Openness

Openness is an essential condition of living well. To be open means to be receptive to new information, ideas, and experiences – to be genuinely sensitive to the world around us, available to what is new and fresh, unblocked by the filters of past conditioning. It means to rise out of the grooves of habit and addictions in thinking and feeling to touch what is unexpectedly present. In terms of human relationships, openness is the quality of inclusion and welcoming that enables us to hear not only different perspectives, but totally different ways of being. It enables us to convert conflict into synergy, a tranformation essential to true collaboration. Like explorers moving from known roads into the wilderness, two people who become genuinely open to one another find themselves creating new paths of understanding. They may have to fight their way through many misunderstandings to find innovative connections and rigorous solutions. And in the process they each grow as individuals.

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This journey to reach one another across uncharted territory requires first and foremost a commitment to truth. The journey can be alive and real only in proportion to the individuals’ willingness to take interpersonal risks of disclosure. Only when there is a decision to maintain personal vulnerability, to be candid, sometimes even in graceless ways, can openness help the explorers reach the high, common ground, that place of extraordinary beauty in the relationship that has been waiting for them. Especially when individuals start from isolated, well-defended ground, or when they face traversing very deep, daunting canyons of mistrust — especially then telling the truth is what is most called for and care for self and one another become essential sustenance for the journey. If then they also have the will to carry through, they can truly find one another. They can meet.

Organizations complicate our ability to be open with one another and therefore to genuinely meet one another. Differences in function, power, and stature overlay natural differences in background, culture, individual style, intelligence, and temperament. And so to lead, to improve, to change, to make a difference in the landscape, the first ingredient of openness – especially in organizations is the divine capacity to take the first risk, the leader’s risk. And failing that, the second and third as well. How else could learning happen among people? When openness fails, leadership fails. And then war is engaged, whether between nations or two good people who love each other, or a manager and employee dealing defensively with their questions about one another’s performance.

It is precisely because organizations habitually undervalue true openness that they are so inept in building climates of innovation, adaptation, and respect. People learn to address problems politically. Most organizations, groups, teams are highly avoidant of conflict, and those that say they value conflict may just as easily be in a state of denial. I think of an organization, young and aggressive and growing by double digits, where the most experienced long-term employees commonly waxed eloquent about the values of the company, including the value placed on fighting through conflicting ideas, speaking one’s mind, and standing up for personal opinion. This was said to be the direct outcome of the culture set by the company’s founder, who still ran the enterprise on a day-to-day basis. This was also a place where in private conversation these same good, long-term employees decried the founder’s reckless anger about any mistake, where it was said he enjoyed the process of chewing out key employees in front of others, and where after a good chewing out he would go back to his office, lay down on the couch and take a nap, so exhausted he was from the tantrum.

This is not openness although it is often confused with it by those addicted to anger. Openness is a psychological and spiritual movement that is at once both vulnerable and strong. It isn’t just showing emotion in the workplace, telling someone else how bad he or she is. Rather it is the revelation of self in an effort to touch and to engage. It is not accusing. Openness is about the ownership of personal experience – which may at once feel both entirely powerless and fully present. Powerless because the full impact of speaking is often unpredictable, and fully present because with real openness a person takes responsibility for personal feelings and truths. Openness is conscious, but not controlling; aware, listening, divulging, exploring – and clarifying. It can and sometimes must include an honest expression of personal or organizational limits and boundaries, especially when the limits have been violated. Openness includes stating clearly what is unacceptable. But most of these boundaries, which are often really fortresses against “bad behavior” of some kind, must also have a gate that can swing open, a window to see from, and a room to the side for consideration and reflection, a place whether something new and unknown always has a chance to enter and make its case. Any fortress without a gate is really just a prison in disguise.

2 Comments

  • I just took a break from catching up on your recent posts (it’s nice to have you “back”) to take the kids to school. On the way back, I heard an NPR story on Paul McCartney in which the world’s most successful songwriter talked about being open (and responsive) to criticism from his producer, Nigel Godrich, who, as Steve Inskeep notes, was not even born yet when the Beatles were at their height. This openness resulted in what many (including myself) consider to be McCartney’s best album in years.

  • Very cool. Thanks again, Joe, for this and the many other links you’ve sent along with your comments.

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