Flexing Our Muscles of Discernment

by Deborah Frieze on April 25, 2012

It’s been one year and two weeks since Walk Out Walk On was launched into the world.  I just returned home from Denver and Boulder, Colorado, the final two stops on the book tour, and now is a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned over these last twelve months. And here it is:

The United States has lost its sense of subtlety.

Or maybe it was never there to begin with. After all, we’ve always known that when it comes to humor, the Brits have far greater mastery of nuance and irony than we Americans with our screwball and slapstick appetites. But this inclination toward the obvious and unambiguous extends beyond humor. It is part of our daily experience, shaped and amplified by politics and the media. As small differences and distinctions pass through the public lens, they transform into grand polarities, blocking each other out of the light. We find ourselves perpetually choosing sides, picking winners, condemning losers and generally orienting around good-bad, right-wrong, on-off, in-out and anything else we can reduce into simple and opposing parts.

So as I hosted conversations about the distinctions in Walk Out Walk On, I discovered how easy it is for us to relate to these distinctions as polarities. Out with the heroic leader and in with the host! Let’s build resilience and abandon efficiency! Engaging in play is more effective than utilizing power!

But these distinctions aren’t polarities. They aren’t the ingredients of a brand new recipe for running healthy organizations and building resilient communities. The purpose of the distinctions is to shed light on our default behaviors—the ones we can’t see because they’re so deeply ingrained in our culture and environment—and to make visible a broader range of choices that exist on a continuum.

When we move from power to play or from intervention to friendship, we walk out of our identity as experts and walk on to relationships as fellow citizens, neighbors, family members. Choosing to turn our work into play is a radical act—but it doesn’t have to come at the expense of our expertise, our wisdom, our experience. There are even appropriate times to step forward with our most heroic selves—to solve the problem, save the day. Hosting is not the new Next Best Thing.

This is why what matters most is that we develop our muscle of discernment to help us choose our behaviors. The distinctions give us a spectrum of options; our discernment identifies where we should be in any given situation. In the case of Efficiency to Resilience, for example, we might use our muscle of discernment to recognize that when a situation is complex, unpredictable and emergent, we should design for resilience; when it is causal, linear and controllable, maximizing efficiency will work just fine.

Our real work, then, is to ask questions like, “What are the conditions under which I should play the hero? When the host? Which behavior is most called for now—intervention or friendship? Which energy should I bring in—power or play?” And so on.

Choosing sides may feel a lot more comfortable than confronting the never-ending complexity of discernment. But then again, so is being a couch potato. I like to think of this as developing a muscle because it isn’t a one-time act. Flexing our muscle of discernment is something we have to practice over and over again, preparing ourselves to meet each new situation with strength, agility and responsiveness.

Over time, it gets easier. We begin to notice patterns that call forth one kind of behavior or another. Here’s where we can help each other. What are you noticing about the conditions that call forth Heroism or HostingPower or PlayEfficiency or ResilienceIntervention or FriendshipTransacting or GiftingScaling Up or Scaling AcrossProblem or Place?

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Comments (3)

  1. Lenore Mewton on April 25, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    Interesting, Deborah, and not a surprising find- but a disappointing one that at least in the States, ‘overall’ (generality) the massive choice to find the ‘sound bites’ -leading to the ‘either o’r decisions. It’s as if given the pace of life (?) the over stimulation (?) – it’s ‘easier’ for people to close down on a decision- w/o allowing time for, as you say, discernment- and the important place where juices flow in the ultimate creative process (conversations, community building, organizational evolution, innovative processes, etc.). Staying with the ‘uncomfortable’- seeing it as opportunity not negative challenge – takes time, patience, and the knowledge that is from that place of ‘not knowing’ that we learn the most. (Have been reading several articles on learning, imagination and innovation this week)- all resonates.

    I see the hope in providing very fertile ground in education – early on- (elementary ages and up) to develop the life-long muscle of embracing the middle phase of creativity- that ‘messy’ place- from whence good ideas emerge. (Recent WSJ article on” How can schools teach students to be more innovative? Offer hands-on classes and don’t penalize failure.”

    If we’re on a similar page – this is what comes to mind.

  2. Lucy on May 29, 2012 at 1:03 am

    Thanks Deb. You got me thinking. I’ll be pondering some of your questions as I move forward with the work I’m doing in education. Lucy

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