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When reading the question How to handle very opinionated and aggressive friend? I couldn't help but think: I doubt that the person the OP is describing would completely agree with the description. Maybe she does, but probably not. I don't mean to imply that the OP is lying (I assume not), but memories of observations may be genuinely clouded by subsequent events.

What we're really seeing here, is one person describing a relationship that is getting strained for some reason or another, but we're not seeing the other side of the story. We don't have a balanced view. Personally, I don't think we can answer the question at all, yet it has 14 answers and counting, mostly upvoted, and the question has many upvotes as well. And this is just one example: on a site on interpersonal skills, we're bound to get many questions like this.

How should we deal with questions that are clearly describing a conflict between the narrator and an external person, without knowing the perspective of the external person?

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    I think Shog's answer here is very relevant to this discussion. – Catija Aug 30 '17 at 14:57
  • @Catija I am not convinced by that answer, but I suspect there's a difference of philosophy here. My interpretation is that Shog wants questions to demonstrate an openness towards understanding the other side (e.g. not calling the other side names). My take is that it should be the responsibility of answers to move the OP to considering the other side's perspective. It might be that a combination of both philosophies is needed. Shog's approach might work if a question contains insults that can be easily edited out, but you can't edit in missing information. – user288 Aug 30 '17 at 15:17
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    That's a cop-outs, @hamlet; yes, 90% of questions here can be answered with "gain a better understanding of those you interact with and effective communication will follow", but presumably we want somewhat more specific answers for most scenarios. To do that, we need to understand the scenario, even if the best we can do is understanding the author's perspective on it. – Shog9 Aug 30 '17 at 16:10
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    @Shog9 If someone were to write an answer that solely consisted of saying "gain a better understanding of those you interact with and effective communication will follow", then I would downvote it. If someone wrote an answer that broke down the assumptions in the OP's question and explained why the other parties in the dispute were acting the way they are (through experience with being on the other side of the dispute, perhaps), or if someone wrote an answer explaining how the OP could better understand the perspectives on the other side of the dispute... those would be good answers. – user288 Aug 30 '17 at 16:33
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    The critical factor there, IMHO, is whether you're just assuming that the asker is lying because askers lie, or recognizing that the asker is biased and encouraging them to reexamine the facts of the situation in a different light, @hamlet. We've seen plenty of both, and the former tend toward being... Not useful. – Shog9 Aug 30 '17 at 17:02
  • If it's blatant, can it qualify to be closed as a thinly veiled rant? – anongoodnurse Aug 31 '17 at 16:19
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I don't like the term "unreliable narrator" for this purpose; it's a term that arose from the analysis of fiction, wherein the author controls not just the depiction and in-universe interpretation of reality, but also the "facts" themselves. It tacitly implies that the entire question is a fiction...

In the real world, we're all unreliable narrators. Memory is notoriously fickle; eyewitness testimony is famously unreliable. If it's a crap-shoot getting "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" out of a sworn witness, what chance do we have when it comes to an anonymous first-party typing words on the 'Net? Worse yet... That same caveat applies to both askers telling their stories and answerers drawing on their own experience; as troublesome as an inaccurate scenario in a question may be, how much worse is a "solution" drawn from a poorly-remembered exchange relayed in an answer!

The best we can hope for is probably to identify bias in how the facts - unreliable though they may be - are interpreted by the asker, and to help the asker (and others!) learn to identify such bias themselves.

In the example you cite, we may never know if the scenarios described actually occurred the way they were relayed to us. But, upon taking them at face value, we can offer the asker other interpretations, provide some alternate perspectives as to contributing factors, and hopefully provide useful tools for more productive interactions with their friend.

In short, barring questions where we have good reason to believe that the entire question was fabricated for the author's amusement, we should work with the facts presented to us (and ask for more if those are insufficient!) - but be willing and able to question the conclusions drawn from them.

And if presented only with conclusions, we should hasten to ask for facts before daring to answer!

  • Thank you for the first paragraph. I never intended to imply the entire question is a fiction, and I'm not entirely convinced this is implied either. I agree that we are all unreliable narrators to some extent. – gerrit Aug 30 '17 at 18:08
  • The perpetual doubt as to what others perceive in one's attempts to communicate is what makes interpersonal communication such an endlessly entertaining game... – Shog9 Aug 30 '17 at 18:10
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If you've ever mediated disputes in real life, you'll know that each side has a very different perspective about the dispute, and that each side often has their own set of information, beliefs, and norms. One of the challenges that this site will face is that unlike in real life, we only have contact with one party to a multi-party dispute. This means that not only do we have access to incomplete information, we can only influence the behavior of one party in a multiparty dispute.

One of the ways that we can be the most helpful in this situation is to find a way to get the OP to see the perspectives of the other parties involved. If you've ever been involved in real life interpersonal disputes, you'll know that this is one of the hardest parts of dispute resolution. And on this site, most good answers find a way to explain to the OP why the other party is acting the way that they do, and many bad answers make assumptions about the OP that most likely are incorrect. By all means, this is something to look for when voting on answers.

