Hidden Variables in Conflict: Bias and Belief

When conflict arises, it seems de rigueur for parties to blame the other and to focus only on how we are right/virtuous and the other is wrong/flawed. Two psychological processes help us to understand that tendency. Confirmation bias and selective recall means we only notice or remember data that confirm our hypothesis or position but ignore or forget the information that refute it.   These tendencies may be especially pervasive when we become emotional during the conflict. As a result, we each become entrenched in our righteousness, and gridlock occurs.

Hopefully, once parties calm down, reason can prevail. But it doesn’t always happen, especially if emotions stay high around the issue and forgiveness evades either or both parties.

I have never seen a conflict where, after talking to both parties, I thought one side was completely at fault and the other entirely innocent. That is not to say, however, that both parties behaved equally well after the conflict began.

Considering the possibility that you are wrong or at least equally responsible is a hard thing to do. We are often invested in the illusion/delusion that we are perfect or always right because otherwise we will be abandoned or not OK/loved/accepted/safe/included/understood. These schema beliefs provide the emotional gasoline for that conflict spark.

And don’t think you don’t have any schema beliefs. We all do.

So consider that, at minimum, we each bring confirmation bias, selective recall and schema into any interpersonal dynamic, especially conflict.   It’s a natural human tendency, so don’t feel bad.  But don’t feel like you’re off the hook, either.

In the end, if we wish to have healthy relationships we have a responsibility to understand and manage our own biases and beliefs.

Understanding and accepting that we all have these tendencies is a good starting place to explore our roles and responsibilities when we have conflict with others. Those responsibilities include focusing on our own part in the conflict in a constructive manner. A constructive approach means understanding how our own biases and beliefs contributed to the start or escalation of the conflict, then finding strategies to improve in the future.

On the other hand, a constructive approach does not include either going to the other extreme and assuming all the blame or pointing fingers at the other’s failure to manage their own schema and biases. You don’t want to undo all that good you are trying to do by adding martyrdom or hypocrisy to the list, right?

I know it’s hard and scary work. It takes courage and honesty to really look at oneself without the usual rose- or grey-colored lenses that we’re comfortable with. But in the end, I feel it is the mature, loving and right thing to do to grow beyond our adolescent tendencies and take responsibility for our actions especially when our subconscious variables are in the mix.

When You Screw Up

“To err is human, to forgive divine”

Yes, both parts of that statement are really really true. But to me, there’s something missing.   It has to do with taking responsibility for our mistakes.

We all make mistakes, but how we respond to the mistake matters. A mistake could be viewed as a temporary setback and localized to that particular incident or types of incidents. This mindset is characteristic of optimists who are  happier (not surprising) and more successful (maybe surprising) compared to pessimists. Pessimists, in contrast, will view mistakes or setbacks as permanent and pervasive. They tend to get discouraged after a mistake and don’t try to make changes because they view those mistakes as permanent flaws rather than something that can be changed.

Regardless of how one views a mistake, the response to the mistake is critically important. One who is resilient will learn from the mistake and grow, while one who is not might wallow in self-pity, martyrdom, anxiety or depression.

A resilient and optimistic person may even turn the mistake into an opportunity. I’ve made many many mistakes in my life, like many folk. However, my better self can sometimes rise to the occasion and respond with integrity, courage and wisdom and perhaps even gain the respect of someone who could’ve become a critic.

What do you do when you make a mistake? Be honest with yourself.

  • Cry
  • Complain
  • Blame yourself
  • Feel bad about yourself or become devasted
  • Hide/avoid or ignore the person that was injured or adversely impacted
  • Blame the person that was injured or adversely impacted
  • Forget the whole thing and move on
  • Apologize endlessly until the injured party is uncomfortable and has to comfort or reassure you
  • Explain and justify your actions
  • Offer a succinct and sincere apology
  • Acknowledge the feelings of the other
  • Do whatever it takes to make it right, going above and beyond if possible

I wish I could say that I always do the bottom 3, but it’s not always the case. However, I do believe I do the right thing sooner and more frequently than I did in the past, though excuses or blame may happen at least fleetingly in my head initially.   Those types of reactions are natural, but most of them are either unhelpful or actually counterproductive. In the moment, they’re psychologically because we can avoid feeling responsible or guilty.  But if we can muster the courage to admit our share of the responsibility and then act accordingly, it is an opportunity to grow both ourself and the relationship.

So perhaps we should recoin that phrase to: “To err is human, to take responsibility divine.”  Only then, can we actually forgive ourselves for being human.

The Problem Person and Negative Group-Think



Yes, it is so delicious to complain about someone else, especially when it becomes group entertainment. The person you just love to hate is so much fun to berate and denigrate (haha!). She is so awful to us, how can she act this way, doesn’t she know….?

