Problem Solving In a Post-truth World
“They all die!” We were on our way out of a screening of Rogue One – A Star Wars Story, and the 8-to-10-year olds in the group were consumed by the realization that every single main character had died. This was not what they were expecting. To those of us who understood more about the saga, this was less shocking: We saw that the plans had gotten out to the Death Star in time, renewing the ongoing clash between the dark side and The Force: There would be another sequel.
The word rogue can be applied many ways, but a general definition is the idea of being outside of the norm — an outlier. On January 20, 2017, a new kind of rogue assumed the presidency of the United States. Since then, we have witnessed rogue behaviour—behaviour that, while consistent with the man, is inconsistent with perceptions of how things ‘should be’. The bottom line: Both money and meaning are up for grabs. And the stakes have never been higher.
Stephen Colbert coined the term ‘Truthiness’ in 2006. Today, more than a decade later, it has never been more apt. Terms such as ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ have raised questions about how people believe and perceive the world around them. The question many are asking is, How can so many people have such differing views on things that appear to be factual?
Already, we have seen the death of many assumptions that have guided policy, politicians, people and the press for decades. Arguably, this all started with the death of consensus—a shifting of the sands of belief. One thing is certain: A situation with no shared understanding is truly wicked.
The next four years are going to be a bonanza for those of us in the practice of tackling wicked problems. What else would you call a situation with little precedent, where ambiguity reigns and where new languages are being spoken? Economic inequality, healthcare and earth care were wicked-enough problems already—but now, we get to work on them under constantly-shifting baselines. Not just the baselines we forget about that have ‘normalized’ situations, such as the ongoing loss of marine life, but new ones that determine what we want for our society—and for our world.
Going forward, we are going to have to gather some strange bedfellows. As one reporter recently pointed out, both the media and the intelligence services are now in the black books. These two—usually on opposite sides — now find themselves being singled out and looking to support each other. What new mashups will be created? What new alliances? What new possibilities can be explored? What new opportunities exist for creating shared understanding?
There is a new language in town, and since getting out of
town is not always possible, we need to learn it and use it—rather than deny it. In Connecting Hearts and Minds, culturalist Greg
Nees shows that people today are living in separate psychological realities that are built upon separate sources of information and the human brain’s desire to avoid cognitive dissonance. These realities are maintained by searching for facts that support our beliefs while ignoring those facts that don’t. Because the warring sides are each defending a ‘virtual reality’, they are prone to see anyone who does not agree with them as the enemy, and are thus unable to talk and work well with ‘them’.
To manage this, Nees argues, we need more face-to-face communication based on the principle of ‘safety first, truth second’. In order to avoid triggering people, we need to create safety first— because when the fight-or-flight response kicks in, a productive conversation becomes impossible. Once a modicum of trust is built up, we can then begin to explore the facts in a way that allows the truth to emerge. Nees points to the importance of three particular skills for managing the challenges of today’s dueling realities:
1. Self-awareness and deep listening. Deep listening is not only listening to words, it’s listening for meaning and connection. When we become more self-aware, we automatically become better able to listen to people whose viewpoints might otherwise trigger us.
2. Switching viewpoints. Learning to switch viewpoints is a key skill for creating safety for the other person. When we can switch viewpoints fluidly, we become better listeners and communicators.
3. Beginner’s mind. When we create enough safety — both for ourselves and for the other person — we become able to suspend the pretense that ‘we know all the answers’. Only then can we allow the truth to emerge in a way that enables us to escape dueling realities.
Like the rebels in Rogue One, we might not all make it out of this era unscathed, but the optimists among us believe that this ‘new normal’ could actually be the best of times for making progress on the world’s wicked problems.