Communication Needs to be Sustainable Too

The following is a guest post by our friends at Saybrook University’s Organizational Systems Program (a 3p sponsor) – designed for students who want to understand the nature of organizations, collaborative practices, and transformative change.

by Nancy Southern

Much of my time is spent talking about sustainability to people who think like I do.  You’re probably one of them.

We have a great time:  we have a similar understanding of the problems, and reach similar conclusions about the solutions, and it (almost) always reaffirms our values and actions.

It’s a useful thing to do, but it’s not as useful as talking to people who don’t think like we do.  Most of us are pretty bad at that – and for all that the sustainability movement has grown and matured, it has yet to develop an approach to communications that can make dialogue meaningful for people who aren’t already convinced.

Talking with those who don’t yet embrace sustainability or have decided it is a “hoax” is important work that we all need to develop the courage and skills to do. Skills lead to courage so my hope is that the following suggestions can help you develop some skill in this area.

1.  Recognize that our beliefs about sustainability are based on both facts we have interpreted as true and assumptions we have made.

Often we forget that the same facts can result in different interpretations – and conversations become stalemated when we believe we are right and others are wrong.  The sustainability movement needs to move past that stalemate.  The Ladder of Inference is a good tool to help us see how our thinking moves up the ladder to form our beliefs and inform our actions.  You can read more about it in The Fifth Discpline Fieldbook by Senge et al. 1994.

When we learn to work with the ladder to track our own thinking, we are then better able to explain how we have come to the assumptions and beliefs we hold.  We can also inquire as to how others have come to different assumptions and beliefs.

2.  Recognize and state our big assumptions that both drive and undermine our commitment to sustainability.

Kegan and Lahey in their book How the way we talk can change the way we work (2001) define seven languages for transformation.  The fourth language is moving from the Truths that Hold Us to The Assumptions we Hold.

Identifying our Big Assumptions that limit our ability to be effective change agents and social activists is the first step to unleashing commitment to action.  A Big Assumption of mine is that I don’t have the time to

3. Engage disagreement as an learning opportunity.

I doubt if many of us would say we like to find ourselves in disagreement.  Yet, I have come to see those times as windows of opportunity to exploring my own assumptions and those of others.  Disagreement can fuel a passionate conversation and can bring us together when we can engage it respectfully.  The core of Marvin Brown’s internationally recognized work on ethical decsision making process (, is this ability to engage disagreement. The first step to avoiding the trap of agreeing to disagree or avoiding conflict, is to change our mental model and see disagreement as an opening for learning.  The second step is to learn how to effectively engage in dialogue.

4.  Learn the skills of dialogue.

Although we use the term dialogue loosely, true dialogue is a practice that engages all of the above three skills into a conversation that can transform.  At the heart of dialogue is the intention to reach new understanding.  This is quite different from the post-office model of communication that we all learned which focuses on the sending and decoding of messages to express our point of view.  Dialogue requires us to balance advocating a point of view with inquiring about other perspectives. Learning through this process requires us to recognize and “suspend” our assumptions, or we might say put them at risk, by asking “what if that assumption is not true?”  We can also explore assumptions of others by considering “what assumptions would I need to hold to have the same understanding of another?”

Marvin Brown is known for a very powerful statement, which I repeat often.  “MOST PEOPLE DO WHAT THEY THINK IS RIGHT GIVEN THE WORLD THEY THINK THEY LIVE IN.”  Co-creating a sustainable world requires that we understand and engage different perspectives, values, and experiences to support our own learning and that of others.  We need to better understand and communicate “My World” and how it has been shaped by my experiences and interpretations of “The World.” Only then can we create OUR WORLD – one that supports all of us and future generations in healthy social systems on a sustainable planet.

Nancy Southern chairs the Organizational Systems program at Saybrook University

Saybrook University is a Triple Pundit partner. TriplePundit continues to work with Saybrook University as a partner this month. We'll be hearing from faculty and students in Saybrook's innovative Organizational Systems curriculum.

The posts on this page represent a variety of voices from the Saybrook community on subjects related to organizational evolution and systems thinking. Please feel free to share them and comment!

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