It is about transcending our fears of vulnerability, not finding new ways of protecting ourselves. It is about discov- ering how to act in service of the whole, not just in service of our own interests. These frustrating and frightening outcomes occur all the time.

Families replay the same argument over and over, or a parent lays down the law. Organi- zations keep returning to a familiar crisis, or a boss decrees a new strategy. Communities split over a controversial issue, or a politi- cian dictates the answer. Countries negotiate to a stalemate, or they go to war. There is another way to solve tough problems. The people involved can talk and listen to each other and thereby work through a solution peacefully. But this way is often too difficult and too slow to produce results, and force therefore becomes the easier, default option.

I have written this book to help those of us who are trying to solve tough problems get better at talking and listening—so that we can do so more successfully, and choose the peaceful way more often. I want talking and listening to become a reliable default option.

Account Options

Problems are tough because they are complex in three ways. They are dynamically complex, which means that cause and effect are far apart in space and time, and so are hard to grasp from firsthand experience. And they are socially complex, which means that the peo- ple involved see things very differently, and so the problems become polarized and stuck. Our talking and listening often fails to solve complex problems because of the way that most of us talk and listen most of the time. Our most common way of talking is telling: And our most common way of listening is not listening: This way of talking and listening works fine for solv- ing simple problems, where an authority or expert can work through the problem piece by piece, applying solutions that have worked in the past.

But a complex problem can only be solved peacefully if the people who are part of the problem work together creatively to understand their situation and to improve it. Our common way of talking and listening therefore guarantees that our complex problems will either remain stuck or will get unstuck only by force. There is no problem so complex that it does not have a simple solution. We need to learn another, less common, more open way. I have reached these conclusions after twenty-five years of working professionally on tough problems.

I started off my career as someone who came up with solutions. First I was a university researcher in physics and economics, and then an expert analyst of government policy and corporate strategy. Then in , inspired by an unexpected and extraordinary experience in South Africa, I began working as a neutral facilitator of problem-solving processes, helping other people come up with their own solutions.

And I have also facilitated cross-organizational leadership teams—composed of businesspeople and politicians, generals and guerrillas, civil servants and trade unionists, community activists and United Nations officials, journalists and clergy, academics and artists— helping them address some of the most difficult challenges in the world: Commuting back and forth between these different worlds has allowed me to see how tough problems can and cannot be solved.

I have been privileged to work with many extraordinary people in many extraordinary processes. From these experiences I have drawn conclusions that apply not only in extraordinary but also in ordinary settings. In the harsh light of life-and-death conflicts, the dynamics of how people create new realities are painted in bright colors. I have reached these conclusions after twenty-five years of working professionally on tough problems.

I started off my career as someone who came up with solutions. First I was a university researcher in physics and economics, and then an expert analyst of government policy and corporate strategy. Then in , inspired by an unexpected and extraordinary experience in South Africa, I began working as a neutral facilitator of problem-solving processes, helping other people come up with their own solutions.

And I have also facilitated cross-organizational leadership teams—composed of businesspeople and politicians, generals and guerrillas, civil servants and trade unionists, community activists and United Nations officials, journalists and clergy, academics and artists— helping them address some of the most difficult challenges in the world: Commuting back and forth between these different worlds has allowed me to see how tough problems can and cannot be solved.

I have been privileged to work with many extraordinary people in many extraordinary processes. From these experiences I have drawn conclusions that apply not only in extraordinary but also in ordinary settings. In the harsh light of life-and-death conflicts, the dynamics of how people create new realities are painted in bright colors. Having seen the dynamics there, I can now recog- nize them in circumstances where they are painted in muted col- ors.

I have learned what kinds of talking and listening condemn us to stuckness and force, and what kinds enable us to solve peacefully even our most difficult problems. My favorite movie about getting unstuck is the comedy Groundhog Day. Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a cynical, self- centered television journalist who is filming a story about Groundhog Day, February 2, in the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. He despises the assignment and the town. The next morning, he wakes up to discover, with horror, that it is still Feb- ruary 2, and that he has to live through these events again.

This happens every morning: He explains this to his producer Rita, but she laughs it off.


