Pattern #70

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Range of Tolerance

Credit: Graph by Martin Rausch inspired by Tracy Kunkler, Circle Forward and Sociocracy

Between preferred and unacceptable lies people’s range of tolerance. Working with it can move a group beyond the search for perfection into flexibility, initiative, and experimentation. Mindfully encouraging its expansion can foster learning, growth, good relations, and wisdom. So clarify and dynamically work with the range of tolerance — one’s own and others’.

  • What are you willing to work with here?
  • Can I step aside and let (or authorize) others to do something here that I’m not fully comfortable with but don’t have any really strong, legitimate objections to?
  • How can you frame your objections to this proposal in ways that serve the goal or purpose of our group? And, once it is framed in that way, how well can the rest of us address your objections to make the proposal better?
  • What can I do to expand my ability to tolerate things I’m not totally comfortable with – both for my own growth and sanity and to enable me to live and work better with other people?
  • How can we separate what we each want separately from what would most likely be really good for all of us if we could realize it together?
  • What do I do with things that really feel intolerable to me, but that others seem to really want to be or do or have? Are there different manifestations of this dynamic that I would ideally respond to differently?

Going Deeper …

This is an edited version of the video’d conversation on this page.

Tom: So we will do something a little different this time. Instead of me talking about a pattern myself, I’m going to be interviewing somebody who knows a lot about it. That’s Tracy Kunkler. She’s a partner at CircleForward.us in North Carolina. She’s a visionary consultant, facilitator, and networker who is among the earliest explorers with me in this wise democracy project. She introduced me to the idea of Consent guided by the range of tolerance bell curve model that we used to illustrate the Range of Tolerance pattern. Tracy and I have explored this dynamic described by the Consent and Range of Tolerance patterns both within and outside of Sociocracy which is an interesting organizational form that includes this dynamic as a key feature.

In this interview we will talk about both Consent and Range of Tolerance and you’ll find the resulting video featured with both of those patterns’ pages. So Tracy, can you describe what these patterns are about and why you find this dynamic so compelling in your work – and what you think it has to do with wise democracy.

Tracy: Thanks Tom, I really like the prime directive. I think consent makes sense within the prime directive of wise democracy as you have defined it: “How do we evoke and engage the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole.” I think of consent as a condition that enables actually that kind of system or ecosystem to emerge. I think of consent as a way to describe an ecosystem that we would think of as a wise and healthy homeostasis. So consent has a range of tolerance. That range of tolerance principle is used extensively in ecosystem science. It says that living organisms and living systems exist in a range of tolerance. If it is too hot or too cold, for example, the coral reefs will die; that is out of their range of tolerance. So it is not just about a preference or being out of your comfort zone. It is actually saying that the system itself is entering very risky territory that threatens and undermines that system.

Tom: I notice when you are talking at the systems level, that this is actually a relationship between the smaller system – the organism – and the larger system – the environment and the conditions the organism finds itself in. So this applies to an individual or group within a larger activity – like an organization or society or whatever.

Tracy: I think so. That is the way I see it – as a nested system (like Russian dolls). That’s why I think this ecosystem metaphor works really well, even for our organizational systems. Because there is a level of complexity – there’s an ecosystem quality to our work environment. Especially when you start to look at organizations working with other organizations around large-scale social issues or environmental issues. So I think the idea that within all these systems – including our human-designed systems and human systems – people are functioning as sensors for risk. So when we are talking about decision-making, a lot of the time what we want to do is make good, wise decisions – decisions that promote health and regenerative quality. We want to avoid decisions that are going to be destructive. So people in these human systems are really like sensors to risk. Because all humans have blind spots in our thinking, we can actually create a smarter process by creating structures that allow us to listen and integrate each other’s wisdom, listen and integrate as a whole. This goes back to your prime directive: How do you evoke and engage the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole? Well, you listen when that feedback about risk is coming in to your circle and your decision-making process. This range of tolerance framework is a really good tool to help people articulate those risks they may be perceiving that other people may have blind spots around.