However, if we insist that the OP give an objective account in the question, then we are being unhelpful rather than helpful. If the OP could give an objective account of all the parties' perspectives, then odds are they wouldn't have an interpersonal issue in the first place. Don't demand that the OP do something they are unable to do; give them advice to help them do it.

Assume that the account is biased. Assume that details which make the OP look bad have been left out, that dialogue has been misremembered and changed, and that the other parties in the dispute would disagree with how the OP characterized the situation. And then help the OP, and help the people who will find the question later using Google.

  • That makes any such question essentially an XY problem? – gerrit Aug 30 '17 at 14:22
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    @gerrit yes. And that is something that you're going to have to learn to deal with if you want a successful site about interpersonal skills. – user288 Aug 30 '17 at 14:24
  • Just to point out, we can answer that the 'antagonist' in a question may ( probably does) actually have a different viewpoint, and give examples of what it might be... but cannot and should not make statements about what their viewpoint is – Jesterscup Aug 30 '17 at 14:26
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    @Jesterscup one way to answer these questions would be to say: "I've been in a similar position, but on the other side. Here was my perspective, which might be similar to the perspective of the person you disagree with." – user288 Aug 30 '17 at 14:27
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    @Jesterscup another way to answer the question is to suggest to the OP ways that they can ask questions, learn the other side's perspective, and resolve the dispute themselves. – user288 Aug 30 '17 at 15:20
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(1) I have thought often about the problem you state here, while reading many a question at IPS.SE:

How do we know OP is giving us a fair and objective narrative?

How do we advise OP without getting the other person's perspective?

This is a limitation of this type of site but I don't think it makes our responses ineffective. Yes, we must accept that it is just not possible to verify OP's objectivity or get the other person's point of view. So we (usually) write answers based on the assumption that OP is giving us a true and balanced picture.

(2) May I give my impressions on another approach, as suggested by @Hamlet's answer:

Assume that the account is biased. Assume that details which make the OP look bad have been left out, that dialogue has been misremembered and changed, and that the other parties in the dispute would disagree with how the OP characterized the situation. And then help the OP, and help the people who will find the question later using Google. --Hamlet

In this case, we shall have to 'second-guess' every OP at every point but we can still write good answers that might possibly have to consider providing alternative solutions for at least 2 scenarios -- (1) OP is somewhat misrepresenting things unintentionally (2) OP is strongly biased; the other person is more justified. This approach yields good answers if the member writing the answer is emotionally perceptive and rich in life experience so as to understand where OP is getting biased in the narrative.

(3) I strongly agree with the answer of @Shog9 here as the most sensible and efficient practical compromise between the two very contrasting approaches of assuming OP is presenting a true picture and assuming that OP is biased:

In short, barring questions where we have good reason to believe that the entire question was fabricated for the author's amusement, we should work with the facts presented to us (and ask for more if those are insufficient!) - but be willing and able to question the conclusions drawn from them. --Shog9

In my opinion this is a balanced approach to the problem of reliability of the questioner. We could never be sure of the accuracy of the narration but it seems much simpler to go with the facts "as presented by OP" and still indicate that there is room for other interpretations of the situation.

Conclusion:

Good answers will surely help future readers, but if OP has been knowingly or unknowingly presenting a biased perspective, these good answers may not help OP.

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    Often the cause of the interpersonal issue is that the OP is not seeing the other side's perspective. If we assume that the OP is giving a true and balanced account, then we aren't actually helping the OP. – user288 Aug 30 '17 at 16:37
  • @Hamlet that is very true but we can't help an OP who is giving a distorted picture. If we do assume OP is giving a true and balanced account (some OP's can do that, you know) then we could help at least the next reader who really has such a situation. Do you have any solution to ensure that OP will give a true and balanced narrative? – English Student Aug 30 '17 at 18:45
  • Your two options go against each other. Such edits are better posted as separate answers so that the votes can indicate approval or disapproval of individual suggestions. Also, if you're not really adding new information, just upvote other answers here. – NVZ Aug 31 '17 at 9:19
  • These are not my 2 options, @ NVZ but a commentary on how Hamlet's option would work. I am not rejecting his approach but explaining how it could be a difficult thing to put into practice. I have edited my answer to clarify. If I just write it as a comment it can disappear any time. – English Student Aug 31 '17 at 9:29
  • I see.. I suppose it's fine. :) – NVZ Aug 31 '17 at 9:37
  • The thing is that in this case I am comparing and contrasting 2 approaches -- mine, which says to 'assume OP is presenting a true and balanced picture', with Hamlet's which says 'assume OP is misrepresenting or biased' -- in terms of how it will affect our inputs while writing an answer, @NVZ, and I ended by quoting Shog9 as the best 'practical compromise' between these 2 approaches to the problem. All of that taken together constitutes my answer here because I believe in considering, quoting and commenting upon all pertinent perspectives in such cases. And as I said, comments can disappear! – English Student Aug 31 '17 at 9:46

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