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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Seven perils of certainty

I grew up in a family where 'robust' dinner table debate was the traditional sport. The more forcefully you argued, the more certain you sounded, the more likely it was you'd walk away triumphant. It was always stressful, as some measure of your self worth felt like it hung in the balance. But as a young person I thought it was normal.

I remember feeling curious whenever a visitor was present for one of these arguments. They didn't always join in, and if they did, it often wasn't for long. It was an exception to this when my parents had a rip-roaring stoush with my Nanna about religion. My father, Nanna's eldest son and apple of her eye, had converted to Catholocism before marrying my mother. Nanna was Anglican. They all promoted their positions with certainty and vigour. My Puppa, who rarely said anything, sat over by the pot belly stove with tears in his eyes.

Unsurprisingly I left my home of origin with self assured debate as my weapon of choice when I felt threatened. This engendered a certain amount of fear in others, even my friends - it was often experienced as aggression. One of the effects of this was that people were less likely to challenge me. At the time I mistook that as an indicator of my own strength and superiority. It took me a long time to realise the negative impact it had, both for others who felt at risk from it, and for myself as it kept me from learning and distanced me from other people.

In my early twenties I was lucky enough to come across a profound teacher and role model at The University of Queensland, Bob Dick. Bob taught us about process: intrapersonal process (what goes on inside of us); interpersonal process (the dynamics between people and groups); and systems process (the effect that is exerted by the systems you are part of at the time). Not only was Bob an expert in this stuff but he was a wise person and a wonderful role model. He demonstrated something I'd never seen before: confidence amid uncertainty.

What I observed in Bob was an incredible humility from an incredibly knowledgeable, capable, wise person. He'd openly say so if he didn't know something - without any sense that this was an inadequacy. He'd say something like 'I don't know for sure but my guess would be........'. There was never any officiousness or command or authority in his tone. If he knew of some disconfirming evidence, he'd share that too. When sharing his knowledge he'd often attribute it to the source - the researcher or practitioner from who he'd learnt it, rather than stating it as a fact coming from his own wellspring of unquestionable rightness. I found this intriguing.

What was also intriguing was that Bob had a long and ever-growing line of people who attested to learning more, and more meaningful lessons from him than all of their other university lecturers put together. In fact he had a reputation as a bit of a 'guru' within the university. He was not terribly comfortable with this, I guess because it inferred that he was the source of all knowledge whereas his whole method of teaching used self directed learning principles. He knew the most powerful source of learning was self discovery and he loved nothing more than his students discovering for themselves the material he taught. To this day, in the Australian business community I bump into people who've been taught by Bob and still see him as one of the most important teachers they've ever had.

Peril #1 - less learning
Over the course of the next decade as I was building my career in the corporate world, I noticed that I tended to learn in isolation. I did a learning tactics inventory once and it showed that I was off the scale on 'action' as my learning tactic which meant I jump in and have a go and learn my way through things by doing them. That's helpful. What was less helpful was that I was at the bottom of the scale on 'accessing others'.
(It's a monkey in the asteroid bunker)

That rang true with my experience. I almost never asked others for their experiences or views because, essentially, I was certain that mine were better. I became aware of a lot of learning that I left on the table because of this. I was over-certain about the superiority of my own thinking. 

This is common among people who are good problem solvers. They've had a lot of reinforcement that their way of thinking and problem solving is effective, so they become impervious to input or learning from others. When we think we know best, we can miss out on learning. In hindsight, like Bob, the most knowledgeable and wise people I've ever known are the opposite of this: humble, open to new input, believing that wisdom can come from anyone. Their egos and identities don't get in the way of learning.

Peril #2 - unnecessary conflict
My finishing school for some of Bob's lessons came from my husband Matt. For the first few years we were together I'd sometimes find myself confused about why we wound up in an argument. When we got to the bottom of it, we discovered a pattern. I'd be 'thinking out aloud' about an issue that affected both of us. I didn't say that I was thinking out aloud but that was my intention. In my mind I hadn't decided whether what I was saying was true, I was just 'putting it out there' to test it and see if it held up.

