whom do you turn for personal advice or support? I have an uncle who was a Supreme Court counsellor until a short while ago, and whenever I’m faced with a tough dilemma, I ask myself what he would have done in my shoes; this usually gives me the critical distance I need to make a sound decision. I also often ask myself how Mandela or Obama would handle the conflict. I admire both men greatly; they share a common strength of not letting themselves be consumed by blame. The challenge I’ve set myself now is to rid myself of any thoughts of blame before I approach the negotiating table.
What does hardly anyone know about you? That the best job I ever had was working as a liftboy and parking attendant at Hotel Breidenbacher Hof. And that while studying in Paris, I had a silver mohawk, on account of which I was refused entry to most nightclubs.
Final question: if Aernoud Bourdrez were a brand, what would your strapline say? Where conflict meets harmony.