A Sense making parable

Imagine you are on tour, in a bus, with a tour group. The tour leader announces they wish to share some information about the landscape you are travelling through, to help with understanding what you are looking at. Here is what they tell you.

Take a moment to look out the right side windows for two seconds. Now shift to the left side and look out the window. Notice that spread across the land are cylindrical structures, some white, some grey, brown, even black. Starting half way up these structures, and reaching to the top, is some green stuff. These cylindrical structures are commonly known as trees. Also notice a particular aspect of these trees. Most are holding a vertical position. This is a feature of trees in this part of the country.

Now two aspects of this holding the vertical position is of interest to scientists. One is, how long can a tree hold this position before it needs to shift to the horizontal position for a rest. Humans also hold the vertical position. Some of you may find that after several hours of holding the vertical position you need to take a nap or siesta. Most people tend to hold on a bit longer until later in the day, waiting for the Big Blue Blanket in the sky to be replaced by the Big Black Blanket in the sky. They then move to the horizontal position, known as ‘being under the covers of darkness’.

Now scientists have asked the question: When do trees take the horizontal position? They’ve checked the historical records and found, yes, there have been sightings of trees in the horizontal position. They have established that most trees do, however, hold the vertical position. Scientists have come up with two theories to explain the absence of trees in the horizontal position. One is, that trees inclined to recline have gone the way of the Tasmanian Tiger, they are now extinct. The other theory is that trees have evolved to find ways to take a kip while standing, much like horses do.

The second question that intrigues scientists is: When trees do take up the horizontal position how do they become vertical again? They have come up with several possible explanations. One is that the trees wait for a strong wind to give them a lift up. Another is they gain the help of neighbouring trees to bend over and use their branches to lever them up. A third is to call on hordes of their winged friends – birds, bats, bees – to gather in the branches, flap their wings in unison and as they lift off, take the tree with them.

Now if you think about it for a moment, there are problems with each of these explanations. In the absence of any direct sightings we can’t verify which explanation applies.

So as you travel today, look out for any horizontal trees, as scientists still gather information. And if you do spot one, keep watching and see if you observe the tree shifting to the vertical position, for you may be the first person to win the Nobel prize for science for solving this mystery.

While reading this account you may have been amused at its absurdity. You may have skipped to the end because you know that this information bears no connection to reality.

Yet that is the point. People like to make sense of mysteries, events that they cannot explain. The reason why we dismiss this account as absurd is because we have knowledge about trees which override this information. We ‘know’ that this information is not true. It doesn’t fit with the ‘facts’ about trees as we currently know them. We don’t believe this information.

What is curious about people is that they do believe information which is untrue, which is contradicted by the facts, that is contrary to how the world actually works.

How is this relevant to our daily lives? Take consultation processes. Engaging in meaningful consultation with citizens and stakeholder groups is likely to reveal some pretty wacky views. This means views that aren’t supported by the ‘facts’, are driven by an ideology (religious, political, moral, philosophical), are half-true or which only ‘work’ in some circumstances. Skills are then needed to find out the thinking behind the views in order to find ways to explore those views without people becoming defensive or confrontational.

Desirable leadership practices include:

  • Exploring multiple possible interpretations before diagnosing a situation.
  • Testing assumptions about what needs to happen before committing to action.
  • Using rich questioning to seek detail and information from others in order to understand a situation or issue.
  • Presenting an argument clearly, concisely and in a compelling manner, going to the heart of the issue with speed and clarity.

This may work when people are open to rational, logical persuasion. Such an approach is flawed when it comes to dealing with ‘wacky’ views. People are not persuaded to change their minds by logic alone. Even when people hold views that are clearly contradicted by ‘the facts’ they will find ways to continue to support their views. Read letters to the newspaper editors each time an IPPC report comes out to see how people can find ‘scientific evidence’ to support their views.

People identify strongly with the views they hold. To have to give up a long-held idea can be anathema for some. It’s tantamount to taking away a child’s favourite toy. There is a large body of evidence on what influences people’s behaviour and thinking. The UK Cabinet Office’s material provides a useful starting point.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.