Tom: Is it always in terms of risk? When you are seeking consent or considering consent in yourself or in the group, is it always around risk or are there other factors involved? I do understand that risk is definitely one of the factors: You want to sense if there’s a risk for yourself or for your group, in terms of what you are trying to do together. And I understand that this sensing can include sensing into your own body response, your physical, psychological and spiritual responses, and so on. But I am also wondering if there are things other than risk that are and should be sensed into when you’re doing a consent process?

Tracy: I think that this risk-based process is a practical way for people to think about and to actually do the decision-making. I think it helps people frame what it is that they are sensing. You are right, you often sense “being out of consent” in your body. Your nervous system is responding to this sense of “this is going to take us in a dangerous direction” – just like when I put my hand on a hot surface and it is threatening to burn itself. This other hand over here is not having a problem; it is not feeling the heat. But if your body is set up such that when one hand is experiencing too much heat, the body as a whole has a mechanism for reacting to that feedback, then that helps preserve the integrity of the body. Right now we don’t have that in many organizations.

An example: I work with and am friends with nurses. Nurses in a top-down hierarchical structure don’t have much voice to express when decisions are actually hurting patients. I believe they often have to live outside their range of tolerance with the way the hospital operates, the way care is delivered. I think a lot of times the administrators in those offices have blind spots. They’re not even aware of how their decisions are impacting people and patients. That is one system I think can really benefit from understanding the value of having a process that enables the hospital system to engage the wisdom and resourcefulness of its professionals on the front lines with the patients.

Tom: The whole system here is actually the patients, the nurses, the doctors, the administrators, the friends and family, and so on… and we want to have that whole system present and sensing into the situation and respecting each other’s sensing and trying to figure out what to do with it.

Tracy: Let me add to that. We have taught this principle about risk and range of tolerance to teenagers, to young people. When somebody says “I am out of my range of tolerance” they have that language available to use. Risk comes in as a tool when we ask the question: “What is the risk we can’t afford to take?” What you begin to shift is this individualism that says, well, if someone else is experiencing that sense of “something is wrong”, then that is somehow just only occurring to them. What we have come to understand is that we’re all very interconnected and it also affects others and the group. That question “What is the risk we can’t afford to take” again throws us back into “you are sensing something that is affecting the whole” – and people learn to just assume that. You come from the angle of “What is it that you are perceiving that we need to know to make our decision better?” Once you have asked the question “What is the risk you are not willing to take?”, it seems to set up a language for describing the situation that makes problem solving a lot more targeted and specific. How we adapt to that person’s concern, then, is really actually adapting to what their real bottom line is, and that is usually something very important for the group as a whole.

Tom: When I think about RISK, it implies danger or damage to the group. When I downshift a bit to the purposes or aims of the group and not being able to fulfill or achieve those, I can see that as another level of risk. The term risk is usually connoted so much as “danger”, but the chance you will fail with your purpose is still a form of risk. Then there’s the fact that if needs of people like me would not be met, that’s not just a matter of MY needs or MY values. There is a way in which the individual – even if they’re speaking totally individually – they are of a type – we are all of different types – and their viewpoints could manifest the viewpoints of others whose needs or perspectives might not be met by this proposal that’s outside that one person’s range of tolerance. But it’s harder to think of this “not-metness” as RISK. So part of me can sense that this “risk” framework is quite potent and helps you target what to address when you’re trying to take more into account. But I am concerned that using the term “risk” might keep people from looking at those other more subtle aspects of risk.

In many ways I prefer the term “concern”. “Concern” suggests that something may get overlooked. But if you talk about RISK, people might dismiss other concerns as “what’s the big deal here?” They might not get the nuance of things like my values that would be violated, or my needs that would not be met. Those things could be seen as not a risk. I’m just wondering, how do you deal with that? Maybe talking with the group about what is included in risk, prior to using the term?

