Integrative Thinking And Empathy in Systems

Seeing What You're Reaching For And With

Seeing What You’re Reaching For And With

Award-winning Canadian author and University of Toronto professor David Gilmour came under social/media fire for comments made about his stance of only including male, middle-aged writers in his list of readings for his undergraduate English courses because that is the experience he resonates with most. Drawing on what you know is both wise and foolish when looking at it from the perspective of systems change and by looking within and beyond our own boundaries we can see how. 

Richard Katz knows what it is like to be an outsider and see the world from deep within and far from outside a culture. Katz, a former professor and elder with the First Nations University of Canada and Harvard-trained anthropologist, was one of the first non-native individuals to be welcomed into the lives of the Kalahari Ju|’hoansi peoples of central Africa. The Ju|’hoansi are known to Westerners as ‘the Bushmen‘ and were the ‘stars’ of the film The Gods Must Be Crazy. His journey and decades-long experience with these peoples are chronicled in two remarkable books on healing and culture.

Dr Katz worked closely with my undergraduate advisor and mentor, Dr. Mary Hampton, a remarkable community psychologist and her husband (and elder) Dr. Eber Hampton, and would occasionally come to meet and speak with us eager students and the healing communities in Regina, where I studied. In life, but particularly in working with affairs of the heart and soul (which is the stuff of healing and community), Katz would say:

Talk only of what you know

I didn’t fully understand the meaning of this when I heard it until much later in life. As one interested in the science as well as the art of healing I struggled to understand how we couldn’t speak of things unknown if we were seeking discovery — which is about making the unknown, known. Over time I came to ‘know’ more about what Katz meant:  that our perspective is one of many in a system and it is one, that if contemplated and welcomed with an open mind and heart, is valid and true while also being apart and unique. While we hold a stance those around you have their own perspective and stance that is both the same and different and in this lies the heart of healing.

Katz was trying to warn students and other researchers against the idea that we can just go into some place and ‘know it’ without being in it and that even in immersing ourselves in the worlds of others we are still but a traveller, just as they are in ours. He also suggested that we can’t know other systems without knowing our own (my words, not his).

It is the paradox that we can connect on a fundamental human level and still hold an independent, personal account. Being at one and apart at the same time. This is a hallmark feature of a complex system. It is also what makes integrative thinking and empathy so critical in such systems.

Knowing me, knowing you

This brings us back to professor Gilmour. Speaking to the online culture magazine Hazlitt, David Gilmour said that he doesn’t teach books written by women, just men. This has caused a predictable uproar in the social/ media (see Storify link below).

In an interview with the Toronto Star, Gilmour tried to clarify his comments:

“My only point is that I tend to teach people whose lives are close to my own,” said Gilmour, who has taught at the university for seven years. “I’m an old guy and I understand about old guys.”

On the surface, Gilmour is doing just what Dick Katz implored us all to do: speak of what you know. Gilmour knows ‘old guys’ (who are White and straight) and not women or other ‘groups’. He is being authentic and true to his experience.

What Gilmour is missing on this topic is the empathy that is so important in working with complexity. Teaching English to undergraduates might not be an obvious example of systems thinking and complexity, but it can be. As Gilmour points out, English is about a point of view, which is another way to say its about where you stand. The writing of the ‘old guys’ Gilmour includes in his courses are able telling a narrative from a point of view. That makes for good literature.

Yet, it is the reader’s ability to adopt, interpret, experience and critique the point of view of a story character that makes a literary work compelling. That is in large part about empathy. Great writers make empathy easy. By being empathic, we see a setting or context — a system — that might be unfamiliar to us in ways that seem familiar by bringing us momentarily into the world of the other. This familiarity allows us to draw on the experience we have in other settings and contexts and apply them to the new one.

To the degree this has harmony and congruence with the narrative being told is the measure of fit between data from one context to another.

This is what we do in systems work. For Gilmour, the complexity in his system comes not from his perspective, but that of his students. They are women, maybe GLBT, most certainly from other age and cultural groups and geographic contexts. Gilmour is asking his students to empathize with his ‘old guy’ narrative while forgetting that he can empathize with the narrative of someone who is Asian, queer, or speaks Catalan in drawing narratives that can be welcomed into the classroom without it being the perspective he’s most familiar with. Indeed, it is when we extend ourselves beyond the most familiar narratives to finding something resonant in other narratives that we learn, discover and innovate.

Integrative (Design) Thinking

Integrative thinking is a concept that Roger Martin, also from the University of Toronto, has made popular and integrated into the teaching at the Rotman School of Business. (Indeed, Rotman’s marketing material brands itself as providing “a new way to think”). This style of thinking, which Martin has written about extensively through his research on CEO decision making, has been closely linked with design thinking, which is also tied closely to thinking about systems. It is about holding different ideas together at the same time and building models of reality through the exploration of these opposable thoughts.

It is a vehicle for empathy to flow through connecting feelings and observations with thoughts and prototyping actions. This is ultimately what we do when we design for engagement in complex systems. We aim to place ourselves in the system we seek to influence, learn where we are in relation to the boundaries we see, set those boundaries (maintaining flexibility throughout) and then build mechanisms to get feedback and probe the culture we are a part of — organizationally, individually and so on — to enable us to take some action. This continues in an iterative manner throughout our engagement with the system.

Integrative thinking combined with empathy allows us to engage human systems we don’t fully know in a meaningful way that recognizes our limits — speaking to Katz’s point about ‘talking about what we know’ — while opening up possibilities for communion on issues of shared concern.

This means that we can know others, but also that we can only know them as ourselves. It also means that the systems change we seek in our social world is both an intensely personal journey and one that shares our common humanity, regardless of whether we are looking at shifting an organization, a community or a global culture.

Perhaps by taking a bigger view, professor Gilmour might find the same passion in literature that is from a different perspective and ultimately find how its also very much the same.

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