Going deeper

My mate Paul Jackson challenges the language used in questions like “what really matters?”

…in one discussion we were asked ‘Why are you here?’ and later ‘Why are you really here?’. The best answer I was given was that ‘really’ makes it more dramatic. Which may be fine, but this drama comes at a price

He’s picking up on some of the language used in the recent Art of Hosting event he and I went to in Ireland, and it’s certainly made me think. I think it’s very easy to have some desire for a “deeper” conversation but be quite clumsy in the way we articulate it and “depth” like all words comes with its own luggage. My request for you to go deeper may easily feel like a status play on my part, as if I know some mysterious depth that you don’t, or won’t, go to. Perhaps what would be more useful would be for to make a more subtle, and perhaps more vulnerable, statement about my experience that opens an enquiry rather than potentially setting up an inquisition.

I had to reread this line by Paul a couple of times, and I think it was worth the effort:

If we take emergence seriously and consider ‘systems thinking’ a worthwhile lens with which to view and describe, then it may be useful to drop this rather conflicting language of ‘really’ and ‘essentially’ and so forth. Realist and essentialist language gives the impression that our descriptions of what we are emergently contructing are somehow inadequate or that the way to improve upon them is by looking further for what is ‘real’ or ‘essential’.

There is a shadow side to sophisticated talk about complexity. Whilst we can easily congratulate ourselves for understanding things are complex, there’s usually some shadow need for it to be reduced to something that it isn’t. Thus claims to understand the “deep structure” are actually pretty dodgy. The subtext of some complexity gurus is basically: complexity is wonderfully mysterious but I understand it so much better than you, you’d better do as I say. We get the idea that no one can be in control, but we leak out our emotional desire for someone to be.

I think there’s a big trap here for facilitators, one that I know I fall into from time to time. In the moment, we think we have seen something the group hasn’t, and we sit there either portentously waiting for it, or pushing for it… and not noticing the status position we are now playing. One of the warning signs is that this is usually an effortful position. As I say in that link, it’s where we cross from enthusiasm to obsession.

Having said all of that, I personally quite liked the “really” elements of the questions in the particular context of this event. Maybe I was in the mood for a bit of drama. But, as ever, we easily forget how language doesn’t quite tie us together in the ways we think it does.

4 thoughts on “Going deeper

  1. Penny Walker

    Hi Johnnie,

    ‘really’ like this post.

    A slightly less dramatic casting of the question, (which appeals to my inability to ever have just one answer to a question) is:

    “is there anything else you want to say about why you’re here?”

    or something like that.

    Not implying a hierarchy of answers, where one is more ‘real’ than another, but acknowledging the multiplicity of motivation / purpose.

  2. Carol Schindler

    I too have found myself in that “effortful position”.

    Spent way too much of my life there in general.

    If I can recognize in the moment that that is where I am, I can usually breathe my way out of it. Then I can wait and watch what unfolds. It is always more exciting than what I was efforting.

  3. Ian Glendinning

    Interesting how these basic forms of language keep rearing their heads. Taking a straightforward question and adding an adverb / adjective, turning it into a rhetorical question that makes a point unrelated to the basic purpose of the question – to elicit an answer.

    I would guess in the host / participant hierarchical case, one way to add the drama without making the (accidental) rhetorical point at the expense of the participant is to adopt the “What to “we” really mean by X …” language – level any hierarchy. Though again a sophisticated audience will soon see that as thin disguise for “I know better …”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.