Tracy: Well, think about how we are orienting people with this process. Let’s say we are creating a sense of a whole, right, the system actually seeing itself as a whole and having integrity. So there is more to this than just a group of individuals, there is something synergistic when we come together around some kind of shared purpose. That purpose could be implicit or explicit. (We try to help people make those purposes explicit, because people may then find out that their purposes are not really aligned. Sometimes that can create conflict if it’s not adequately understood.) When people are coming together there is a sense of a whole. And I think that then there is a different sense that being out of my range of tolerance might mean that I won’t be able to contribute or participate if we go forward with this. That could be something that a group could easily see undermining their work and their collective purpose – for the very reasons you said: that it may be that one individual holds a key part of it or it could be that that person has a voice that really speaks to a lot of people or represents them.

For example: There is the question of how what we want to do might be perceived in the community. So someone in the group might say, “If we go forward with this, I can’t stand behind it.” If we use the language of concern (I usually use the language of the culture I am in), I would say: “There is a concern here”. I would want the person to tell me more about that concern. Even in this case of you and me right now, I might say: “Tom, if we only use the language of risk, what is the risk we can’t afford to take?”…

Tom: (Laughs) Nice Aikido move!

Tracy: Which I’d be saying to help pull out what we might be missing, that blind spot. That to me is about engaging what we need to consider on behalf of the whole.

Tom: So the bottom line for the “risk” question is that it is a window into a blind spot.

Tracy: Yes, that’s right. That’s what all of this is.

Tom: Now, in terms of the range of tolerance, what role do you see for expanding the range of tolerance of an individual or of a group. Are you assuming their range of tolerance is fixed? And related to that, are there conditions under which the range of tolerance contracts, and are there conditions to help it not contract? Are there times when the contraction of the range of tolerance is actually something that should happen? I’m intrigued by the idea of expansion and contraction of the range of tolerance compared to the assumption that it’s something that just IS and we consult it.

Tracy: I love that you’re picking up on that and asking the question whether there is a way to expand our range of tolerance. I think of this again – if I can go back to the language of risk – the reason I think that that is potent is this: We know that we can “live with” things. So I think we can expand our comfort zone, expand into new experiences. Sometime we may experience a level of concern about our financial solvency, for example, or moving into a new arena. There are some people that are less risk-tolerant, they are more risk-averse. That will immediately register. Then there is another great tool, the question “Is this good enough to try? Is it safe enough to fail? If we fail in what we are doing, will that be ok?” I think that is a great way to help people kind of breathe into expanding their range of tolerance. “Can we allow this to fail?”

The reality is we are working in a very complex environment. We don’t really know what is going to happen because of these different interventions and what we are doing. We tend to do things and sometimes the things we do that we think are going to be so good turnout to be bad, and the things we think are bad actually have a positive effect. It’s not simple. So there are structures and tools that go along with consent. And one of them is setting up these feedback systems.

Going to your question of the range of tolerance shifting. Our range of tolerance is always shifting, hopefully, in relation to input, feedback, information,… Ideally, you’re setting up systems where you can be continually assessing the direction you are going in, the intervention that you are making, and sensing if you’re making a small enough intervention that it is safe enough to fail and that you are collecting that information. And as you start to collect information, you have more to assess and to sense: “This is working, so we can expand more into this new terrain”. Or we are getting some disturbing feedback, and more people might start to go out of their range of tolerance with that particular direction.

Tom: I’m hearing some other patterns in this, which makes it especially interesting and informative to me. I’m seeing a totally different application I never thought of for the pattern Life-Enhancing Enoughness. It is usually framed in terms of simple living and stuff like that, from a sustainability perspective. But here’s another application: We can ask “Is this ENOUGH to serve the life of the group?”

