I accept that my perception of what is going on the world is tinted by the lens through which I find myself viewing it. Brexit, Trump, Knife Crime, The Wall, Gaza. The daily menu for rumination is endless. But what worries me most are the reactions I see and hear around me; in the street, on the train, in the barbershop, on radio phone-ins, and on social media. People sound angry. Angrier, it feels to me, than just a few short years ago. Not just a good old-fashioned straightforward type of anger. The anger that wells up in our chest when we observe an injustice only to dissipate soon after. No, the current anger that is milling around among us is more impatient, more intolerant and much more pervasive.
What’s going on? We hear the cry around us all the time for greater certainty. I hear it everywhere. People demand answers and they want them now. They want decisions and they don’t understand why decisions are not being made, now. They have had enough of politicians, they have dismissed experts, indeed they feel that the whole ‘establishment’ (whatever that actually is) has let them down and they have simply had enough.
This is unfortunate timing, as we are living in an era that is arguably the most volatile, uncertain, ambiguous and complex period in the history of the planet. The term VUCA has been coined specifically to capture this and has become something of a trendy managerial acronym. If there was ever a time when we humans need the capacity to live with, and cope with, VUCA conditions, then this is it.
But this growing intolerance is not happening simply by chance or because the world has hit a particular high water mark of VUCA. It appears to me to be more sinister than that. It is being fueled by politicians and governments, ably supported by elements of the media, to generate populism and simplistic thinking. Arguments are reduced to ‘Yes versus No”. “Us versus Them”. “Right versus Left”. Social media often gets blamed for causing shallow analysis and lack of critical thinking, and I have some sympathy with that view. But, let’s be clear, social media has exaggerated and amplified things, it has not created the problem. When we are engaged in our social bubbles we get fed more of what we already believe. Information comes to us, not as conversations with arguments and rationale, but as soundbites, as snippets, as shock headlines. We become more and more lazy in the way we consume data.
I am a scientist by training. I am proud of what I learned in the science faculties I attended. The whole point of science is about discovery. To explain the natural world. It does this by the creation of hypotheses. Good science poses challenging questions and seeks to disprove these hypotheses. Theories emerge, based on current thinking, but they are always that. Theories. Theories that are open to being challenged and replaced with better theories. That is the way our knowledge of the world progresses. Absolute certainty is seldom something you will hear a reputable scientist proffer. Science does not peddle the illusion of certainty. Scientists are in the game of seeking new information that might disprove their current theory. Because that way, they either find out new ways the world works, or find out that their currently held theory has been strengthened.
Sadly, in my view, not everyone operates with a science mindset. More typical human behaviour sees people only look for or acknowledge information that supports or reinforces their current points of view. People do not tend to go looking for information that pulls the legs away from their deeply held belief systems.
People don’t just crave certainty, they are being encouraged to demand it. When scientists or experts respond in an honest and professional way by stating that “they cannot be certain what will happen” or “there is insufficient evidence at this stage to provide an accurate projection”, they are rejected as being useless, or liars, or hiding stuff from us. Politicians and the media feed this dangerous attitude and sound klaxon calls that grab attention but which are based on flimsy data, incomplete analysis or simply bad science.
I recall a time when an old geography school-teacher of mine encouraged a class full of cocky teenagers to seek out and read different perspectives and to try to understand other people’s points of view. Even if you don’t agree with something, seeing things from the other person’s standpoint and keeping alive the possibility that you might just be wrong, provides you with more acceptance, more tolerance, and a richer way of looking at problems.
All these years later, as I work with my clients in developing their skills in having effective conversations, in being more adept at analysing the real work that needs to be done, in eliminating self-defeating behaviours from their approach, these early words of wisdom come flooding back to me, and never seem more relevant. The two key words that come up over and over are vulnerability and curiosity.
By being vulnerable we remain open to maybe, just maybe, being wrong. By being vulnerable we are prepared to admit that we don’t have all the answers. And, by being vulnerable, we invite the other person, the people we engage with, to do likewise. To feel less threatened, and to discover the power of their own vulnerability.
Meanwhile, being curious and open to all possibilities, even if it means altering our current view of the world, ensures that we remain open-minded. Asking great questions to discover what other perspectives may be out there fosters a learning mindset that drives creativity, exploration and discovery.
So, suck it up folks. This is a VUCA world. The cry for certainty, absolutism, truth – it’s all a deceit, and you are being played. Instead, get vulnerable and get curious. That way lies less anger, more fulfillment and better answers.
If you would like to develop skills to enable you to have more effective conversations please get in touch. Through workshops for teams or as part of individual coaching, you will discover what your own de-railers are, and what you can do to overcome them. Simply get in touch using the Contact Us page. I will be delighted to discuss possible options further with you.