Sunday, January 24, 2010

Believe in Doubt

Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.
~ Andre Gide

We live in a contentious world. Diversity of beliefs and values is the norm and we can expect to encounter conflict more frequently than consensus. The presence of conflict often stimulates each party or interest group to impress its version of reality on the others in an effort to achieve a change of mind and win agreement. However, even when agreement is reached there is no means for assuring that it is right.

One's understanding of the world is not based on careful reading and unequivocal interpretation of technical manuals but rather on socially derived and communicated knowledge and values. In the words of Peter Checkland, "Social reality is the ever-changing outcome of the social process in which human beings, the product of their genetic inheritance and previous experiences, continually negotiate and re-negotiate with others their perceptions and interpretations of the world outside themselves" (Checkland 1981, 283- 284). Giovanni Battista Vico said it more succinctly, "To know the world, one must construct it." (Shrage 1990, xvii).

Too often in the search for truth, too many are too sure too early. Most of us are too comfortable with our views, our status quo, and are reluctant to change. Our truth, our internally consistent system, supports and sustains us. Few understand, as did Anais Nin, that "We don't see the world as it is; we see it as we are." This insight leads us to a key paradox: because the truth in which we believe is unique to who we are, we should not trust its generality.

If we should not believe in truth, then in what should we believe? We could say, "believe in doubt." Indeed, in this world of multiple, conflicting realities we need far more individuals who willingly exercise doubt, cultivating more openness, more questioning, more learning; people who listen carefully to each and every perspective—to understand fully but to believe doubtfully—even to doubt that they really understood at all! Still, it is critical to strike a balance between believing and doubting: too much belief and there is no learning; too much doubt and there is no action. So if we "believe in doubt," on what shall we base our action? Perhaps we could "believe in groups"! Let's give this a try by making explicit two key premises and examining their implications:

1. Each individual in a group has the potential to make a valuable contribution.

2. Some group members might have more valuable contributions to make than others—more expertise, greater insight, better judgment—on at least a few of the tasks at hand.

The problem is that we rarely know which individuals are more expert at which tasks. There is no objective way to distinguish between one good contribution and another to determine which is better, or to know how to combine individual contributions to produce results that are better than any of the individual contributions taken alone.

Although we often rely on one person to integrate the group's thinking, this may result in that person's views dominating all others— and that one person might not have it right. Alternatively, we can allow the group to decide how best to make use of the contributions of each of its members. This requires that we help group members learn from one another, so they can correct one another's errors, enabling—at least theoretically—the group to perform better than even its most capable member. (Although this potential exists, such performance is rarely documented. For example, see Reagan-Cirincione 1994.)

To reach conclusion requires consensus, because this requires that everyone must come to terms with each and every person's unique contributions. We have no better potential for attaining the best possible outcome. A critical proviso of believing in groups is that groups be representative of all pertinent perspectives, interests, and expertise. Since it is so much easier to reach consensus with a homogeneous group, members are often selected for the similarity of their views.

To believe in the efficacy of groups to solve our most complex and conflictual problems, we must select group members for their diversity, for their unique constructions of reality. While we might believe in groups, we nonetheless should doubt whether the group is fully representative of all relevant interests, beliefs, and values. Consistent with this concern, we must keep in mind Norman Maier's admonition, "Reaching consensus in a group often is confused with finding the right answer." (Maier 1967, 241). Let's strive to bring together people representing all relevant points of view. Let's fully put to use group interaction methods that encourage tolerance and respect, listening and questioning, independent thought and group conversation. Believe in doubt; believe in groups.


Checkland, Peter (1981). Systems Thinking and Systems Practice. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons.

Maier, Norman R. F. (1967). Assets and liabilities in group problem solving: The need for an integrative function. Psychological Review, 74, 4, 239-249.

Reagan-Cirincione, Patricia (1994). Improving the accuracy of group judgment: A process intervention combining group facilitation, social judgment analysis, and information technology. Organization Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 58, 246-270.

Schrage, Michael (1990). Shared Minds: The New Technologies of Collaboration. New York: Random House.

This essay first appeared in Group Faciliation: A Research and Applications Journal, Issue 4, 2002, published by the International Association of Facilitators.

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