However the tone of that 'thinking-out-loud' was very much a tone of certainty - as if I was sure of what I was saying and not open to being questioned. If it was something Matt disagreed with he felt that in order to have his view considered, he had to put forward an equally certain case. I honestly didn't realise that this is what I was doing. My history had left me with a habit of speaking with certainty - it was just the way my thoughts came out when I wasn't paying attention to the way I was communicating.

Peril #3 - less trust
Ironically, in the past decade, as I've worked on being more truthful about my levels of certainty, Matt has shown a tendency to speak more certainly about things than is warranted. As with all things, there are particular conditions that bring this out. I've noticed that it's when he's feeling overwhelmed with work or lacking in headspace. I suspect the payoff for him is that it might ward off further demands on his headspace by having to consider or articulate multiple possibilities rather than the 'one right opinion' he's expressed. Faux certainty removes the need to consider alternatives. It's less cognitively demanding.

However the down side is, I feel less trust in him when he does this because in these instances I know he's not really certain. I feel disconnected from him. The loss of trust is proportional to the size of the issue, and it does come back when his willingness to acknowledge uncertainty returns. However in essence, it increases my uncertainty about him, which is unhelpful in an intimate relationship.

Peril #4 - inferior problem solving
In addition to creating relationship problems, speaking with certainty is also a cause of poor problem solving in teams. Over the past decade I've been teaching leadership and as part of this we do team problem solving simulations. Without fail, the groups that have one or more individuals who express their thinking with certain, authoritative tones and body language, make relatively poor decisions.

If someone expresses a view with authority one of three things tends to happen:
  1. people can assume that the 'certain person' is an authority, so they defer to them and don't question their thinking 
  2. it can feel like confrontation is needed in order to question the 'certain person'. Most people avoid confrontation so once again, people are less likely to question their thinking. These two tendencies mean that the diversity of ideas in the group goes untapped. 
  3. someone who doesn't mind a scrap 'takes on' the certain-sounding person and a competitive war of egos ensues where being seen as right is more important than finding the best solution. 
A tragic instance of faux-certainty comes from the crash of Air Florida Flight 90. Here is an excerpt from the dialogue between pilot and copilot that lead to them crashing into a bridge and then falling into the icy Potomac River near Washington DC in 1982 killing 74 people including the pilots:

CAM 2: God, look at that thing. that don't seem right does it? Uh, that's not right.
CAM 1: Yes it is, there's eighty.
CAM 2: Naw, I don't think that's right. Ah, maybe it is.
CAM 1: Hundred and twenty
CAM 2: I dont' know
...a minute or so later....
CAM 2: This is it! We're going down Larry....
CAM 1: I know!

CAM-2 was the co-pilot. He was right to express uncertainty but the pilot spoke with confidence that things were right, quite literally to their peril. We know that in almost 90% of cases well facilitated group decisions are better than the best individual's decision in the group. So ultimately, groups that are seduced by individuals' certainty make worse decisions.

Peril #5 - inferior leadership
Interestingly, one of the two competencies that is most strongly linked with performance, promotion and potential as a leader, is called 'learning agility' which is the willingness and ability to learn new competencies in order to perform in tough, novel or new conditions. One of the key behaviours that shows this competency is the willingness to experiment. Another is the willingness to be wrong - to look and feel silly because you didn't get it right. 

When we start to see ourselves as an 'expert' we lose the humility and curiosity that comes with 'beginner's mind'. This often happens when we feel we've got enough experience to know what we're talking about. Despite the importance of learning agility, it's one of the competencies that's in short supply. Unsurprisingly, leadership research shows that as we become more senior in our careers, we learn less and this impacts negatively on the quality of leadership.

Peril #6 - more judgment, less compassion
One of the more damaging effects of faux-certainty is that it increases judgment and decreases compassion. This makes for an angry and harsh world. I've come to see judgment as the arch enemy of compassion. Judgment says: you're different to me, you're wrong, that wrongness is bad and I'm justified in bringing you down. It's a way of simplifying the world into the good guys and the bad guys; the right and the wrong; the black and the white; the in and the out. It sees the world in terms of stereotypes and finds it hard to just let people be without labelling them or summing them up. It's often used as an excuse for harsh behaviour.

