What is Reality Testing?
Reality testing involves “techniques used to adjust perceptions that do not conform to the realities of the situation.”1 In conflict resolution, it is a process that may be helpful when negotiations breakdown. Sometimes, a party to a negotiation will think they have an alternative or option that is better than what they will get through negotiation. (Fisher, Ury, and Patton called this a better BATNA2). If a party thinks they have a good BATNA, then they may refuse to agree to a settlement, causing an obstacle in the negotiation process. If the BATNA truly is better for that party than the proposed agreement, then the agreement will have to be abandoned, or changed to accommodate that party.3 However, a party’s BATNA is often unrealistic. If a party is refusing to agree to a settlement based on an unrealistic BATNA, then the mediator or opposing party must educate the reluctant party through reality testing.4

How is Reality Testing Done?
The actual process of reality testing “involves asking hard questions about each parties’ power and options.”5 Either the mediator or the opposing party must convince the resistant party that their BATNA is not as good as it seems and get them to understand what will happen if they stick with it. There are many reality-testing questions one may ask.

Reality Testing Questions:
  1. What do you see as the strengths of your case?
  2. What do you see as the weaknesses of your case?
  3. What do you see as the strengths of the other’s case?
  4. What do you see as the weaknesses of the other’s case?
  5. What is your best-case scenario if you don’t resolve this with negotiation?
  6. What is your worst-case scenario if you don’t resolve this with negotiation?
  7. What is the most likely scenario if you don’t resolve this with negotiation?
  8. Is that better than the most likely negotiated settlement?
— John Ford and Associates

If you suspect an opponent has not really thought through the consequences of disagreement, you could ask: “Do you realize how serious the consequences will be for both of us if we don’t settle this issue?”6 Maybe the opponent underestimates the strength of your BATNA, in which case you might ask: “What do you think I will do if we do not reach an agreement?”7 Or perhaps he is overestimating his own alternative. In this case you could ask: “What will you do if we don’t reach an agreement? What will it cost you?”8

Third parties can be especially helpful in this regard. They can take on the role of the concerned counselor, who believes the client has miscalculated how best to achieve his interests. By getting the party to do a better job of costing, the third party can sometimes get the reluctant party to agree to mediation, or a particular settlement. In trying to reach an agreement in Northern Ireland, mediator George Mitchell told the parties that if they did not reach an agreement, thousands more people would likely die.”And history will hold you accountable,” he told the negotiators. “Do you want to be responsible for that?” Mitchell reported when asked what the turning point in the negotiations that it was this question, along with an artificial deadline imposed by Mitchell, that pushed them on towards agreement.9

If a party is reluctant to try mediation, preferring litigation instead, the mediator — or lawyer — might ask, “If you sue them, who do you think will win? Why? What are the strengths of your case? What are the strengths of theirs? Have you asked an outsider to review your assumptions? How much will a lawsuit cost? How long will it take? What will happen in the meantime? Is it worth waiting when the outcome is so uncertain?”

By asking these questions, the party is forced to think carefully about aspects of the dispute they may not have thought through yet. Also, if their perceptions or thoughts about certain things are not accurate, they may be corrected when they try to answer these questions. In the end, reality testing can help get parties to the negotiating table, and can help overcome stalemates when they exist.

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by Brad Spangler
1 Douglas H. Yarn, The Dictionary of Conflict Resolution, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999), 372.
2 BATNA or “Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement” is a term first introduced in Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreements without Giving In. Second Edition. New York: Penguin. 1991.
3 Heidi Burgess and Guy M. Burgess, Encyclopedia of Conflict Resolution. (Denver: ABC-CLIO, 1997), 254.
4 ibid.
5 ibid.
6 ibid, p. 115.
7 ibid, p. 116.
8 ibid.
9 This is a paraphrase, but was described as close to that in a talk that Mitchell gave at the October 2003 Association of Conflict Resolution Conference about his work in Northern Ireland which resulted in the Good Friday Agreement.

Brad Spangler is an Associate at Resolve in Washington, D.C. His primary area of interest is public policy dispute resolution. Brad Spangler is a contributor to Beyond Intractability which is an online “encyclopedia” compiling easy-to-understand essays on almost 400 topics which explain the dynamics of conflict along with available options for promoting more constructive approaches.