#11 Negotiating the Truth


When people are in conflict they see things differently. They each have their own truth, but the two truths differ. Although this is a central feature of conflict, the mediation field has not addressed it very well.

Some general approaches that are used in mediation include:


  • Assisting parties to treat the situation as a joint problem that is best addressed cooperatively


  • Facilitating communication between the parties, through which, actions by the opposing party take on a more positive light, or, through which, the parties find commonality and empathy for difficulties that each have experienced


  • Articulating needs and interests that render the conflict a solvable problem


None of these common practices, however, directly addresses the differences in truth for each party head on. Often enough, the parties remain in opposition. The parties feel wronged, see the other party as more accountable, or view the other party as intentionally creating the difficulties.  In these cases, each party has his or her own opposing truth about the situation.

Ralph Kilmann, author and former 35-year professor at University of Pittsburg, has offered a model that helps shed some light on negotiating differences of truth.  Kilmann created the model to illustrate how the truth is resolved when harm has been caused between two people. I am applying his model to negotiation and conflict resolution, which are contexts that overlap a situation where one or more people are harmed.

In a conflict, negotiation of the truth can occur through the conscious discrimination of an authority of the truth; that is, a judge, jury, elder, or arbitrator who articulates a version of the truth that will prevail. If truth is not decided by such a third party, then disputing parties must address their different versions of truth on their own, or with the help of a mediator. In either case, the result of their engagement with the two truths will prevail.


Diagram showing model for negotiating the truth


Have a look at my rendition of Kilmann’s diagram illustrating various outcomes of the clash of two different truths. Across the Distributive Dimension, parties divide up the truth. Ralph calls a 50:50 allocation of truth, ‘Combining’. It is characterized by the attitude, “We agree to disagree.” The existence of the opposing truth is understood and recognized, but not accepted.

At either end of the Distributive Dimension diagonal line we have ‘Maintaining’ and ‘Conceding.’ ‘Maintaining’ entails an unwillingness to include the other party’s version of the truth. ‘Conceding’ entails deferring entirely to the other parties truth.

The other diagonal moves from ‘Isolating’ to ‘Synergizing’. Moving from anywhere along the Distributive Dimension towards Isolating involves withholding aspects of the one’s truth. Pure Isolating at the lower left extreme of the graph indicates full non-disclosure of one’s truth.

The fifth and more ideal dimension from a conflict resolution perspective involves a ‘Synergizing’ of truth. Parties share each other’s truths fully and allow the truths to interact with each other. The parties allow their dialogue to construct a new synergized version of the truth that is constructed from the two truths, but is much more than a combination. It contains elements of truth that are new and were not present in either of the original stories. Kilmann describes the result of Synergizing as 300% of the truth. 100% of the new truth is present as are the two original truths. Note that Synergizing does not mean that an ultimate truth has been discovered, but rather that the parties have constructed a truth that is mutually satisfying.

Synergizing of truth is consistent with my experience that we often need each others’ perspectives and stories to engage effectively in a conflict or resolve a dispute that has arisen. Although there is a common tendency to avoid someone with whom we have had a negatively impactful conflict, we may also be attracted to the differences in truth. In previous blogs I have expanded on this notion of attraction to someone with whom we have differences. See ‘Longing for the Enemy‘ and ‘Why Victims are Attracted to Offenders‘.

What is your experience with negotiating the truth?




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