Category Archives: Conflict Resolution

The side I see: challenging assumptions, changing minds

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.

The devil you know: the dispute resolution professional in popular culture

Lawyers are frequent targets for humor, the butt of countless stale jokes. With the exception perhaps of  “Wedding Crashers“, conflict resolution professionals so far have been spared the ribbing that comedians, cartoonists, and screenwriters so often heap on our brothers and sisters at the bar.

That may be changing. My colleague, ombuds and blogger Tom Kosakowski, alerted his readers that Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, the popular comic strip that lampoons the workplace, has set his sights on an unsuspecting target: the corporate ombuds. In this week’s installment, Dilbert’s boss has hired an ombudsman, a pitch-fork-wielding demon who accepts souls in exchange for conferring favored treatment.

Although lawyers have been linked to devils before (as numerous jokes and at least one Hollywood film can attest), this is a first for the ombuds.

Is this a sign of the impending apocalypse? Hardly. As one anonymous commenter on Tom’s site observed, “Just getting the word ombudsman in cartoons raises awareness of our profession.” Or, as Oscar Wilde once put it, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

Zero sum game show: celebrities decide who’s right or wrong in The Marriage Ref

Billy Collins, a former two-term Poet Laureate of the U.S., penned these lines on the end of marriage:

Once, two spoons in bed
now tined forks

across a granite table
and the knives they have hired

Alas for many divorcing couples, sharp metal objects make an apt metaphor.

It’s also an image in keeping with the popular depiction of marital discord, which often frames it as all-out take-no-prisoners combat between two feuding camps.

Now, stepping into the marital fray is comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who will be hosting “The Marriage Ref“, a game/reality TV show in which bickering couples will submit their disputes to nonbinding arbitration before celebrity guests who will “comment, judge and decide who’s right and who’s wrong in real-life disputes between real-life spouses.”

Of course if you’d rather resolve your dispute anonymously, try the web site Sidetaker (“Let The World Decide Who’s At Fault”) and let the hive be the judge.

Right before your eyes: on cognitive fluency, graphical literacy, and illusion

Optical illusions make ideal teaching tools in negotiation and conflict resolution training. They serve as humbling reminders of the unreliability of our senses and the conclusions we draw from the data we perceive. One of my favorite illusions is “Shepard’s Turning the Tables“, which you can view at the web site of Professor Michael Bach of Universitäts-Augenklinik, Freiburg, Germany.

This illusion depicts two tables standing near each other. The tables appear to be of different sizes, one apparently longer and narrower than the other. When you click “Run”, one table top lifts and floats, coming to rest on top of the second table, allowing you to see that the surface areas of the tables are in fact identical and match perfectly. You can reset and replay the illusion again and again.

Amazingly, despite knowing the truth about the dimensions of the table tops, your eyes still see differing sizes and shapes. I invite you to see for yourself. (I must caution those of you whose time is limited: visiting Professor Bach’s site, a collection of 86 jaw-dropping illusions, for only a minute is simply not possible. You’ll find yourself irresistibly drawn from one illusion to the next.)

For those of you interested in influences on perception and cognition, I recommend one article and two videos, all thought-provoking (for those of you viewing at work, please note that a certain four-letter word appears in both videos):

Via The Boston Globe, “Easy = True: How ‘cognitive fluency’ shapes what we believe, how we invest, and who will become a supermodel“. Globe staff writer Drake Bennett describes cognitive fluency as “[o]ne of the hottest topics in psychology today”. He reports that cognitive fluency is “simply a measure of how easy it is to think about something, and it turns out that people prefer things that are easy to think about to those that are hard.” Studies suggest that factors such as rhyming words or font style and legibility of text influence the way we process information, enhancing or hampering our ability to perform tasks or make judgments.

The outstanding blog Sociological Images posted “Chart Wars: The Political Power of Data Visualization,” a presentation by political consultant Alex Lundry, which offers a salutary lesson in “graphical literacy” and warns against the ways in which depictions of visual data can mislead or distort. View it here:

From Colin Rule’s blog, “The template for every news story you’ve ever seen“. Watch in awe to see how, in Colin’s words, “a couple edits and on-the-street interviews can transform fuzzy thinking into something that seems insightful”:

What color is a banana? Perception, bias, and identity

Slipping on the banana peel of implicit biasA quote attributed to author Anais Nin declares, “We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.”

