Episode #27: Say It's Time to Write
writing is a technology to help you discover your point-of-view.
Have you ever found yourself asking where did all the time go?
Time, as it turns out, is always fleeting. Instead of asking where time went, the question we ought to ask is where did we spend our time?
Today’s photo was snapped from my work-from-home (#wfh) desk and features a graphic printed out from one of my favorite blogs, Consultant’s Mind, written by Emory Business School Professor, John Kim.
In one of my favorite posts of his, Kim suggests we invest our time in things that grow in value, are unique, challenging, and ultimately calls us to invest in what he’s identified as trusted staples of growth: people, experiences, assets, and writing.
As someone who studies and teaches writing, I appreciate the call-out from a business school professor who sees the value of what, in rhetoric and composition studies, we see as the thing that holds us all together: writing.
Kim’s message is clear: to create content and point-of-view, spend time on writing. I wanted to extend this advice within the context of productive conflict.
In my teaching at Columbia, one of the pillars of the class is the notion that “writing=thinking.” As a technology, writing helps humans solve the problem of our limited short-term memory.
By writing things out, we off-load our cognitive burden onto the page and free-up our minds to go deeper into the thing we are interested in.
The easiest example of the “writing=thinking” mantra is the grocery list. We could try to memorize everything we need. But, as so often is the case, we tend to forget our list as soon as we enter the grocery store because our mind’s short-term thinking has switched over to interpreting the influx of advertisements, music, free-sample smells, tastes, and the chance meeting of an old friend or neighbor. Not to mention all those shiny objects in our periphery diverting our attention to the next aisle, and the next aisle, and the next aisle… and what was I suppose to get again?
The grocery list frees our attention to absorb all that wonderful yet distracting stimuli while still keeping us on target. We can absorb and navigate through the store because we know that jotted down on that slip of paper is a record of our thinking. We can relax because we’ve outsourced our memory. (Just don’t forget the list when you leave!)
When considering writing in the context of Productive Conflict, the lesson here is not necessarily to start making lists—though you can certainly start there. Instead, try doing some longer form free-writes to discover what you haven’t yet been able to figure out by just thinking and overthinking an issue.
When you free-write, don’t worry about grammar, spelling, or creating a literary masterpiece. Use words as tools to think through difficulty.
Rhetorical scholarship has much to say on the transition from oral cultures to written cultures and the costs and affordances of that shift, but one thing seems to be clear: writing helps people create new thoughts.
When we find ourselves in a particularly sticky situation—one that no matter how hard or how long we tend to think on it—perhaps the solution is being kept just out of reach because of your brain’s natural capacity for short-term thinking.
Outsource some of that thinking by doing a free-write. See where you’ll end up after 10 minutes of working out the problem on paper. Your mind can only hold so much at one time (actually, the Buddhists would say it can only focus on one thing at a time), so take advantage of one of humankind’s best technologies, the tech of writing, to find your way to the solutions you need.
Writing can help you name the conflict, articulate your point-of-view regarding that conflict, and potentially help you find out your next steps.
As a leader, when you ask your team to stop and think—why not ask them to outsource that thinking onto the page, so that when they return, they actually have a point-of-view to share?
As an individual, when you can’t quite figure out how to get from A to Z, why not set a short timer and document your effort at brainstorming? I betcha it’s a better strategy than checking and rechecking your inbox….
SAY THIS: GUIDELINES FOR GETTING OTHERS TO THINK THROUGH DIFFICULTY VIA WRITING
“This is a difficult problem we’re facing and we don’t seem to have much to say on it at the moment. Why don’t we all take 10 minutes to write out our thoughts and then come back to the table with some ideas.”
“I actually don’t know what I can do about this issue. Would you mind if I took a few moments to write down my thinking? I think I can give you some better answers once I’ve thought through it.”