Several years ago I had a conversation with a mediator colleague about honesty. We agreed that, despite media sensation and police warnings, people usually do the right thing. Deceit takes far more energy than honesty. I’ve been around the world and find most people do not choose to live with conflict, mistrust and deceit. Humans have an innate desire for peace. Truthfulness preserves harmony. So, why do we assume the worst in people?
It's easy to forget about the honest nature of humanity in our everyday lives, as I did with my own son. When my eldest child was still in high school he once lost his wallet. His first nice one, too. It was leather, embossed with his favorite football team's insignia. He had purchased himself. It contained $60 of his hard-earned cash and a brand new driver’s permit. He left it on a bench outside a convenience store near school, where he loaded up on electrolytes after football practice with teammates. He discovered it was missing when he got home. He remembered leaving it at the store. Panicked, he wanted to go back to the store immediately.
At first, I tried to comfort him by validating his disappointment, “What a bummer.” I explained there was no point returning to the store. I was sure his wallet wouldn’t be there. I was fairly confident someone stole it. Like most people, I’ve experienced a handful of dishonest people in my life. A busy working mom, I was also preoccupied with preparing dinner and ensuring all my sons completed homework and evening chores.
“Tough lesson, kiddo,” I said in my authoritarian parental voice.
My reaction was shaped by a generally-held believe, at least in the U.S., that a billfold loaded with money is going to disappear. Aside from possible local laws and common courtesy, there’s little incentive to turn over a wad of cash. I envisioned the empty wallet lying in a distant trash can. Somewhere, a thief was enjoying the loot.
My son's face fell in disappointment. That was my signal to listen to his concerns. As outlined in my own listening skills checklist, I was neither demonstrating empathy nor supporting his hope that his wallet was where he left it.
Then, I recalled that conversation with my colleague about honesty. In mediation, parties usually strive to do the right thing. People want to be honest. The "truth" can be very subjective. (This may explain why my eldest son became a philosophy major in college.)
In mediation, I have observed time and again the complexities of honesty and truthfulness. Each party's version has many facets and gray areas that could be subject to interpretation and argument. One party may recount a version of the story, while the other party doubts its honesty. Each side asserts they have proof of missing or erroneous facts. Facts are almost never as black-and-white as each participant wants to believe. Good mediators let the parties eventually decide what is acceptable.
When parties recognize and validate each other's unique experience of what led them to the mediation, shifts happen. This does not mean they are dishonest. Socrates said, “When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser.” No one wants to be that loser.
Our perceptions of the truth are shaped by our experiences.
Mediation cases generally have high agreement rates. I think this is because -- believe it or not -- a good agreement requires neither hard facts nor brutal honesty.
When people are motivated to put the conflict behind them, they eventually accept the unique perspective each person brings to the table, even if they don’t fully agree. Once parties work through the conversations to explore their respective experiences about how they arrived at the conflict, I say something like, “Ok, now we know where you disagree. Where would you like to go from here?”
Instead of rehashing, focus on the future.
When parties let go of worrying about who is “truthier,” improving the way forward becomes the priority. They can respectfully disagree without giving in or giving up, as I discuss in this article. Instead of getting hung up on how they got into the conflict, they make decisions based on what they can each live with in the future. Agreements are rarely what the parties first demanded when they walked into a mediation. They’re as unpredictable as the parties around the table.
No one in mediation is as they first appear. In my mediation courses, we explore biases. I caution new mediators to be aware of the ones we carry with us. It is human nature to form biases about people. Parties often start a mediation doing their best to be the good person, hiding their authentic self in order to appear cooperative. Eventually, normal emotions emerge that can eventually be helpful in finding a viable resolution.
In rare cases, a narcissist may derail the process with deception. This doesn't happen as much as you might assume, because most people know that lying is wrong. Guilt stops them. Moreover, lying, cheating and stealing require more planning and energy than most people are willing to invest in a conflict.
Take the example of the burnout drifter in the film The Big Lebowski. The Dude’s nonconformist style made him an easy target of exploitation by seemingly good citizens. In spite of his complexities, he was the honest guy in the story who had some integrity.
Upon reflection of my experiences, I drove my son back to the store. He looked at the place where he’d been sitting. Disappointed that he didn’t see his wallet, he returned to the car immediately. I encouraged him to go inside the shop. Much to his surprise, the man behind the counter opened a drawer full of wallets and said, “Is it one of these?” Indeed, he found it, completely intact.
The clerk said, “At least there is one honest dude out there!” (Really!)
In fact, we discovered countless honest people right there on that day by looking in that drawer. We were thrilled, of course, to find the wallet. Apologizing to my son for being so cynical about his wallet’s disappearance, this time I said, “Great lesson, kiddo!”
My faith in humanity grows the longer I mediate. In nearly every session, new opportunities emerge and people begin to see their conflicts from new angles. I’m not alone in finding that most people are basically honest.
My son and I learned through that wallet experience not to assume the worst in people. I don’t suggest throwing caution to the wind, but that day reaffirmed my convictions about the honest nature of humans beyond the mediation table.
In other words, the Dude abides.