Making sense of people and events is a ubiquitous activity. Part of our morning routine is to make sense of the weather to decide appropriate clothing. When we join a new committee we figure out who’s who, what our roles are, and how we’ll relate to each other. When the nightly news reveals a raging bush fire, we work out whether to stay and fight, or flee. At both the trivial and the life-threatening level and in-between, we are constantly working out answers to the question ‘what does this mean?’
Sense making is an essential skill for confusing, uncertain, complex times. Facing multiple ‘wicked’ problems at the global, national and local levels, our ability to sustain a motivated effort to understand how we and others are ‘joining the dots’ is essential for our survival. If we want to make a difference we must be elegant sense makers.
Making a difference at micro and macro levels
Some of the most important ways we make a difference are at the micro level, those fleeting moments when we augment or diminish an experience. Examples are:
- Giving people a voice
- Seeking to understand another’s perspective
- Helping another person without acknowledgment
- Being an exemplar of professional behaviour
- Offering hope in the face of set backs
- Moving mountains so others can progress
- Exercising courtesy in trying circumstances.
Then there are the bigger contributions to making a difference: reaching a shared understanding amongst competing viewpoints, persuading people to make changes, deciding on a course of action, taking action against all odds.
Three factors difference makers must address
Regardless of the circumstances, making a difference often means dealing with three factors:
- Uncertainty: the situation is unfamiliar, there is insufficient information or a lack of confidence in the available information to be able to make a decision.
- Complexity: there is more information than can be processed or understood.
- Ambiguity: competing, conflicting or obscure interpretations are possible.
When these factors are present, people wonder what things mean and who to believe.
The difference maker is a credible, trustworthy person who gives coherence to complex issues, makes choices which guide action, and provides hope. Many people prefer to look to others to define what is real, what is fair, what should count, where they should be going. Difference makers are leaders who, by answering these questions, alleviate the burden of not knowing.
Regardless of the context, leading is a succession of moments, in which we help others make sense out of what’s happening. Whether events are within our control or not, what we do control is influencing how such events are seen and understood. This is the art of managing meaning.
Six skills of a sense-maker
Sense makers draw on a range of language, cognitive and interpersonal skills to manage meaning and build understanding. Six of them are:
Mindfulness: In order to make sense of a situation for others we first have to make sense for ourselves. We need to be consciously aware of our own thinking processes, beliefs and values and how we use these to filter information.
Intention: When it matters, sense makers approach situations purposefully. They set out, for example, to make a difference, to seek to understand, to build trust and goodwill, to model courteous behaviour. A conscious intent subtly affects our mental state as well as our behaviour.
Noticing: We are bombarded with details, cues, information, many of which go unnoticed. Sense makers are aware of what they should pay attention to and notice details that others may miss, particularly about a person’s language and thinking practices.
Suspending judgment: Assumptions about what someone else is thinking and feeling, what their intentions are, and what their behaviour means are the source of most glitches between people. Sense makers consciously suspend judgment in order to better listen and understand what is happening.
Listening for understanding: Listening is most difficult when we don’t like a person and/or their views, don’t understand a subject, disagree with a view or have no interest in the person and/or their views. These are the times when we most need to suspend judgment and make the effort to listen, with the intention of learning how they are ‘joining the dots’.
Linguistic flexibility: Sense makers have a wide repertoire of language practices that enable them to adapt to many circumstances. They are particularly adept at using questions to gain understanding and influence people past resistance. They can frame and reframe information to win acceptance of one meaning over another, to get to the heart of a matter, to make linkages between seemingly unrelated matters. And they can do this so that the matter makes sense to others.
And in the ‘real world’ …
When it comes to sense making practice, everyday experience is more complicated than the picture I’ve painted. Take the state of the economy. In a relatively short space of time we have observed:
An emerging situation, one that was ambiguous, complex and uncertain, become a named situation, Global Financial Crisis, further elevated to the shortened form – GFC.
Competing efforts to manage what this means for individual countries and companies, the planet, and individuals. Depending on who you are, your skill in managing meaning and capturing public attention through the media, is paramount. Linguistic flexibility easily slides into ‘spin’, potentially increasing cynicism and reducing trust. Key words known to dramatically affect people’s perceptions and behaviour are studiously avoided (recession, depression) until the evidence makes further denial impossible.
People look to leaders for reassurance and signs of a quick fix, despite most people knowing this is a wicked problem that does not lend itself to short-term solutions. Hope that the future will ‘return to normal’ is anxiously sought and cautiously offered, even though the chances of this happening literally are slim.
Continuing competing interpretations, rumours and news stories that fuel further uncertainty and ambiguity, generating fear, anxiety, frustration, despair as well as more efforts to manage meaning.
It’s a messy, complicated business this sense making. One of the key ways difference makers can make a difference, is by helping others to be skilled sense makers themselves, so they can be more discerning about what meanings they choose to accept.