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He tries everything he can in order to break this pattern—get- ting angry, being nice, killing himself—but nothing works. Only then does he wake up to a new day and a better future. Many of us are like Phil Connors. We get stuck by holding on tightly to our opinions and plans and identities and truths. But when we relax and are present and open up our minds and hearts and wills, we get unstuck and we unstick the world around us. I have learned that the more open I am—the more attentive I am to the way things are and could be, around me and inside me; the less attached I am to the way things ought to be—the more effec- tive I am in helping to bring forth new realities.

And the more I work in this way, the more present and alive I feel. As I have learned to lower my defenses and open myself up, I have become increasingly able to help better futures be born. The way we talk and listen expresses our relationship with the world. When we fall into the trap of telling and of not listening, we close ourselves off from being changed by the world and we limit ourselves to being able to change the world only by force. But when we talk and listen with an open mind and an open heart and an open spirit, we bring forth our better selves and a better world.

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Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities

Help Center Find new research papers in: My analysis gave me a neat answer to my first question: Why was the Mont Fleur work unusual and important? Simple problems, with low complexity, can be solved perfectly well--efficiently and effectively--using processes that are piecemeal, backward looking, and authoritarian. By contrast, highly complex problems can only be solved using processes that are systemic, emergent, and participatory.

The Mont Fleur approach was important and unusual because it was exceptionally well suited to solving highly complex problems--to enacting profound social innovations. Our process was systemic, building scenarios for South Africa as a whole, taking account of social, political, economic, and international dynamics.

It was emergent, because it recognized that precedents and grand plans would be of limited use, and instead used creative teamwork to identify and influence the country's critical current choices. And it was participatory, involving leaders from most of the key national constituencies. The mother of this South African invention was the necessity of its transitional vacuum: With the practical option of intervention from "above" unavailable, South Africans had no choice but to rely on the miraculous option of working together.

My analysis also allowed me to recognize a widespread "apartheid syndrome. In this syndrome, people at the top of a complex system try to manage its development through a divide-and-con-quer strategy: Because the people at the bottom resist these commands, the system either becomes stuck, or ends up becoming unstuck by force. Gorka Espiau, an Elkarri staff member, explained to me the interaction between violence and nondialogue: And yet without such a dialogue, how can we end the violence?

We have to start with a political dialogue to reach an agreement to stop the killing. Then we can have the human dialogue that we need to resolve the deeper underlying conflict. Once-cordial working relationships in the parliament had broken down into acrimonious exchanges and stony silences.

This pattern of not talking and not listening is a symptom of being stuck. Whether or not the actors are on speaking terms, they are not on listening terms. Like the Basque parliamentarians and many parliamentarians elsewhere , they have made up their minds before their opponents speak. Even if they are silent and pretending to listen, they are really only "reloading," rehearsing their rebuttals.

They are in fact listening only to themselves, to the tapes they play over and over in their heads about why they are right and others are wrong. My partner Otto Scharmer calls the kind of talking that takes place in these situations "downloading" because the speaker is reproducing an old file without alteration.

The actors sometimes fight openly and violently, and sometimes cover their differences with politeness, skirting sensitive subjects in order to keep the peace. Either way, they are stunted, unable to express who they are in new ways and unable to take in what others are telling them.

If they can change this pattern and start to talk and listen, they blossom. I went to Paraguay to work with forty-five of the country's most open-minded and public-spirited politicians, activists, businesspeople, generals, judges, journalists, intellectuals, peasants, and students.

They had agreed to talk together, but I was puzzled by how slowly our work progressed. Most of them seemed to be exceptionally suspicious, cynical, and pessimistic, and hesitant about speaking openly. They deferred to me even on questions for which I had no good answers. Conversations went in circles; understandings came unraveled; commitments were not kept.


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I spoke about these patterns with Milda Rivarola, a member of the team and a respected historian. No criticism of the government was allowed. The only way to have influence was to be a part of the government, the military, or the governing party. And by and large people acquiesced. Stroessner had a network of spies and informers many of them had volunteered! Just like in other totalitarian and post-totalitarian societies, social fragmentation was and is severe. What you are seeing in this group--the low levels of trust and initiative--are the after-effects of this repression.

He was sanguine about the situation and patient with our slow progress. So we are asking them to make a fundamental shift in their way of being. This will take time. The results are pessimism and cynicism; lack of self-confidence and self-management; hesitation to speak up and stand up; and painfully slow innovation. I have noticed that many of the people in many of the systems I have worked with--including the presidents, CEOs, and generals--say these same words: The authoritarian approach to solving problems is that the boss, with his smart expert advisors and consultants, dictates solutions.

