…speculation and tension-resolution…

“You know what you know; you don’t know what you don’t know.” –Robert Fritz

Tension seeks a resolution.  And our primary source of tension is the unknown.  Everyday, we pass through a multiple tension-developing moments as we try to gauge the best way to go about our business.  Just look at the average conversation. 

Is it going to rain?
What?  Oh, I don’t know.
Did you read the weather?
No, not yet.
Can you look now?  I need to know what to take with me.
Sure.  … The forecast calls for rain. Better take your umbrella.

Normally, we meet the unknown with a question.  Something has our attention and we’re curious.  Curiosity is one way we “project” ourselves into the world.  We take an interest in things that are yet to be determined.  It’s pleasurable to raise a concern and see if you can learn something.  The more we project ourselves through observation and curiosity, the more we feel involved and connected.  Quite often the motivation behind our curiosity is predictive and personal.  We DON’T want to be surprised by the unexpected and we DO want to be ready, personally, to make any necessary adjustments.

What I want to look at today is how speculation interferes with tension- resolution, and how hijacked speculation becomes once we need predictive and personal reassurance.

Not every tension moves to resolution.  The more we are left questioning, the more we speculate and guess.  Most problems follow a common “curiosity” pattern:  Something happens that we cannot explain.  We speculate about ‘why’ and then we test our most-favored hypotheses.  The test data confirms our expectations or refutes them.  Either way we learn something … that is, assuming some real data can be gathered.  Without the data, our speculation is open-ended.  Without the confirming feedback, we are left with a nagging sense that something is not right.  The unresolved tension throws us off-balance, especially when feelings of importance attach.

Cognitive dissonance theory proposes that people are driven to reduce dissonance. They become energized (or anxious) whenever they hold two contradictory ideas or when they hold one idea and are frustrated with the lack of confirming data.  What’s interesting is that without this kind of open-ended tension, we have a hard time growing.  We have a real love-hate relationship with curiosity and with dissonance, because it is so disturbing.

Recently, I’ve written a great deal about trust and engagement.  And trust owes a lot to tension-resolution.  So too (it turns out) does engagement.  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience) makes the point that optimal engagement results when 1. the performance of a task generates some tension and when 2. there is a sufficiency of personal skill to resolve that tension.  Too much skill and we’re bored; too much complexity and we’re anxious.  Both skill and complexity must be balanced for optimal engagement.

What’s fascinating, however, the idea that personal skill and task complexity engender a special kind speculation — one that is suffused with trust and engagement.   Because “skilled” experience gives us a predictive ability, we are often drawn to experiences which allow us to play with, or stretch our predictive capability.  Equally, task complexity challenges our speculative abilities.  We want the personal confirmation of knowing we are NOT going to be surprised by the unexpected.   We willingly accept the unknown … provided it doesn’t throw us for a loop … or is too disruptive.  Both our personal and predictive needs are met with just the right amount of tension-resolution.   We demonstrate greater confidence because there is a special kind of speculation that results in trust and engagement. 

Of course, the flip side is interesting too.   Excessive speculation actually interferes with tension-resolution.  If we ask too many questions with too much open-endedness, we lose sight of how trust presents itself …  in the moment.   The simplicity and directness of our “skilled” behavior disappears.  Our confidence is hijacked by a personal and predictive need to be ‘reassured’, one that cannot be met under excessive speculation.   Eventually, anxiety erodes what little trust remains, leaving us in a state of resistant and defensive withdrawal.  Excessive speculation interferes with our ability to resolve tension, leading us to retreat and disappear into ourselves.

Hard as it is to admit: “You know what you know; you don’t know what you don’t know” —  that admission is actually one sure-fire way to improve trust.  It stops all the speculation.  When we are really that honest, it doesn’t matter what happens next.  No retreating.  No disappearing.  And that’s what trust and engagement is all about, not caring too much about whatever happens next.  We speculate in ways that keep us in the moment.

Thanks for listening!


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