Abstractions and Generalizations — What Every Mediator Should Know


People use abstraction and generalization to order the world around them. They develop and rank categories, and use those categories—good person/bad person—to evaluate and interact with others. I think of these personalized categories as “hierarchies of abstraction” and have learned from experience that the better I understand them, the more effective I become as a mediator. Simply put, it is important to realize that the perceptions and abstractions used by any two people may differ, even when they are talking about the same thing.

In this article, I share my understanding of abstractions and generalizations and suggest practical ways to make use of these concepts.

The Hierarchy of Abstractions

Human beings gradually learn to create groups such as Cats, Dogs, Chairs, People, Enemies, and so on, to refer to objects and things that they encounter in life. With time, the mind grows more adept in abstracting, and, in doing so, constantly fine-tunes categories. This allows humans to better make sense of the world and gradually build a model of the perceived world.

Very early on, humans learn to expand their abstract thinking and even to apply abstraction to abstractions, decomposing different abstracts, discovering shared characteristics and attributes, and creating new abstracts in a higher level to encompass lower- level abstracts. Thus emerges a hierarchy of abstractions used to perceive the world.

Hierarchy of Abstractions

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