“Unknowing” or Constructive Uncertainty

Constructive UncertaintyToo much certainty can lead to conflict & rigidity

I’ve been very struck recently by the whole concept of “unknowing” or constructive uncertainty. We all know that blind allegiance to beliefs, in particular religious beliefs, results in a lot of conflict throughout the world. Anthony de Mello tells a great story in his book “Awareness”, about two blind people who independently ask a third party to describe the colour green. “It’s like soft music”, he tells one, and “It’s like soft stain”, he tells the other, only to come across the two of them the next day beating the lard out of each other. “It’s like the sound of soft music!!!!!” “No, it’s not, it’s like the sensation of soft satin!!!!!!” I love this story because it illustrates so well how our commitment to differing interpretations of the same thing or concept can create discord, even when we actually have no idea what we’re talking about.
We all need a degree of certainty in our lives, some more than others, but too much certainty can lead to rigidity and an inability to listen and to see the wider picture. Interestingly, Jennifer Kavanagh, in her great “A little book of Unknowing” talks about the increased need for certainty applying equally to religious fundamentalists and unwavering atheists.

Taking a step back

In business and politics, it can be seen as a weakness not to have all the answers at your fingertips. Leaders are commonly criticised for taking their time making decisions – the criticism of Obama’s cautious response to various crises springs to mind – but surely we want our leaders to consider the options and implications of their actions?

“Facts” and beliefs are constantly changing

No one knows it all. Throughout history, “facts”, beliefs and recognised wisdom have been repeatedly disproved. Last year, when discussing the solar system with my son, we accepted the revised wisdom that there are now only eight. Since January, however, it seems that we may be able to again claim that there are nine, as scientists are now hypothesising that a planet 10 times the size of Earth exists beyond Neptune.

Why Constructive Uncertainty?

Constructive uncertainty prompts us to question our preconceptions and assumptions. It is a great leadership skill – after all, it involves listening, as opposed to telling and we all know how important that is. Howard Ross refers to is as “turning exclamation marks into question marks”. It is particularly useful in addressing unconscious bias – taking a step back and challenging our own assumptions about other people and situations. And, let’s face it, aren’t open people with a curious mind just nicer to be around???????

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