Wait a Minute – How Do You Know That?

Mar 10, 2011

An administrator from a large commercial insurance company calls you at Y.C.O. “You Control the Outcome” (an ADR organization specializing in mediation). He tells you that his best friend just got divorced. He was surprised that it was not as bad as many other people’s divorces. His friend said it was because they had a mediator who smoothed the process out and helped them both move on without too many hostile feelings. Moreover, his friend bragged about how much money and time his ex-wife and he had saved by mediating their divorce. The administrator (we’ll call him Dave) asks you how would mediation help his firm get faster, cheaper, and better settlements to their disputes. You are so excited you tell him yes, you and your associates specialize in helping organizations resolve their conflicts efficiently and economically. Wait a minute—how do you know that’s true?

This column will help us figure out how to separate the hype from the facts, the marketing claims from the reality. First though, we have to venture into a little bit of philosophy. Then, we’ll come back to what to tell Dave.

How Do We Know What We Know?

Sometimes you just know, in your gut, something is true. You are mediating and suddenly you think, oh my God, it’s not the money that’s bugging him, it’s face saving. Your client didn’t say or do anything, it just comes to you in a flash, and you know it’s true. This is intuition. It is not the result of reasoning or sense perception but an immediate insight.

Other times we know something because someone we know and trust tells us that something is so. We call the most experienced mediator we know and ask them what they do if they think that one of their participants is hiding really important facts in the mediation. We are not asking our colleague because he or she has written or done research on disputants who hide facts, but because they have a lot of experience or status in the field.

Maybe though, we don’t need to call our experienced colleague. Maybe we know something is so because of our own experience. As we go through practice, we encounter a number of experiences that add up to a pattern. We begin to see how this leads to that; how whenever a party does a particular thing, pretty soon another particular thing happens.

Another way of knowing involves deliberately collecting information to test our ideas, this is empirical research. Empirical research involves posing a question, collecting data to answer that question, and then analyzing the data in a systematic way.

What Kind of Information Would Help Us Answer Dave?

You could tell Dave that you just have a good feeling about his organization and the type of cases he has and you sense that this is going to help; but Dave is probably not going to be persuaded by your intuition. How can he test your intuitive insights? So, maybe you tell Dave that you have mediated hundreds of these kinds of cases and you know from your vast experience that you can help him resolve his cases cheaper and faster. If Dave is persuaded by experience, he may ask you for a list of your clients and partners so that he can check on your experience.

Dave says “That’s great, but my CEO and CFO are going to want some pretty convincing evidence. Do you have any numbers?” Now what are you going to do?

Call an Academic!

Lucky for you, just last week, you met a professor who teaches at a New England university. You call your new colleague (we’ll call him Simon) and explain your dilemma. Simon says (sorry, I couldn’t resist) he has an article he just wrote and faxes you a copy. If you are like most practitioners, you’re a little leery of stuff that academics produce. How do you evaluate Simon’s article? It might not be any better than what you come up with yourself just because it came from an academic.

Academic writing generally falls into three categories – empirical research, scholarly theorizing, or experiential reports. (We also write textbooks, but our example was a faxed article). Simon’s discipline will affect which kind of writing he produces and how useful it is for what kind of problem the practitioner is facing.

Scholarly Work: If Simon teaches in the law school of his school, he will probably send you a case analysis or a policy document. Legal reasoning and legal research depends on reason and coherence for quality. Good legal writing is characterized by clearly describing the nature of a particular problem or policy. It depends on sound reasoning from known principles to the unknown, from the general to the specific, or from a premise to a logical conclusion (deductive reasoning). If Simon teaches economics or history, he might also send you a piece of scholarly work.

Empirical Research: What if Simon teaches sociology, communications, political science, or social psychology? He will probably send you a report from his most recent empirical research. Empirical research relies on the experimental approach to test assumptions or theories. Empirical research involves posing questions, systematically collecting data to answer those questions, and analyzing that data using public, replicable, and approved methods. It involves reasoning from many facts or cases to a general conclusion or finding (inductive reasoning). Good empirical research follows a rigorous set of standards, which a community of scholars applies to evaluate the project. (Of course, I understand that all the disciplines do different kinds of scholarly work and anybody from any discipline can do quality scholarly, empirical, or experiential work.)

Experiential Reports: On the other hand, maybe Simon sends you an article based on his experience as professor, practitioner, or administrator. Experiential information involves individual or group reflection upon surprises, problems, or policy issues to develop deeper understanding. It results in information rooted in personal experience, perspective, or judgement.

Is Simon’s Article a BMW or a Kia?

So, does what Simon says help you answer Dave? Each of these types of academic writing has its own quality conventions. Here are some questions you can use to evaluate the quality:

1. What’s the framework—the problem statement, the definitions, and the literature or case review? Does it relate to your context and clearly reveal definitions and assumptions?

2. What’s the method—how was the question studied? Does what they observed or measured make sense? Did they miss anything important? Do the different things that were measured or observed have any relationship to the question?

3. Can you think of different reasons to explain the same finding? Are the interpretations acceptable? Can you think of alternative proposals that were not addressed?

4. Does it make sense and match your reality? Why or why not—does it challenge your assumptions or just indicate that the scholar doesn’t know enough about your world?

How Should We Answer Dave?

In this research themed blog conversation, I will help you figure out what to tell the Daves among our clients and partners. Twenty years ago, we had the luxury of asking Dave to trust us while we tried out our new experiments. However, more and more Daves work for a company, court system, government agency, legislature, or school system that wants hard answers to difficult questions. Sometimes empirical research can answer the question. Sometimes it could, but no one has done that research. Many times empirical research can’t answer the question because the question involves public policies, values, ethics or aesthetics. As a field, though, we need to be better at answering “How do you know that?”

Juliana E. Birkhoff is the Vice President of Programs and Practice at RESOLVE. Do you have a question that you would like the research column to address? Let us know in a comment and we’ll see if we can address it in future issues.


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