The truth of these words is apparent in the following anecdotes, which I invite you to consider.

Anecdote 1

When my son was tested for a coveted spot in a private prekindergarten, he was asked, ”What color is a banana?”

”White,” he answered.

”A banana isn’t white!” he was told.

Fortunately, my son was not intimidated. He replied: ”Yes, it is. The peel is yellow, but the banana is white.”

He was accepted.

Anecdote 2:

When people say there’s no real difference between the way men and women in public life approach the issues, I am reminded of a pop quiz my seventh-grade biology teacher thought up, which I flunked. The quiz was simple: match the parts of the human body to the parts of a car. So the lungs were matched with the carburetor, the spark plugs were the nervous system, joints were like shock absorbers – or something. I am sure I still have it wrong.

The point is that almost all of the 13-year-old boys in the class aced the test and the girls – even ones who knew the functions of the human body cold – failed. Most of us had never looked under the hood of a car. We had a different reference for understanding the material, which the teacher (male, of course) never considered.

The first anecdote, originally part of a letter to the editor of the New York Times, appeared in “What is this question about?”, a post by Arnold Zwicky on the popular linguistics blog, Language Log. Zwicky was discussing the role that meaning plays in developing educational tests for children.

Boston Globe editorial page editor Renee Loth recounted the second one in an opinion piece on gender and politics.

The anecdotes may differ as to the events that each describes but the moral is the same.

In the first anecdote, the adult posing the question assumed that the child understood that “banana” signified “unpeeled and ripe but not overly ripe banana”. It was the question that was wrong, not the child’s answer. The question also rested upon a cultural assumption: that children taking such tests are familiar with yellow bananas. Children from other cultures may be familiar with bananas of a different hue. As Zwicky points out,

Note that there are red and purple varieties of banana, and that naturally ripened yellow bananas go from green to greenish yellow to brownish yellow (not a “good” yellow) as they ripen. The bananas of commerce in the U.S. are almost all yellow varieties; in fact, they are almost all artificially ripened Cavendish bananas. The ripening process produces vivid yellow bananas. So unless a child taking the test is accustomed to eating red bananas — say, in a Central American neighborhood — the child will give the expected answer, “yellow”.

In the second anecdote, the test-giver assumed that every student in his biology class shared his frame of reference and that the analogy of the car would be readily accessible to all. In that instance, gender played a significant role in the test scores that resulted. But in other situations, the car analogy would be just as incomprehensible regardless of gender but as a matter of economics and class – for example, among students whose parents don’t own a car or in schools located in neighborhoods where public transit not personal motor vehicles is the primary mode of transportation.

Each of these anecdotes reminds us that who we are shapes how we see the world. We are susceptible to influences of which we are often unaware, affecting our perception and our ability to judge. Until they are pointed out to us, our biases remain hidden from us, like the fruit concealed within the peel.

Just be careful not to slip on them.

The why's have it: teaching curiosity for effective negotiation and mediation

Cultivating curiosity in negotiators and mediatorsWhat makes Deepak Malhotra’s and Max H. Bazerman’s 2007 Negotiation Genius: How to Overcome Obstacles and Achieve Brilliant Results at the Bargaining Table and Beyond so highly readable are the memorable anecdotes of real-world negotiations it contains. Among my favorites is one that concerns a colleague of the authors, a “negotiation genius” identified by his first name only, “Chris”.

Chris’s firm was negotiating with a small European company to purchase an ingredient for a new health-care product. The two firms agreed on a price but became deadlocked over the question of exclusivity – the American firm did not want to invest in a product containing an ingredient to which its competitors would have access, and the European company refused to sell the ingredient exclusively to the American firm. The American firm, surprised by the stubborn refusal of their European counterparts to agree to an exclusive arrangement, offered more money and other incentives, but the European firm wouldn’t budge. Malhotra and Bazerman describe what happened next:

As a last resort the U.S. team called Chris and asked him to fly to Europe to join them.

