Friday 24 February 2023

Why we listen to bad ideas

Are there boundaries to what we are prepared to listen to, when we are coaching someone, or facilitating a meeting to generate and exchange ideas? 

I'll come back to that question, but think that there's another that sits alongside it, which I will address first. And that is, why do we listen to bad ideas?  And here, I mean both ideas that are erroneous, and those that are unethical.

The first point, of course, is that  we must be careful not to judge someone else's thinking as erroneous or unethical too quickly. But nonetheless, there are times when that is clearly the case. 

 A white (etc etc) man

Let us imagine that someone says ' I hate white, middle class, middle aged, Oxford educated men' (to take an example wholly at random, you understand, of a completely irrational point of view...). In my book that is both irrational and unethical; I deem it wrong (as well as muddle-headed) to hate a whole class of people, based on a few shared characteristics. That is a reasonable definition of prejudice. 

But if I challenge that statement, it doesn't take a genius to realise that the most likely reaction of the person I'm challenging is to defend it. That will mean summoning to mind all the reasons he or she can think of in support of it. Further, in the felt need to win the argument, and with the support of confirmation bias, new reasons may be manufactured in support of the reasonableness of the stance. The net result of which may be to strengthen the individual's conviction that this is a reasonable stance to take.

On the other hand, if I continue to listen, there is at least a possibility that the person will start to add nuance to the proposition: 'Well, not ALL...' and so on. And that represents a move in a more positive direction. Further, if the statement was made as a provocation, it will be clear that it has not had the desired result, and that in itself may prompt a slightly more reflective examination of the statement, and even a felt need to moderate it somewhat. 

And if given the space, attention, support and respect to continue to think about the statement, the individual may move a long way from it, and generate some real insight: perhaps that this view is based on a small sample size, consisting of one man who has behaved badly in the personal realm, and a number of public figures who share those characteristics, who are variously reprehensible; or that hate is bit of an overstatement and so on.

That is relatively clear in a one-to-one session; but what about a group? Is it reasonable to expect others to listen to people expressing bad ideas?

Here, I think, a lot depends on context, and on the contract you have with the group. If you have agreed that all views are welcome, it is hard to say later 'By all views, I mean, of course, all views that everyone is comfortable with.' That is highly problematic, not least for the reasons that Margaret Heffernan outlines in her excellent book, Wilful Blindness. This is the territory of group-think.

I think it is more fruitful to agree that if we are going to say all views are welcome, we must agree some other principles for the meeting. These will include a principle of equality: that we will ensure that all participants have an equal opportunity to contribute; and a principle of attention: that we will listen to everyone, seeking to understand their perspective. With these in place, and confident facilitation, then the person who voices the 'bad ideas' will be listened to but will also be obliged (morally and by peer pressure and a felt need to conform to the agreement made at the start of the meeting) to listen to others' thinking that is different from his or hers. And that, it seems to me, is the most likely way to achieve good outcomes in such a scenario.

But what about the risk of distress or harm to those exposed to hate speech? That is indeed a difficult question, and I sympathise with the instinct not to give a platform to such speech. But the risks of not doing so (in the contexts in which I work, at least) seem to me to be greater. A complete refusal to engage with those who hold different views fuels a toxic polarisation that makes any kind of nuanced discourse much more difficult, and reduces the likelihood of people moving beyond their initial bad ideas.

So are there any boundaries? There certainly are. And I will come back to this in a future post.

Friday 17 February 2023

Thinking about Place - and Humilty

I participated in an excellent session sponsored by the EMCC and led by Claire Bradshaw, who shared both her passion for, and some research about, outdoor coaching.  That is something I have practiced for many years, and so it was fascinating to hear her take, and to compare notes with other coaches.

One theme that emerged was the impact of impressive natural landscape, which evokes a sense of awe - and a corresponding humility - in us and our clients when we work outdoors. One of the words that was used about this was perspective, and we discussed how valuable that is.

Certainly I think an appropriate degree of humility is valuable as a coach; moreover, I think the same is true for some of our clients - that, and a sense of perspective. Big egos and a too intense focus on a particular work issue as all-important are both potential interruptors of good thinking.

I was reminded too of the excellent C W Metcalf, and his advice: 'take your work seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously...'  Perspective is very helpful in that context, too.

And then I reflected on Nancy Kline's take on place, as a component of a Thinking Environment: place is a silent form of appreciation, so we try to choose a place that says 'you matter.' 

But working in the grandeur of nature?  Perhaps that says 'you matter - but not that much.'

Wednesday 8 February 2023

Human Connection

I wrote recently about the vagaries of blogging, and how interesting it was that a fairly light-hearted post, such as one I wrote about my self-consciousness when putting my foot down when cycling, seemed to generate more interest than more thoughtful (and I hoped) thought-provoking pieces about my professional work.

Then, over the last week or so, I have been struck by the far, far higher level of engagement in response to a brief post about meeting my new grandson for the first time. I think that was partly as a result of the picture that accompanied the post - he is very photogenic. But I also suspect that something else is going on here, and that is about human connection.

I have written before about the huge importance of giving attention to others, and the impact that can have. This is, of course, foundational in any coaching or mentoring work, and it is no coincidence that the first, and arguably most important, of Nancy Kline's components of a Thinking Environment, is Attention.  However, I would argue that it is equally important in many other settings.

Last week, I facilitated an event for fifty or so people to refresh the Global Strategy of a Russell Group University. I started the day by reminding them of the need to pay attention to each other, throughout the day, and inviting them to do so during the introductions, when I asked them to say (in addition to who they were) something that had made them smile recently. That, of course, made people smile: and also invited them to share human moments. A few commonalities emerged - cats, children, natural beauty, and so on - and the result, I think, was that there was a real sense of human connection.  And I nearly hadn't done it: 50 people taking just 30" each meant nearly half an hour. But it was half an hour well-invested.

Likewise, we structured the various activities in ways that supported attention and connections (and reminded them of the importance of attention regularly). Several told me that this reminder and the way it was embodied in the design of the day, had made it very different - more engaging, more generative, more enjoyable, and more energising - than their typical awaydays.

The same applies to teams, to relationships between line managers and reports... in fact just about everywhere, except ChatGPT. Human connection is essential.

Of course it takes time; but if you haven't got time for other people, we know what that communicates: you don't value them. And if you don't value them, why would you expect to get good outcomes from your interactions?

On the other hand, if you take the time, and make the effort, to connect as human beings, not only will the relationship be more satisfying, but it is likely to be more productive; and that productivity will also be more sustainable, as the mental and psychological benefits of human connection are well understood.

But that's not the most important reason to connect. The most important reason is because it is the human thing to do. All else flows from that.

And thanks to everyone who connected with me about my grandson's birth!