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Truth Distortions In Interpersonal And Organizational Conflict

It has been said that truth is the first casualty of war. In reality, factual truth is the first casualty of almost every conflict. A general rule to follow is that narrative truth stories birthed in conflict are rarely, if ever, completely factual, whether told by individuals or organizations.

Every client in mediation comes with a story he or she wants you to believe. It is their “truth,” and they will try to convince you that it is a factual, even dispassionate, rendering of historic events. Often they believe it themselves, at least partially (Ten Elshof 2009). At best the truth narrative is mostly factual, but the more emotional investment people have in the conflict the less factual their truth narratives are likely to be and the more self-servingly slanted they will be. No one is immune. Even scientists argue over their differing interpretations of the same hard data.

Here are eight objective research findings about conflict narratives that may be helpful in mediation:

1. Personal and organizational truth is an interpretation and rewriting of history, both recent and more distant.

2. The emotionality of conflict skews the ability of the mind to interpret events correctly.

3. The stronger the conflict, the more warped memory becomes.

4. Truth stories coming from within the conflict are usually self-serving and other-denigrating.
a. Self-serving usually means seeing oneself as a victim while other-denigrating usually casts the other as victimizer.

5. Truth stories emerging from low-grade conflict are more congruent than oppositional, but still different.

6. Truth stories emerging from strong conflict are more oppositional than congruent, with little agreement.

7. Truth stories are believed as objective truth by the parties holding them.

8. Oppositional truth stories compete for supremacy.

There are several kinds of “truth”.

  • “Forensic truth” is explicitly factual and without interpretation, such as the measurements and descriptions of a crime scene.
  • “Deductive truth” deduces from forensic truth certain conclusions, and is subject to interpretation but is generally recognized as being truthful and factual.
  • “Interpretative truth” speculates about how and why something was done, and adds conclusions regarding actions and intent, which become held as true.
  • “Emotional truth” trusts emotions more than fact.
  • “Truthiness” is deduced truth based on a feeling or “gut reaction” rather than facts and may have no factual basis at all. (Thanks to Stephen Colbert for the term.)

We all have basic beliefs about how the world actually is and how it should be. These views are always biased but we believe them to be true. Thus, we make several instantaneous assumptions about the “facts” as we apprehend them:

  • The facts are universal
  • The facts are incontrovertible
  • The facts follow a logical progression, e.g., A is to B as C is to D, etc.
  • My rendering of the facts is forensic truth an yours is not. (Argyris & Senge 1990, 2006)

Unfortunately, many of what we understand as “facts” are actually opinions based on untested assumptions.

Truth stories collide as the result of concluding something to be factual when it is only an interpretation of partial or (rarely) a complete set of facts. For example, we often infer motive from actions and conclude the inference to be truth, when the reality is that we cannot know the full spectrum of intentions behind most acts.

At the most foundational levels are the events that we observe – the core of our data. We assume that it is an observation recorded in our minds like a video. In reality, what we remember is colored and flavored by our biases, assumptions, and basic beliefs about the world. The “truth memory” is not only skewed to begin with, it is changed every time it is accessed (Loftus 1996)! This is why two people experiencing the same event together may have widely varying memories of it years later.

Selecting which data we will give importance to is the next step into the trap of what we might call the “truth assumption”. Since our beliefs have emotional impact on the data we accept, we tend to accept things that confirm our initial suppositions and conform to our worldview, while rejecting conflicting data in what is called “selective perception.” The problem is that the data we discard also have meaning and value.

We next add meanings based on our personal and cultural filters and generate more assumptions about the “correctness” of those meanings. We may also add in “attribution distortion,” e.g., we interpret meaning based on the positive or negative attributions we project onto other people (Kearns and Fincham, 2004).

Based on one’s history, values, and beliefs about the world as it is and as it should be, one adds meaning to otherwise neutral data, which is an attempt to separate it from the remaining data in which it is nested. Since it now has meaning that we see as independent and proper with the discordant data rejected, we no longer need consider the rejected data. From that assumed truth, we then adopt beliefs that serve to fuel the engine of further actions.

