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Suspending Certainty: Own Your Limits

Stretching Your Learning Edges
By Jennifer Abrams
25-May-22
Suspending Certainty: Own Your Limits


Collaboration is one of the most frequently used words in education and, in some ways, the least taught. Our ability to collaborate and our willingness to engage respectfully with one another matters for the health of the school and the collective well-being of all within it. This article continues my six-part series on ways we can individually develop ourselves to become an even better value-add to the group.

In previous articles, I focused on the key concepts of engaging with reciprocity (being respectful to all and building our skillset to do so) as well as knowing our identit(ies) - to better know your assumptions, blind spots, values, and beliefs and how they impact our work with others.  All in service to being “good company” to your teams. 

And to continue on the journey of growing (up) and becoming an integrated individual and effective professional requires the sturdy ability to suspend certainty. 

Suspending certainty asks us to remain open to multiple possibilities and multiple points of view, to not rush to judgment. Suspending certainty requires acknowledging that you could be wrong. You begin to recognize that your judgments, beliefs, ideas, and behaviors are grounded in your world view, and it is just that, a world view, not the only one.  

Suspending Certainty

What It Is

Why It Matters

What It Looks Like/Sounds Like

Having an appropriate sense of self-regard; keeping things in perspective.

Knowing you always don’t know the bigger picture.

Managing yourself respectfully in moments of uncertainty and ambiguity.

Asking questions of others in order to understand their viewpoint and listening to those perspectives without immediate response or defensiveness.

Increases your understanding and awareness of limits in your thinking.

Ideas, beliefs, and behaviors are culturally grounded and may be blind spots you need to learn more about.

Seeing the bigger picture creates a more thoughtful group decision.

Helps you become more curious and open-minded by seeing multiple perspectives.

Maintaining an open mind; listening without defensiveness to another point of view.

Consistently asking, “What am I missing?”

Not discounting or explaining away too quickly.

Admitting mistakes and being able to apologize if defensiveness gets the better of you.

Perhaps you reinforce a Western point of view by including only works by European or white authors in your courses or by teaching mostly through direct instruction that doesn’t allow all types of learners to successfully access the curriculum. By acknowledging that your way (or the way you were taught) isn’t always the right way (or the only way) helps you attune to a larger understanding of the world.

Suspending certainty also means being able to consider more ideas with more flexibility and considering long- and short-term implications of your actions and decisions. It can be difficult to see the big picture, possible challenges, or stumbling blocks for others that you might need to consider before taking next steps. 

When you are open to other perspectives and also embrace them, plus possibly modify your response, new ideas can influence your work for the better. Openness is part of what makes you a more developed individual and a more effective team member. 

Here are two key concepts that shape the suspending certainty facet:

1. HOLD YOUR IDEAS - LIGHTLY

Suspending certainty doesn’t mean that you must entirely let go of your knowledge or your perspective. Your point of view is valid, and your knowledge is hard won.

Nor does suspending certainty and being intellectual humble require you to be okay with intolerance or expressions or acts of violence, or to racism, homophobia, or any other unacceptable action which go against our collective social contract with those in our workplace and through their unacceptable actions deeply detract from creating a space of inclusion and belonging for all.

Suspending certainty does require though that you hold your opinion lightly for a moment, even when you have a strong opinion. You need to develop your ability to move past reaction and move to response. We need to grow our mental muscles to mentally rotate opinions and perspectives to view them from more than one angle; to prod and push against them to determine whether they are solid and have merit. 

Suspending certainty requires of us the ability to ask others to examine an idea you hold dear and when they push against it you don’t become defensive. Suspending certainty allows you see more than you otherwise might. 

2. TURN ON YOUR WINDSHIELD WIPERS

Like bugs coating a windshield, filters (beliefs, values, upbringing, opinions, ways of thinking) can blur your vision. Filters don’t allow clear understanding in order to move forward. Did you know humans see only one percent of the light in the electromagnetic spectrum? Using that as a metaphor, imagine what you aren’t seeing in the world. The same is true for interactions. Our filters, opinions, and biases obscure our picture of the world. Ask yourself, “What am I not seeing?” “Where am I unconscious?” “What film and blurriness do I need to wipe away so I can see better?”

Suspending certainty presumes that you use your windshield wipers. You strive to put yourself in situations and learning experiences that stretch you to set aside filters in order to see more. For example, attend professional learning opportunities about implicit bias, seek perspectives outside your field, attend webinars about topics that make you uncomfortable, watch films foreign to your country of origin, or read books by authors from other parts of your country or born in another country. Recognize that you are a fish swimming in water you cannot see.

In the end, after pausing and asking for clarification and seeing an issue from another perspective, you may ultimately decide that you still stand for the idea or information you originally put on the table. You are confident that what you have to say is appropriate and what you believe is the right decision. Speaking respectfully with assertiveness is fine. Speaking with arrogance and attitude is not. Stand for what you believe but do so tactfully with linguistic savvy and good nature. 

Question to ask yourself as you work on suspending certainty:

  • What surprises me most when others have a different perspective on something?
  • What is my response (internally and externally) at those moments?
  • How do I seek others’ input so I have a fuller picture of any given situation?
  • How will I remind myself to inquire about others’ thoughts before advocating my own position?
  • In what ways do I need to “interrupt” my way of doing things and learn a bit more?

In my upcoming articles, I will look at two more essential areas where we can stretch ourselves at our learning edges and become even more effective professionals in our adult to adult communication.
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Formerly a high school English teacher and a new teacher coach, Jennifer Abrams is currently a communications consultant who focuses on adult to adult communication in schools. Her publications include Having Hard Conversations, The Multigeerational Workplace: Communincate, Collaborate and Create Community and Hard Conversations Unpacked - the Whos, Whens and What Ifs and Swimming in the Deep End: Four Foundational Skills for Leading Successful School Initiatives. Her newest book is, Stretching Your Learning Edges: Growing (Up) at Work.

Internationally, Jennifer presented at PTC, TTC, EARCOS, NESA, ECIS, AISA, AMISA, CEESA and Tri-Association conferences, and at schools across Asia, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South America and North America. More about Jennifer’s work can be found at her website, www.jenniferabrams.com.

Twitter: @jenniferabrams




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