#56 Complexity Tolerance

In order to make sense out of the world, we seek and use simple explanations for complex things. Simple explanations allow us to comprehend easily and act without undue deliberation, but they can also get us into trouble. Complexity can be advantageous.

The tension between simplification and greater complexity plays out in conflict.

A simple statement such as, “He is controlling,” can be emotionally satisfying. It can capture and communicate how we feel oppressed by the person we are having a conflict with. As long as such statements are used in this manner, no problem. But, if we think such simplifications are accurate then we are in trouble. Other examples of simplification include “inappropriate” “unprofessional” “out of touch” “aggressive” “unreasonable” “uninformed” and other evaluative descriptors.

To form workable terms of agreement concerning future behaviours, we need to be able to let go of simple characterizations and simple understandings, and entertain greater complexity. We must have complexity tolerance, which includes taking time to understand slowly, rather than holding on to simplified conclusions.


Complexity Tolerance: image of a raindrop laden cobweb


Let’s look more closely at the evaluation “controlling.” It is unlikely that a person so described is bar-none, bent and determined as their central purpose in life, every second of their waking lives, to be controlling. For the evaluation “controlling” to be useful, it needs to be deconstructed. (This is a descriptor I first heard used in the dispute resolution context by Vancouver mediator Michael Fogel) Deconstruction can proceed in more than several directions. In every case it will lead to more complex perspectives.

For example, asking, ‘When did you conclude that he’s controlling?’ could elicit a story that gives some meaning to “controlling” for the other party; perhaps the speaker was particularly hurt or disadvantaged. ‘What has he done that is controlling?’ may bring out the actual offending behaviours. Possible examples are withholding certain kinds of information, and making decisions without consultation.

In his most recent book The Conflict Paradox, mediator Bernie Mayer describes progress to more complex views of conflict and of the other party, as central to the dispute resolution process. I agree. Above, using one example, I have presented two of the ways that the parties’ viewpoints can be deconstructed to more complex perspectives:

1) An evaluation such as “controlling” may be more fully understood through telling the story that led to such a simplistic evaluation;

2) More specific and concrete behaviours such as ‘withholding information’ and ‘declining consultation’ provide a more concrete picture than when they are rolled into one and expressed simply as “controlling”.

Embracing expanded perspectives requires a willingness to entertain and explore a more complex view of the other party and of the conflict. It requires complexity tolerance.


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