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When We Assume in Dispute Resolution

It was feeling like we were in parallel universes and that resolution was slipping further and further away.

Only two meetings ago in our Collaborative Process, the parties had landed on a preferred solution to explore further. At the next meeting, we had a neutral expert weigh in on that solution and share information with the parties. We happily went away to do some further homework feeling like we'd made real progress only to find ourselves in our next meeting, feeling like we’d taken 5 steps back.

My client and I were struggling to understand the new information being presented by the other party and her lawyer. Likewise, they were struggling to understand where my client and I were coming from. The confusion was creating frustration and inevitably things were heating up.

My brain was whirring: What was going on? How could things have slipped away from us so terribly? Why does it feel we are coming from entirely different places from where we were two meetings ago?

The answer was that we WERE coming from entirely different places. The problem was we had all assumed the others knew the place we were at and that they were in the same place themselves.

When we left the meeting with the neutral expert, my client and I assumed that the preferred solution was still the same for us all and that the useful information from the expert was being applied to that solution. The other party and her lawyer assumed that the information meant a new solution was being looked at. Dial up confusion and a tonne of crossed wires!

When we dug deeper into where each party was coming from and discovered the source of confusion we all had a giant “a-ha” moment! Things were able to be quickly cleared up. Apologies were exchanged. Lessons were learned.

This experience was a useful reminder of how easily we make assumptions all the time in our dispute resolution processes, consciously and unconsciously. Aren’t our unconscious biases just assumptions? Our assumptions can start before we even have met the other party, in hearing about them from our client. They can be drawn from what is said and, more importantly, what is not said. They are shaped by our own experiences and coloured by how we make sense of the problem before us.

What will I be more conscientious about doing in future?

I will be drawing on this mantra: Before you 'assume', try this crazy method call 'asking'. Curiosity got us out of our confused mess of assumptions in my collaborative case and it can very well prevent us making assumptions in the first place and finding ourselves in such a mess.

My curiosity will be about my own assumptions, biases and imperfect sense making, as much as it is about others.

I certainly will be very deliberately checking at the end of each meeting that we all are on the same page about what the situation is and what we are all doing! You’d assume we would have done this in our case but, we all know what happens when we assume!

What do you think? I'd love to hear about your thoughts and experiences over in The Law Lighthouse Group's private Facebook page.

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