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Objectivity, Subjectivity, and the Known Unknowns: Intentions vs. Assumptions in Conflict Resolution

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

In my last post I wrote about asking, and the important role questions play in creating possibility for conflict resolution. Today is an exploration of important areas of objective and subjective inquiry.

Perhaps we’re all familiar with the analytical equation: in life we have our ‘knowns’ and our ‘unknowns.’ Both can then, in turn, be known or unknown. There are things we are aware that we know (known knowns) and things we know, but not consciously (unknown knowns). Then there are things we know that we don’t know (known unknowns) and things we don’t realize we don’t know (unknown unknowns). In conflict, it’s the unknowns that often trip us up, and the last category – the things we don’t even realize we don’t know – that can be the most insidious. It’s important to map out what we know, what we don’t, and what we’re missing entirely when a disagreement is causing us trouble. These categories are frequently depicted  by a Johari window, pictured below.


Knowns & Unknowns in Conflict

Conflict involves whole interlocking sets of objective and subjective categories of fact and perception. Objective variables – the amount of a salary, the existence  of a legal document – can be easier to identify as known or unknown because they lend themselves to common processes of verification observable to all parties. Subjective elements, however – perceptions or meanings,  – do not lend themselves to verification, and can carry a conflict much further. Rarely is it the objective variables that render a conflict intractable, so it’s here where mapping the limits of our knowledge can be difficult but also essential. We may think we know things that, in actuality due to their subjective nature, we cannot possibly know. What’s more, we may not even be conscious that we think we know!

Intentions vs. Assumptions

Intentions might be classified as one of the prickliest and most difficult subjective variables in conflict. Intentions are, by definition, subjective. What happens is quite possibly very different than what was intended by someone when they acted, and thus reality can provide no objective evidence as to what the intention is or was. An intention is an internal process that exists only in purely intangible form – a thought, a hope, a belief, that something will lead to a certain outcome or have a particular desired effect. Someone else’s intention is, then, by definition, an unknown. Whether it is a known unknown or an unknown unknown, is up to you.

Assumptions, on the other hand, can be classified as the ultimate unknown unknown, in fact it’s an active denial that the unknown exists. An assumption amounts to entertaining the idea that you possess knowledge you can’t possibly have first hand.

The alchemy of these two together, intentions and assumptions, can be disastrous because intention plays a vital role in how we interpret another person’s actions. Did they intend to affect us negatively? If we assume the answer is yes, we are relying on false knowledge about why we are experiencing those negative effects. We are much more likely to hold a grudge and make a conflict intractable if we feel the other person planned on us getting a raw deal.

What is known?

In conflict, there are important subjective elements we can know – knowns. We can know our own intentions. We can know the impact of another person’s words or behaviors on us. If we reflect on these things, we can make them known knowns – subjective realities that we consciously know to be as they are.

When it comes to the difficulty of the unknowns, we can make progress by converting them into known unknowns. Being aware of the limits of your subjective knowledge forces you to avoid assuming and leave open the possibility of knowledge which only another person can let you in on – the intention of your colleague or teammate, for example.

Once an unknown becomes a known unknown, the next step is to involve the only person who can shed light on it for you: ask your colleague, friend, or teammate about their intentions, or about their perception of the situation. If this isn’t something you can do alone, you might want to involve a mediator to help the two of you sort out your knowns and your unknowns.


Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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