– 26 --
Perceptions and Stories
Sheila Heen & Douglas Stone
Editors’ Note: Even when the parties basically recognize the same set of facts, there are often multiple versions of what actually happened. Why is this, and how do these different versions affect negotiations? This chapter demonstrates how each side’s version of “the story” in a negotiation needs to be understood, if the other side is to be persuaded to make any significant step toward an agreement.
Eric and Fran are in conflict.
They’ve always had a hard time working together, but lately the frustration and tension has spilled over to colleagues and family members on each side.
Fran catches you first, her story emerging in messy, manic detail. Eric, she claims, is acting unreasonably. He is incompetent and he is being childish. You know you are only hearing Fran’s side of things, but still, you have a hard time imagining how Eric could explain his behavior. It seems inexcusable, and you tell Fran she is right to be so upset.
Eric calls you later that day. He says he doesn’t want to speak ill of Fran, but demands that you hear his version of what happened. You listen, as Eric describes what “really happened,” and you soon find yourself confused. Eric, it seems, is the real victim here. You try to resist the urge to take Eric’s side, but give in: “you are right to be so upset,” you tell him.
Moments later, you get an email from a mutual friend, who asks if you know anything about what is going on between Eric and Fran. “I’ve spoken to both of them,” you write, and then realize that you simply haven’t figured out how to reconcile what you’ve heard so far. You know both Fran and Eric well enough to know that neither is lying, or even intentionally shading the truth. And yet their descriptions of the dispute could not be more different.
The Brain as a Story-Based System
What’s going on? Artificial intelligence researcher Roger Schank puts it well: “Human memory is story-based” (Schank 1995). Far from simply reflecting or recording reality, our minds engage in a complex interplay between what we perceive and what we already know, unconsciously adding and deleting information in the service of the story. Disputes occur when the stories we tell about what’s happening—who’s right, what’s fair, who’s to blame—diverge. Each side retreats to their own narrative that describes their experience of “reality,” and the dispute intensifies.
The mechanics of how divergent stories are generated is the subject of this chapter.
How Stories Take Root and Grow … in Different Directions
The process is cyclical and self-reinforcing, but let’s start with moment-to-moment perceptions of what’s going on. Let’s wind the tape back to a crucial point in the dispute between Eric and Fran.
We Observe Different Data
The team has called a meeting to discuss a new project—one that will require Eric and Fran’s close cooperation if it is to succeed, and that will affect their reputations, bonuses, and future opportunities. Eric and Fran are sitting side by side at the same meeting, yet they will end up with very different data sets about what happens here.1
…Because We Have Access to Different Information
From the moment the meeting starts, Eric and Fran each has access to information that the other person does not. In any organization, where...
For full contents please purchase The Negotiator’s Desk Reference.
Allred, K. 2000. Anger and Retaliation: The Role of Attribution in Conflict. In The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, M. Deutsch and P. T. Coleman, eds. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Bateson, G. 1972. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. U. Chicago Press.
Christensen A. et al., Systematic Error in Behavioral Reports of Dyadic interaction: Egocentric Bias and Content Effects, 5 Behavioral Assessment 129-40 (1983), reported in Schacter (1996) at 150.
Coles, R. 1989. The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Ekman, P. 2007. Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life, 2nd edn. New York: Holt Paperbacks.
Festinger, L. 1957. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford U. Press.
Fisher, R., E. Kopelman and A. K. Schneider. 1994. Beyond Machiavelli: Tools for Coping with Conflict. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Goffman, E. 1974. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. New York: Harper & Row.
Gottman, J. and N. Silver. 2000. The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work. New York: Harmony.
Johnson, S. 2004. Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life. New York: Scribner.
Kahn, R. L. and Roderick M. Kramer, Untying the Knot: De-escalatory processes in International Conflict (1990), as cited in Leigh Thompson, The Mind and Heart of The Negotiator 267 (1998).
Norretranders, T. and J. Sydenham. 1991. The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size. London: Penguin Books.
Nudler, O. 1990. On Conflicts and Metaphors: Toward an Extended Rationality. In Conflict: Human Needs Theory, edited by John Burton. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Pruitt, D., J. Z. Rubin and S. E. Kim 1994. Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement, 2nd edn. New York: McGraw-Hill
Ross, L. and R. Nisbett. 1991. The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Ross, M. and F. Sicoly 1979. Egocentric biases in Availability and Attribution, 37 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 322 (1979) ASchacter, D. L. 1996. Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past. New York: Basic Books.
Schank, R. 1995. Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence. Evanston, IL: North-western University Press.
Senge, P. 1994. The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency.
Stone, D., B. Patton and S. Heen. 2000. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. New York: Penguin Books.
Stone, D. and S. Heen. 2014. Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well. New York, NY: Penguin Books page 82-84.
Thompson, L. 2005. The Mind and Heart of the Negotiator. New Jersey: Pearson/Prentice Hall.