Thursday 20 January 2022

Cat or No Cat?

I had introduced the group to the Harvard model of negotiating (as outlined in Getting to Yes) and they had discussed some of their negotiations in small groups. In the discussion following, one woman said: My issue is about a cat. My husband wants one, and I don't. There's really not much room for negotiating.

I mentioned that in the Harvard model, rather than focusing on the positions (I want a cat! versus I don't!) we would look at the underlying interests. What was it that her husband wanted from having a cat?  What was it about having a cat that was so objectionable to her?

But, of course, they had done that work in the group, in the hope of inventing a new option that both would be happy with: and various other pet options had been suggested, ranging from squirrels to rabbits (and including, of course Schrödinger's cat...), and indeed occasional cat-sitting for a neighbour; but none of these possible solutions were suitable. So it really did look like a zero sum game. 

But I continued to think about this conundrum afterwards, and realised with hindsight that I had missed a valuable teaching moment. For another aspect of the Harvard model is to insist on objective criteria.  The intention here is to remove coercion from the discussion, so that neither party bullies, or feels bullied by, the other; and in a matrimonial relationship that strikes me as particularly important.

Clearly, when deciding whether or not to have a cat as a pet, objective criteria are hard to find. But the second-level aspect of this insight is fair process - and that is something I could have explored with my group. 

When teaching this in a longer context (eg a day's workshop on negotiating) I often talk about voting and democracy. I make the point that we don't vote because we believe the majority is always right (we have plenty of evidence from history that such is not the case) but rather because it stops us from killing each other. It removes coercion from the system, by offering a transparently fair process (at least, in theory - I don't want to get into a discussion of the current aberrations of democracy in this post...).

Clearly, in a matrimonial disagreement, voting doesn't apply, as you will get a 1:1 hung vote. But the principle could be applied. For example, both parties could agree to toss a coin, and be bound by the result. And if that feels too much like setting up one person to win, and the other to lose, one could add a further element to the agreement: that whoever gets their wish on this issue, must agree in advance to cede the right to decide the next contested decision to the other person. That would be interesting...

I wish I'd thought to raise this and explore it with the group the other day: I am sure that they would have had some interesting insights. Instead, I'll email them a link to this blog post, and pick it up with them next time we meet. 


With thanks to  Alvan NeeElliott Stallion and  André François McKenzie for sharing their photos on Unsplash

Friday 14 January 2022

Where do we stand?...

Where do we stand, if we demolish all our assumptions or beliefs? 

We can't of course; but the question arises for me as I continue my study and practice of Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment. One of the powerful parts of this work is to help people to identify untrue assumptions that are blocking their thinking, and replacing them with true and liberating assumptions. 

An example I encountered was someone who had come across serious wrongdoing at work and said she didn't know what to do. I was puzzled, as whistle-blowing protocols were clear and she was in a role where she would have known that. However, I assumed (as Kline would advocate) that her thinking was blocked by an untrue assumption, and proceeded to investigate. On reflection, she thought that the assumption that was blocking her thinking was that if she were to blow the whistle, she would get the sack.
Now, the hypothesis in the Thinking Environment work is that it is only untrue assumptions that block our thinking. So I asked her if she thought that this was true. She said that it might be; and I had to agree. So we proceeded to look for the untrue assumption nested within that true assumption that was blocking her thinking. After some hard thinking and long silences, she identified it: she assumed that if she got the sack from this place, she would never work again. 

Once she had articulated that, she realised that it was untrue, and was able to experiment with a true and liberating assumption: that even if she got the sack from this place, she would be able to find another good and fulfilling role. And that unlocked her thinking: she was able to map out the path to take, and then to take it. So far, so good. 

But this questioning of assumptions can be infinitely regressive. 

Kline teaches that we can assess the truth of an assumption (which is crucial to this work) on the basis of facts and logic. But that, of course, rests on several assumptions. And so on. 

Consider this rather more complex case. A woman was talking about her life; she concluded that she would have more fun if she were to leave the man she was married to. The assumption that was blocking her thinking about how to do this was that she should stay with him. How does one assess such an assumption, using facts and logic? The number of facts and potential facts that might have a bearing on such a moral issue is almost infinite; and logic cannot answer with absolute finality questions about, for example, the impact of such a decision on their children. 

Finally, such moral decisions are philosophical ones: what philosophy do we choose to inform our decisions? Or, to put that another way, what assumptions are we going to take as bedrock?

So my view is that we can't proceed without assumptions; but it is important to be clear what those assumptions are, and why we are choosing to honour them. Otherwise, we risk sawing off the branch we are sitting on, and then where do we stand? (to mix my metaphors rather too graphically...) 


With thanks to Tbel Abuseridze for sharing photos on Unsplash