“I understand her perspective but she doesn’t even bother to try to understand mine.” Every mediator or manager has heard a version of this while trying to sort out a conflict. Sometimes a version even wanders beguilingly through my own mind. Maybe one has wandered once or twice through your mind, too.
It’s so easy to see the ways that they don’t understand us. And so much harder to see the ways we fail our own standard. What we need is a sort of Turing Test for conflict, an unbiased mechanism to check our assumptions and our understanding.
I wish I could say I thought of it, but the economists got to a version of the idea first.
The Ideological Turing Test
In 2011, economist Bryan Caplan threw down a figurative gauntlet when he challenged fellow economist Paul Krugman to an Ideological Turing Test. Caplan, a political conservative, challenged the liberal Krugman’s suggestion that liberals are better able to understand conservatives than conservatives (and libertarians) are able to understand liberals.
The Turing Test, introduced in 1950 by mathematician and pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing, is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit behavior indistinguishable from that of a human. If a judge, after engaging in conversation with a human and a machine, cannot distinguish one from the other, the machine is said to have passed the test.
Caplan proposed that the Turing Test be adapted to scrutinize the accuracy of Krugman’s suggestion:
Put me and five random liberal social science Ph.D.s in a chat room. Let liberal readers ask questions for an hour, then vote on who isn’t really a liberal. Then put Krugman and five random libertarian social science Ph.D.s in a chat room. Let libertarian readers ask questions for an hour, then vote on who isn’t really a libertarian. Simple as that.
I’m not aware that Krugman and Caplan ever faced off, but there have been several attempts to put the Ideological Turing Test into practice and you can read about them here.
A Viewpoint Turing Test
A reader, Finbar Sheehy, mentioned the Ideological Turing Test in an email and said he thought the concept could be broadened in useful ways for conflict situations. Smart man, that Finbar.
I’ll call it a Viewpoint Turing Test. If we’re mediating, it’s a fairly easy leap to see how we might modify Caplan’s test. If we’re a party to the conflict, the measure of our success in accurately restating our antagonist’s perspective(s) would likely be determined by our opponent (and vice versa).
Mediators have used a “lite” version of this for years by asking parties to “stand in the other’s shoes” or “say back what you heard.” I’ve avoided this approach and have often found myself discouraging my mediation students from using it because I always felt it missed the mark despite its good intentions.
Now I can see the reason I didn’t like it. There is a tremendous difference between trying to stand in the shoes of someone you don’t like very much at the moment and trying to see the world through their eyes, and pushing yourself to capture their perspective with such exquisite accuracy that someone else listening would be hard pressed to know it wasn’t your own. The first might shine a bit of incandescent light for you; the second offers the brilliance of an LED.
A test of courage, too
I think administering the Viewpoint Turing Test to yourself is an act of courage. There is something quite difficult about going beyond mirroring their words or restating what you heard in your own language, and moving instead into to the realm of truly suspended disbelief and alternate realities.
It takes courage to allow their true perspectives and beliefs to be given deep attention in your own heart and mind.
Yet, for conflict that is very stuck or very strong, the dividend could be priceless.