Crisis and exceptional circumstances give a brand new boost to issues, emotions, and thoughts. What remains hidden below the surface in “normal life”, rushes to the surface, becomes more profound, and gets polarised. The tensions that surface during these exceptional times are a true gift for learning. Tensions are the driving forces for learning, if we allow them to be.
Tensions and the polarisation of extremes tempt us to resolve issues, to fight, to defend the “right” opinion or viewpoint. Another common alternative to tensions is to hide and try to escape the disagreements or conflicts that have emerged. As a result of this avoidance, we will often develop, involuntarily, even larger conflicts to defuse the tensions.
Tensions identified in many working communities include a mismatch between the needs for acceleration and slowing down, working alone or in collaboration, and short-term solutions and a longer-term perspective. Tensions between individual freedom and the common interest, for example, are giving an undertone to society as a whole.
Could we have other options than resolving tensions or sweeping them under the carpet?
FROM CONFLICT STALEMATES TOWARDS CLUES TO TENSIONS
A tension connects two opposing discourses to each other. Even though tensions may feel unpleasant, there is a huge creative force behind two extremes. Elevation differences in the stream of water create potential energy, which becomes a force as the water moves – the greater the difference, the higher the potential and the resulting energy. A crossbow is tightened so that, when released, it sends the arrow as far as possible.
Similar energy is also involved in tensions between different ways of thinking and operating. It would be quite useful to know how to use these metaphors of nature’s tensions in the tensions produced in human communities to increase mutual understanding and learning.
THE TENSIONS WITHIN AN ORGANISATION GIVE RISE TO SOMETHING NEW
In Humap, my colleagues and I have thought about how we could turn the course of an emerging conflict, and try to find out what tensions have brought us into this situation. In order to tune ourselves in an investigative state of mind, we need to open a few gates. Good questions are passwords.
The first gate will take us to a common map.
The map provides a framework for the journey to cross even difficult terrain safely. We ask together: What is the situation we are in? How difficult is it? How important is the issue? Who is affected by this? What are the emotions, interpretations, and facts related to the situation? All members of the community must be heard on these matters before any further steps towards the next gate can be made. Emotions have to be heard and accepted, because they will otherwise cloud our senses and judgement.
Once the necessary emotions and experiences are shared, accepted and unravelled in the first phase, we can focus on determining and identifying the tension at the core of the situation.
Another gate opens to a scene in a high camp.
We can ask: What is the tension involved? How do we want to study it? What are we aiming for? What are we ready for? What am I ready for? Mutual commitment to learning is the driving force here. It is important to name the different “poles” creating tensions so that they can be recognised without placing more value on either one. It is a different matter to name the poles of these tensions with the words striving – laziness rather than determination – contemplation. If we can see the strengths and usefulness of both angles while identifying them, we can build something new together. Something where these opposing perspectives can be used as required in various situations. We create collective a wisdom that is more than the solutions each individual can reach on their own.
After the first two gates, we may already find it easier to open the gates of increasing understanding, experimenting new operating methods and reflection, all of which are stops along the learning path. Even though the path is neither direct nor even, at best, the steps taken form a route towards a culture that uses tensions as a creative force.
FACE-TO-FACE AND DIGITALLY
Exceptional circumstances have boosted us gently towards building a new kind of process. That is why we want to shake the beliefs people have of the necessary preconditions for dealing with tensions and conflicts. Since we have been in the middle of direct conflicts even before face-to-face working became impossible, we have had to think about continuing processes digitally. There is a strong belief according to which it is necessary to build trust in face-to-face situations, particularly in cases involving emotions. Being forced to do otherwise, we have learned a great deal from the added value of digital work for increasing mutual understanding while being aware of its challenges.
A particular challenge in digital work is that the comprehensive communication space (words, facial expressions, gestures, positions, distances, touch) in face-to-face encounters is narrower in a digital environment. At the same time, we have noticed that this is also a strength. In a digital process, we need to consider the steps at which we stop in more detail. Thus, we will be able to ponder complicated and highly emotional questions in suitably sized pieces and more aptly, perhaps also from a slightly more remote standpoint and with “cooler” emotions. This kind of processing gives time for formulating thoughts and minimises the lure of provocation. By including writing, photos and videos in a digital platform, we can create diverse and responsible dialogue – what if we could see things like this?