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<xTITLE>Turning Around Polarized Mindsets in Workplace Mediations</xTITLE>

Turning Around Polarized Mindsets in Workplace Mediations

by Jack Hamilton & Elisabeth Seaman
February 2000

Today's workplace abounds with a tremendous variety of people, all with different viewpoints. No two employees have identical perspectives about themselves, another person, an event or a situation. It is not uncommon for workers to respond to dissimilar points of view by ascribing group labels to what they hear, which results in co-workers bearing the pain of being stereotyped and then retaliating with accusations and blame of their own. Companies pay a high price for such conflict. Work relationships suffer, resulting in costly mistakes and delays; energy is wasted as workers become increasingly stressed, defensive and angry; and productivity drops.

Are many of the conflicts that arise in the workplace due to workers labeling co-workers because they are from diverse backgrounds, cultures or belief systems and thus represent the viewpoints of certain groups? Not necessarily! Crossed signals leading to misunderstandings, disagreements and ultimately conflicts may be due to differences in the way individuals see the world that are independent of group membership. Professionals who mediate workplace disputes need to learn how to strike a balance between understanding and working with people as individuals and as members of racial, ethnic or other groups in a way that supports rather than undermines their individual needs and the mediation process itself.

How can workplace mediators learn to navigate better in the turbulent seas of today's increasingly diverse workplace environment? They need training to help them become aware of, and learn how to deal with, the mistaken assumptions that lead to most workplace disputes. They need to discover how unproductive thinking patterns develop, and how one disputant's perceptions of another may be inherently inaccurate or distorted. They need to become adept at helping disputants uncover unfounded assumptions they have made, and understand how these misjudgments have adversely affected their ability to communicate with each other.

During the course of their training, mediators need to: (1) practice approaches that encourage parties to listen effectively to each other by suspending their own opinions and judgments; (2) acquire skill in guiding disputants to provide feedback to one another that clarifies the statements they have heard; (3) learn to help parties take responsibility for their reactions to other people's attitudes and behavior; (4) learn to help disputants explain the assumptions behind their own points of view until they're satisfied that others understand them; and (5) learn to help parties blend their interests to reach common ground.

Understanding How Unproductive Thinking Patterns Develop

How does the human mind make sense of the world? We are exposed to more input from our environment than we can possibly assimilate. As a result, we are very selective about the information we take in. This tendency to leave out or overlook information requires a system for screening out information and for arranging in some meaningful way the information we do accept so that we can make sense of it.

Understanding people would be an overwhelming process if we had to start from scratch with every human contact. Instead, we classify the infinite variety of human beings into a workable group of types. The system of categories that we use to classify people serves as the basis for making generalizations about the persons we fit into our classification scheme. From our earliest years when we first begin to typecast people, we see others in terms of our standardized pictures. These generalized images help us define the world so that we can see it and understand it readily. They are very useful as long as they are reasonably accurate.

The kinds of categories we create and use strongly affect the assumptions we make about people, which in turn affect our understanding of them and also affect our relationships with them. A generalization that goes beyond the facts at hand and makes sweeping claims that bear little relationship to the facts--the standard definition of a stereotype--leaves us with nothing more than an unfounded assumption. Stereotypes cause us to prejudge people before we ever make contact with them. They cause us to base a judgment about a person on a limited amount of evidence, as if it represented everything about the person.

Stereotypes become substitutes for observation. Most of us don't remember where our most deeply imbedded assumptions came from. The situations that gave rise to these stereotypes are long since lost to memory, after years of leaping to unfounded conclusions. Before long, we come to think of our ill-informed convictions as facts, but unknown to us we're several steps removed from the facts.

As former president John F. Kennedy once said, "Too often we hold fast to the clichŽs of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought...For the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie: deliberate, contrived and dishonest. But the myth: persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic." And as James Harvey Robinson once put it, "Most people's reasoning consists of finding reasons for going on believing as they already do."

