The First Steps to Problem Resolution

by Joy Lanzaro

“Don’t make assumptions.” This piece of wisdom is perhaps the most powerful guiding principle in conflict prevention. I picked it up from a book called The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz long before I was a mediator. Over the past 10 years, I’ve witnessed that nearly every conflict can be traced back to an assumption.

Assumptions are normal. Our brains are wired for efficiency. So, we naturally, don’t stop to question and analyze the same sequence of events over our entire lifetimes. Eventually, we stop requiring evidence that A leads to C. However, when you use mental shortcuts to interpret other people’s actions, there’s a big risk of being wrong. Because conflict costs time and money, it’s in all of our interests to avoid mental shortcuts about others if possible.

Conflict quickly becomes intractable when parties take a firm stance too early. If possible, stay loose until you can wrangle the chain of thoughts that are causing anger to rise up. If you believe something to be true, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask yourself why.

Firm stands taken too early are difficult to walk back. They can cost money and time to work around. Once a firm position has been taken, conflicts get more difficult to negotiate. Here are some probing questions to ask yourself privately before making a major declaration:


  • What beliefs are underpinning my dissatisfaction with this party?
  • Are my beliefs true?
  • Do I absolutely know them to be true? By what means? With what level of certainty?
  • How is this belief, assumption or approach serving my needs and goals? How is this belief not serving me?
  • Is it possible that I’m holding on to a belief that may not be true? Am I afraid of the consequences of adopting another belief? Have I understood the other side’s version of events?

Refer to the contract first. In disputes related to performance on contract, go over the expectations and promises contained in writing. Discuss any departures with the other party.

Collect the times and dates and write down your side of the story. Be honest about where your version contains some assumptions.