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Effective Problem Solving is Not a Star-Studded Event

Effective problem solving requires a collaborative approach in which the people involved are working together as a team to solve the problem they have. As the saying goes, there is no “I” in team and, therefore, no star on the team. Stars usually require attention and outcomes that feed their ego, problem solvers stay focused on everyone’s interests so a mutually-agreeable solution can be achieved.

- Columbus, Ohio, Attorney and Mediator Terry Wheeler.


- The mediation was at a stalemate until I made this suggestion.

- My recommendation transformed the negotiation.

- I can read a person like a book.

- I can tell when a person is lying.

- I am excellent at first impressions.

- I saved the day.

This, I AM THE STAR approach to problem solving, mediation, and negotiation completely contradicts the negotiation experts and is often not helpful to the problem solving process.

One must remember the goal of problem solving: to reach a resolution, to reach an agreement, or sometimes even, cessation of problematic behavior.

What is this “I am the Star” phenomenon?

Some may call this approach arrogant or too high self-esteem or overly confident.

Illusory Superiority (IS).

Dr. David Dunning of Cornell has spent much time and research on this STAR approach which they call “Illusory Superiority.” One may also know this as the Lake Wobegon perspective.

In Garrison Keillor's fictional Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon, ‘all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average’. Keillor, whose endearing and often hilarious radio show on the inhabitants of Lake Wobegon, The Prairie Companion, ran for 42 years, is an astute observer of the human condition... Research shows that most humans rate themselves superior than others in intelligence, ambition, friendliness and, ironically, in modesty. This has been referred to in psychology as either the ‘self-enhancement’ effect or the ‘superiority illusion’.

Based on their research, they have found IL to be most apparent in the so called “white collar” jobs and in the “soft arenas.” So IL is likely in such professions as coaching, teaching, negotiating, mediating, leadership, communication, problem solving, etc.

- I was born to lead.

- Everyone believes I am the best communicator.

- All my supervisees come to me for advice.

Professor Dunning estimates that 28% of folks are afflicted with the propensity of Illusory Superiority.

IS Examples: Police Detectives and Judges

Excellent examples of people afflicted by IL are police, detectives, and judges in the law enforcement and legal system. Reflecting real life, this is how the media portrays these roles. This helps to understand why often the wrong person is accused and sometimes convicted.

Many people in these professions are highly overly confident, arrogant, sardonic, sarcastic, and even smug. Considering this approach, they:

- Make erroneous assumptions.

- Fail to ask open or discerning questions.

- Fail to use critical thinking skills.

- Fail to listen fully and accurately.

- Involve themselves in inductive rather than deductive thinking.

Lookism and Being the Star

Lookism may be the most prevalent and overlooked “ism.” Many poke fun at lookism saying that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Research shows that lookism is alive and well. There are some basic appearance characteristics that most consider to be “attractive.” One example is facial symmetry, muscularity, jaw outline, etc. It is clear that in United States culture, a male gets more attention if his height is six feet or more. Most who are considered attractive do not understand the power of lookism. Ironically, they attribute their success to their own hard work.

There are many problem solvers, mediators, negotiators et al who are in the category of lookism; that is, they become the star of the conflict management process. Sometimes, this stardom may aid the process and other times, not so much.

Experts Encourage Problem Solvers to Have Humility and Avoid Being the Star.

Expert Negotiator and Influencer Dale Carnegie.

Dale Carnegie was known as an expert persuader and influencer. His most famous book is How to Win Friends and Influence Others, first published in 1936 and reprinted periodically even today. He advises effective persuaders to exude humility.

Part One: Managing People

- If you want to gather honey, don’t knock over the beehive.

- Criticisms are like homing pigeons. They always return home.

- Don’t condemn people. Try to understand them. This approach breeds tolerance and sympathy.

- There is a secret. There is only one way to make a person want to take a certain action. Throw out an idea. Lose the ego. Allow them to consider the idea and think it is their idea.

- Give honest and sincere appreciation.

- Figure out the other person’s good points.

- Talk about what they want. Let them cook and stir your ideas and the ideas become theirs.

Part Two: Make People Like You.

- Be genuinely interested in other people.

- Smile and be inviting.

- Remember their name.

- Be a good listener.

- Talk in terms of the other person’s interest.

- Make the other person feel important, sincerely.

Part Three: How to Win People to Your Way of Thinking.

