Consultation vs Persuasion

I just got back from a luncheon-talk on a mine proposal.  It was interesting in that I think I learned some things about the project.  It was a bit hard to tell if I learned something useful because the talk was designed to shape my thinking in the way they wanted me to see things.  It was geared toward me leaving with the impression that there is very little cause for concern.  But I listen with a critical ear.  It was a competition between my critical ear and his persuasive abilities.


There was a buzz as I waited to buy my ticket.  People expected a show.  And they were right!  We patiently and politely waited until the presenter delivered his presentation and then the audience unleashed their questions that were intended to find flaws in his information or discredit his motives.  I became fascinated with the process.

The speaker was presenting a set of data that lead to the logical conclusion that there were no causes for concern.  He hoped to shape the direction of thought for a group of people.  He did not include information that would take people in another direction.  It was focused and strategic.  Essentially the intention was to persuade, which is the linear response to the requirement to interact with the public.  The audience’s job was to find holes in his logic, or identify possible problems.  Or agree, of course.  We all unconsciously knew the rules of the game.

It made me start to think about the circular option for public information sessions which would be Consultation.  Consultation is a two way exchange of information where the parties are transparently and interactively sharing ideas without a set understanding of where the end point should be.  It is open and inclusive.  You know it will end when the meeting time is over, but you don’t preconceive what will come out of the meeting.  There is a trust that the collective wisdom of the group will result in an outcome that no one party could have devised on their own.images-8

Timing becomes a very important factor in whether you follow a circular or linear public information process.  Consultation needs to happen early in the project before people are set on a particular direction and thousands of dollars have been spent.  Persuasion is a late stage method, when the meaning of what you are doing has been agreed upon and it is time to be productive.

Persuasion uses power which matches the Max Weber definition, “to assert your will even against the will of others”, hopefully towards the best good for all.  As international conflict mediator Adam Kahane stated in his book Power and Love “There is no way to change the status quo without discomforting those who are comfortable with the status quo.”  Consultation is rooted in a different definition of power.  It sees power as being all you are capable of being and wanting others to be all that they can be.

Problems occur when you are calling a process consultation when it is really persuasion.

Meaning vs Direction

Before there was writing, oral cultures listened to stories and paid attention to the meaning of things.   Meaning attaches to your heart and is easy to carry around all the time.  It is easy to remember.  The greatest example is the traditional understanding that “we are the caretakers of the land” because the land is the source of life for us.  Once you carry this in your heart you know how to behave in an infinite variety of situations.  You can apply this value first and then every action makes sense from there.images-4

On September 9-12, 2013, the Gwich’in Tribal Council (GTC) brought together Aboriginal people from all over northern Canada to talk about the opportunities and challenges in their journeys to implement self-government.  At a conference John B. Zoe a Tłı̨chǫ Government Negotiator began by noting the common refrain that First Nations must be “strong like two people”.  They want to move easily from their traditional ways to the ways of business today and back again.

All aboriginal nations are challenged to walk with their feet in two worlds these days.  They want to participate in the prosperity of today and they want to maintain their connection to the land, each other and their ancestors.  Every leader searches to find a way to express this concept to their people and to the people they do business with.  This is challenging because Western culture places a strong focus on direction.  Aboriginal people are placed in the position of trying to describe concepts that are grounded in the importance of meaning to people that assume making progress towards their goal is what needs to be focused on.

However, Western culture is beginning to recognize the importance of meaning as well.  Simon Sinek  gives a TED Talk on great leadership that is saying the same thing (one of the ten most popular ted talks).  He makes the point that success today is rooted in understanding and sharing the meaning of your work, then how you will express that meaning, and finally what the product is.  Meaning first.  images-5

Sinek makes the point that Apple is a stand out computer company because they started with “we are the company that innovates”.  Then they rethought how we use computers, music, television.  As a result we buy Apple for a variety of products because we are excited about the innovations and the new, fun things they can bring to our lives.  It’s the concept that excites us – the meaning.

