It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
– A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
Never has an opening paragraph of a Dickens classic resonated more with liberals around the world, because let’s face it: it has not been an easy time for most of us. With populism, nationalism and extremism on the rise, times have been tough for those committed to realising more freedom, more choice, more equality, more human rights. Not only have times been tough, votes have been few. This rather stark reality is particularly present when 25 liberal young leaders gather from across the world at a single seminar, their country’s flags on the table in front of them an unambiguous reminder of the difficult reality they face.
There is practically no region in the world right now not dealing with a growing connectedness and a deepening divide, of more entrenched human rights and increased brutality and volatility. The reality is, we live in a time of paradox and complexity, and our inability as liberals to respond to it with clarity, have cost us votes. While the power of the individual lies at the heart of what we believe to be true, I believe that it is our behaviour towards each other that hamper us most from crystallising a compelling message to our voters, that stops us from being a powerful force of positive change for the world.
But, back to the seminar for a moment. What happens when liberals from 25 different nations join minds during a 12-day seminar, some of whom hail from countries where the ideas liberalism represent are under immense threat, or not at all allowed. Having taken the first step of moving them from their usual environments to a neutral place, and the second step of surrounding them with fellow inspiring minds, how do you then best get them to interact with their own challenges?
Well, you give them time to think. And the best way to give a group of highly opinionated individuals time uninterrupted time to think, is within the framework of Nancy Klein’s body of work, The Thinking Environment.
At the heart of the profoundly life-changing Thinking Environment lies this premise: The quality of everything we do depend on the quality of the thinking we do about it first.
If we can presume that to be true, and most people do, we need to ask the logical follow-up question: If the quality of everything we do depends on the thinking we do about it first, under which circumstances are people able to think best for themselves? And the truth, Nancy has discovered, is that our ability to think well for ourselves depends almost entirely on the way we are treated by those around us. In other words, if we can create a particular type of environment for people, they will think well for themselves.
Enter the 10 components of the Thinking Environment, the mighty protectors of our ability to think well:
- Incisive Questions; and,
At the opposite end of the spectrum, lie the behaviours we have come to know as normal:
- Constant interruption: technological or human;
- Explicit power differentials;
- Urgency, crisis mode, haste and unease;
- Constant criticism;
- Competition and envy;
- The denial of diversity;
- Trying to think without having the necessary information at hand;
- The denial of feelings;
- Limiting assumptions; and,
- A place that says ‘you don’t matter’.
These are the enemies of the ability to think well for ourselves. And when they manifest in our own behaviour as leaders, they cause those around us to be unable to think well for themselves.
One of the building blocks taught as part of the Thinking Environment, is the thinking pair. This powerful tool seems deceptively simple in theory, yet in my experience remains one of the elements of the Thinking Environment that people struggle with most. Why? Well, because the Thinking Pair lives at the opposite end of our usual behaviour towards each other.
Here’s how it works. In a thinking pair, one person is the thinker and the other’s role is to offer their attention while the thinker is thinking. The thinker therefore receives a set amount of time during which they have an uninterrupted opportunity to think around a topic of their choice, with the thinking partner’s only role being to provide his or her generative attention as a tool to ignite the thinker’s freshest thinking. Once the thinker has completed their turn, the pair will swop roles.
For most, quite strangely so, the thinking partner is not listening to understand, to respond or to offer advice, the very reasons that often lie at the heart of why we listen to others. In a thinking pair, the thinking partner’s only role, simply and truly, is to offer their best generative attention. Attention that ignites. Attention that is interested in what the thinker is thinking now and where they will go next with their thinking. Attention that is uninterested in interrupting, in offering advice, in responding. The principles underlying this incredibly powerful, and deceptively difficult tool, lies at the heart of the Thinking Environment. It is this knowing that you will not be interrupted, that the thinking partner does not have to understand what you’re saying, that brings an incredible sense of ease during the thinking session and contributes to the thinker’s ability to go where their thoughts have not previously gone. To access fresh thinking.
Back to the seminar. Because of the incredible diversity present in our seminar, participants were paired in Thinking Pairs where no participant had a partner who spoke the same mother tongue. This meant that the person offering their generative attention did not understand what the thinker was saying at all, and could not offer anything else than their most powerful and present attention to the thinker. What magic in this paradox, this ability to give nothing but your genuine interest, and through that immensely powerful way of being both incredibly important in the process and not at all important, ignite in someone else previously unthought-of thoughts.
