Monday, January 14, 2008

Conflict, Dinosaurs, and Other Pre-Historic Creatures

What does conflict have in common with dinosaurs and other pre-historic creatures? Simply this. Paleontologists often construct their models of what certain dinosaurs and other pre-historic creatures looked like, along with how they lived, based on having found only a few bones. Similarly, conflict participants often construct their stories (accounts and perspectives) on the motives and character of their counterparts based on a relatively small, biased set of observations and interactions.

The strategies, tactics, and manner we use to interact with others in conflict is influenced by our perceptions of their strategies, tactics, and manner. Unfortunately, our perceptions do not always line up with an objective, unbiased account of the situation. Researchers Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone identify several reasons for this. First, we and our counterpart take notice of different information as we form our perspectives on our behavior and motives, their behavior and motives, and the situation as it actually is. Second, we tend to interpret and add to the information we do take in so that it makes sense according to our existing biases. Third, we tend to understand our encounters with others in conflict as stories, complete with good guys and villains. Since we usually get to be the good guy in our stories, the role of villain gets forced on our counterpart.

Biases like these can result in our having an entirely different "story" about a particular conflict or conflict episode than the "story" that would be told by our counterpart. Worse yet, it can result in a selfish pursuit of our own interests, rather than a pursuit of biblical same-mindedness.

We Christians believe in absolute reality. However, we must remind ourselves, especially during episodes of conflict, that God is the only one in possession of absolute reality. The rest of us must cope for now with only "knowing in part." Seeing the danger of partial knowledge should give us pause before we begin making dinosaurs out of a few small bones.

Stone and Heen, though writing from a secular perspective, underscore the importance of learning as much as possible about "the story" of our counterparts before forcing them into one of our own making. Perhaps they do not realize it, but Solomon beat them to the punch on this one. Proverbs 18:13 says: "He who answers before listening--that is his folly and his shame."

Application and Discussion Questions:
1. One of the things that influences what information we take in from the world around us is our emotional state. What might some other influences be? How do those influences, along with our emotional state, play into our perspectives in conflict specifically?
2. Have you ever been misunderstood or had your motives maligned by a counterpart in conflict? Describe what happened. What did you learn from this?
3. In addition to Proverbs 18:13, what other Scriptures apply to the importance of checking our "story" about conflict for biases?

Note: For more information on the process of biblical same-mindedness, check out "Where Do We Go From Here: The Path To Biblically Resolving Conflict" by Randal L. Gilmore. Available here.

See also "Perceptions and Stories" by Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone. The Negotiator's Fieldbook, edited by Schneider and Honeyman. Heen and Stone credit cognitive psychologist, Ulrich Neisser, with the dinosaur bone analogy.


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