I used to take my kids to a small First Nation fishing village named Klukshu every summer where we had a cabin.  One day Aunt Kathy came over and said there was a workshop being given at the community hall and they needed people to go.  So I went.  I discovered the workshop was on building families and the thing I remember most about it was the advice that you need to be able to finish the statement “we are the family that…”.  I now realize this was saying you have to hold an understanding the meaning of what brings you together and let everything flow from there.  Fifteen years later I still remember that the instructor’s family was the family that danced.  They made their costumes together over the winter, they travelled to pow wows together every summer, they hosted other dancers in their home.  Their love of dancing kept them active, connected and purposeful.

There is a Tibetan saying, “No matter how far you are down the wrong path, turn back!”  It seems to be saying find the meaning before you make progress in a certain direction.  Meaning and direction are both very important – you just have to do one and then the other.

Circular thinking is required to find the meaning in what you do.  It is through a subjective, inclusive, transparent and responsive dialogue that you can understand what is meaningful to a individuals or group.  Direction comes from linear thinking.

transparent vs strategic

Information is neutral.  How it is delivered is a different story.  Transparent delivery of information offers the whole package to all who are interested, without designs on how it will be used.  Just doing this invokes the circular thinking mode.  The recipient generates something and sends it back.  It’s like an exchange of gifts.  Strategic information delivery targets specific information to chosen recipients with a desired outcome.  In this linear mode, things are to move forward in a predictable way.

Here’s an example of how the choice of transparent information sharing creates the circular thinking process.  The Yukon Research Centre was excited to announce yesterday that it will release Whitepass and Yukon Route weather information from 1902 – 1957.    “The WPYR weather data is an example of extremely significant data that will provide insight into the climate regime of the first half of the 20th century in the Yukon, and is now available to all”, said Rick Steele, Project Coordinator, Yukon Research Centre.images

On the radio Rick noted that they are making the information freely available to whoever has an interest in it.  This means it could be used for global warming research or an art project.  They don’t know where releasing this information will lead but they are excited about the potential of empowering people in thier projects.

This is classic circular thinking.  They are being transparent by making the full body of information available, for free, both as data and as a photo-representation of the original records.  This kind of transparent information sharing leads to being inclusive and open to any number of possible outcomes.  It is a vital part of the generative nature of the circular thinking mode and the foundation of creativity.

Strategic use of information recognizes that information is power and looks for ways to find competitive advantage from the withholding or delivery of informations or to ensure a predictable outcome. An example of delivering information to build competitive advantage is the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resource.  They describe their mandate as follows:

“With a strong focus on technology transfer between industry, government, stakeholders and First Nations, CSUR’s major role is to provide this information to enable resource development in an environmentally, socially and economically sensitive manner.”

This is information strategically delivered to produce a specific result, namely to make people more comfortable with a new style of oil and gas recovery. Only verifiable information that leads people to be accepting of hydraulic fracking is included in their information pamphlet.  It is designed to enable the members of CSUR to move their projects through the regulatory system.  images-1

In this way information can be used strategically to move a group in a desired direction.  It filters, clarifies, and puts needed information in the hands of  decision makers.

This style of delivery encourages competition between veiw-points.  It is one or the other.  Some listener are inspired to look for what has not been included in the information set, and to challenge the validity of the information used to convince them.  A competition develop for asserting a certain direction.

Linear modes of thinking tend to address safety and accuracy of a specific direction being taken.  It inspires scrutiny and logical thought which is ideal for systems creation, accountability and production.

two different operating systems

Circular and linear thinking each have their own operating systems.  Interestingly, they are opposites of each other. You can’t use use linear methods to get circular results, or vice versa.  Way too often people try.

Here’s an example.  I’m talking to a team of First Nation negotiators who are reflecting on their introductory talks with a mineral company.  Leonard asks “Why do they keep lying to us.  They say one thing at a meeting and the next meeting we learn there was lots they didn’t tell us.”  IMG_2132

I happen to know the mineral company and believe they are a principled group. They see their action as being strategic.  The mineral company is focused on getting regulatory approval in a timely manner at the lowest possible cost.  They are delivering the information that is needed to achieve that goal.  They are thinking linearly.However, if the intention of the meeting was to establish a working relationship, the mineral company is using an unproductive operating system when trying to engage with the First Nation. The First Nation is seeing the world from a circular view where the best results come from being transparent and considering the options with a 360 degree perspective.

