This is the fourth post in a series about Learning Conversation Guidelines. See the first post here, the second here, and the third here.
Any conversation with a purpose, from formal meetings to classroom or family discussions, will benefit from some basic ground rules. The first two, listen for understanding and speak from the heart, rely on the third, suspend certainty, just as suspending certainty only works with a commitment to following the first two guidelines.
Suspending certainty means suspending our assumptions. It does not mean that we give up our opinions or beliefs; it means merely that we put them on hold for the sake of the conversation. As David Bohm describes it, we suspend them before us, like a ball suspended from the ceiling that hangs just in our line of vision.
We must suspend any certainty that we have the answer, that we know the result, or that we are the expert. Like listening deeply, this is a skill that requires practice, largely because how we define ourselves is often tied to rigid belief systems, which can be so deeply rooted within us that we are unaware of their influence on our thoughts and actions.
We live in a world of self-generating beliefs, beliefs that remain largely untested. These beliefs often inform how we react to others, sometimes not even at the conscious level but in our body language and tone.
We adopt many beliefs because they are based on conclusions; however, those conclusions are inferred from what we observe and understand through the personal lens of our ABBAs: attitudes, beliefs, biases, and assumptions.
- We tacitly register some data and ignore other data.
- We don’t realize we are making interpretations.
- Our conclusions feel obvious, so we see no need to test our views.
- We see data that confirms our perspective and miss data that does not.
When we take ideas and information for granted as obvious, we overlook the fact that many critical pieces of information are not available to us, such as someone’s true feelings or intentions as well as events that are forgotten or undisclosed. We also overlook the fact that we do not work with complete information in any given situation. Therefore, we are unaware of the fact that we cannot operate with complete certainty.
All decisions are made with either incomplete or inaccurate information.
What can we do to suspend certainty and sustain safe space throughout the Learning Conversation?
- Explain and test our views and assumptions.
- Probe participants’ thinking with high-quality questions.
- Develop a shared understanding of differences.
While facilitating discussions with differing opinions, use language that will expand the conversation and enable participants to clarify and discuss their thinking in a nonthreatening way that doesn’t limit or close the conversation down, developing barriers and hurt feelings. Be aware of the types of questions you ask and how they are phrased. Are they leading toward your own conclusion? Are they closed? Or do they support safe space and sharing of diverse opinions, doubts, and concerns? Examples of quality questions are listed below.
- Instead of Don’t you agree? ask In what ways is your view different?
- Instead of Do others feel that way too? ask Does anyone see that the same or differently?
- Instead of Do you understand what I’m trying to say? ask What’s your reaction to what I am trying to say?
- Instead of Did you do that because of X? ask What led you to that thinking or conclusion?
- Instead of Why don’t you just try what I am suggesting? ask What about this idea raises doubts for you?
- Instead of Why don’t you just tell me what’s on your mind? ask What prevented you from sharing that information with me?
It is essential for everyone to realize that their inferences and decisions are not set in stone. Their inferences and decisions can change and evolve based on the new data that become available to them. In other words, the decisions represent their “best thinking in the moment.” They—and you—should feel comfortable and even encouraged to change your minds over the course of learning during the conversation or over several conversations.
Featured image by Kenny Louie.