We use abstraction and generalization to construct a perception of the world around us. We gradually learn to create groups such as Cats, Dogs, Chairs, People, Enemies, and so on, to refer to objects and things we encounter in life, and as we learn more, our mind grows more adept in abstracting and in doing so, constantly fine-tuning the definition of these categories to better make sense of the world and gradually build a model of the perceived world.
Very early on, we learn to expand this abstract thinking and apply it to itself, i.e., not only do we abstract and generalize things we observe, we have the ability to even abstract the abstracts: decomposing different abstracts in our minds, discover shared characteristics and attributes, and create new abstracts in a higher level to encompass lower-level abstracts, and hence creating a hierarchy of abstractions in perceiving the world around us.
As an example, we separate Cats from Dogs in different categories, but we put them both under one higher category, i.e., Mammals, and furthermore, we define Animals as the next higher level to encompass Mammals, Amphibians, Birds, etc.
Now, considering the fact that there are literally innumerable “things” around us, we only build our hierarchies of abstracts on and around the things that we care about; the rest of the world is “irrelevant” until it isn’t (e.g., interferes with our goals), and as soon as we enter the realm of “relevancy”, we inevitably and inescapably introduce “values” into our way of thinking and abstracting. Because the things that we value are, in fact, the things that are relevant to us, and therefore we pay attention in order to understand and include them in our hierarchies of abstracts.
The critical fact to note here is that these hierarchies of abstractions will be different, from person to person, because people are different, and their value systems are diverse. Based on their distinct and unique set of experiences, backgrounds, and environments, each individual develops their specific hierarchy of abstractions, forming their own singular perception (i.e., model) of the world.
By building these hierarchies, people make sense of the world they live in: this is their model of the world, upon which they can define their behaviour in interacting with others. Without this structure, the world will be a complex jungle of concepts and objects, a chaotic existence in which the individual will be lost.
For example, one may create the below hierarchy of abstraction, perceiving how a “good person” can be defined. Based on this hierarchy, a good person needs to be a good citizen, a good friend, and a good partner. Furthermore, a good partner needs to provide housing security, financial security, etc.
In designing and implementing an effective mediation process, it is crucial to fully understand this process of abstraction and generalization for several important reasons:
Parties in a conflict, say a couple in dispute, may speak the same language, but the mediator will be introducing a grave error in the mediation process if they assume the parties’ perceptions and abstractions are the same, even when they are talking about the same thing.
Often people’s definitions of a concept are different from one another because each has a different background of experiences, culture, and values behind their process of creating their individual hierarchy of abstractions. One might think of what constitutes a “good friend” in a way that the other could find unfamiliar or alien.
One party’s definition of a “good partner” could be surprisingly different from the other’s. Both parties may be accusing each other of being a “bad partner” simply because what they believe to be a “good partner” is different, and that’s why they just talk in circles, and no light can be seen at the end of the tunnel. Not knowing about this and not addressing the issue, the mediator will also be joining the dispute parties in the downward spiral of disagreements and accusations.
Conflict tends to branch out, expand, inflate, and amplify; its tentacles grow and reach out deep into people’s memories to bring out all that is stored to see if they can be used as a tool in defeating the other side. In doing so, people usually jump levels of hierarchy upwards and sum up their opponent at the highest possible level.
For example, using the hierarchy illustrated above (Figure 1) for our hypothetical couple in dispute, person A explains how person B always fails in spending time with their children, never helps in preparing food in the house, and treats the household as their personal hotel. Counting these failures, they come to this strong belief that person B is not only a “bad parent”, but also, in extension, they are a “bad partner”, and indeed, a “bad person”.
The conflict can very rapidly grow from a dispute in helping in food preparation to accusing the other party of being a bad person while the other side defends themselves by throwing similar accusations, and there it grows into an avalanche, overwhelming all the parties involved, including the mediator!
It’s crucial for the mediator to observe the dialogues closely and notice at which level of the hierarchy lies the source of conflict and help dispute parties to stay focused on that specific level and not jump upwards.
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