For simple problems, this works wonderfully. Unilateral decision making is fine for a police officer directing traffic at a busy intersection. This problem has low dynamic complexity cause and effect in the intersection traffic are nearby, immediate, and obvious , low generative complexity traffic rules from the past apply perfectly well , and low social complexity all the drivers share the same objective of smoothly running traffic and willingly defer to the officer's authority. But the authoritarian approach does not work for solving complex problems.

Consider a global computer company trying to sell into Eastern Europe in the early s, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The CEO cannot successfully dictate the company's sales strategy. The development of the computer market is affected by decisions that are being taken far away in Silicon Valley and long ago by Communist industrial planners , and so the sales "problem" has high dynamic complexity that can only be grasped as a whole--for which the CEO needs to think together with the company's front-line staff who are directly in touch with different parts of the system. The problem situation, in the midst of both political and technological revolutions, also has high generative complexity, which means that there is not one right answer that can be created in advance; the situation can only be addressed by working with it as it unfolds.

And the problem has high social complexity because it can only be solved with the participation of the people who are part of the problem: Unfortunately, the authoritarian approach, with its severe limitations, is the foundation of practically all private and public sector strategic planning. Politeness is a way of not talking. When we are being polite, we say what we think we should say: Talking only about concepts is one way of being polite. When a team develops a habit of speaking openly, then the problem they are working on begins to shift.

By contrast, a habit of speaking overly cautiously obscures the problem and keeps it stuck. The Canadian team had a hard time agreeing on conclusions because our conversations did not go deep enough for us to find the ground that we truly had in common, and from which we could construct a way forward that we all believed in.

I started working with a brilliant South African consultant named Louis van der Merwe. He taught me that the job of a facilitator is to help the participants speak up, listen up, and bring all of their personal resources to the work at hand. Our job is not to direct or control the participants.

He also taught me that even though we were remaining neutral with respect to the substance of the participants' work, our process was not neutral: How can you get started? Here are ten suggestions: Pay attention to your state of being and to how you are talking and listening. Notice your own assumptions, reactions, contractions, anxieties, prejudices, and projections. Notice and say what you are thinking, feeling, and wanting.

Remember that you don't know the truth about anything. When you think that you are absolutely certain about the way things are, add "in my opinion" to your sentence. Don't take yourself too seriously. Engage with and listen to others who have a stake in the system. Seek out people who have different, even opposing, perspectives from yours. Stretch beyond your comfort zone. Reflect on your own role in the system. Examine how what you are doing or not doing is contributing to things being the way they are.

Look at the system through the eyes of the other. Imagine yourself in the shoes of the other. Listen to what is being said not just by yourself and others but through all of you. Listen to what is emerging in the system as a whole. Listen with your heart. Speak from your heart.

Camp out beside the questions and let answers come to you. Relax and be fully present. Open up your mind and heart and will. Open yourself up to being touched and transformed. Try out these suggestions and notice what happens. Sense what shifts in your relationships with others, with yourself, and with the world. Adam Kahane's Transformative Scenario Planning arrived in my letterbox as a surprise present from my friend Mel. Like several other books I've read recently, it was exactly the right book at exactly the right time. Adam's descriptions and methodology for approaching "stuck" problems struck a deep chord in me.

Anyone who has talked to me in the last couple of months is probably well sick of hearing me talk about it. Where "Transformative Scenario Planning" is more of a how to manual, "Solving Tough Problems" is the story of his personal journey. It's not a book which is going to teach you a process, but that's not its goal. What this book provides is a useful and rich context for understanding Adam's work.

Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities

The introduction has this to say: These frustrating and frightening outcomes occur all the time. Families replay the same argument over and over, or a parent lays down the law. Organizations keep returning to a familiar crisis, or a boss decrees a new strategy. Communities split over a controversial issue, or a politician dictates the answer. Countries negotiate to a stalemate, or they go to war. There is another way to solve tough problems.


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The people involved can talk and listen to each other and thereby work through a solution peacefully. But this way is often too difficult and too slow to produce results, and force therefore becomes the easier, default option. I have written this book to help those of us who are trying to solve tough problems get better at talking and listening—so that we can do so more successfully, and choose the peaceful way more often.

I want talking and listening to become a reliable default option. Problems are tough because they are complex in three ways.