It’s funny how the books we read when we are young stick with us. One such book for me was Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, a science fiction story about a man, raised by Martians, who returns one day to Earth, and the clash of cultures and values that inevitably results.
What I recall most vividly were the Fair Witnesses, the licensed professionals that Heinlein invents for this book. Fair Witnesses receive extensive training in careful, impartial observation and assiduously avoid assumptions when called upon to provide their services. In one memorable scene, one Fair Witness, Anne, demonstrates her unique skill to two other characters, Jubal and Jill. Jubal asks Anne, “That house on the hilltop — can you see what color they’ve painted it?” Anne replies, “It’s white on this side.”
Jubal explains to Jill,
You see? It doesn’t occur to Anne to infer that the other side is white, too. All the King’s horses couldn’t force her to commit herself…unless she went there and looked–and even then she wouldn’t assume that it stayed white after she left.
I never forgot what the Fair Witness said: “It’s white on this side.” It’s unlikely that any of us is that precise or discerning when called upon to recount an incident or describe an object or problem.
Imagine the house on the hilltop. Now picture two people, each of whom stands facing a different side of the house, one person at the back, one at the front. Based on what they are able to see, front or back, each draws conclusions about the entire house – what color it is painted, what materials it is constructed of, whether repairs may be needed. But until each has left his original position and walked around the house, inspecting it from all sides, those conclusions remain suspect, based on incomplete data.
In teaching negotiation and mediation, I often discuss the scene from Heinlein’s book after administering an uncritical inference test known as “The Cash Register Exercise“. This exercise highlights the very human tendency to quickly fill in the gaps when information is missing and to draw assumptions about what we don’t know from what we do. (Click here to download the exercise and answer key in PDF.)
For those negotiating, information is indeed power. Examining issues from different angles can protect negotiators from bad deals or from missed opportunities.
For new mediators, the exercise and Heinlein’s story serve as a salutary reminder that our own assumptions can limit our effectiveness at the table. Cognitive error may blinker us, hampering us from helping those locked in conflict arrive at a more expansive understanding of the problems they face. The other lesson, too, is an obvious one: mediation offers fresh ways of looking at issues – from all sides, not just one, inviting parties to step away from their side of the house to see it in its entirety.
Seeing the house from all sides allows us to test or transcend our assumptions. Stepping away to gain a different view doesn’t mean giving up what you believe or need. With accurate and complete information, our conclusions can rest on surer ground. And it might even change our minds along with our vantage points.