Breaking the Truth Assumption

Be it individual or collective memories, the truth assumption rarely yields to a frontal assault. Rather, frontal assault leads to positions becoming more strongly held and less yielding.

The approach to breaking the truth assumption must be handled very carefully.

1. A quiet sideways approach is most effective and least threatening.

2. Instead of challenging, ask simple questions:

a. What led you to that conclusion?

b. What would happen if some of the underlying data or assumptions were wrong or just a bit off?

c. Does everyone else agree with that conclusion?

d. Is it possible to reach another conclusion using the same information? (It is always possible and is usually what actually happened.)

e. Is it possible that those who disagree with you are at least partially right?

f. Is it possible that the others have information that you do not have?

g. Have you ever had the experience of believing something was true and later learning it was not?

Organizational Implications

Organizational fights are based on “collective truth” and “collective memories,” both of which are skewed as individual stories are absorbed and subsumed into the larger, more looming and powerful/threatening group narrative. Since individual truth is an amalgam of fact, interpretation, and distortion, collective memory tends to absorb and push forward the most sensational parts of the individual narratives, turning them into a stronger, more cohesive truth narrative that is also much more resistant to challenge. This is why there often is a sudden sense of “coming together” as the new amalgamation is presented as overarching, uncontestable truth. This also tends to escalate the conflict.

The stronger the attack on the collective truth narrative, the more deeply it is believed and defended. When the fight is between factions within the same organization, each faction will defend more and more vociferously its “truth” against the other factions just as the entire organization will defend against the outside world.

The more effective and far more subtle approach from direct assault is finding common points of agreement and the deeper (and more likely shared) interests between conflicted parties. These can then form a new anchor point for the factions from which to view each other in ways of commonalities rather than in divergences. The intervener then moves on to help them identify all of their common interests, which usually will vastly outnumber their differences. For instance, both sides want to feed their families. Both sides want their children be safe and healthy. Both sides want to be financially secure. Once they see that they agree on far more than they disagree, their willingness to continue working cooperatively is strengthened (Broome 2004).

By identifying common interests without challenging truth narratives, it becomes possible for conflicted parties to begin working on a future together by side-stepping what might otherwise derail the enterprise: conflicting truth narratives and histories. Once they have successfully begun to work together, it becomes easier for them to discuss rationally those things that might have provoked a deeply emotional response earlier.

Eventually, if they are successful, they will renegotiate and rewrite their history to be more congruent with what is becoming a common future. With a rewritten and agreeably congruent history, they can move together into the future without being bogged down by competing “truths.”


Argyris, Chris and Peter Senge. The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday, 1990, 2006.

Broome, Benjamin J. “Reaching Across the Dividing Line: Building a Collective Vision for Peace in Cyprus,” Journal of Peace Research 41, no. 2 (March 2004): 191-209.

Loftus, Elizabeth. Eyewitness Testimony. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Kearns, Jill N. and Frank D. Fincham, “Victim and Perpetrator Accounts of Interpersonal Transgressions: Self-serving or Relationship-serving Biases?” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 31, no. 3 (March 2005).

Kelsall, Tim. “Truth, Lies, Ritual: Preliminary Reflections on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Sierra Leone,” Human Rights Quarterly 27, no. 2 (May 2005): 361-392.

Lambourne, Wendy “Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: Meeting Human Needs for Justice and Reconciliation,” Peace, Conflict and Development, no. 4 (April 2004): 1-24.

Lapsley, Michael. “Confronting the Past and Creating the Future: The Redemptive Value of Truth Telling,” Social Research 65, no. 4 (Winter 1998): 741-758. Rigby, Andrew. “Dealing with the Past: Forgiveness and Reconstruction of Memory in Divided Societies.” International Journal of Politics and Ethics 3, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 93-111.

Ten Elshof, Greg. I Told Me So: Self-deception and the Christian Life. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.


Darrell Puls

Darrell Puls is an adjunct professor of conflict management at Trinity Theological Seminary and private practice mediator, trainer, and writer living in Kennewick, Washington. He holds a doctorate in conflict management, specializes in organizational and church conflict resolution, and has worked in the conflict management field since 1976. MORE >

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