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Did you realize that approximately 28% of mediators and negotiators over estimate their skills leading them to faulty actions? Learn how to avoid this trap.

Those are the findings of Dr. David Dunning of Cornell University who has studied the concept: Illusory Superiority (IL).

Illusory Superiority: This concept is often referred to as the Lake Wobegon Affect where one believes their children are the smartest, their food is the best, their environment rivals none.

One surely has heard these statements:

-I am a great mediator!

-I can negotiate anything!

-Problem solving must be in my DNA, I am great at it.

-Creativity? I am unrivaled.

-People love me as their leader!

-My parents taught me how to communicate and I do it well.

( Recent example: I have been teaching at The George Washington University School of Law for 34 years. The other day while setting up my classroom, I heard one worker say to another, I intimidate other workers because I have been around for awhile and I know everything.)

These folks might rate themselves as 12 out of a metric of 1-10 (high). If one were to interview those who have to deal with this person, the rating on this person might range from 3-6.

Dunning has found this psychological issue basically in what so call “the soft skills” or “White Collar skills;” that is, leadership, negotiating, mediating, communicating, creativity, problem solving. This over evaluation does not seem to show up in the “hard skills” of math, physics, geography, plumbing, electricity, etc.

For effective mediators and negotiators, this raises two questions:

-How does one avoid IL?

-How does one manage working with those who have IL?

Avoiding IL.

Effective mediators and negotiators will want to avoid IL since they want to be realistic about their skills. They want to know their strengths and weaknesses. In this way, they can maximize their strengths and work on their weaknesses.

A method to do so is to identify several trusted colleagues who will give one honest and open feedback on their skills or writings or speeches, etc.

The anti-dote (often attributed to Socrates) is basically to “Know Thyself.” A personality characteristic that helps is humility. Regrettably only 10-15% of Americans rate highly in this arena. “Humility is characterized by an ability to accurately acknowledge one’s limitations and abilities and an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented rather than self-focused.” Current Directions of Psychological Science, NYT 10-22-19.

Sometimes this is referred to as Intellectual Humility (IH). IH is strongly connected to curiosity, reflection and open-mindedness.

-Those with IH scored lower on political and ideological polarization whether conservative or liberal.

-IH folks are less aggressive and less judgmental toward members of other religious groups.

-They are not easily manipulated.

-IH may be critical to a sustaining committed relationship.

-It may nourish mental health allowing one to shake off grudges, suffer fools patiently and forgive oneself.

All of these characteristics substantially aid an effective mediator or negotiator.

How to Manage Those with IL.

There are a variety of methods to manage these situations. An effective way is to do more of the work and allow the one affected by IL to believe it is their work. In the ideal, negotiations are 50/50; that is, each side accomplishes 50% of the work. This in reality is highly unusual. In the IL situation, an effective negotiator may need to work more diligently with the view of accomplishing the goals.

If one must deal with the person with IL constantly, one might take another approach. This situation could occur in team negotiation when one is negotiating with a partner or with the CEO or General Counsel of a corporation for which you are representing.

Team Negotiation: One of the key tips to effective team negotiation is to ensure all negotiators on the team are excellent negotiation. There may be times when the company CEO or General Counsel feel that they are effective but observations say otherwise. First, one could create doubts in their skill level. Once doubts are created they may be open to more specific training or various negotiation team roles.

Creating this doubt involves persuasion. It is vital to remember the magic persuasion formula and the laws of persuasion. The key formula is

-Persuade to values,

-Persuade to emotions, and

-Persuade to logic.

One then tailors the persuasion approach to the persuadee ( The one being persuaded.)

Second, recall some of the Laws of Persuasion that might be helpful such as the Law of Involvement. Maybe there are other negotiation or persuasion examples where the results could have been better. Maybe there are evaluations or metrics or research that might convince the not so effective negotiator that they need to improve.

This gentle persuasion might escalate to gentle confrontation. Sometimes a negotiator needs to be the agent of reality. Some, might appreciate the open and honest feedback.


“When we sing our own praise, we usually get the tune way too high.” Anonymous.

“The Foole doth thinke he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a Fool.” As You Like It, Shakespeare.” (sic)

* Dr. David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell U call IL, the Dunning-Kruger effect (1999). Although the Dunning–Kruger effect was put forward in 1999, Dunning and Kruger have noted similar historical observations from philosophers and scientists, including Confucius (“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”), Bertrand Russell (“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision”), and Charles Darwin, who they quoted in their original paper (“ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”). Geraint Fuller, commenting on the paper, noted that Shakespeare expressed similar sentiment in As You Like It (“The Foole doth thinke he is wise, but the wiseman knowes himselfe to be a Foole.” (V.i)).

NOTE: Per an Allstate survey, 64% rate themselves as excellent or very good drivers. My rating for DC Drivers is that 20% may be excellent or very good drivers. J

Pride, Vanity or the psychological term of Narcissism, is to see yourself above others, and as the only person whose opinion or feeling matter. The worst part of the sin, is that when indulged, you have to be above others, so in turn, others must be "below" you. Everyone becomes unworthy, except by your grace.

  • The individual takes on the characteristics of a god.

  • Belief in your own abilities to the extent that others end up doing your work or putting things right after your failures.

  • Vanity is a picture of "entitlement issues". You deserve to be first, and be like a star.

In Latin superbia, this is a apparently the father of all sins and is otherwise known as vanity or narcissism. Pride caused Lucifer to fall from heaven into hell. Pride is to love yourself and to be big-headed; to be arrogant, over-confident and blind to the concerns of others. Animal symbols - The horse, lion, and peacock.


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