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Holding ideas lightly

Bird on a wire

Bird on a wire

Johnnie Moore offered a good post today about the dangers of being too certain in the context of making decisions. He quotes Jonah Lehrer as saying

Being certain means you’re not worried about being wrong.

Certainty is also one of the things that drives conflicts – certainty that I am right and you are wrong, certainty that I am seeing things clearly and you are confused, or certainty that I am acting rationally and you are acting emotionally (heaven forbid).

When I am training mediators, one of the skills I help them to develop is the ability to give reflective summaries – to summarise back to the parties in a conflict what they have said, in a way that helps everyone to hear. Mediators try to make these summaries in a tentative way – open to correction if they miss something out or misinterpret what was said. They can not be certain that they have got the summary right, and need the speaker to help them to make a good summary.

One year after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, but while the apartheid regime was still in place, Adam Kahane helped facilitate discussions between the main groups in South Africa. These included groups opposed to the regime (including the ANC, the National Union of Mineworkers, and the South African Communist Party). But the discussions also included representatives of the white business community and academia.

In his book Solving Tough Problems, Adam describes how, over a series of meetings, the individuals were able to better understand each others’ points of view. The group was able to agree on four different possible futures for South Africa. These scenarios influenced the views of the then government, and the government-to-be in the form of the ANC, and made a direct contribution to the way in which power was transferred from the white minority to a democratically-elected government.

Adam attributes much of the success of this process to the tentative way in which the participants held their ideas:

They held their ideas lightly; they noticed and questioned their own thinking; they separated themselves from their ideas (“I am not my ideas, and so you and I can reject them without rejecting me”). They “suspended” their ideas, as if on strings from the ceiling, and walked around and looked at these ideas from different perspectives.

I love the idea of holding ideas lightly, and distancing ourselves from our own ideas by ‘walking around them’ to inspect them. This idea has applications not just in mediation or conflict resolution, but in facilitation and coaching too. For example, in an effective post-project review, the participants will hold their ideas lightly, open to the idea that there are things they do not know, and open to the possibility that their own views will change as a result of what they hear.

* The photograph at the top is from Flickr.com, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.