Newsletter, September 2007
Contents this month
The Fundamental Attribution Error
I wrote last year about Dialogue by Design's past involvement
in mediation and conflict resolution, and a number of people were
intrigued to learn more. This sort of work is strictly out of the
public eye and it is impossible to describe specific cases in any
detail, but occasionally a general principle leaps out.
So this first newsletter of the autumn leads off with an aspect
of conflict work that sounds arcane but is actually very basic
and applies well beyond the confines of the obscure hotel room
in which I managed to remember it.
Say hello to the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). If you
google this you will find lots of fascinating articles, so I
am just going to introduce the aspect of it that struck me so
forcefully last month in the acrimonious dispute between a government
agency and a private concern. The ostensible cause of the problem
was someone being 'difficult', and muggins the mediator was brought
in to 'make them see sense' and allow 'rational debate'.
This sort of language should always ring alarm bells, because
one person's sense is usually just that - one-sided, and
'rational' is code for, as old blue eyes had it, 'doing it my
way'. And 'difficult': this is where the Fundamental Attribution
Error kicks in.
The FAE says, basically, that human beings are inclined to explain
people's behaviour in terms of their personalities rather than
looking at external factors, such as their situation, which might
account for it. In the case of this mediation, one person was
being blamed for a problem that was, at least partly, the result
of the situation in which he was trapped. When he was allowed,
through the mediation, to explain his frustrations in a way that
meant they would be heard, he abandoned his habitual table thumping
and rational debate did indeed become possible.
The FAE is a particular trap for people in a third party role.
Outside observers of any situation are always tempted to attribute
behaviour to character because, coming from a culture that emphasises
individuality and autonomy, it seems natural to do so. If we
ourselves are in that same situation, however, we would be more
inclined to look for situational factors to explain our behaviour.
The antidote to the FAE is very simple: it is standing in the
shoes of the people you are observing and looking at the situation
as they perceive it. The perceptions and interpretations of it
may still be wildly different, but they will at least be about
the situation rather than, covertly, about what people think
of each other.