The danger of certainty

I used to be certain.  I knew what was right and wrong and wasn’t shy in saying so. Some people might say I’m still that way – very black and white, not enough shades of grey. But to me I’ve changed a lot over the years. I’m positively full of doubt and ambivalence nowadays.  And I like it. That might sound odd – who likes doubt and ambivalence? Well me – whenever I encounter the kind of certainty I once had.

So why this train of thought? I’ve had cause to ponder the effects of certainty on the life of groups over the years. 20 years ago it was the effects of my own certainty that, in part, switched me on to good group process. More recently I’ve been watching the comments on an email list with increasing unease.

I attended an event in July. It proved quite controversial. The participants’ email list has been no less controversial. We’ve heard from some very certain voices. And with the certainty comes that close relative – judgement. After all if I’m right and we disagree, then I’m in a position to tell you that you’re wrong.

I need to declare my interests at this point. A fair amount of that certainty has been directed at me. Some at me personally, some at me by dint of my being a white male. You may think that renders this post worthless. I hope not.

The certainty seems to have created a dynamic. Early certain voices brought out other certain voices. The groundswell of judgement increased. There was very little dissent. Other voices confined themselves to other topics, by and large. Off the list four of the female participants contacted me directly. They wanted to offer some support (thank you). To one extent or another, all four expressed some concern that the dynamic on the list was suppressing dissenting voices, that they were muted. These are powerful women and yet these conversation happened off the list, and I really can’t say I blame them.

So we have one certain perspective being offered. It’s self reinforcing as other similar voices rally around, and dissenters feel unsafe to express their views.

Now take that sideways to the group of your choice. Take it into your consensus experience. How often are we suppressing a diversity of views simply by being certain of our own perspective and articulating it forcefully. It’s hard to be certain without taking a position. And it’s hard to shift from a position once you’ve taken it. Take a look at Penny Walker’s blog on this topic (and her position-interest-need graphic). Certainty seems to stimulate  responses – rallying around, or railing against and finding the middle ground in which to converse, to grow, to change is tough. Give me tentative curiosity or hesitant exploration every time. Certainty is dangerous to groups. Of that I’m certain.



PS: any certainty displayed by the author is a rhetorical device to stimulate a response. Use the comments field – all dissent very, very welcome!