- You can’t win an argument. Avoid it.

- Show respect for other’s opinions. Don’t say, "You’re wrong!"

- If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.

- Begin in a friendly way.

- Get the person to say "yes" immediately and thereby establish commonalities.

- Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.

- Let the other person feel the ideas are theirs.

- See if from their perspective.

- Be sympathetic.

- Appeal to nobler motives.

- Dramatize your ideas.

- Throw down a challenge.

Get the other person to think your conclusion is their own.

No one can be forced to truly believe something. That's why the most persuasive people know the power of suggestions over demands.

Plant a seed. When that's blossomed avoid the urge to take credit for it.

It is noteworthy that when people tell stories or tales, they are usually the Star; that is:

- They are the clever one.

- They are the one who wins.

- They are the savior.

- They are the one who figured it all out.

Of course, when a person tells a story it is usually being told from their perspective.

Sometimes the storyteller is exaggerating, embellishing or outright lying to make themselves the star.

But, more than likely ego is the name of the game.

The problem with this process is that the star quality or the ego often gets in the way of effective problem solving and negotiation, also, being an effective mediator.

Listen to expert negotiators and mediators. When they tell stories or offer examples, more than likely the storyteller is the star.


Most dispute resolution processes begin with guidelines or ground rules as part of the introductory stage. These add a bit of structure to the process. The mediator usually suggests one or two and then asks each party for suggestions. This “asking” follows the persuasion rule of Involvement.

One suggested ground rule in mediation is that the parties begin by speaking directly to the mediator. Note the term ”begin.” First, if the parties could negotiate effectively, they would not be in a mediation. Second, sometimes the parties need just a bit of assistance. If the parties begin talking productively to each other, the mediator might choose the option of literally moving their chair slightly away from the mediation table. The mediator does not need to be the star. Sometimes the mere presence of the mediator sets the stage for productive problem solving.


It is important to focus on goals in the problem solving process.

Goal of Mediation: The goal of mediation is to have the parties themselves resolve the situation. An effective mediator will have some ground rules or guidelines for the mediation process. Using the Persuasion Law of Involvement, an effective mediator may offer several suggested guidelines and then asks the parties for their suggestions.

One wise guideline is to ask the parties to speak directly to the mediator, not to each other at first. This incorporates the assumption that if the parties could easily and productively talk with each other, they would have already resolved this. An important phrase in this guideline is “at first.”

There may be a point in the mediation where the parties are productively talking with each other. A wise mediator will note this and will not intervene. In fact, sending a nonverbal communication message, the mediator may literally move the chair away from the table. This allows the parties to continue to talk directly with each other productively. The goal of mediation is not to have the mediator be the star.

Ego May Blind One to Transformational Moments.

Sometimes in problem solving sessions, mediations, or negotiations there appears a transformational moment. This is a moment that changes the relationship or the communication patterns and opens the door to resolution. These moments are often missed by the parties or the neutrals.

One reason they are missed is ego.

How to Avoid Being an Ineffective Star=Seek Feedback.

A great way to avoid ineffective behavior-that is, being overly involved-being the star when it is not efficient in problem solving is to continuously seek feedback from all participants. Then, be objective about the feedback. Withhold the ego. Don’t fight the criticism if the criticism is negative.

Maybe the folks giving feedback will say that the mediator got them unstuck, was creative, kept the process moving, OR maybe the opposite.

In seeking feedback, use what is called the plus/delta approach.

- Plus: What went well? What did I do well?

- Delta: What could be changed? How can I improve?


It is clear that many, maybe up to 30% of problem solvers, mediators, or negotiators, are afflicted with “being the star” and inflating their skills, aka Illusory Superiority (IS). This behavior is often not productive to the process. One way to avoid this is to continuously seek feedback using the plus/delta approach. In this way, the problem solver will understand when to be involved and when to pull back in the process so that the goal of settlement, agreement, or cessation can be achieved.


See Recommended Books under “Blogs” drop down menu.

Roy J. Lewicki is the author of 'Essentials of Negotiation', published 2015 under ISBN 9780077862466 and ISBN 0077862465. Publisher: McGraw Hill Higher Education

The Conflict Resolution Training Program, Leader’s Manual, ISBN: 0-7879-6077-2. Prudence Bowman Kestner and Larry Ray

5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.

Getting Your Way Every Day.


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