IDEO and the Sundance Institute have developed a very compelling way to generate discussion and curiosity. It is called Creative Tensions. And the premise is to physically take a stance along the line between opposing forces within a broader theme.
In their words:
Creative Tensions is a physically activated collective conversation in which participants share where they stand on a topic by virtue of where they stand in the room. Inspired and provoked by a pair of speakers who approach the topic from wildly different contexts, Creative Tensions prompts reflection, explores nuance, and celebrates the rare moment when one change one’s mind.
More than just an exercise, Creative Tensions is an experiment in communication. When so many of the problems we face on personal and global stages are due to a lack of understanding, and many of the challenges we face are calling for paradigm shifts, we need to turn old methods on their heads in order to reveal new paths to problem solving.
The dilemma of the panel discussion is one of Creative Tensions’ reasons for being. Thinkers and problem solvers, already a self-selecting group, leaving too many events thinking “great topic, but did we really get into it? Great panelists, but did we really get the most of having them in the room?”
And just as we demand the most of the experience, we, the attendees, so easily sit back passively in our seats, on our phones, never challenged to take a stance of our own. This creates habits of absence in the audience. Absence of mind. We’re physically present but not mentally engaged at all.
So how can we expect to answer the big questions, tackle the challenges, collaborate and empathize and band together…if we can’t even be present together in a room, sitting shoulder to shoulder?
THE BIG QUESTIONS
By nature of these dilemmas, some issues are so big that we don’t dare address them, because where would we even begin? And when we do, there is pressure to take a stance, and make progress — to arrive at a productive conclusion.
And how do we address the fact that every point of view will generate a different discussion? That people in the audience will fully agree or disagree, that a Q&A session isn’t a forum for discussion. It may be why so many questions are posed as statements. When the rules of discussion are so often broken, maybe it’s time for the rules to change.
There is always the risk of losing control of the discussion when it gets away from the designed boundary of invited speakers and guests. The public is a variable out of your control. They could say anything. Why do we fear that? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to embrace the unexpected and unplanned in this context where I would argue the risk is trumped by the possible reward?
Is it a “discussion” without a dynamic of peer-to-peer between speaker and audience? How do you establish that common ground when the designed premise of the speakers’ invitation is that the audience has something to learn from them? But does that negate the possibility that they might learn something from the audience as well?
The big questions also tend to stir up controversy, and passions. This can be beneficial to a discussion, but it can also hold it back if one side out-shouts the other. We need to create a space where people feel comfortable listening. Listening. A lost art.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Empathy. Curiosity.
It is so easy to make the choice not to challenge oneself. And oftentimes we end up missing out because we shy away from the thing we feel compelled to do but are afraid of. The act of physically moving takes the emphasis away from the spoken word, and reminds us that we have so many more modes of communication we take for granted.
You don’t have to speak in order to be heard. (It makes me wonder what other contexts Creative Tensions might be applied to with great effectiveness. Creative Tensions as a tool for orientations? For business mergers? For therapy? For diplomacy?)
In addition to breaking the format of the discourse, Creative Tensions changes our patterns of behavior. You see people making eye contact, smiling, turning towards each other, testing the water of making contact. No more rows and lines and fixed positions. Suddenly we are aware of our bodies. And we are aware of the other bodies around us. And that those bodies represent a point of view, past experience, and future ideas.
And as we are challenged to consider the tension and re-position ourselves in the room, we are aware of our own point of view. We are aware of the process of thought that leads us to that decision. We are aware that some people arrive at the same stance as we do, while others are far to the other end of the spectrum, all to varying degrees. And sometimes the reasoning is parallel, but the conclusion in opposing. It’s totally fascinating to visualize and experience how disagreements might be formed if you accept anything at face value. By listening, we learn that our goals might be aligned although our methods are different. Think of all the amazing collaboration that could come from that awareness.
Active reflection brings us back into the moment, and generates more profound reasoning. The suggestion that, if you feel yourself swayed by the argument of another participant or protagonist, you can physically adjust your location in the room is freeing. You become comfortable with the idea of altering your triggered response, and challenging that instinct.
Those walls of formal structure evaporate by making us aware of the other people around us. Having to consider our position relative to them in the physical space makes us more empathetic, which I like to believe makes us more willing to hear out the person on the other side of the debate.
TENSION IS POLARIZING
Within the room, within society, within ourselves.
But the very fluid nature of Creative Tensions actually relieves a great deal of that pressure. The “tension” is so elastic and malleable that I might actually describe it as a 3-dimensional space within which we can be bold and address the big questions. And the walls are soft, so no one gets hurt.
Because one of the most compelling results of Creative Tensions is that, while people are disagreeing and sharing their point of view, the overriding element is not the disagreement, but the shared experience. That shared experience creates a common ground where discussion can be had and solutions generated.
It’s an active and continual micro-vote that could be compounded into a point of view. But the very fact that no two people follow identical paths through the room represents our individuality in a way that I think we ourselves forget because we are so busy being classified and classifying ourselves and classifying others. People are similar to us or dissimilar. We can accept difference and diversity into our lives to expand our views and beliefs and make a more broad open world for the next generation, or we can continue to talk in silos and reinforce our pre-existing ideals.
Creative Tensions shatters this habit and allows us to see the world in a new light. And to see each other again. To be curious about the people around you. To wonder why each person is where they are in the room.
Empathy and curiosity. These are two words that I’ve become attached to recently. Maybe this is why I have developed such fascination towards the exercise of Creative Tensions. The two things that overwhelm me during the experience are curiosity and empathy. In a room of people speaking thoughtfully about their stance, and wanting to know more from everyone. Wanting to understand.
In an uncertain world, the best tool we have is communication. It enables us to collaborate, to plan, and to evolve. We spend our lives communicating, and yet the mechanics of it remain a mystery.
I find it ironic now that Creative Tensions, designed through polarization, is the place where I have experienced the most powerful sense of camaraderie and fluid discussions on the most overwhelming topics. I see that the polarization establishes depth and expands boundaries. The further polarized, the more space for discourse. The more open the discourse, the stronger the thread, connecting each person where they stand, that is the beginning of understanding.