The danger of certainty

I used to be certain.  I knew what was right and wrong and wasn’t shy in saying so. Some people might say I’m still that way – very black and white, not enough shades of grey. But to me I’ve changed a lot over the years. I’m positively full of doubt and ambivalence nowadays.  And I like it. That might sound odd – who likes doubt and ambivalence? Well me – whenever I encounter the kind of certainty I once had.

So why this train of thought? I’ve had cause to ponder the effects of certainty on the life of groups over the years. 20 years ago it was the effects of my own certainty that, in part, switched me on to good group process. More recently I’ve been watching the comments on an email list with increasing unease.

I attended an event in July. It proved quite controversial. The participants’ email list has been no less controversial. We’ve heard from some very certain voices. And with the certainty comes that close relative – judgement. After all if I’m right and we disagree, then I’m in a position to tell you that you’re wrong.

I need to declare my interests at this point. A fair amount of that certainty has been directed at me. Some at me personally, some at me by dint of my being a white male. You may think that renders this post worthless. I hope not.

The certainty seems to have created a dynamic. Early certain voices brought out other certain voices. The groundswell of judgement increased. There was very little dissent. Other voices confined themselves to other topics, by and large. Off the list four of the female participants contacted me directly. They wanted to offer some support (thank you). To one extent or another, all four expressed some concern that the dynamic on the list was suppressing dissenting voices, that they were muted. These are powerful women and yet these conversation happened off the list, and I really can’t say I blame them.

So we have one certain perspective being offered. It’s self reinforcing as other similar voices rally around, and dissenters feel unsafe to express their views.

Now take that sideways to the group of your choice. Take it into your consensus experience. How often are we suppressing a diversity of views simply by being certain of our own perspective and articulating it forcefully. It’s hard to be certain without taking a position. And it’s hard to shift from a position once you’ve taken it. Take a look at Penny Walker’s blog on this topic (and her position-interest-need graphic). Certainty seems to stimulate  responses – rallying around, or railing against and finding the middle ground in which to converse, to grow, to change is tough. Give me tentative curiosity or hesitant exploration every time. Certainty is dangerous to groups. Of that I’m certain.



PS: any certainty displayed by the author is a rhetorical device to stimulate a response. Use the comments field – all dissent very, very welcome!


Trusting the ‘facilitation mind’ and not freezing to death

Recently I helped a UK NGO with their decision-making process to choose between five campaign options they’d prepared and consulted their wider network and allies on.

It was interesting to try to get the balance right between giving space to hear summaries of options and feedback and ask questions about both, and getting to the ‘real point’ of the meeting – decision crunch time. More space had been requested of me beforehand for the first stage than I’d initially allowed.

I’m not sure whether we got the balance right in the end. It’s important that everyone in the room has had enough time to think, ask and try to understand, even when others were already there, ready to gallop off into the sunset. The horses were getting frisky in the meantime, chomping at the bit.

It was hard to help the group move from the understanding/clarifying stage, to the analysing/deciding stage. At this point it felt like an uphill struggle to get people to trust in my skills and the process; the same was evident in the moments before some of the warm-ups and methods I had planned. This raised doubts even in my ‘facilitation mind’, though I knew how and why these were a necessary part of the process of taking a decision. Despite these slight moments of turbulence, the group went with the process, and finished the day ahead of time.

Laying the groundwork is key however, and that seemed to pay off later in the day, when to the surprise of many, we reached a decision that everyone was happy with. Concerns had been explored, and either addressed or will be by the group.

There is always a tension between making the right decision, and choosing a way forwards – being able to put the wider organisation needs first without trampling our individual positions. Hopefully the Position-Needs-Interest onion – which we tried to unpeel throughout the day – helped.

I was reminded of the film Touching the Void, which has been useful in some hairy direct action situations in the past. Sometimes it doesn’t really matter which direction you choose, as long as you make a decision. The wrong decision is often to not take a decision – even if we’re not up such a huge mountain as in the film, about to freeze to death!