Until the parties agree on the best thinking stye to adopt for any given issue they will continue to be in conflict.  The interesting thing is that the conflict is based on assumptions about procedure, not the actual point of discussion.  If they could agree on a common process, one that makes space for both circular and linear thinking, they might finds ways to reach agreement.

Most of the time we don’t really think about the process, we simply follow our instinct.  When talks are between two cultures the chance of there being a mismatch is very high.

Circular thinking works well when you need to develop relationships, and create an environment  where people can share diverse opinions.  It allows groups to consider the meaning of a project or what is meaningful to the people who will be impacted by a project.  It is also a great source of creativity.

Linear thinking is very effective when the goal is clear and you want to be productive, and do things like develop safety procedures, or ensure accountability.

Are You a Circular or a Linear Thinker?

Have you ever been in a conversation and felt like you’ve just been hit by a train?  Or, that the person you are talking to is from another planet, and there might be unicorns and endless time there?  These are extreme cases, but I do sometimes find myself in a discussion where I feel that there are assumptions being made that I don’t agree with or even understand.  It makes it hard to join the discussion.

The root of this disconnect may be that a circular thinker is meeting a linear thinker and they’re not recognizing their difference.  Each of these modes has a set of operating conditions that are intuitively being applied.  When this profound point is not recognized, and people are in different modes, the conversation can go off the rails very quickly.

Here’s a quick quiz to determine your thinking style.  Imagine yourself facing a challenge.  Does column one or column two  feel like the best way to proceed?

Column One                                             Column Two

1. Define the goal                                   1. Gather and welcome everyone affected

2. Develop a strategy                             2. Think about the questions to be asked

3. Make a plan                                       3. Interactively share information

4. Set time lines, costs, tasks                 4. Recognize a pattern, get an idea

5. Activate the plan                                 5. Create a prototype and try it

6. Measure progress                              6. Respond to the information and redesign

Column one is a linear thinking process and column two is circular.  Some of you may have seen yourself more drawn to one mode or the other.  This can be the result of a cultural norm or a personal comfort zone. Scientists often think linearly while artists think circularly; men on average lean towards linear thinking while women are more circular; aboriginal people traditionally think in circles while westerners tend to think linearly.

Possibly you answered “it depends.”  Biologically we are all capable of both styles of thinking and both are highly valuable.

Neuroscience has shown us that there are two fundamental ways we as humans can choose to view the world.  My geology professor, Bob Mason, used to say “there are two kinds of geologists; ones who say this is just like (fill in a deposit name), or ones who say this is nothing like…. The rest are fence sitters, just gathering useless information.”

We are biologically designed to either pull in what we love or push away what is detrimental or a waste of time.  Antonio Damasio‘s research at the University of Southern California found that a huge volume of information reaches our brains every day.  We must attach a love-based or a fear-based emotion to a piece of information for it to become available to us in decision making.  This is why tests are so effective.  We attach a fear based emotion to all the information required to get the grade.  Without the fear it is just a bunch of data.  Another way to learn is to be curious and engaged with the material.  Attaching these love based emotions also embeds information and makes it available for future use.IMG_2536

Fear leads to a linear style of thinking.  It is logical, focused, objective, disciplined, and goal oriented in order to push back against the danger fear has identified for us.  Without this instinct we could not survive.

Circular thinking focuses on pulling in more of what you want.  It is rooted in a drive to be inclusive and transparent – a belief that the answer will come when everyone with an interest is present and a diverse array of thoughts are considered.  It responds to an internal curiosity and subjectively seeks to find what is meaningful and stay aligned with that through a series of course adjustments.  WIthout circular thinking we could not change, feel contentment or develop relationships.

This blog is going to explore how knowing you are applying circular or linear thinking can make a difference to you in big and small ways.