By Steven G. MehtaSteve Mehta


Many times when I was a child, I would say something inappropriate for the circumstances because I didn’t know the connection between people.  In response to the verbal tongue lashing I would get from my mother, I would respond “I just assumed…,” and my mother would always respond “You assumed…Don’t ever assume…When you assume, you make an “A** out of U & ME.” 

The same is true in mediation.  I have seen people meet each other for the first time and assume the others share the same opinions and then make a statement that just hangs in the room like a cold fog that just arrived.  Often those “foot in mouth” statements can ruin the progress that the parties have worked so hard to achieve.”  In one heated case, one party accused the other of being anti-semitic, when in fact the other party and their attorneys were both Jewish.  In yet another case, one side asked the other side’s female attorney if she was an assistant to the attorney.  Needless to say, these statements caused great strife.

Part of the reason that these statements and assumptions are made is based on the theory of “Selective Perception” which relates to the psychological principle of cognitive bias.  The theory of selective perception is that people tend to perceive things according to their own belief system more than they actually are, and react to events based upon their own personal biases.  For example, in one study, supporters of two rival teams were asked to view a football game and identify who made the most fouls and who started the rough play.  The study found that regardless of the level of fouls, each team’s supporters, as opposed to neutral participants, found that the other team committed more fouls than actually happened and each team’s supporters found that the other team started the foul play. 

 Applying the Research

 In mediation, you are meeting new people for the first time.  It is important to try to fully understand where that person is coming from and that person’s background before making any statements.  In order to do this, make sure you “Listen to understand the other person’s perspective before you speak.” 

 Never assume that the other person shares the same views as you.  This is true even if that person ostensibly may even be on your side. 

 Finally, before making any statements, try to consider how a person with the opposite viewpoint might react to your statements.

 You will never be able to fully avoid a verbal faux pas.  By understanding your own bias and making efforts to avoid them, it will go a long way to helping you negotiate a favorable outcome. 

 Research Source:   Hastorf, A., and Cantril, H. (1954) They saw a game: A case study, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 49, 129-134