Helping Disputants Get Beyond Their Unproductive Thinking Patterns

We tend to live in our own world of self-generating stereotypes that are based on what we observe and our previous experiences. Once adopted, our stereotypes, and the sweeping generalizations behind them that ring with truth and overstatement, remain largely untested as to how well they correspond to reality. Even the questions we ask are often biased with the predetermined assumptions we hold. It is crucial for us to question the easy assumptions we grew up with; the world is a school, and life is about learning.

With the assistance of a mediator, parties can learn to expose and get rid of each other's unfounded assumptions, and establish a sound basis for their future communication. A mediator can start the process of helping disputants change their long-standing thinking patterns by acknowledging that it's a common human tendency to see others' attitudes as the problem, our own as the reaction. A mediator can then guide them in finding out the extent to which a conflict in a relationship is due to mistaken assumptions that other parties have made or to their own unfounded assumptions, or both.

The first step is to help the parties stop resisting each other's opinions. If something is wrong--if people sense that someone is angry at them, or if they are angry at another person, or if there is just a misunderstanding between the two of them--they need to control their reactions. Disputants need to open their minds, and be willing to examine their attitudes. They need to apply Mahatma Gandhi's insight to the situation! He wrote, "Every fight is one between angles of vision, illuminating the same truth." Indeed, the friction between two people may be due to the different ways each of them is viewing the behavior of the other person. Facing up to conflict, rather than shoving it under the rug, sets the stage for examining thoughts and actions that may have caused it.

The second step is to help the parties listen carefully to each other. The goal is to help disputants honor each other's efforts to make their underlying thoughts and feelings explicit. Mediators need to be able to guide disputants in checking out the factual basis of the assumptions that have led to the conflict. This requires the ability on the part of disputants to hear the other person's position. They will try to reflect rather than redirect the speaker's message and try to avoid adding their own ideas to the speaker's account. If individuals have listened well, the other party will report the satisfaction of having been heard.

The third step is to help the parties state their own thoughts to each other. As much as they may want to blame a conflict on the attitudes or behavior of others, disputants need to state their own assumptions related to the conflict and be willing to change them if subsequent information proves them mistaken. Hopefully, this process will yield the assumptions disputants have made about each other that do not match the other's attitudes or behavior, and that have caused the other's perception of being misjudged and unfairly treated.

The fourth step is to help the parties discuss the factual basis of each other's thoughts. To continue the process of restoring their lines of communication, a mediator needs to help the parties discuss with each other the factual basis of each other's thoughts. To have a collaborative conversation, the parties need to have the capacity to learn new facts, and to recognize new interpretations of words spoken and actions taken. They need to afford the views of others equal validity and importance until evidence shows that such views are either untenable or should be modified.

The fifth step is to help the parties to work together to reach agreement on a solution. After developing a factual understanding of the thoughts and actions that have divided them, parties in conflict need to go a step further. They need to think of different possible ways to deal with issues that the two of them have agreed are based in fact, decide on the ways that are most suitable and act on them.

At the end of this process, disputants will have demonstrated to each other and to the mediator that they have: (a) engaged in a civil exchange of viewpoints; (b) valued differences in thinking; (c) respected each other's opinions; (d) became better informed; (e) worked together to make their relationship better; and (f) collaborated to reach a common resolution.

Taking Responsibility For Unproductive Thinking Patterns: An Example

Without bringing our stereotypes to the surface and understanding them, we will keep on living on the basis of the assumptions we have formed over time. It's easy for stereotypes to spread from generation to generation, even if they are false. The following is a personal account* by a twenty year old Ukrainian woman, who came to the U.S. to earn a college degree. She recounts assumptions that were formed while growing up in Ukraine, and how her college experiences compelled her to explore the truthfulness of the stereotypes she had been taught.

When I was 20 years old, I left Ukraine for the United States to attend an American college. I especially remember the advice that my mother gave me. She told me not to develop close relationships with Jews and with people of color. I cannot say that I was shocked by my mother's statements because my family, as well as Ukrainian people in general, tend to avoid relationships with people who are different from us.