When Chris arrived and took a seat at the bargaining table, the argument over exclusivity continued. After listening briefly to the two sides, he interjected one simple word that changed the outcome of the negotiation. With it, he was able to structure a deal that both firms found agreeable. The word was “why”.

Chris simply asked the supplier why he would not provide exclusivity to a major corporation that was offering to buy as much of the ingredient as he could produce. The supplier’s answer was unexpected: exclusivity would require him to violate an agreement with his cousin, who current purchased 250 pounds of the ingredient each year to make a locally sold product. With this information in hand, Chris proposed a solution that helped the two firms quickly wrap up an agreement: the supplier would provide exclusivity with the exception of a few hundred pounds annually for the supplier’s cousin…

Why didn’t the other U.S. negotiators ask this simple question? Because, based on their prior business experience, they assumed they already knew the answer…

Other factors, I suspect, may have been in play here, working against the U.S. negotiators. Etiquette and social pressures inhibit inquiry. From a young age we learn that “it’s not polite to ask questions”. As we grow older, we worry that asking questions will make us look stupid, singling us out for unwelcome notice by the group.

In defiance of these deep-rooted social and cultural taboos on question-asking, virtually every best-selling negotiation text urges negotiators to “get curious”. G. Richard Shell, author of Bargaining for Advantage, prescribes a process that he calls “Information-Based Bargaining”, which emphasizes the importance of question-asking and careful listening, lauding the “relentless curiosity” skilled negotiators bring to the table. Mediation trainers also encourage curiosity in their students, so that they can delve deep into the needs and motivations of parties locked in conflict. In their classic work, The Making of a Mediator: Developing Artistry in Practice, Bernard Mayer and Alison Taylor define such artistry as “a commitment to curiosity and exploration”.

If curiosity is so essential to effective negotiation and conflict resolution, can educators and trainers teach curiosity? That’s a question that Vanderbilt University Law School Professor Chris Guthrie considers and answers in “I’m Curious: Can We Teach Curiosity?” (PDF) (copyright 2009 DRI Press, Hamline University School of Law). Determined to go beyond the “glib references to the need for curiosity” in negotiation literature, Professor Guthrie offers a short primer on the scientific study of curiosity and proposes some curiosity-enhancing teaching strategies. He concludes with a link to an article that appeared in Psychology Today in September 2006, “Cultivating Curiosity“, by Elizabeth Svoboda, which recommends three tips on how to “flex your curiosity muscle“, whether you’re negotiating, mediating, or doing something else entirely.

Incidentally, Professor Guthrie’s article is one chapter in an outstanding volume on negotiation pedagogy, Rethinking Negotiation Teaching: Innovations for Context and Culture, a collective effort to rethink how negotiation is taught in the 21st century. Those curious to learn more about negotiation teaching can download Professor Guthrie’s chapter along with the others at the Hamline University School of Law web site.

The future of conflict resolution: preaching to the choir or negotiating with tea partiers?

Getting people talkingI often find myself wishing I lived in California, if only to be able to regularly attend the magnificent events the Southern California Mediation Association plans and presents each year. These programs showcase the talents and intellectual achievements of some of the greatest thinkers and leaders that the field of conflict resolution can boast.

This past weekend attendees of SCMA’s annual conference fell under the spell of the magisterial Kenneth Cloke, who spoke eloquently about “conflict revolution” and the role that mediators can play in effecting global change. Victoria Pynchon has kindly posted Cloke’s PowerPoint presentation on her negotiation and ADR blog, Settle It Now.

Reading his presentation, I was moved by the power of Cloke’s words. If you read them, too, no doubt like me you will shake your head with weary recognition as you ponder the elements of demonization, mechanisms of moral disengagement, and the early warning signs of fascism. Alternatively, you will nod with approval as you read about the proposals for change that Cloke lays out – the 12 conflict resolution methodologies, the Mediators Without Borders 12-step program to address conflict systematically, and the personal choices in social change.

