The Delicious Discomfort in Not Knowing

I just love this as a title for a conference presentation. Props to Neil Denny for really getting on board with the story telling bandwagon and showing us how to do it so well, from the title of his talk to the delivery and beyond.

I don’t know where to start with Neil’s talk. How about telling you he’s a recovering divorce lawyer? He somehow found his way to the L&D and personal development world, and has been riding a pretty amazing wave for nearly two years now. His is a success story in a lot of ways, and if you get a chance to connect with this guy I encourage you to make it happen.

What was one of his bold assertions in the talk? That there would be no stats in his presentation. This wasn’t because he was trying to be deliberately obtuse, but because the point served him well. In the corporate world we place a great amount of certainty in ‘knowing’ things because we have the data and information which tells us a story. We interpret that story to fit a narrative, and that narrative informs people of what is happening. He used a great example to illustrate this – in 2012 we were told by politicians we were in a double-dip recession, only to be told months later that actually we never were, and instead the economy was just flat. The data in both instances was the same, the story just changed to suit the narrative that needed to be told.

Interesting, huh?

He went on to talk about how arguments are won, and how they’re not. He asked this simple question, which was brilliant “How many arguments have you won, by proving the other person wrong? It just doesn’t happen”. It just doesn’t happen. He was so right about this. Understanding comes from taking the time to listen to the other person. Once we have that, we’re better able to make an informed decision about how to move forward. If we choose to support the other person and work together, we all get a better result. If we choose to be firm in our belief and not budge, we will only create friction and potentially never achieve anything. I say potentially because there have been some disputes won by being firm in your belief. What was key, even in those instances is both parties willing to talk and resolve their differences – think of women’s rights in the UK.

One of the parts of the talk which really got me thinking was when he shared the ‘collusion box’ with us. This is what happens when we are in conflict with someone:
1) They do (something I find annoying) – e.g. Bob started ranting about a mistake a team member made
2) I feel – annoyed that my team member is getting a hard time
3) I do – I respond by blaming Bob and his team for not following the process
4) They see – evidence that this was only going to fail because of my attitude

And what happens when we get stuck in this is that it becomes a vicious cycle of bad behaviour reinforcing bad behaviour. The point at which things can change, is where you recognise that you can do something different. You don’t have to respond in a way which reinforces a negative behaviour, you have the capacity in you to make a different decision, and thereby creating something new and different.

The last thing I’d like to recount is about the importance of ‘play’. Neil helped us to remember that if you introduce games into the learning environment, you create an innate sense of not knowing, because every game is unpredictable by its very nature. I loved this, and it’s something I remain keenly aware of. Introducing the right game can increase the learning a group goes through, and can really help create solid learning. All too often though, we’re left with doing assessments and other forms of testing learning which doesn’t always work. Even worse, the work environment almost demands that games aren’t used because they’re not serious. I’ve written about this before, and how purposeful games and simulation exercises can often bring about great learning.

So there was loads from this session I enjoyed, not least the delivery from Neil himself. He is a witty, charming and intelligent gent and I thoroughly enjoy his company. You should seek him out if you want something interesting at an event of yours.

Importantly, make sure you sign up to the League of Not Knowing.