Only after coming to the United States to study for a college degree have I been able to realize the full extent of the influence that my parents and my society have had on me. I realize now that I had developed prejudiced attitudes against Jewish and Black people not as a matter of choice but rather because of the prejudice that had radiated from the people around me. Now, even though I am much older, I still seem to have the same stereotypes that I developed when I was much younger. I am still quite apprehensive of people who fit into certain categories.

Since early childhood my parents had told me to be very careful around Jews, because my parents believed them to be selfish, sly and greedy. My parents told me that Jews used ingenuous people to achieve their own goals, that Jews strove to be prosperous regardless of the price that others had to pay for their success. This suspicion and outright dislike of Jewish people was not peculiar to my family but rather was widely accepted by the majority of Ukrainian people.

In Ukraine stereotypes also persist about people who have dark skin color--stereotypes that may have gotten started in the 1960s, when thousands of African students came to Soviet universities to study. These students were among the first large groups of Africans that many Ukrainians had ever experienced face to face. Ukrainians viewed them as foreigners who came from strange countries and who carried rare diseases with them. Unaccustomed to the Ukrainian custom of not speaking to strangers on the street, these African students were viewed as crude and vulgar when they approached Ukrainians whom they didn't know and spoke to them in loud voices. When Ukrainian girls or women were singled out for social overtures by African males, the men were labeled as Black warriors who could not control their sex drives.

Once, when I was a little girl, my mother took me out for dinner. At the restaurant we had to wait in line behind some people from Africa. They talked to each other in a language unknown to me. It was the first time that I had observed these different people so closely. I looked at their hands and compared them to mine. I was stunned by the contrast. I recall that I was too scared to look at their faces. My mother left me alone for a few minutes. At that moment one of the Africans turned around, greeted me in flawed Russian and patted me on the back. I did not take time to think about what had happened or to form my own opinion of the meaning of the stranger's gesture. All I remember are the instinctive feelings of surprise, fear and anger. I was still shaking after I ran away from the line and told my mother about the stranger's gesture.

Accepting the fact that I still have stereotypes and that I developed them while growing up in Ukraine gives me hope that I can reverse the process and unlearn these prejudices. If they were taught to me when I was young, why can't I teach myself to give them up and replace them with attitudes that are based on facts rather than on fears? Opening my mind and lifting the veil of my stereotypes is hard work. But I want to be able to view those who look, act and talk differently than I do as individuals whom I might like to get to know better. So, my goal is to try to communicate with them and understand them. If I do not do these things, I realize that I will always fear people who appear to be different from me.

Self-understanding pervades this account. The author discovered that her culturally acquired way of thinking about people different from her had met reality and something had to give. She now recognizes that she no longer has to be a helpless victim of her stereotypes--that with more open discussion with people who are different from her, she can find ways to break through those barriers.

Mary Parker Follett once wrote about certain enduring principles that it seems the Ukrainian woman discovered for herself: "We cannot get rid of diversity. We must face life as it is and understand that diversity is its most essential feature...Fear of difference is dread of life itself. It is possible to conceive conflict as not necessarily a wasteful outbreak of incompatibilities, but a normal process by which socially valuable differences register themselves for the enrichment of all concerned."

Recognizing Societal Stereotypes As A Source Of Unproductive Thinking Patterns

Mediators can help disputants examine assumptions that may be based on stereotypes the media has invoked to steer the public's understanding of news events one way or another. Parties engaging in a mediation need to be willing to question stereotypes they hold that are part of what might be called society's conventional wisdom-- stereotypes that overlook the nuances and subtleties involved in real understanding of people and situations.

Jeffrey Shaffer, writing in the April 3, 1998 edition of The Christian Science Monitor, points out that "It would be nice if the world was orderly, predictable, and every controversial issue could be explained in a TV news package. Simplicity is reassuring. Finding culprits to blame for our anxiety helps shield us from the fact that life is complicated and full of surprises."

