Perceptions and Stories

Eric and Fran are in conflict. They’ve always had a hard time working together, but lately the frustration and tension has spilled over to colleagues and family members on each side. Fran catches you first, her story emerging in messy, manic detail. Eric, she claims, is acting unreasonably. He is incompetent and he is being childish.You know you are only hearing Fran’s side of things, but still, you have a hard time imagining how Eric could explain his behaviour. It seems inexcusable, and you tell Fran she is right to be so upset. Eric calls you later that day. He says he doesn’t want to speak ill of Fran, but demands that you hear his version of what happened. You listen, as Eric describes what “really happened, ” and you soon find yourself confused. Eric, it seems, is the real victim here. You try to resist the urge to take Eric’s side, but give in: “you are right to be so upset, you tell him. Moments later, you get an email from a mutual friend, who asks if you know anything about what is going on between Eric and Fran. ” I’ve spoken to both of them,” you write, and then realize that you simply haven’t figured out how to reconcile what you’ve heard so far. You know both Fran and Eric well enough to know that neither is lying, or even intentionally shading the truth. And yet their descriptions of the dispute could not be more different. The Brain as a Story-Based System What’s going on? Artificial intelligence researcher Roger Schank puts it well: “Human memory is story-based.” Far from simply reflecting or recording reality, our minds engage in a complex interplay between what we perceive and what we already know, unconsciously adding and deleting information in the service of the story. Disputes occur when the stories we tell about what’s happening-who’s right,what’s fair, who’s to blame-diverge.Each side retreats to their own narrative which describes their experience of “reality,” and the dispute intensifies. Extracted from Heen & Stone” Perceptions and Stories”; The Negotiator’s Fieldbook at p 343.