Last October when the CBC fired radio host Jian Ghomeshi for allegations of sexual misconduct, I noticed how quickly and strongly many people reacted to the news. They were outraged. “How dare a public corporation invade the private life of an employee.”
Those certainties evaporated shortly after when a number of women came forward and spoke of the violence they experienced at his hands. Public opinion then swung just as quickly to the opposite certainty: he must be guilty.
He likely is guilty, given the number of women who have spoken out. I’m not arguing one side or the other, just observing how quickly people claim certainty.
You can see similar patterns in other public scandals, such as Mike Duffy and the Canadian Senate seeming to be victims one day, culprits the next. On a broader historical scale, unfounded certainties have obstructed the search for truth and justice from Galileo and the rise of science to the woman’s movement and civil rights. As a society, and as individuals, we tend to cling to the comfort of certainty, often without bothering to examine the evidence.
If you reflect you will likely see the same pattern much closer to home. As a mediator, trained to help people resolve interpersonal disputes, I notice that at some point in most conflicts the path to resolution is blocked by an unfounded certainty. Consider the last interpersonal conflict you had. Did the other party have a mistaken belief about your actions, intentions, or motives? Or did you about theirs? If the conflict got resolved, it’s likely because someone bothered to clear up enough of the misunderstanding to make room for trust.
I’m referring to honest conflicts, when both sides genuinely believe they are right. In other words, most disputes.
In those situations, the story you tell yourself to justify your own position is probably fine. After all, you know your own viewpoint.
Danger lies in the story you tell yourself about the other person’s motives. You might think you know. But you really don’t. Once your interpretation becomes a conviction, you are half way toward demonizing your opponent.
Here are 7 steps to get you past unfounded certainties and help you reach agreement.
1. Challenge your convictions. Identify which ones are assumptions, not facts.
2. Avoid assuming your opponent’s motives are less worthy than yours. It’s healthier and more honest to adopt a neutral, open stance.
3. Inquire. Ask your opponent direct, open-ended questions about his or her actions, feelings, motives, goals.
4. Listen without challenging, contradicting or defending yourself. (You’ll get your turn)
5. Show them you understand their point of view. (This doesn’t mean you share it, just that you “get” it)
6. Express your truth calmly, taking responsibility for your actions without casting blame.
7. Identify common interests and shared goals.
Now you are both ready to begin brainstorming for solutions based on understanding, not assumptions.