Thursday, October 04, 2007

On telling the truth

This post is about the truth, as people see it. I'm using something that has come back into the news, without any conclusions about the conflict in the news, as an illustration and to begin the discussion. If you deal with people who have experienced a great deal of grief, often they do not have the same memories or the same experiences, they seem to have different truths. Who is right? Who is telling a lie? Well, it is not that simple. For example, consider this current story in the news:
(excerpting from) Justice Thomas in the News: Two Different Reactions

One is from Sherrilyn Ifill (Maryland).

The other is from readers of the right-wing Volokh Conspiracy blog, as reported by Orin Kerr (George Washington).

Everyone has their conclusions. However, I was reading 1191302418.shtml and it drew my attention where it was addressing these stories, in part, and someone said:
That's funny. I'm disposed to favor theories where both parties tell the truth, and that's what I think happened here.
What about a theory where both parties are telling the truth? That thought made me think. I've seen a number of cases where I think that all the witnesses were telling the truth as they knew it -- even if they differed dramatically on facts. This situation of people telling what they think is the truth, but having radically different views of the facts happens not only in situations involving severe grief but in many other events in life.

When dealing with such a situation, it is too easy to conclude that some or all of the people involved are blinded by emotion, lying or self deluding or stupid or lazy or have some other gross defect when it may very well be that they are telling the truth as they understand it. Often times the key to resolving pain and discord is not so much "proving" something but instead helping people to see and understand better or looking at things until you have a perspective that allows for all the stories to be part of the truth.

To take an example almost everyone has lived through: Is a child being put to bed at 9:00 p.m. facing an act of love or oppression? It may matter what the motivation is, it may matter the age of the child, many things may matter. Yet, many times the "truth" as the various parties see it is vastly different and doesn't yield to argument or evidence, it yields only to learning and perspective.

Many times if we feel others are blameworthy for a belief or not telling the truth it may be that they are telling a lie. I see that all the time. But it may also be that they are telling the truth as they understand it and that all of the things one might do to dissuade someone from holding to a lie are only going to offend and alienate those who are trying to find and tell the truth and drives everyone further from finding the complete truth.

That is well worth thinking about.

I've tried to use examples other than from law cases to avoid the temptation to tell "war stories" that probably only another lawyer would appreciate. But many times in law suits until you understand how and why the other side thinks they are telling the truth you haven't begun to understand the case or how to resolve it. That rule is even more important for third part neutrals and mediators or for those of us trying to live life and resolve the conflicts we deal with.


marcus said...

Perception is an important component of how people remember the truth, but expectation can cause people to create "memories". There was a psychology experiment done several years ago, where participants were left in an office that they were told was the office of a graduate student. Later they were asked to recall details about the office. Frequently, participants in the study reported that they had seen books in the office and even went so far as to list titles and authors of books they had seen. However, the office had been deliberately setup without a single book in it.

The authors of the study concluded that because people expected to see books in a graduate students office, their memory of the room included them, whether they were there or not.

Stephen said...

Excellent point, and one of the reasons people think they are remembering the "truth" no matter what it is that they remember.