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Two Deadly Biases

Often when we talk about people who disagree we talk about “one party and the other party.” That’s not too bad a nomenclature. At least they are both “parties” giving them a certain equality, although which is who or what roles they have is not quite clear.

In a text on mediation, the last place I would expect to find this suggestion, the words to be used are “the party” and “the other.” Now, those terms set up a fundamentally unequal situation. Referring to a person or a group as “the other” sets that person or group apart from the main group and suggests that there is something wrong or negative about them, something that makes them “outsiders.” The outsiders then become the target or scapegoats for our wrath about almost anything, and are subject to terrible actions by the insider group. History if full of horrible examples.

This use of the term “other” generates the first deadly bias, what is called “affirmation bias.” Basically, that term means that we attribute good intentions to members of our own group and bad intentions to the members of the other group. If we do something negative or bad, it must be because of negative outside circumstances. When someone in the “other” group does something negative or bad, it must be because of negative internal intentions, a trait that is part of the person, and therefore, an inherent, negative quality that is then attributed to all the members of the group.

Once we have defined ourselves as inherently superior and better than members of the other group, we are affected by the second deadly bias, called “confirmation bias.” Confirmation bias is the act of recognizing only information that confirms what we already believe and ignoring or dismissing information that challenges that belief. It becomes a case of “don’t confuse me with facts.”

Confirmation bias helps to support the theory or scenario we have built to explain something. If information is outside that framework, then it doesn’t count. We are lost and need to go west or downhill to get to the road. So what if the stream is running uphill? In this case only, the stream can run uphill and we can still go west. We simply deny information or evidence that doesn’t fit with what we have determined is the position we are taking, even if it keeps us lost on a mountaintop.

How to avoid these two deadly biases?

First, keep an open mind even if you are absolutely sure of what you know. As a mediator, I sometimes think I know what the outcome of the mediation will be, and I am always wrong. In these cases, I am reminded of my own arrogance and grateful for the reminder. Scientists are certain about many things, but every now and then they have to admit that maybe there’s a new way to look at something, and out of that expanded view comes scientific discovery.

Second, pay attention to the context of what is being said or done. There are cues in every social environment about what is appropriate in that context. Not noticing them means you will probably make a social faux pas. Words have different meanings in different contexts, so it is important to know the context to know the meaning of those words and understand the conversation at a very basic level. Don’t ignore the setting.

Third, pay attention to your gut. If you have doubts about something, follow-up on it. Don’t ignore what your senses and experience tell you. If those doubts are explored and proven wrong, then you can proceed without forever wondering if you really should have raised the issue.

People like order and certainty so they create an explanation that supports that order and then reinforce it by ignoring contradictory information. It’s a mean rut to be in, and only the most assertive or aware or determined people push us out of it. Try not to get stuck. Look for ways to get out, even when you are sure you already know the right path.

Oh, and what terms should be used to describe the people in a disagreement? I use their roles, such as landlord/tenant or manager/staff member. Roles are accurate so no one challenges them; they provide information on the possible type of disagreement; and they respect each person.


Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation. MORE >

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