When parties are having a dispute, no doubt, they probably think in individualistic terms; that is; me against her, or one vs. one. In reality, most disputes usually involve more than one person on each side, be it partners in a business, partners in a marriage or other domestic relationship, or a board of directors. Even if it IS simply one individual against another, chances are each has a support network in which friends and family are offering support if not advice. And, if the dispute is in litigation, there will always be the lawyer working with the party to get the best result.

I point this out in light of an article that appeared in the Sunday New York Times on January 16, 2015 entitled “Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others” by Anita Woolley, Thomas W. Malone and Christopher Chabris. While the article is framed more in organizational terms, it has broader implications given how interconnected we are to each other. None of us truly makes any decisions in isolation. There is always someone we consult.

The authors are academics who wondered if groups, like individuals, vary in their cognitive abilities or are smarter than other groups. After discussing studies in 2010 by Nada Hashmi of M.I.T.  which showed that individual intelligence carried over into groups; groups in which individuals had good vocabularies and math skills, did as  well as a group or at least better than those groups in which the individuals did not have such good vocabularies and math skills.  Individual intelligence carried forward as group intelligence.

To the authors, the question then arose; what specific characteristics made the difference? They found three characteristics to be defining:

First, their members contributed more equally to the team’s discussions, rather than letting one or two people dominate the group.

Second, their members scored higher on a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes, which measures how well people can read complex emotional states from images of faces with only the eyes visible.

Finally, teams with more women outperformed teams with more men. Indeed, it appeared that it was not “diversity” (having equal numbers of men and women) that mattered for a team’s intelligence, but simply having more women. This last effect, however, was partly explained by the fact that women, on average, were better at “mindreading” than men. (Id.)

While these characteristics are important in face to face meetings, the authors wondered if such characteristics would carry over to our modern age of technology. Working with David Engel and Lisa X. Jing of M.I.T., the authors conducted a study in which the participants in the group did NOT work face to face but rather collaborated online using Skype, Google Drive and e mail. Would groups that worked online still display this group intelligence? Would the social cues or the ability to read minds still be there if the exchange of ideas is solely through e mail

The answer was “yes”:

And they did. Online and off, some teams consistently worked smarter than others. More surprisingly, the most important ingredients for a smart team remained constant regardless of its mode of interaction: members, who communicated a lot, participated equally and possessed good emotion-reading skills.

This last finding was another surprise. Emotion-reading mattered just as much for the online teams whose members could not see one another as for the teams that worked face to face. What makes teams smart must be not just the ability to read facial expressions, but a more general ability, known as “Theory of Mind,” to consider and keep track of what other people feel, know and believe. (Id.)

From this I conclude that the key to resolving any dispute is “… the ability to …  consider and keep track of what other people feel, know and believe.”  (Id.) Not only is this true with respect to those on your side of the dispute but also for those on the opposite side of the dispute. It gets back to “integrative bargaining”- or meeting the needs and interests of all concerned.  Resolving a dispute is in truth a group dynamic, not an individualistic one.  Everyone has to work together to reach the goal of resolution. It really is a “groupthink” even though superficially, it appears that there are two or more sides in conflict. They are really one, working towards a common goal: resolution.

And these academics have shown what us mediators have known for a while; that to resolve any issue, one must know what each side feels (Decisions are 99% emotional and 1% rational.), knows (perception is the key here, not “truth” as there is no “one truth”.) and believe (Think about all those cognitive biases including the most common- attribution of fault or she is the bad guy and I am the good guy!).  Each party to the dispute must “tune in” to the other party in order to reach a consensus or decision, or, in the case of mediation, a resolution.

Without using such intuitive skills, we will never reach any consensus about anything.

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By Phyllis G. Pollack

Phyllis G. Pollack is a full time neutral in Los Angeles where, as President of PGP Mediation, she focuses on business, real estate, contract and “lemon law” disputes. She may be reached at Phone: 213-630-8810 / phyllis@pgpmediation.com / Website: www.pgpmediation.com