"He just said what?"
When conflicts arise it feels like logic and rationality are the first things we toss aside. We end up saying and doing things that feel completely out of character and reacting in ways that even we can't understand.
The inevitable outcome is, of course, heightened tension and petty arguments that become all-out war.
But here's the thing: it only feels like logic and rationality have left the building. In reality, your brain knows exactly what's going on. You see its just following its own set of rules, its own logic, and doing exactly what it has evolved to do.
Our reactions to the world around us, to tense situations, and to conflict with the people in our lives are guided, more often than not, by a set of common psychological principles. As a mediator, a large part of my job is to understand these principles so I can recognize them when they come into play during the mediation process and use them to help guide my clients to a peaceful resolution.
But I'm not one for hoarding knowledge — I think it's helpful for everyone going through conflict to have a basic understanding of the psychology that leads us to act in certain ways when we're experiencing conflict.
Let's start with the principle of confirmation bias.
Imagine the news headline, "Meat causes cancer". Committed vegetarians will pounce on that, splashing it across their social media pages with happy abandon. What they won't do is analyze the article or question it in anyway because it feeds into their already-established belief system.
Your local beef farmer, however, will have a different take on it entirely. He'll pick through the article with a fine-toothed comb, looking for holes in the argument, and jumping on any aspects of the science that don't hold up to scrutiny. Each one is looking for evidence that supports their established position.
Or imagine you've met a new colleague and decided you're not a fan. Maybe they were a bit short with you or neglected to hold the door open for you. With every new interaction you're actively looking for evidence of rudeness, or for other behaviors that support your view that they're just not that nice. With anyone else you might put these behaviors down to them having a bad day or not feeling great — you'd be concerned about them. But, because of confirmation bias, your new colleague gets no such sympathy!
Confirmation bias is all about that type of cherry-picking.
Whether you're looking at which new diet to follow, which political candidate to support, or trying to get one over on the person you're angry with, confirmation bias will cause you to seek out only that evidence which supports your existing beliefs. It can seriously affect your judgment, making you dismiss any arguments (valid or otherwise) that contradict your current thinking — anything that goes against your position will be dubbed "fake news".
In short, you'll see only what you want to see.
How confirmation bias affects the mediation process.
Confirmation bias is just one of the many reasons that solving conflict without outside help can be next to impossible. When you're both sticking to contradictory positions, and unable to view the situation without bias, stalemate is the only possible outcome.
What you need is someone who can view the situation with total impartiality — someone who has no vested interest in either side and who can assess the facts and evidence without any preconceived notions. Often we need a neutral person to reframe our stories and even to help us see that the bias exists in the first place.
For mediators, it's important to recognize confirmation bias when you see it and to understand that overcoming it will take patience, even baby steps. To begin, it's helpful to identify the existing bias and analyze its origins. There's often another way of looking at the reasons for someone's behavior and bringing the bias to light is the first step in helping the other party to start viewing things differently. Invite both parties to consider all of the evidence, not just that which supports their existing views.
And for clients, it's important to place trust in your mediator's neutrality, to understand that the ideal outcome for your mediator is an agreement that suits both parties equally. At times you'll feel as if your mediator is playing devil's advocate — and they are — but it's only through examining the strengths and weaknesses of both parties, that you'll be able to start looking beyond your existing bias to find greater understanding and a better chance at a peaceful resolution.
We're all prone to confirmation bias (no matter how impartial and analytical we like to think we are!), and conflict tends to send our bias into hyper drive. Knowledge is most definitely power, though, and recognizing that you might be acting from a place of bias is often the first step in being able to step out from under it and begin to start thinking more critically once again. And once you're able to do that, both you and your mediator can take the next step on the path to conflict resolution.If you're struggling to find a peaceful way through your conflict at the moment, I'd love to help you get some clarity. Get in touch to see how I can help.