Creativity from Tensions: A Thought Experiment
In the past couple of weeks, I was involved in two difficult conversations—one personal and one professional. In both cases, the tension emerged out of the conversations and my realization of a gap arising between what was being said and my own beliefs and principles. I started to feel very uneasy, not quite knowing how I was going to proceed. For a little while, I wondered how I was going to behave and what exactly I was going to say, if anything. While the temptation to “let it go,” “not bother,” and “don’t take any risks” was highly present, in both cases I opted for a completely different strategy—one of abrupt honesty in conveying what I was thinking and how I was feeling. I believe that it is my honesty that created the tensions, as my interlocutors probably did not expect such a direct approach. In doing so, I took a difficult, risky road. I also believe it was the high road of creativity.
My colleague and facilitator Brian Weller says that creativity resides in the resolution of tensions. When a tension develops between two or more conflicting ideas, opinions, or values, three outcomes are possible: the tension may break, in which case one side wins and the other loses or, worst, both sides lose. In these situations, there are no resolution and no emergent creativity. Unfortunately, these first two situations are the most frequent. However, in some more rare circumstances when both sides choose to do the work and stay at it for as long as it is necessary, then something somewhat magical occurs: the tension gets resolved and a new solution emerges that encompasses the seemingly divergent views. This win-win situation generates holistic solutions that neither side would have ever envisioned.
Creatively resolving tensions takes time and requires critical personal skills: courage; letting go of ego; deep listening; the ability to see from the other’s perspective; deep empathy; the ability to dance through complexity* and hold two or more opposite views in the mind while resisting the temptation to choose one over the others; and a generative mind that focuses on creating the possibility for something new as opposed to grabbing to the past.
Key to the creative resolution of tensions is the ability to be aware of our thoughts. My friend Andrew James Campbell, artist and facilitator in the UK, just sent me some of his reflections on David Bohm’s book Thought as a System. Andrew quotes Bohm saying:
“…the general tacit assumption in thought is that it’s just telling you the way things are and that it’s not doing anything—that ‘you’ are inside there, deciding what to do with the info. But you don’t decide what to do with the info. Thought runs you. Thought, however, gives false info that you are running it, that you are the one who controls thought. Whereas actually thought is the one which controls each one of us. Thought is creating divisions out of itself and then saying that they are there naturally. This is another major feature of thought: Thought doesn’t know it is doing something and then it struggles against what it is doing. It doesn’t want to know that it is doing it. And thought struggles against the results, trying to avoid those unpleasant results while keeping on with the way of thinking. That is what I call “sustained incoherence.”**
As I engaged in my conversations, thoughts flooded my mind. Thoughts arose as an immediate reaction to the words and ideas I was hearing—words and ideas, which I of course interpreted with my own internal filters. I became very aware of my own thoughts as they created a feeling of discomfort and of dissonance with my interlocutors. Thoughts are what they are, overwhelming us; it is hard to control them. But by making them explicit as well as the feelings they generate—and doing so in a way that honors and respects ourselves and our interlocutors—we can allow for the thoughts to be examined; for misunderstanding to be corrected; for mutual adjustment to take place; and for a new understanding to develop. Then, true creativity can take place.
It is yet to be proven whether I am able to demonstrate the above skills. This is a learning journey and not an easy one. And each circumstance and encounter presents a different challenge. It is about intention and practice.
*This idea is borrowed from Martin Roger’s book “The Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking.” Harvard Business Press (2009).
** Bohm, David (1994). Thought as a System. Routledge, London.
Painting above by Tony Reid (1998), during a facilitated art session with artist Andrew James Campbell. Courtesy of Andrew James Campbell and permission to use. The painting represents in a spectacular way the creative emergence that took place over the three day workshop.