Margaret Atwood’s character Offred would make a great mediator. The narrator of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ repeatedly tells us that ‘context is all’, and nowhere is that a more pertinent observation than in mediation. This is not just a personal view – a comment piece in City AM last week eloquently reinforced the power of perception and personal context against verifiable fact. The crux of James Frayne’s piece on what will win the 2015 General Election is worth quoting:

“Politicians are rightly wary of complexity. People make political decisions primarily based on emotional judgements, not reason, even on apparently rational issues like the economy. They make decisions based on feelings about competency, fairness and trust. Economic realities count, but busy people ultimately make judgements on their perceptions of reality, not just objective facts. Perceptions of the economy will determine the next election.”

Mr Frayne has a good point, and he makes it well. The economy is a serious, wide-reaching and unavoidable entity, and working out how to approach such an intricate and complex beast is of paramount importance. However, for those concentrating on the more finite task and deadline of the 2015 GE, a different success strategy beckons, where bringing influence to bear on people’s perceptions wins the day. Robert Cialdini’s book ‘Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion’ covers this ground in full and accessible detail, identifying how factors such as reciprocation and a need to be seen as consistent when making decisions make our perceptions and behaviour easy to anticipate.

Perceptions are also important in mediation, although perhaps not in the same way that they are to election strategists. Think of a dispute – one you have encountered – and how everyone involved approached the situation. Did everyone think they were telling the truth? and that their version of events was the right one? and people who were ‘watching’ the dispute as third parties again had different opinions on what was true? If so, meet perception at work!

One of the recurring pieces of feedback I find myself giving to participants on CEDR’s mediator skills training course is that they should stop trying to solve the problem. Of course, there’s no zealot like a convert, and I well remember my own early days as a mediator, naively convincing myself that the truth was out there – not necessarily because I thought it would help the process, but simply because I wanted to know in order to satisfy my own curiosity. Pretty soon, however, I realised that my quest for a unitary solution was flawed and that better progress could be achieved if multiple versions of the truth could be surfaced.

Mediation works as a set of processes because it recognises and accommodates the impact perception has on disputes. The neutral third party, by inviting everyone to tell their story, draws attention to the  fact that there is almost always more than one version of ‘what happened’: something which can be missed by parties focused intently on the details of their case. Acknowledging that there can be multiple versions of the same event is also an important tool for saving face – it allows another narrative to be credited while not requiring a party to backtrack or relinquish their story. This preserves self-perception while broadening a party’s total perception of the dispute landscape. Bringing perception and its influence to the forefront of people’s awareness plays a huge part in resolving disputes successfully.

Many parties in dispute become entrenched in a particular position because they believe their narrative of events to be the right one. Combined with the psychological need to act consistently, alignment with a particular position takes on a personal element, where parties become emotionally invested in having their narrative acknowledged as correct and true. This ultimately means that unpicking and resolving a dispute can be as much about feelings as it is about facts.

Graham Massie is the Director of Consultancy for The Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR).