Episode #3: Say a Little Less
by exploring your negative capability.
While in the depths of preparation for my fall courses I encountered an intriguing concept back from my days as a poet. The concept is known as negative capability. Negative capability describes an individual’s mental space where they are:
[…] capable of uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.
The term, created by John Keats in a letter to his brothers, is a little tricky to unpack, but it’s worth investigating what negative capability is and how it can help us foster productive conflict by simply by saying a little less.
If you’re going to make conflict productive, you need to be capable of sitting with uncertainty.
The reasoning goes like this: during a conflict it is likely that you are going to be absolutely certain of your position—you’re right and the other person is wrong (in fact, this type of thinking may be the source of the conflict in the first place). If you are 100% committed to something, that leaves exactly 0% space for alternatives. In our workplace and community, where we often have to share differing commitments, goals, values, and views of the world, it can be important to have some unallocated space, some part of our attention-pie, available to hearing the other perspective. This is to say, you need to be capable of living with a little uncertainty.
In my own life, I have somewhat of the opposite problem—I am too open to uncertainty. Example: where should my partner and I go for dinner tonight? Another person might say exactly what they want to eat in the moment: “I want Greek,” or “I feel like Mexican.” An uncertain person, perhaps one with a poetic sensibility, might say “well, I don’t know, what type of mood are you in?” as his opening question in a salvo of unending inquires to know more: this poor soul is asking questions not in search of an answer but in an effort to maintain a state of negative capability.
I know, this brand of uncertainty can be annoying. Just ask my partner Michael! In fact, the uncertainty itself can generate conflict all on its own, (“Just tell me where you want to go already!”) But the mentality here demonstrates a fairly low stakes space where you can start to build your capacity to live with and tolerate uncertainty. If you can operate with a little uncertainty in low-risk situations repeatedly, you may be more likely to call on this skill during a high stakes conflict and allow yourself to say a little less.
Why is this useful? Well, because as human beings, as Keats understood, we yearn for certainty. Keep in mind though, that certainty is not truth. We all naturally want to feel like we know something and will often answer pesky questions with something—anything—to give us a sense of control. Certainty is control, but it isn’t truth. Just because you are certain, doesn’t mean you’re right.
If you can learn to be patient with the process, to sit a little bit in a state of “not knowing,” and be willing to say a little less, you can create space to entertain new and unfamiliar ideas.
Not knowing can be scary.
In business, it can be stressful to start a new job, as I am doing right now in my own life. The process of building a brand-new syllabus for a new institution is stressful and filled with questions: am I honoring the mission of the institution at large? The department? Will my plan work? Will students be interested? Are my readings too long? Too short? Too academic? Too popular? These questions create internal conflict for me—at times I feel irritated that I do not, and likely will not, know the hard factual answers to these questions until well after the semester.
So, what I do, and continually aim to do, is try to enjoy the creative process that is involved in making something, rather than driving to place my stamp of certainty on the process, and in doing so, stamp out anything productive that may come from the creative process, which thrives in an environment of negative capability. If we can say a little less and be curious about what brings us conflict we might be able to create a space for some good to come out of our conversations across the great divide.
Next week: Just Say It… Be the Change