Early in my career I made a mistake. It was quite a big mistake and it was a significant factor in us loosing a billion pound deal. It hurt. Today it’s not the mistake that guides me so much as the feelings I had in the moment of realisation and what it did for me, to start a process of change.
I was part of a team negotiating an outsourcing deal and the acquisition of two companies. We were all staying in a country hotel and were together as a team from Monday to Saturday most weeks. The problem was that we pumped ourselves up and started to believe our story. We saw our position as the truth and stopped seeing that any other possibility existed. Our metaphors were of war and our language was foul. In our view, we were right and all others were wrong. We were fighting for what we believed in. That felt good.
What I realised is that I had become tribal. Tribal was a great feeling but that was all it was; a feeling. I had lost any perspective. From my partisan point of view I was unable to see that where we were and what we had come to believe was simply a version of the truth. It was far from a complete or honest picture. It wasn’t until I got home one Saturday night that I started to realise this blunt reality. In my home context the fog suddenly started to lift. Soon after I walked through the door my then partner expressed horror at my warlike language. Later she took me to task, quite rightly, for what I was saying about the people we were negotiating with. I had taken a limited perspective and I was the poorer for it.
It can be quite a step to realise the real truth here – that any perception of truth is simply a question of perspective. Seng-ts’an was the third patriarch of Zen in China in the sixth century and in his great poem “The Mind of Absolute Trust” he said:
“If you want to realize the truth, don’t be for or against.
The struggle between good and evil is the primal disease of the mind.”
This was the mistake we had made. By believing that there was a truth we had adopted our version of truth for our side and as a result had become blind to any other possibility. We were “for”, the others were thus “against”. We had fallen into the same trap that George W. Bush fashioned in 2001 when he famously challenged us all with:
“You are either with us or against us in this war against terror”
Being on one side or the other immediately means that our perspective is segmented. Our particular version of the truth becomes a fixed and limiting thing. Our unquestioning loyalty is expected in this battle of sides. In turn, we expect others to change and generally they don’t. We are blind to the possibility of there being any other way of seeing things. No change is possible, only escalation.
Change can only start when we begin to realise that there is no such thing as the truth. Conflict exists to prove this to us. Others see things differently. If they didn’t there would be no problem.
The crux here is to see that there are only ever versions of the truth; one of which we tend to hold. Even our supposed objectivity is in practice subjective. This may be a hard thing to take, especially where the “other side” of the conflict has gone so far as to be seen as evil. Where we see evil, holding onto the idea that we are not so can be comforting. The principle remains valid nonetheless.
Leading in this context means that we have to build understanding of everyone’s truth, intent and purpose and start to build a vision round that wider possibility. That might seem like an obvious thing to do. In practice it is too easy, in the cut and thrust of our daily negotiations, to miss this essential opening.
In difficult situations this opportunity needs to be seen by both parties. It’s usually the case that one party needs to take the lead and show the way. If I am open to change then perhaps you can be also?
As long as we believe that our version of the truth is the truth we are stuck. We will defend that position and then, if we have a chance, we will attack from it. The Victim’s journey forward can become one of simply becoming a blind Villian. The bombed becomes a bomber; doing exactly the same to the other believing it is a right thing to do, because they are right.
The challenge here is not even just getting the logic – it is to apply it. If this does all makes sense to you in theory then the next thing to do is to try the principle out, particularly where it is uncomfortable to do so. Try applying it to any situation where you see conflict; particularly where that conflict is entrenched. It may be that either you or the belief system you are part of feels it knows the truth of that situation. If that is so then maybe you have fallen into the trap and need to question the reality you hold and the way you see the situation. The fact that the truth might seem obvious just makes the challenge and the need for change more true.
If we continue to believe that there is a right and a wrong and that there is one version of the truth, there can be no change.
That is why the place that change starts from is the place of seeing that there is no one truth; least of all the version of it that we tend to hold.