Uncovering "The Whole Story" of a Conflict
AKA "What Your Fight Has in Common With Pulp Fiction"
There’s a technique that’s used sometimes in films and television called the Rashomon Effect, in which the same set of events are told from the differing points of view of multiple characters (think Pulp Fiction, Magnolia, and Gone Girl). As viewers, we develop certain assumptions based on the first character’s perspective of “what happened,” only to have those assumptions challenged as we learn how the other characters experienced the same events. The further the viewer dives into the story, the more it becomes obvious that the characters are interpreting events through the limits of their own experiences and biases. Often we watch helplessly as these limits lead the characters into crises and tragedies that could have been avoided, if only they could have stepped out of their perspective, and experienced events through the lenses of the others. In film, these multiple perspectives bring dramatic tension, excitement, and adventure. In real life, they often escalate conflict.
Here’s how the story of conflict often unfolds in real life:
Something happens: a person says and does something, or many things, that hurt or anger someone else. Relationships they care about are damaged. Other external factors play in that influence the other person’s options and decisions. The situation escalates quickly, and the people involved find themselves in a crisis.
For example, Person A texts Friend B to ask for help looking after their kid, because A’s babysitting fell through last minute. Friend B doesn’t respond, and never texts back. Person A yells at her the next time she calls to ask him to brunch, and Friend B becomes very upset and angry.
We come up with stories to make meaning of our experience.
What Person A didn’t know was that Friend B dropped her phone in the sink the day before and had to get a new one. Her texts didn’t transfer to the new phone, and she had no idea he was trying to contact her. Friend B didn’t know that Person A had a health scare, and needed sitting to go to the doctor. He was really worried, and felt abandoned when she didn’t respond.
People experience events even in close relationships very differently, and are usually missing huge pieces of information. The information we do have is further interpreted through the lens of our personal experience, our assumptions about the information, and whether we expect a good or bad outcome in this situation. We use these assumptions to fill in voids in our knowledge and draw conclusions. Everyone involved in the story might, through their own lenses, see different pieces of what happened, and connect those pieces in ways that lead to different conclusions.
This is influenced by many factors—how much we trust the other people involved, whether we have had similar experiences in the past, our general temperament and personality, and what pieces of the story we have access to, along with our biases. Once we have connected with our own or another person’s story, it becomes harder to hear a perspective or experience that challenges our preferred story. People assume that their perspective is “the truth,” and the situation escalates as trust and understanding is threatened.
The Whole Story
When we watch films that feature multiple perspectives, we learn the lesson that we only think we know what’s happening, while in reality we only have a tiny window into a complex and layered situation. In real life, it’s hard to hold onto that lesson. Person A and Friend B don’t have 90 minutes in a dark theatre to review their perspectives.
In both cases, however, the whole story can be found in the overlap of each person’s perspective, as well as an unknown number of cause and effect relationships, social contexts, and larger structural factors that none of the people involved are aware of.
This means asking each other questions, and being prepared to be surprised. It also means seeking outside information about things that happened, available resources and barriers, and unexplored solutions.
Here are some questions that can help you broaden your perspective of a conflict:
What might the other person’s experience of this situation be? How might it be different from mine?
What might have driven them to take the actions they took?
What assumptions might they be making about why I did what I did?
What information am I missing? How could I fill in some of the gaps in my understanding?
Is there any outside objective information about what is happening that would help us understand this situation better? This might include laws, policies, things that happened that neither of us are aware of, how much something costs to repair or replace, etc.
Do we really know all the options that are available for resolving this situation?
In reality, we can rarely uncover the whole story quickly enough to avoid conflict altogether – but the more time we take to explore what information might be missing rather than simply react, we can reduce the level of escalation and help make sure the outcome is better for everyone.