Friday, February 02, 2007

Appropriate Actions – Unspoken Assumptions, Beliefs about “what is right” & Goals

It is not possible for a group of people to agree on a set of actions that should be taken in response to circumstances unless there is agreement on the assumptions, beliefs about “what is right” and ultimate goals. If there is fundamental disagreement between groups or individuals about any of these things then there are two possible outcomes. One is that one party will dominate (either physically, emotionally or due to the structure of relationships/authority) and the second outcome is that there will be direct conflict leading to a new structure of authority. This conflict can be physical (war and fighting), emotional (oppression, ridicule), financial (sanctions, boycotting) or legal (lawsuits, elections). The party that wins in this conflict has the opportunity to initiate their preferred agenda and set of actions.

All to often in communication between parties we do not take the time to understand the unspoken assumptions, beliefs and goals of all participants. We like to jump directly to the discussion of goals and then apply arguments that make sense based on our own unique set of assumptions, beliefs and goals. A good example is global warming. For the sake of argument I’ll discuss this issue in simple terms of two different parties. The first party is represented by people that believe that global warming due to human activity is a bad thing. The second group is represented by people that either are not willing to acknowledge that change is occurring or that if it is occurring it isn’t really that bad of a change. “What’s wrong with winters being a few degrees warmer?” is a common question from this second group. At this point in the debate it is often the first group that will make suggestions for actions that will prevent the continued trend or will potentially reverse the trend. The second group, coming from a completely different set of beliefs, assumptions and goals, does not agree on the course of action and therefore tries to erect road-blocks to prevent any action.

The only way around this dead-end is to initiate a conversation that goes to the root assumptions, beliefs and goals of the parties involved. It may be that there is substantial common ground among the parties involved so that a common set of actions can be developed that fits for all parties. It may not be possible.

What do you do when it isn’t possible? War, unilateral action…

Often the most confusing situations arise when all parties involved assume that they are operating with the same set of assumptions, goals and beliefs. It may be that there is common agreement on the high-level goals, assumptions and beliefs but there are radically different “secondary” goals, beliefs or assumptions at work.

Any time that you find yourself in a situation where there is confusion regarding suggestions for actions it is a good idea to step back and identify the goal, belief or assumption that is behind the action. You may discover that the source of the confusion is a difference at this level.

1 comment:

Web Monger said...

The dichotomy exists because even though the explicit goal is change, all parties will work to maintain the status quo.

Maintaining existing state is the secondary goal you are talking about. Examining existing systems will give one a better understanding of the secondary goals.

Using your example, the primary goal is to eliminate global warming. Everyone can agree on that. The unspoken goal is to maintain existing social, political and corporate systems. The political system's goal is to maintain power (get re-elected), the corporate system's goal is to maintain fiscal growth (shareholder return) and the social system's goal is to maintain existing support systems (social and economic relationships).

Systems will change only when forced to by outside influence. Political parties are coming around as the electorate demand change. Politicians notoriously drift in political wind. Corporate systems will listen when there is an economic advantage. Social systems will change when the condition of their lives change --i.e.: they can't afford gasoline to drive to their job, church or sporting event (social support system).

When you look across the table at the other party, the only question they are asking is, "What's in it for me."