"The nature of experience and the process of sense-making can lead to a situation where everyone is having a different experience of the same event, and everyone is making up stories about each other's experiences, the stories get worse and worse, and, over time, a toxic environment of gossip and distrust settles in... 4 out of 5 conflicts between people at work are a result of this process: people have made up inaccurate stories to make sense of others' behaviors, and over time these stories have led to a total breakdown of collaboration." -- Gervase Bushe, "Learning from Collective Experience," OD Practitioner (Vol. 41 No. 3, 2009)
Have you ever worked in a toxic environment? Or been on a committee or volunteer organization where misunderstandings and miscommunications not only lead to hurt but get in the way of productive service? Or gone to a school where competition is so fierce the students are at each other's throats and exclusive cliques squabble constantly? It seems to me that people's different experiences of the same environment, and the stories they construct about others as they compete for limited resources, pose incredible hurdles to collaboration and community.
I'm reading this article as part of my coursework on "Intervening in a System," but I think these points have relevance far beyond the workplace. And, fortunately, the article doesn't just name the problem (though I think that's the first step to healing -- to understand that the making up of stories to explain others' behaviors is often the root of conflict) but it offers a solution. A complicated and awkward solution, I think -- at least initially -- but I can imagine it could work -- if everyone agreed to try it.
It involves communication, of course: a structure designed to facilitate speaking, hearing, and acknowledging people's personal experiences of situations. Experience, says Bushe, "is composed of 4 elements: observations, thoughts, feelings, and wants. Observations are what a video recorder would pick up. Thoughts are all mental constructs. Feelings are sensations and emotions. Wants are motives, aspirations, objectives, and desires." Presumably if we can openly communicate what we are experiencing in these four arenas, it will help people understand the motivation behind our behaviors.
Not that all people are aware of their experiences at all of these levels, but "from the point of view of this model, the key to self-awareness for leadership and consulting effectiveness is the ability to become aware of your moment-to-moment experience...In order to learn from experience, people have to recognize that 'my truth' is not 'the truth.'"
Hmm. So the solution, he says, lies in presence, self-awareness, understanding and communication. The question is -- how do we get to that point?