Perceptions are tricky things.

Have you ever asked witnesses to a crime to describe the culprit? Very often, their descriptions of the suspect vary, sometimes drastically.

Of course most crimes occur in the blink of an eye, when we least expect them. Nevertheless, the same problem usually plagues us in our daily lives as well. Two people rarely see exactly the same thing in exactly the same way. At the very least they rarely remember it in the same way.

Ask two people to describe the same birthday party and they’ll likely come up with two different, albeit overlapping sequences of events. One person focuses on the yellow and silver decorations, another remembers the three-layered chocolate cake with the sparkling candles, while yet another recalls first and foremost the look of exhaustion on the mother’s face.

The problem of subjectivity is a common one that mediators have to deal with. Sometimes differences in perceptions are what lead to the conflict in the first place. Sometimes different viewpoints simply make a conflict intractable, as both parties stick to their side of the story and refuse to acknowledge the truth of the other party’s story.

Whether we’re one of the disputants, the mediator, or simply an observer, it’s important to understand the ways in which perceptions can taint our view of events and prevent us from resolving conflict.

Although there are many ways our perceptions can deceive us, here are four of the most common:

Four Ways Our Perceptions Deceive Us

1.    Tainted Perceptions

We can’t ignore emotions. On the other hand, if we let our emotions control us, our perceptions can become tainted.

Have you ever looked back on an old conflict and regretted your actions? Have you ever realized that had you just taken a deep breath, things would never have spiraled out of control? Emotional overreactions can cause us to rush to judgment and lash out at another party before we’ve surveyed the situation and assessed all of the options.

The best way to combat tainted perceptions is to step back, take a deep breath, and wait until harmful emotions pass us by. While it’s never wrong to analyze and acknowledge our emotions, we should never let them control our behavior.

2.    False Attributions

Passing emotions are easier to handle than long-term misperceptions. We don’t know what the other party’s motives are, so we make them up. They’re doing what they’re doing because they’re evil, dishonest, conniving, out to get us, etc., etc.

It’s called false attribution.

False attribution usually comes about after we’ve let a conflict fester and allowed our positions to harden. When we’ve told ourselves a story enough times, we come to believe that it’s completely, utterly true.

It’s difficult to overcome false attributions, but we can start by not attributing any motives to the other party. Instead we can focus on the events as they happened and on how the events made us feel.

3.    Dealing with Evil

Many of us make the opposite mistake: ascribing good intentions to an ill-intentioned party.

Indeed, as often as we unfairly attribute evil intentions to the other party, we just as often look the other way when truly evil intentions are involved. Perhaps it’s one of the mysteries of human behavior, but it’s all too common to see evil where there is none and to see nothing where there is evil.

The answer, though, is the same: Revisiting events from an objective perspective.

This is where mediation comes in handy. By looking at events from a different perspective, by involving a neutral third party, and by asking probing questions that get to the nature of the conflict, we begin to discern both parties’ true intentions.

4.    Perceptions of Scarcity

Many misperceptions are born of fear. There’s one in particular that prevents reconciliation: a fear that others will seize scarce goods.

Oftentimes this fear arises out of a particular worldview. We see the world as a struggle for the survival of the fittest. Our fight is a zero-sum game: someone’s gain is our loss. We become jealous and possessive. We cling to our possessions. We hoard our goods. We doubt everyone. There is no cooperation, only competition.

Once we realize that both parties can win, that the world is not a zero-sum game, that a negotiated settlement can create satisfaction on both sides, we begin to let go of our jealousy. We open ourselves to the mediation process. As soon as our perceptions are corrected, our mind begins to think of creative solutions, solutions that can satisfy both parties.