Most of us are trained to be problem solvers. Give us a problem and we’re on it. We’ve got tools, we’ve had experience. No worries, we’ve got this one. But what if the situation that confronts us includes options that seem to be in opposition, each is problematic within itself, and because of their importance taking any one side creates a whole slew of other problems? What then? Do the analysis and comparative information then use what you’ve found to choose the least bad between them? It’s easy to see a cascading effect of undesired consequences that ensue either way. You find yourself on the horns of a dilemma. More often than not people treat oppositional forces as either/or dilemmas, justifying decisions as doing the best they could when faced with nothing but bad choices. What if you approached the situation a different way, one where better options could emerge? What if instead of problems, we were to treat the situation at hand as a paradox where the seeming oppositional “problems” could be managed? In addressing issues of sustainability there are many paradoxes we must manage to obtain optimal solutions that dynamically balance the forces by which people can make a living while being in harmony with ones that maintain our life-supporting planet.
As an example of how “problem vs paradox” works, let’s look at an issue that has come up in quite a few communities. More than a little research indicates that getting children into school earlier and keeping them in school longer will raise their ability to provide for themselves and their families over a lifetime. But many poor families rely on their children to help out around the house and take care of siblings so parents can earn enough money to sustain the family in the short term. The wrong question is how can we solve this problem. A better question is, how might we create dynamic balance with this paradox that provides children good education while also allowing enough time for children to contribute to their families?
Most of Us Encounter Paradoxes Everyday, Most Often Treating Them As Problems
Trying to get on the train in Seoul, I told the train conductor checking tickets that this was my train. He responded in Korean, putting up his hand to communicate stop, interpreted as I could not get on this train. Using my expert communication skills, I said it louder in English and he said NO louder in Korean. Obviously no resolution is possible with both of us in that digging-in-to-my position mode. What else do you think I might have been able to try if I had recognized this situation as a paradox to manage?
This conversation is like many of our key sustainability conversations. Global warming is a topic where this happens frequently. People proclaim strongly held positions on the subject supporting them by evidence using terminology from different domains where common ground for understanding is missing so people continue to restate their positions more and more loudly, each urging others to take their side.
When we start out framing an issue as a problem with right and wrong, it leaves little room for common understanding and being able to move a conversation forward. If we changed the way we frame the conversation and look at it as a paradox to be managed, this provides space in the conversation to use a common language, move to a common understanding of the facts and allows us a path to move forward where we can look for compromises that can help us manage the paradox.
When I encounter people or groups that are stuck in their own position, I often start out with the Dr. Seuss brief video on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZmZzGxGpSs
To obtain different results we need to be willing to work in different ways on issues where we have strongly held positions. If we do not, then we will be bypassed in the conversation just like the two Zax.
To learn more about Sustainability Problems vs. Paradoxes read Chapter 4 in the The Sustainable Enterprise Fieldbook: Building New Bridges. Click here to purchase