But I am also left uneasy, troubled by questions that have haunted me for many months. And I raise these questions now, not in disrespect or to impugn the message that Cloke delivered to mediators this past weekend.

There is no doubt that our inspiring leaders and, yes, our foot soldiers, too, command prodigious skills in negotiation and persuasion.  Why then do negotiation and conflict resolution remain in such disrepute here in the U.S.? Why, despite the Ivy League credentials and access to the corridors of power that the best and brightest among us enjoy, have we failed to influence political discourse on American soil?  We remain mired in incivility, fallacy, and fear, as daunting problems confound and oppress us, whether health care, climate change, unemployment, or threats to national security.

Negotiate with terrorists? Okay. But first we’d better figure out fast how we can talk with our opponents here at home.

A look in the mirror: seeking self-awareness

Conflict resolution work can be demanding, asking much of those who practice it. Among other qualities, practitioners must ideally bring to the table an openness and curiosity to learn more about how others see and experience the world; respect and compassion; the humility to acknowledge an error and express regret for an unintended outcome; and the willingness to remain alert for their own cognitive errors and biases.

These attributes flow from the capacity for self-awareness — a quality that requires eternal vigilance and constant practice. (I cheerfully admit that I’m a slow but persistent learner myself, hopeful nonetheless that there’s truth in the adage “practice makes perfect”.)

Fortunately the internet, with its almost infinite bounty of resources, offers plenty of opportunity for self-reflective exercise, with online tools, ongoing research studies, and tests to help new and experienced dispute resolvers gain greater self-awareness. Here’s a partial list:

If you’re interested in finding additional ways to both contribute to scientific advancement and continue the voyage of self-discovery, a whole list of current psychological research projects can be found on the web site for the Hanover College Psychology Department.

Update:

Michael McIlwrath, Senior Counsel, Litigation for GE Infrastructure – Oil & Gas, and the host of the outstanding ADR podcast series, International Dispute Negotiation, kindly suggested the addition of two other resources for readers:

Thanks so much, Mike!

In search of a better argument

Better argumentsConflict.

There’s certainly plenty of it to go around. Daily life is made up of discord, debate and disagreement. I for one would hate to see conflict vanish. Not only would it put me and all the other mediators out of work, but life would be far less interesting. No doubt quality of life would suffer, since conflict after all famously provokes improvements. (Besides, in a world without argument imagine how erotic love might suffer without make-up sex to spark things up.)

What we need is not fewer arguments in the world. It’s not the quantity that’s at issue, it’s the quality. Friends, we need to bicker better.

Regular readers are familiar with a recently added feature on this blog, the Fallacious Argument of the Month. With the goal of promoting clearheaded and reasoned debate and improving discourse, each month I skewer a different fallacy. One consequence of creating that feature is that it has sharpened my eye for real-world instances of mistakes in arguing. Hence this post: I found a whopper.

One common mistake when arguing is to make cheap appeals to emotion through an old playground trick: name calling. The intent is to arouse the disgust of one’s audience against the target of one’s attack. Using words designed to inflame the prejudices of your audience can certainly be effective. Unfortunately, this ruse can backfire. Your audience may turn on you and not your intended target.

I spotted an example of this in the pages of the local paper, the Boston Globe. One particularly touchy subject these days is a proposal concerning a public law school for Massachusetts, one of a handful of states without one. Under this proposal, the state higher education system would take over private Southern New England School of Law. The Globe has run several opinion pieces on the subject, pro and con, including one, “Bailing out a failing law school,” penned by two University of Massachusetts trustees.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you that I oppose this plan myself.  But I winced when I read the UMass trustees’ opinion. Instead of focusing on relevant facts to sway the undecided or the committed, the writers vitiated their argument by throwing in deliberately demeaning language, lobbing phrases such as “fourth rate”, “raw political pork”, and “‘Lawsuits ‘R’ Us’ justice”. Not surprisingly, it provoked angry letters from insulted readers.

How much more effective this op-ed piece would have been had its authors  stuck with facts and reasons, leaving the sneering provocation behind in the first draft.

