In a conflict/dispute, there are two sides to any argument. There is what one side experiences or thinks, and there is the competing side. These perspectives are two different versions of the same story. The “third story” is a concept where an objective, impartial perspective attempts to distill the argument down to its core elements and provides a reasonable counterpoint for either party to consider.
Thinking in terms of the third story can help in both the business and personal worlds. The main upside of utilizing this third story technique is to develop and utilize empathy. Seeing an argument from the other person’s perspective can help to understand why they are in disagreement. Additionally, speaking of conflicts in terms of a third story shows that one or both sides are willing to be reasonable and objective in the conversation, rather than stubbornly digging their heels in about their own interpretation or views.
Particularly when reviewing contracts, it is important that the parties use this third story technique. The question often asked is “Will twelve non-expert people in a jury box be able to understand this contractual term, and would they vote favorably or unfavorably for our side if this term were defaulted on?”
Thinking of conflicts from the viewpoint that a jury would weigh in on it is profound If you think about what has to happen once a jury becomes involved. First, there must be a trial, which means that at some point there was a breach in an agreement between two parties. Things did not go according to plan, and the written contract is the primary tool that would be reviewed to assess which party should prevail. Moreover, a jury is made up of non-experts from potentially all walks of life. These are non-experts, so throwing around a bunch of fancy jargon and professional reasoning would only hinder impartial novices attempting to assess the dispute. Additionally, those people may have backgrounds that bias their stance regarding the dispute. They could be from any economic or racial upbringing, might be bringing gender inclinations into the mix, could have a charmed or a cursed life, or be of differing opinions regarding political leanings. While they would be instructed to be impartial, they may or may not still bring those biases into the deliberation room.
The verdict should be unanimous in most cases, although the risk of a hung jury and a re-trial is ever-present. This means that the terms of the contract, prior to the conflict, must be as black and white as possible.
Lastly, a decision made by a jury is binding (unless it is appealed). When considering this third story jury example, the primary point is that someone outside of the dispute will not only weigh-in, but will dictate the outcome.
A friend of mine was telling me about his job, which is effectively to create a “third story” regarding auto-accidents. This friend had a background in data entry and creative writing. The company that hired him wanted to understand the third story regarding many automobile accidents and he was hired to put the facts into the story, but also creatively wade through inaccuracies. It should be clear that my understanding is not that my friend would be playing jury and awarding one side victorious over another, he is not in the role of a moderator for police or insurance companies. His company’s motive is to understand those things that might lead to car accidents, so they can provide guidance to automakers and policy-makers that might prevent similar accidents in the future.
His role was to take two competing police reports (the first and second stories) about a car accident, analyze the components of each story, then objectively summarize what likely occurred. A police report is filled with bias. First story: “I was driving perfectly and this other guy came out of nowhere to hit me!”. Second story: “I was driving perfectly and the other driver ran a stop sign!”.
Often, even when a party is filling out a police report and knows they were in the wrong, they can be creative with their description of the events to make it seem like it is not all their fault. For instance, I heard of an accident where an 80-year-old lady backed from a parking space into another car at a standstill despite being warned multiple times by a horn that they were there. The elderly lady may have had handicapped vision and hearing, and perhaps should not still be driving. Still, in her police report, she told the officer that she was a victim, and from her standpoint, the car she hit must have been speeding around the parking lot.
There was an episode of Revisionist History (Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast) named “ Descend Into The Particular” where an unarmed man is shot to death by police. The family of the “victim” was outraged. Their story of the deceased was that it would be out of character for that person to do anything to warrant getting shot by the police, particularly given that he was unarmed. The police had their own version of the story: they assessed that the “victim” was clearly putting everyone in danger, and while they did not want to kill the man, he had acted in a manner that required the police to protect themselves and respond forcefully.
The entire encounter was caught on a body camera. In the ensuing wrongful death lawsuit, a third-party was brought in to review the tape from the crime scene and sort out what actually happened. What was their conclusion?
The tape clearly shows a repeated pattern of behavior throughout the failed arrest of a person that wants to be killed by the police. Not only was the “victim” continuously behaving such that more police would gather around him, but once provoked and shot, the “victim” continued to get up and advance towards the police, miming a gun in his pocket. The end prognosis was suicide by police. Not only did the “victim” cause himself to die, but he made, through his actions, perfect strangers take his life as part of their job. Suicide by police is cited in the episode as a quarter of police killings.
The third story adds much more nuance and empathy for everyone involved:
- the victim for being depressed,
- the police at the scene for being forced to execute someone
- the victim’s family for having to come to grips with the psychological circumstances surrounding their family member’s death when the scapegoat of police misbehaving is taken from them.
An Outside Perspective
The third story can also be utilized even when there is not a competing perspective. This can be the case in personal dilemmas or projects whereby the lone party takes a path or agrees to a deliverable that they believe is right and reasonable. It could be that the person’s obligation is overwhelming, consuming a great deal of time and/or energy. However, that person may not be able to admit they are overwhelmed. Instead, they may believe they should just suck it up and power through it. Thinking about the obligation from a third story perspective can shed light on that ballooning obligation, and guide the affected party to a) ask others for help, b) readjust their own expectations or c) simply bow out of the obligation altogether.
Robert Evans, the film producer said, “There are three sides to every story – yours, mine, and the truth.” It is important to remember that (usually) the people recounting their story are not lying, they are just viewing the situation from their unique perspective. Knowing that other viewpoints of the same issue or incident exist helps to add dimension to the full story. While the third story may not be the truth, per se, it is a more nuanced view that gets closer to what actually occurred.