Peter Applebome, in a column in the March 29, 1998 edition of the New York Times, writes about the premature and simplistic conclusions and instant analysis that flooded the news media following the recent acts of violence in Jonesboro, Arkansas, in which two young boys are accused of killing four girls and one teacher and wounding 10 other children.

Almost from the moment the bullets stopped flying outside Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Ark., the explanations and analysis began whizzing by. It was guns. It was the violent culture of the South. Or the violent culture of American media. It was bad parenting. Or violence against women. Or lax juvenile justice laws...there can be something sadly diminishing, and ultimately misleading, in the rush to instant judgment--or the rush to instant spin and advocacy--that now follows each cataclysmic lurch of the news cycle."

People with no special expertise now pass as legitimate spokespeople or learned analysts. They write about their theories and assumptions as if they were facts. These then are recirculated, as legitimate newspeople recount the theories and demand answers without pausing to consider if there's a basis for the question.

Applebome shows his own skeptical eye when later in his column he writes: "The South may have more guns than the rest of the nation, but given that the legacy of guns and violence dates from Colonial times, that does little to explain the recent incidents of shootings in Jonesboro..."

Shaffer, like Applebome, cautions us to "remain skeptical of pundits who encourage thinking about Americans as groups rather than individuals. Every person is unique. Passing judgment on someone before you've even said hello is a huge mistake."

Carlos Lozada, an economic analyst in Atlanta, supports Shaffer's contention with the following poignant statement from his Christian Science Monitor column on July 16, 1998: "I don't wish to live in a world in which my skin tone becomes my single, all-important attribute, and I would be offended if, based on my racial background, someone extrapolated assumptions about my beliefs, intelligence, or customs."

Mediators need to be skilled in helping parties use the process Shaffer, Applebome and Lozada describe to examine societal stereotypes that may have contributed to their unproductive thinking patterns. These writers urge their readers to adopt a skeptical attitude toward what they read in newspapers or hear on the TV news, examine the assumptions behind stereotypes to determine how realistic they are, and give them up when they prove to be groundless.


Workplace mediatiors need to be trained to help disputants become aware of: the stereotypes they bring to situations, the labels they put on their antagonists, and the assumption that their "foes" possess the same characteristics as every other member of the group to which they have assigned them. Mediators should be able to guide workers in conflict in looking at the labels they may have put on their antagonists and in checking out their assumptions about them.

Conflicts in the workplace resulting from people locking horns with each other due to their divergent perspectives can be resolved if the parties are willing to join in a search for greater mutual understanding of each other's viewpoints. The more willing they are to examine and test their assumptions against more objectively-based evidence, the greater the hope that they can use the mediation process to resolve their conflicts peacefully and to work together effectively.

*excerpted from a paper, entitled "The Advice I Try Not to Follow," written by a student for a class at Stanford University, with special permission from the author.

Conflict Prevention & Resolution Services
3934 Nelson Drive, Palo Alto, CA 94306-4523
Phone (650) 493-2990 Fax (650) 852-0493


Jack Hamilton has held positions as an instructor at Stanford University, as a senior research scientist at the American Institutes for Research, as director of executive services at the Institute for Information Management, and as co-founder of The Information Group, Inc. He holds a B.A. from Harvard, an M.A. from the University of California, and an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Stanford.

Jack believes we are at a time in the world when embracing diversity among people and groups is of vital importance. His mission as a conflict-resolution professional is to teach people how to realize their common destiny of coming to a truer understanding of who they really are, rather than what their thoughts about others often lead them to believe.

Elisabeth Seaman, Learn2Resolve

  • Mediated over 600 cases for public and private institutions, community programs and for families and individuals
  • Bilingual in Spanish and English. 
  • Honored for her contributions to the field of mediation by San Mateo County and the California State Legislature.
  • Partner in the mediation firm, Learn2Resolve