Of death panels, Hitler, and the healthcare controversy: media literacy, now more than ever

media literacyEighteen years ago, on a brilliantly sunny day, I attended a Fourth of July barbecue in a pleasant suburb a few miles outside of Boston. I was sitting at an umbrella-shaded table by the pool, watching my son splashing happily in the water with the other kids, when one of the guests nearby turned to me and asked me a question that caught me off-guard.  He said, “Why don’t you Jews celebrate the 4th of July?”

“Why in the world would you think we don’t?” I responded (although I will admit that I used much more colorful language than that to convey my astonishment).

It turns out that this guest (a native-born, college-educated American about my age, mind you, not a confused elder or a recently arrived immigrant unfamiliar with U.S. customs) believed that Independence Day was a Christian holiday.  There was of course more, but I’ll spare you. Suffice to say that there was no convincing him otherwise; he believed unswervingly in the radio talk show host he’d heard it from. It was, as you might imagine, a wholly unsatisfactory conversation.

Not surprisingly, I’ve thought of him these last several weeks as the debate over healthcare reform has raged. I’ve heard his voice in  the ludicrous accusations about death panels and forced euthanasia, in the offensive comparisons to Nazi Germany that have diminished civil discourse.

At a recent town hall meeting on health care a disgruntled citizen, bearing a photo of Obama doctored to look like Hitler, confronted Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank (who happens to be Jewish). She asked him, “Why are you supporting this Nazi policy?” Frank, viewing her with cool contempt, asked, “On what planet do you spend most of your time?”, and dismissed her, saying, “Trying to have a conversation with you would be like arguing with a dining room table.” (You can view the video yourself to watch their exchange.)

I understand fully the impulse that led Frank to respond as he did. Although 18 years have passed, I still recall vividly that exchange at that long-ago party. I remember how the anger seared when I heard his contemptuous “you Jews”. I can still feel the frustration, the stunned disbelief at his willful ignorance and full-bore stupidity.

But a mediator I know asked me the other day if I thought Frank’s response was appropriate. I had to answer no, it wasn’t. Emotionally satisfying on a primal level, yes. Appropriate, certainly not. The last thing we need these days is more insolence, more incivility, more personal attacks. Frank had an opportunity to educate; instead he chose to alienate. Frank may perhaps be unrepentant, but other members of Congress should heed seasoned public facilitator and dialogue and negotiation expert Lawrence Susskind.  Blogging at The Consensus Building Approach, Susskind proposes a wholly different approach in his post, “How Should You Respond to the Noisy Health Reform Critics?

Although Susskind’s post makes good reading, my primary concern is not in getting people to speak civilly to each other. I’d like that, yes. But I’ll leave that for others to ponder.

I’m far more interested in a bigger and more pressing issue, one we must address before we can have discourse that is truly civil: How do we eradicate ignorance? How can we create a better informed citizenry? One that is capable of thinking critically, of relying on reason and logic, of analyzing and evaluating data, and reaching decisions and making judgments based on sound information, not sound bites? In other words, what can we do to improve media literacy among citizens?

Earlier this week the European Commission issued guidelines calling on European Union member countries to promote media literacy:

Media literacy is the ability to access the media, to understand and to critically evaluate different aspects of the media and media contents an to create communications in a variety of contexts.

Media literacy relates to all media, including television and film, radio and recorded music, print media, the Internet and all other new digital communication technologies. It is a fundamental competence not only for the young generation but also for adults and elderly people, for parents, teachers and media professionals. The Commission considers media literacy as an important factor for active citizenship in today’s information society.

In its recommendations (downloadable in PDF), the Commission observed,

Democracy depends on the active participation of citizens to the life of their community and media literacy would provide the skills they need to make sense of the daily flow of information disseminated through new communication technologies.

Unfortunately, some here in America remain suspicious of “Old Europe” and any of its ideological exports, whether law or policy. But surely (and I say “surely” with only the slightest hint of cynicism) there is nothing controversial about a better educated, well-informed, media-savvy public.