Humanising business,  Leadership,  Organisational change,  Personal Reflections,  Storytelling

Rethinking Understanding

When I was very young, I was obsessed by those clever optical illusion drawings that appear as two entirely different things depending on how you look at them. Is that a young woman or a very old woman? A rabbit or a duck? (Click here for more mind-bending fun. I could geek out on these for hours). 

I loved these pictures for their cleverness but they also scared me. They made truth, which my nice Calvinist Sunday School upbringing had taught me was something bright and sharp-edged and solid, look instead like something slippery and changeable. Truth itself being two things at the same time. The drunkenness of things being various, to quote a favourite line from a favourite poem …

I remembered these pictures again as I was thinking about the topic of Understanding – what we have learned over the past year about what understanding means, and how we can seek more of it moving forwards.

In my book, I talk about the different levels of understanding we’re seeking when we communicate during periods of change. Sometimes, we’re looking to bring clarity and to reduce uncertainty. Sometimes, we’re aiming simply to transmit information, or to pull strands together and thus help people make sense of things. 

But sometimes – perhaps the highest and hardest aspiration of all – we are seeking transformation. We want to achieve a fundamental shift in how someone sees the world, both intellectually and emotionally. It’s this type of understanding that we most desperately need amongst one another at the moment, and this type of understanding that I want to talk about here.

Almost all of us have surely, over the past year, been sucked into the impossible game of ‘pandemic trumps’. Whose wifi is worst? Whose pet the most disruptive? Is it better to be locked down in the city or in the countryside? Alone or with small children? Who has looked enviously while perched on the end of their bed with a laptop at someone else’s spacious booklined study? Who has used the time to get in the best shape of their life, and who has a developed a packet-a-day biscuit habit? Who gets brought lunch on a tray by an aproned spouse every day?

Who has thrived on the quiet solitude and who is tearing their hair out with loneliness? Who is quietly drinking more than they know is healthy to numb the sadness? Who has caring responsibilities that are so heavy they feel they might crumble under them? Who has missed seminal family events? Who has been sick? Who has lost beloved friends and family? 

We will all of us be counting the small joys and myriad griefs, of this past year for ever, and there will be no final reckoning, no KPIs or measures that will give us a definitive answer on who won and who lost. The world, to quote Louis MacNeice again is incorrigibly plural.

All of our experiences are equally true and sit bundled on top of and inside each other – old woman, young woman, rabbit, duck. How can we reach across the fissures in our experience and deepen our community with one another?

Or think about the other defining event of last year, and all that followed the murder of George Floyd. The protests and counter-protests, the groundswell of support for Black Lives Matter, the awakening amongst so many – too late, too late – about what it requires of us to be truly anti-racist and truly inclusive. How can we begin to engage in meaningful dialogue across all that divides us? What does true understanding in this context mean, what does it require of us, and what can it bring?

Above all else, it seems to me that the most critical thing as we move forward together, in families, in businesses, in communities, is that we are able to truly see one another, and truly hold and honour one another’s experiences. 

The most common greeting in the Zulu tribe is “Sawubona”, which means  something like “I see you, you are important and you matter to me”  A common reponse is “Shiboka”, which means “…and therefore I exist”. It reminds us that the act of making someone visible, to see and accept them entirely as they are, is vitial to their whole experience. Soooo much more meaningful than that very British call and response –  “How are you?”, “I’m good”, which seems to value the protection of the questioner from anything uncomfortable or challenging above all else.

Much as there is to admire in some of that British ‘blitz spirit’ that has been evident over the past year, I do worry that there’s something almost toxic in the prevalent positivity – a desire to paper over the cracks with a smile, to claim comradeship prematurely.

We are NOT all in the same boat. True understanding requires us to acknowledge that, to do the work, to have the courage to truly see one another, to look at where it hurts, to own our part in reaching across the divide.

This means that for me the most important component of understanding is learning to truly listen to one another. Our job as leaders is not to add more content. Don’t make it all about you and your desire to be right. Challenge your own biases and assumptions. Don’t avoid conflict and ‘there there dear’ people. Don’t confuse closing people down with positive thinking. Hold the hyperbole, however well intentioned. 

Instead, as leaders, our job is to dismantle obstacles and create space. Let’s think about how we can truly, deeply listen? What are the questions we can ask that will elicit a true and valuable insight? How can we establish equality? How can we demonstrate that we truly appreciate one another? How can we encourage and put people at their ease? 

The pain of the past year does carry undoubtedly carry opportunity inside it – duck and rabbit, old and young – but it’s only by truly holding the space for all of it that we’ll be able to move forward into a place of deeper community and make good things happen.

Click here for more tips for leaders on how to increase understanding