These are delusions but the payoff is that it helps us feel in control. People who see the world this way can't bear the idea of non-judment. It's tantamount to sitting on the fence which to their mind is uncertainty on steroids. They often describe this tendency as weak - as if non-judgment is a lack of strength or courage to take a stand. The reality is they are so afraid of the discomfort of uncertainty that non-judgment makes them feel vulnerable. Ironically, fleeing into the comfort of certitude might appear decisive, like we've 'got the guts' to take sides in a fight.

However what's going on beneath the surface is a form of cowardice - an unwillingness to hold our seats in discomfort. Taking sides or judging actually brings relief from this discomfort. It gives us a sense of belonging (to a side), certainty (who and what is 'right'), and clarity of solution (it's much easier to find one that satisfies only our needs). It gives us a direction and outlet for the anxious energy, a sense of self righteousness and an opportunity to be a hero which appeals to the ego.

In contrast, compassion says: I understand, it's difficult and I feel for you. Sometimes it acknowledges that there's no right answer, only a choice among imperfect options. Compassion can still say 'that behaviour is unacceptable' when it creates harm and it can even use force to restrain unacceptable behaviour. But it does so from a place of understanding all parties in the situation rather than casting them as the good guys or the bad guys. It's motivated by minimising harm to everyone. It sees clearly the truth that experience is a dynamic thing and that we all have the capacity for all types of behaviour depending on the circumstances. It's willing to stand alone, withstand criticism from those in judging mode, and accept that things might be and remain, imperfect. It takes a good helping of courage to be with the unpleasantness of this uncertainty.

This peril is extremely profound. Imagine for a moment that everyone on the planet was willing to sit with the discomfort of this uncertainty. Rather than seeing my in-group as right and virtuous, and all outgroups as wrong and in need of correction or punishment, what if everyone could see the common struggle that lies at the heart of all behaviour? What if we allowed ourselves to feel connected with all beings because of this shared challenge? How much harmful behaviour would evaporate from our world? This expanded sense of commonality with other beings; an expanded circle of compassion, is one of the key changes that defines more advanced levels of human consciousness.

Pitfall #7 - a contracted experience of life
Recently another pervasive pitfall of speaking with certainty was crystallised for me. One of my favourite TED Talks is Brene Brown on the power of allowing ourselves to feel our vulnerability. She began her research looking at shame and that led her to find the differences between what she calls the 'whole-hearted' people who experience life fully and those who numb themselves to their experience of life.

As Brene says, you can't selectively numb your feelings. If you numb yourself to your vulnerable feelings, you numb yourself to the lot. She mentions drugs, shopping and alcohol as obvious ways we numb ourselves but interestingly, she also listed blame (a way of discharging difficult feelings) and.... certainty. She highlights religious self righteousness as one common example in the U.S. I see other ways too such as constant stimulation and busy-ness (see my blog post on busy-ness).

The pay-offs
Avoiding the unpleasant feeling of uncertainty is the obvious pay-off gained from faux-certainty. However there are other pay-offs too. 

People will follow: Because most people want to escape the discomfort of uncertainty, if someone offers an escape route, they'll have no problem finding followers. We see this in religions, cults, charismatic leaders of organisations and self help gurus who promise the one right way. Some people even subscribe un-critically to scienctific claims without appreciating or even understanding the limitations that scientists themselves acknowledge. Offering certainty is offering pain relief from part of the natural human experience. Therefore the market for certainty is massive - anyone who wishes to avoid that discomfort. The hunger for this opiate is pervasive and the human ego is all too willing to feed on the adoration of dedicated followers.
Membership of the brotherhood: It's also the case that the stereotypes of masculinity in many modern cultures, still promote the idea that to be a man you have to powerful, you have to be a hero, you have to be decisive and in control. For men who feel strongly the need to prove their masculinity, the idea of acknowledging shades of grey rather than flying into heroic action against the bad guys, is anathema. Faux certainty can be used as proof of strength and masculinity and a way of gaining acceptance into the brotherhood. That's an important need being fulfilled and therefore a strong reinforcement for continuing the faux certainty habit. 

Interestingly, women can also have a strong need to be accepted as 'one of the boys'. In organisations this can be seen in women who live according to the stereotypes of masculinity above. They too act as if they are certain, decisive and in control. I remember being this way when I first hit the corporate world in a fear-driven culture. Over the years as my confidence has grown and my fear diminished, I've become more willing to be honest about uncertainty.

