Alternative Facts? 3 Ways to Solve Conflict When You Can’t Even Agree on What Happened



This past weekend saw  a lot of discussion about “alternative facts.” Whatever you think of the crowd-size kerfuffle between the Trump Admin and the press, the phrase, “alternative facts” points to a problem I often encounter in counseling; namely, how can you help two people solve a problem when they can’t even agree on what really happened?  Is the other person lying?  Are they stupid?  Exactly what is wrong with them anyway that they see things in such a radically different way than you do?

Interestingly, there is a huge body of research showing that people regularly perceive “alternative facts” when witnessing the same event. For instance, this article from Scientific American relates the very common problem with the unreliability of eye-witness testimony in court and how, even when people are not intending to commit perjury, witnesses can have very different and even contradicting memories of the very same experience.

So what can we do when we see things so differently from our spouse, kids, or co-workers that we can’t even agree on what happened, who started it,  who said what, and/or who did what to whom much less what to do about it?  Here are three tips Lisa and I discussed on More2Life Radio that can help you overcome the complications “alternative facts” can cause in your disputes with the people you care about.


  1.  Don’t Expect to Agree On History–It can be frustrating, even scary when you and someone you care about can’t even agree on what happened.  Be not afraid.  Even the closest friends, families,  and couples rarely agree on who said and did what.  Even in these times, you CAN both agree that you didn’t like the way things happened and you CAN come to an agreement on how to handle things differently the next time something like this comes up.  Don’t get caught up in arguments about history.  Listen to each other’s version of events respectfully, but then say, “Well, obviously we see things really differently and that’s ok, but what can we do to handle this better the next time it comes up?”  Focusing on solutions instead of history allows you to respect your differences while remaining hopeful that your future can be more agreeable than your past or present. 
  2.  Disagreeing isn’t Lying--Too often when parents and kids or even couples express different versions of the same events they can accuse each other of lying. Of course, if the other person regularly hides things from you, tells half-truths or makes things up, then seek professional help immediately, but if they are generally a truthful, transparent person and that’s why it is so upsetting that they seem to have such different views about what happened, don’t accuse them of lying.  It isn’t a lie to see things differently.  Again, as with our first tip, focus on what you can agree on, namely, the fact that neither of you like the way things played out and that both of you want to handle the situation better the next time.  Instead of putting the other person on trial and trying to prove that your version of events should be entered into the official permanent record, concentrate on establishing some ground rules and expectations to handle the next time better 
  3. Listen Emotionally MORE Than Factually--Even when you’re trying to identify solutions for the next time something like this happens, sometimes it can be really tempting to get hung up on the fact that the other person sees things SO radically differently.  It can be especially hard when they seem to be drawing unkind conclusions about you and your motivations.  Try not to get caught up in defending yourself from these unkind “alternative facts.”  Instead, listen to the emotions behind the accusations.  For instance, you can say, “I certainly didn’t mean to come off that way, and that was the furthest thing from my mind, but I understand that you felt X (attacked, hurt, disrespected, humiliated, etc.) and I’m really sorry that’s how it seemed.  What can I do NEXT TIME to make sure I don’t come off that way to you?”  By using this formula, you don’t have to agree with the other person’s perceptions, but you can still manage to be sensitive to them and do a better job of managing their perceptions in the future.

Pope St. John Paul the Great’s Theology of the Body (TOB) reminds us that each person is unique and unrepeatable.  While that sounds great on paper, practically speaking, it means that we all see things very differently.  Yes, there is such a thing as objective truth, but it can be hard to get there sometimes because our different experiences and different perspectives cause us to emphasize different aspect of an experience to the point where two people can go through the same thing and describe almost two completely different events.  Despite this, TOB reminds us of the importance of working through or getting past those differences to create a “community of love” where, despite your differences you can still work for each others good and create connection.

If you’d like more information on how you can stop “alternative facts” from creating conflict on your relationships, check out When Divorce Is NOT An Option: How to Heal Your Marriage and Nurture Lasting Love.