Hopefulness only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful.
—Paul Hawken, commencement address, 2009
What is it like when our world is disrupted? How did autoworkers feel, not just losing their jobs, but losing a way of life that shaped their lives, their children’s lives, their community’s lives? We can easily say, “Serves them right for making an inferior product,” in the abstract. I dare any of us to say it to a grieving member of the industry, someone who sees his or her work contributing to society.
Welcoming disturbance can move us from the pain of change to its possibilities.
How do we find potential in the midst of disruption?
Isn’t it useful to know that order can arise out of chaos? Conflicts, differences, and disruptions are great indicators that we’d better act quickly. Engaging emergence is a good strategy for taking on wicked problems. Knowing that we have a viable approach is a reason for optimism, not to mention untying a knot or two in one’s gut. Rather than throwing our hands up, not knowing what to do, we can take action. We know practices for engaging emergence that can lead to higher-order solutions: ones that are radically novel, coherent, persistent, whole, and dynamic, and that positively influence individual behavior.
With practice, it becomes easier to see opportunity in disruption, and to choose possibility when facing chaos and dissonance. Attitude matters. Remember, focusing on possibilities is a choice. Isn’t that useful to realize when facing challenges that stop us in our tracks? The angst that generally accompanies upheaval is life energy. And it is laden with potential.
Since disruption is a given when something is differentiating, we might as well learn how to handle it well. We can cultivate resilience—the capacity to be calm in the storm or at least bounce back when hit. Most people take their cues from those around them. When we show up centered and calm, assuming that something useful can happen in the chaos, we bring others with us. The more we face the unknown with equanimity, seeking possibility, the more we send others the signal that they can too.
Practices that prepare us to engage emergence—embracing mystery, choosing possibility, and following life energy—help us to get started. In 2004, I was privileged to witness 30 Palestinian teachers find possibility in disruption when I led an Appreciative Inquiry (AI) workshop in Ramallah. The Appreciative Inquiry process is based in asking possibility-oriented questions that focus on what is working and what is possible, to inspire collaborative and wise action. (See “About Emergent Change Processes” for a description of the Appreciative Inquiry process.)
As the following story illustrates, welcoming disturbance helps us to find positive possibilities, courage, and companionship that enable us to act even in challenging situations.
As I prepared for the workshop, I asked my host for a theme we could use so that participants could experience Appreciative Inquiry. She told me that all Palestinians struggle with living with the occupation. I gulped when I got her message. How could I write appreciative questions about living with the occupation? It was beyond my experience. We settled on leadership as the theme. This first exchange was a hint that things might not go as expected as I headed into the mystery of an unfamiliar culture. I went with my ears and eyes wide open, receptive to what came my way.
By the end of day one, the group had identified characteristics of great leaders through an Appreciative Inquiry. I was troubled because they talked of leadership in the abstract, describing qualities they wanted in their president. Usually such an AI process would lead to insights into our personal power as leaders.
As day two dawned, I wanted to bring more of a spirit of possibility into the room. I was not sure how to do so. I just knew that was my intent. We began, sitting in a circle. I asked the group to reflect on the previous day. In a few minutes, someone began talking about how difficult her life was. Now “difficult” has a different meaning for someone who spends hours waiting to get through a checkpoint, or is separated from family by a wall, or who has seen property destroyed or loved ones hurt. Others started to complain. These folks lived with disturbance all the time! I took a deep breath, aware that their complaints were an opening. I asked if they would be willing to apply what they were learning about Appreciative Inquiry to their lives. They said yes. And I breathed a sigh of relief. They chose possibility.
They split into four groups and picked a topic on which to develop two appreciative questions: a personal story question and a future question. It was wild! They worked in Arabic, I’d check in, and they’d switch to English. Each group struggled to shift topics like “resisting the wall” and “fighting the checkpoints” to “working with the wall” and “useful checkpoints.” Turning bitterness into productive questions was quite a reframing!
The group that chose “useful checkpoints” found a novel way to test their theme. They brainstormed a list of ways in which they had found checkpoints valuable. Mind you, this is a HUGE contradiction. I experienced a young Israeli soldier just doing his job, pointing a rifle at my head (from a distance) while his partner checked my papers. Many Palestinians face this experience every day. The list of benefits was amazing! It included: getting to know your neighbors, learning respect for elders (as they helped them to the front of the line), meeting new people. I knew something important was happening when the laughter became contagious.
As participants interviewed each other using their appreciative questions, I felt the energy in the room shift. When we debriefed their insights from the interviews, the responses were profound. With the occupation no longer a monolithic cause of anger and despair, the participants uncovered distinct aspects of it that gave them confidence and strength. These folks, who had begun the day feeling powerless, found answers for retaining their dignity and power in an impossible situation. Life energy emerged from engaging their reality head on. They found ways to live creatively with the occupation, perhaps even for harvesting the seeds to end it.
Had we not welcomed the angst into the room, participants would likely have left their authentic experiences outside. Had they left their authentic experiences outside, we would not have embraced the mystery of applying AI to a subject that mattered. Had we not applied AI to a subject that mattered, we would not have surfaced new possibilities. Had we not surfaced new possibilities, we would not have sparked the life energy that fueled new attitudes. Because we welcomed disturbance by embracing mystery, choosing possibility, and following life energy, we surfaced the means to meet upheaval with compassion, finding power over assumed destiny. What a lesson for the participants to take back to their students! They could equip their students to face disruptions with more compassion for themselves and for the Israelis with whom they are intertwined in a toxic situation.
Practices for Welcoming Disturbance
- Embrace mystery: seek the gifts hidden in what we don’t know.
What does it take to be receptive to the unknown?
Let go of the need for immediate answers.
- Choose possibility: call forth “what could be.”
What do we want more of?
Seek positive guiding images.
- Follow life energy: trust deeper sources of direction.
What guides us when we don’t know?
Work with the energies that are present.
- Inquire appreciatively: ask bold questions of possibility.
How do we inspire explorations that lead to positive action?
Ask questions that focus on a positive intention and invite others to engage with us.
While welcoming disturbance is largely about attitude, the next principle—pioneer!—provides guidance on what sort of action succeeds.
Back to the Table of Contents
On to Chapter 9. Pioneer!