Upon reflection, this short session of thinking pairs at a seminar in Gummersbach provides a glimpse of what is possible for liberals around the world. The 10 behaviours known as the 10 components of the Thinking Environment, give us an opportunity to behave in a different way towards each other in the world. To start being differently towards each other so that we’re able to reconnect with our purpose and access our freshest thinking.
What we need most now, is to think well.
Can liberals offer each other this type of leadership, this set of behaviours to access the new ideas and thinking we so desperately need?
Can we step away from our own need to be right about what we believe about the world, our tendency to interrupt, the unease we’ve created for ourselves in the immensely volatile world we live in to a place where our best thinking prevails?
Can we meet each other in the Thinking Environment, as equals, with a genuine interest in going somewhere our thinking have not gone before? Are we brave enough?
by Marike Groenewald, Cape Town
Marike Groenewald is the Director of Strategic Markets at the Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa’s second largest political party and the Official Opposition in Parliament. In this role, Marike is responsible for engaging with a number of strategic voter markets, including people with disabilities, young professionals, South Africans living abroad and the LGBTI community in the run-up to the South African General Election taking place in 2014.
Marike is also the Director of the DA’s Young Leaders Programme, the party’s flagship political development programme, aimed at developing highly skilled, self-aware political leaders who are in future able to be senior leaders of the Party and of South Africa.
Over the past 6 years, Marike has served in many capacities at the DA’s National Head Office in Cape Town, most of which have been centred around organisational and people development for the Democratic Alliance and focussed on structuring innovative, relevant programmes and courses developing the Party’s talent.
Marike holds a Masters of Law degree, specialising in Intellectual Property and Labour Law, from the University of Stellenbosch and is a published poet.
The International Academy for Leadership – or IAF – is the most valuable and arguably also the most popular of the many international programs sponsored by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF). Over the years, a large number of young and also senior leaders from India have attended the courses in the Western German city of Gummersbach. FNF New Delhi’s Omair Ahmed was invited to join the recent workshop titled “Religious Power in Politics. Political Power through Religion?” as a co-moderator. We asked him to share his impressions.
“The seminar was filled with argumentative, boisterous and convivial discussions.”
This was only to be expected with such a sensitive topic, and with people from the Arab Spring countries like Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt, as well as from countries as varied as Mexico, Malaysia, Russia, Tanzania, the United States, Ukraine, the Palestinian Territories, and India. All of the participants felt strongly about the issue, some of whom asserted that they were ‘fundamentalist’ in their interpretation of faith, though not in a militant sense, while others stated their own ‘fundamentalist’ belief in atheism or non-theism.
The discussion was ably assisted by Arno Keller, a former country director for the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF), and assisted by Sagarica Delgoda, another former country director for FNF. They brought in a great deal of personal experience, from countries as diverse as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Germany, trying to get at the root of the idea of secularism and what it means in the modern world. Referring to the multiple ways that ostensibly secular countries such as the United States, Germany, France and the United Kingdom have official religions, collect religious taxes, have religious political parties and a host of other practices, Mr Keller demonstrated the confusion on the very idea of “secular” for most everyone. Instead he encouraged the participants to discuss the issues and get at main principles and themes. Ms Delgoda spoke about Buddhism as a meniator of values, and how even such a religion could be manipulated for nationalistic sentiments.
While participants from the Arab countries, who had seen revolution and radicalisation recently, were often vocal in their fears and opinions, the important stories of the experience of minority communities in Malaysia and the role of religion in war-making rhetoric in the Ukraine-Russian crisis also figured in the discussion. An exercise by the participants, in which five groups were asked to list the basic values of liberalism, Christianity, Islam, non-theistic Humanism, and Hindu & Buddhist thought threw up a host of overlaps, showing the participants visually how much they had in common. The exercises were an important part of the seminar, as was the trip to Cologne and an interaction with the Rabbi of the Synagogue there. Each member of the group pledged to complete a particular assignment within three months of the end of the seminar, and when they parted, it was with a great deal of new thoughts, as well as with a number of new friends from across the world.
by Omair Ahmed, Delhi/India
This article first appeared on www.southasia.fnst.org: “Religious Power and Politics: An international liberal debate in Germany”,
7 October 2014.
In our newest publication, IAF moderators Stefan Melnik and Rainer Heufers take a look at what a liberal policy approach on the issue of climate change might consist of. “Given the enormous differences of opinion within the international liberal community on climate change and how to address related policy issues, the document may be useful in identifying areas in which liberals might agree.”