It’s not just at work. Often in a family dynamic, one child or sibling is identified as the problem. Life would be so much easier if they would just see it our way and try to get along.

Chances are, you’re reading this blog because part of you senses that there’s something wrong with that approach of negative group-think. First, such an approach is not constructive, entertaining and satisfying though it may be. Second, it is harmful for the person who is the subject of that criticism. Third, negative group-think entrenches the dysfunctional dynamic rather than encouraging positive change.

In family dynamics, a problem child is usually the one acting upon the feelings that the family can’t express. For example, no one may be willing to vocalize the family’s fears about the chronic shortage of money, and so that anxiety is expressed by a child by acting out. Now the family can focus on the problem child because it’s easier to deal with him through blame and criticism rather than dealing with the elephant in the room.

I’m not sure whether the same type of dynamic exists at work. I can say though that the black sheep in one organization is sometimes the hero in another. Workplace culture mismatch is often the culprit rather than a character, talent or work ethic deficit. It may be true that a colleague just doesn’t fit in. That does not make her a bad person or incompetent.

I’m not suggesting we condone poor behavior or lack of performance. I’m suggesting that we quit vilifying others when trying to solve problems or improve performance.   For example, superstar employee though I am :), I would have a great deal of difficulty doing my job effectively if I felt that everyone was complaining about me and not supportive of what I’m trying to accomplish.  Who can be successful under such circumstances? The group is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by Blaming-the-Victim. Now who’s the bad guy? Granted, letting go of the need to criticize or blame will not necessarily make someone perform, but at least you will not be contributing to the problem.

The Arbinger Institute suggests that we treat others’ needs, wants and desires as important as our own, whether we’re praising or reprimanding, rewarding or punishing. A colleague is either performing or he isn’t. Ascribing a failure of performance to any metric of motivation, talent, intelligence, integrity or intent is speculative, counter-productive and unfair. Give that person the benefit of the doubt and every opportunity to succeed. If they still can’t cut the muster then take action. If you can avoid getting emotional about the situation, you are more likely to avoid becoming the problem or contributing to the problem. After all, I would hate it if people began to criticize you.

Tit-for-tat, Played Out



Reciprocity, whether returning either a favor or a bad deed, apparently is wired into the human psyche (see Jonathan Haidt, Happiness Hypothesis).  If someone gives us a gift or a favor, we are conditioned to reciprocate.  That’s why we get free address labels and greeting cards in the mail  from people who want our money.    There is also an upside to reciprocation that occurs when starting with a no-strings-attached good deed or compliment.  Good begets good, positivity begets more positivity, resulting in an upward spiral of emotional goodwill and gratitude. “I like your dress.” “Thanks, I like your shoes!” “And you’re so smart…” etc.

But what about reciprocity with regard to bad deeds?

Humans are also inclined to reciprocate insult or injury.   You say something bad about me and I say something bad about you.   In fact, to some degree, this kind of negative reciprocity helps maintain social order.  Wrong-doers are kept in line using reciprocity  (punishment or condemnation), which actually has enabled the growth of large, cooperative social groups.

So, is that always the right thing to do?  Eye for an eye since vengeance enables the existence of our social order?

The problem with reciprocity is that both slights and concessions alike can be subject to interpretation.  I might mistake someone’s comment for my “interesting” apparel as a compliment even if it was not intended as such.  However,  if I return a compliment instead of another insult, I am not creating harm.  I may even be creating goodwill where there was once cynicism or contempt. 

Conversely, I may mistake a benign or generous gesture as an insult or injury.  My sister may offer to loan me money.  I might take offense if I believe she’s implying I can’t take care of myself, when her intent was to make sure I didn’t have financial worries.  In this case I’m creating animosity out of nothing, or worse, out of a good intention.   If I get angry, I may even tell her I know her intentions better than she knows them herself.  I get extra points for being particularly obnoxious and arrogant.

I could feel so certain of the fact that “she started it” and feel justified in my actions.  I might even be right.  But this argument evokes memories of playground politics for which I can’t help but feel embarrassed by on my own behalf.  Additionally, every situation tends to have many possible interpretations, and  the consequences and possible repercussions cannot always be completely identified.  For example, I tend to make decisions based on what I think (Myers-Briggs J type), but sometimes a feeling-type approach (F type) is actually a better choice.  I might get into a huge argument with an F about a decision, and we can both be right. It’s a matter of interpretation and priority.

Misunderstandings can easily occur between loved ones with regards to our five love languages.  My partner may show love by giving gifts, but I may perceive love by how much time we spend together.  Neither of us is right. We have different perceptions and perspectives.  These differences can be used to create blame and conflict when there is nothing but good intentions and love from both parties.

