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"Thursday Thinking"

©2019 by Weaving Futures. 

  • Carolyn Stuart

The stories we tell.

Living on the edge of a cliff gives us great views of Wellington Harbour. When we first shifted into our house we noticed all of the comings and goings on the harbour.

Over the years the inter-island ferries, ships, yachts and speed boats have all faded into the background of the view from my window. Except when something out of the ordinary happens.

On Saturday ‘something out of the ordinary’ happened. I looked out the kitchen window and saw a mid-sized boat towing a large yellow balloon-like object.

Grabbing the binoculars I went out onto the deck but even a close-up view did not help me make sense of what I was seeing.

At first, I thought it might have been a group of divers but there was no flag indicating this and so I concluded that it must be a fishing boat trawling the inner harbour. I ignored the fact that in the 10 years we have lived in this house I have never once seen a fishing boat trawl the harbour! Instead, I made up a story to fill in the gap between my knowledge and that which I was observing.

Deep in my subconscious though, I must have had some doubt because I called out to my husband ‘do you reckon a fishing boat would be allowed to trawl in Wellington Harbour?” Barely raising his eyes from the golf on Sky he said, “I don’t see why not”. Satisfied with the story I’d made up about the mysterious activity on the harbour I forgot about the boat and the strange yellow object it was towing until I saw an item on the news that night, about a crane which had fallen off the Seaview wharf, being towed across Wellington Harbour. Now I wish I had taken a photo!

The stories we make up are often concealing our ignorance (as in my boat towing crane story) hiding truths we don’t want to confront or concealing biases of which we may or may not be aware. Often times the stories we want to tell have a one-sided bias, designed to make us look good or to feel better about a situation.

A lot of my professional life is spent in the area of human-centred design (design thinking). I love this approach because it encourages people to invest time in understanding a problem or situation before offering solutions. Gaining empathy is the process used to do this. It gets people having conversations, observing and immersing themselves in the lives of others.

“Empathy is the most powerful connecting and trust-building tool that we have…”

Dr Brenē Brown

The reason why it is important to gain empathy with those whose problems you are trying to help solve is so you can uncover their unmet and unarticulated needs. Once you find out what these are innovating effective solutions becomes much easier. Often-times people don’t even know what their unmet needs are until you help uncover them!

But the other week I struck a hitch with all this gaining empathy work. It seems to be really difficult to uncover the needs of others if you are closely connected to the work. For example, a teacher may struggle to uncover unmet needs of students in their class. This is because there can be a gap between a teacher’s belief of how students experience learning in their class and what students actually experience. Another example would be a charitable organisation trying to uncover the unmet needs of the people their organisation serves. This becomes more challenging the longer a programme or intervention has been running. No one wants to find out that all their hard work is not delivering on its intended outcomes.

In these situations, the people doing the work of gaining empathy are likely to be adding their story to what they are seeing, interpreting conversations and observations through the lens of their personal bias. I’m guessing it is a kind of professional protectionism.

I am not the only who has observed this phenomenon. Liberatory Design which is a branch of Stanford’s d.School and uses design thinking to solve equity challenges has also found that people’s bias’ can get in the way of truly understand the people with whom they are working.

Liberatory Design has added two extra hexagons to the d.school’s famous design thinking model of Empathize, Define, Ideate Prototype and Test. The two new hexagons are Notice and Reflect. Liberatory design invites people to acknowledge and reflect on the identities, beliefs and biases that they bring to their work.

We all tell stories. We tell stories to make sense of things we don’t understand (think of my boat!); we tell stories to make ourselves feel better, we tell stories to protect ourselves from painful truths, and we tell stories to strengthen our connections, identity and beliefs.

What stories do you and those around you tell? Why are these particular stories being told and is there a story behind the story?

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Til next time,