The need to be right: Another group of people who feel a strong pay-off from faux certainty is those of us who have linked being right with being worthy. Like my dinner-table experience, this instills a connection between certainty and safety. From my later experience however, letting go of attachment to a position brings with it more safety than any amount of rightness ever did. The path to de-coupling rightness from worth takes commitment and energy. However it can be done and it leads to a much more peaceful place.

The need to be perfect: Similarly, the perfectionists among us have a pay-off for insisting that perfection is the only acceptable way. Again, worth has often been coupled with the achievement of perfection. While this view often leads to immense amounts of stress it also takes the uncertainty out of things. There's a right way and if I achieve it I'll be considered worthy. To acknowledge that there are many ways of doing things or that perfection, where it exists, is not often necessary, removes their north star - their map to worthiness. To know what perfection is provides an assurance that worthiness is possible.

Relevance to the dharma
So what has this to do with the dharma? The Buddha taught that a flourishing life is one where we embrace the whole catastrophe of the human experience - the good, the bad and the ugly. That's not to say we enjoy it all, but we are willing to have it all, know it all, be with it all. 

One of the key challenges the dharma puts before us then is to be willing to be with unpleasant emotions. Rather than automatically running from them as if they're a threat to us, the challenge is to get to know them fully. In order to do that we have to be willing to feel them. Uncertainty has an unpleasant feeling tone to it. So instead of holding our seat with reality we act with certainty, clinging instead to the pleasures of the payoffs listed above.

The problem is, uncertainty is reality a lot of the time. So more often than not, when we engage in thinking or speaking with certainty we are mis-representing reality to ourselves and others. This unwillingness to be with the vulnerable feeling of not knowing deprives us of learning, good decision making, creates tension and mistrust in our relationships, encourages judgment rather than compassion and leaves us out of touch with much of our human experience. The more we numb it, the less fully we experience our own life - the pleasure, the pain, and everything in between.


Here are some questions for reflection and some practical suggestions to help.

Questions for reflection:
  1. In what situations do you find yourself speaking with certainty: with black/white, right/wrong, good/bad language or with authoritative tones?
  2. What is the pay-off for you in doing this? What's the benefit?
  3. Imagine not doing this in those situations? What feelings arise? Why?
  4. Is there any mental activity that goes along with these feelings? Mental movies? Narratives or scripts running? 
  5. What does uncertainty feel like in the body? Can you sit with it for a few minutes and describe to yourself where in the body it shows up and what the sensations are like?

10 practical suggestions:
  1. Preface your opinions with phrases like: 
    - my current thinking on that is......
    - I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about that but my off-the-cuff thoughts are........
    - one perspective/ approach/ idea/ way of looking at it is.......
    - I'm just thinking out aloud here but...........
    - I haven't come to a conclusion about it but the angles I can see on the issue are........
    - I don't think I know enough about this to speak with authority but my initial thoughts are......
    - it's a complex issue and I don't think for a second that I've understood it fully but....
    - (rather than regurgitating someone else's opinion as your own) something my friend X said made some sense to me which was........
  2. Take notice of the impact on conversations when you use the prefacing phrases above.
  3. Ask a trusted friend to point it out to you when you are sounding very certain about things.
  4. Notice when you use extreme words e.g. always, never, completely, absolutely, all, none etc. Reflect on whether they are accurate descriptors. Where they aren't try replacing them with less extreme words e.g. often, sometimes, rarely, mostly, many, few.
  5. Ask a trusted friend to help pick you up on your extreme words.
  6. Admit it openly when you realise you were wrong about something or have changed your view on something. Notice what happens (including whether the world falls apart).
  7. Start noticing the presence of 'judging mind'. Enquire into this - what conditions lead to it arising? What impact does it have on you and others?
  8. Practice cutting judgments off before they come out of your mouth (both positive and negative)
  9. Practice 'thought stopping' with judgments about people
  10. Try replacing judgments with observations about and descriptions of what happens in you when you observe certain things - the patters of cause and effect.

For information about Bob Dick and his consulting services click here.

1 comment:

  1. This is excellent, thank you Lenorë. In fact, I printed copies and we discussed it at the Wellington New Zealand secular Buddhist group.