I have also written recently about how it is also human nature to be hypocritical.    So, imagine now that I am the recipient of a slight or insult that I myself am guilty of (hypocrisy) and now I indulge my tendency to reciprocate and take revenge on the other.  For example, I might view my partner’s gifts as indulgent and unloving and then withdraw and withhold what makes him feel loved.  I might feel perfectly justified and certain that he’s intentionally neglecting me but simultaneously blind to how I am purposefully now neglecting him.   Therefore, I misinterpreted (or had a different perception of) what was actually a good intention and converted it into blame, anger, and conflict.  How am I doin’?  Sad to say, I’m in good company.

As logical as this may seem in the blogosphere, unfortunately it is our unconscious nature to be hypocrites and then exacerbate our hypocrisy by reciprocating perceived wrongdoing.  So, we can maybe just give into our base tendencies and indulge in contempt, gossip, judgment, and lack of forgiveness while blaming the other.  Or we can try to have self-awareness and forgiveness of our shared imperfect human nature. 

It’s impossible to completely avoid hypocrisy or feelings of vengeance and judgment.  But I can be more aware of these normally unconscious tendencies and make a choice about which direction to take them.  For me, a huge red flag is certainty.  The more certain I feel, the more likely I am to be indulging in hypocrisy and the less likely I am to be open to someone else’s perspective.

I do feel this hypocrisy awareness has allowed me though to use reciprocation differently:  I am more likely to choose a forgiving interpretation of others’ behavior since I hope they will reciprocate and choose a forgiving interpretation of mine.  This, dear friend, is a gift worth giving.

…. And A Random Act of War (Part 2)

War or peace?

War or peace?

I’ve had war in my heart.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s what it was.

You’ve likely had war in your heart too if you have viewed others as:

  • Inferior or wrong
  • Irrelevant or incapable
  • Mistaken
  • Mistreating or ungrateful
  • Judgmental or threatening
  • Your audience
  • Advantaged or privileged

If you have one of the above feelings for another, likely you are treating them as an object.  In other words, you may be treating them as an obstacle, a vehicle, or just plain irrelevant, rather than a human with feelings, needs, hopes and cares.   According to the Arbinger Institute’s Anatomy of Peace, you are now “in the box” with this person.

To view another as an object is to war with them in your heart.   You are also warring with yourself because on some level you know that it is wrong to betray your sense of right and wrong.  The internal war causes you to justify or defend your  feelings or actions and/or blame or demonize the person you have just objectified.

In addition, to have war in your heart is to invite others to war with you.   If you are in the box, it is difficult for the other to do anything other than be in the box with you and objectify you in return.  Conflict results.  The conflict is further intensified between the sparring partners as they feed off each other.  Others may even be recruited to reinforce and escalate the conflict in desperate attempt to self-justify.  Pretty soon the whole family/office/community/nation is involved in your spat.  In A Random Act of Peace (Part 1), I wrote about how one act of love or forgiveness can make a profound change.  Here, one act of dehumanization can escalate conflict into some version of war.

Though the choice to get into the box may not be conscious or premeditated, it is still a choice.   Therefore, we also have the choice to get out of the box and cultivate peace in our hearts instead.  To do so, we must recognize and accept our own tendencies to get in the box in certain ways, either through the Better Than box (others as inferior, wrong, incapable, irrelevant), the I-Deserve box (others as mistaken, mistreated, ungrateful), the Must-Be-Seen-As box (others as judgmental, threatening, an audience), or the Worse-Than box (others as advantaged, privileged).   Then, it is our responsibility to get out of the box by mentally or physically returning to safe and supportive circumstances where we easily and naturally feel out of the box (like your “happy place”).

To stay out of the box, we should reconsider the situation and then do the right thing.  Only out of the box do are we able to recognize and act on what we sense is the right thing to do.  For me, I may feel someone else is wrong or ungrateful, then spending time with supportive friends or in my bathtub returns me to a more peaceful, more forgiving  place where I can see my own fingerprints on the tension and conflict I perpetuate.

Instead of dealing  with problems after we haplessly create them, we should be proactive in making sure things go right from the beginning.  We begin by keeping the peace, starting in our hearts and extending into our homes, workplace and communities.  Essential to the peacemaking and peace-maintaining process is building strong relationships, listening and allowing oneself to be influenced by others, and helping others to also foster peace.

I know through personal experience that giving up my story involving judgment and criticism of both others and myself can provide a profound shift to peace of mind and peace in the heart.  I also believe that once you find peace in your heart, it is imperative to then try to foster peace in others. It’s as simple as being willing to reexamine your own M.O. and be open to others’ perspectives.   Foster your peace within your heart and change your corner of the world.