Is This For Real?

At an event I attended, a commentator said that in a conflict it's the perceived facts rather than the real facts that are important. Yes, I agree that perceptions may give rise to conflict, but if you want to resolve them, getting the underlying facts is critical.

Perceived facts are often rooted in assumptions. I read a perfect example of how assumptions can start controversy. I often read Carolyn Hax' column in The Washington Post. A recent column was based on an on-line discussion. The original writer described a common situation – someone gets on an elevator and rides it only one floor and the action is often met with snide comments or rude stares. The writer happened to know an individual with a hidden disability who must limit her use of stairs. Someone chimed in admitting she was an occasional eye-roller, and she didn't understand what "hidden disability" meant, but went on to profess that obesity is a huge problem in this country that's consuming health-care resources.

Wait! The original writer never said anything about obesity. She didn't say anything about the nature of her friend's hidden disability. It was the anonymous responder – the eye-roller – who, absent having any facts, made an assumption and reached an erroneous conclusion. Carolyn Hax made the excellent point in her reply that "silent judgments" are not harmless, but rather they are dehumanizing and can be deeply polarizing.

I was cringing as I read the column, thinking of how the discussion might have played out had it happened in the workplace. Things could have turned toxic quickly. Some of the questions I would have liked to have asked the occasional eye roller:

From the information presented, what makes you believe that all hidden disabilities are related to obesity?

Can you explain why you are assigning blame?

If you don’t understand what a hidden disability is, can you help me understand how you have come to make a silent judgment about someone?

I would have asked the original writer more about the nature of her friend's disability, not to pry, but from a curiosity point of view – to genuinely learn and gain a broader understanding.

The eye-roller made statements based on her perceptions and assumptions. They were certainly lacking in understanding and respect. As a result, she made, as Ms. Hax noted, "baseless judgments."

In any conflict, it's important to have the real facts. Otherwise, comments, or worse, insults, get batted back and forth and nothing gets solved. "What's the Problem" is the title of one of the chapters in The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook. It's devoted to getting and giving good information – in other words, the real facts.

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