And the Creative Experimentation and Prudent Progress patterns fit here, too. We are always operating on a trial basis and we are aware that we have an awful lot of power collectively, so we want to be mindful of how we use it. We want to test it out. And, again, Consent and Range of Tolerance are ways of monitoring how that is unfolding. It is not a replacement for analytical or critical thinking but it’s a powerful augmentation. At an intuitive level it has a potential to access the whole more quickly than in the analytic approach and you can check your stuff afterwards with more analytics – all of which brings up the Multi-Modal Intelligence pattern. I am coming to appreciate the potency of this particular approach to the prime directive.

Tracy: I think it goes back to this ecosystem idea that, the more diversity we can integrate into the ecosystem that we are in, the more resilient that ecosystem is. So the more parts that are in their range of tolerance, that’s how you do it: everybody finds their little niche, the place they can exist and they can thrive. That is a place of equity: People get what they need in order to fulfill their potential. They get the resources and the access. We are asking a lot of our systems to live outside their range of tolerance and we are experiencing a lot of negative consequences as a result of that.

Tom: I’m realizing there is a way this folds back on itself. When people are outside of their range of tolerance, they can’t hear or engage well. If everyone is saying to each other, “What you’re saying is out of my range of tolerance!” the group gets stuck at that point. The conditions under which that is happening are covered by the “Using Diversity and Disturbance Creatively” pattern. You get the diversity, so you are getting the disturbance. Now how do you use it well? This is where process, setting, facilitation, and other such factors make a difference – including whatever the history and culture of the group is. There are different things that can be in place that expand the Capacitance (another pattern that clearly associates with the Range of Tolerance pattern) of the whole group to hold those kinds of things which interfere with the range of tolerance of everybody WITH everybody, in all their differences. There is a way in which the range of tolerance can apply to people’s ability to tolerate each other in the group – and what can expand THAT.

Tracy: Absolutely! Here is another interesting framework. In addition to this ecosystem model, we have been looking at a resilience model in relation to trauma. The trauma field has been using its own kind of range of tolerance and it’s called the Zone of Resilience. It is exactly what you just said. If people are outside of this zone of resilience that means they’re going into their fight-or-flight-or-freeze brain. They are not able to access their full cognitive abilities, so their decision-making is impaired. I think these things are very primal. When we are in group making decisions and it’s really important to us – to a degree that I start thinking that if we keep going in this direction we are going to have major problems or I’m not going to be able to participate anymore – I’m not going to be part of this group anymore. What many of us are experiencing is that fight-or-flight response. Usually I am getting scared, getting angry, I am detaching, I am pulling away, I stop coming to meetings,… Like you said, we need processes, we need microstructures to enable people to stay within their zone of resilience and not go into fight-or-flight. This is particularly significant because we have so many people who have trauma coming into these spaces with others.

Tom: I hear you saying that trauma experience can make people hypersensitive to things other people are doing and saying and in that way can interfere with the whole group and their ability to tolerate their differences.

But I’m also interested in the connection between what you do in a group or organization and the larger society. Part of my concern is with the connotation of consent as kind of “going along with” – which has a conformist kind of energy to it – and how you would speak to whether your use of the word “consent” is or isn’t what people usually think of as “going along with”. And the other thing is how it fits in the larger society. Like the sexual consent issues raised by the #MeToo movement. How do you think in terms of not just your work with groups and organizations but the role of this dynamic in the larger society?

Tracy: I think that the #MeToo movement is getting at the power dynamics. I think you see consent in the larger society used where there is a potential abuse of power. So you have informed consent with your doctor. Or if you’re a minor, your parents may have to give consent in order for you to participate in certain activities. In a sexual context you also have forms of consent. For me both consent and democracy are essentially about power. In a sense, governance is the form that power takes in our culture; governance gives form to power. To what extent does our governance enable all voices and to what extent does it marginalize voices? So the relationship between marginalization and consent is a real issue. But many people might be going along AND they might be truly in consent. I think going along with things is actually fine, if consent is practiced the way we’ve been talking about. There are so many things about which I don’t have much experience or knowledge and I want to trust people who are passionate and have that experience and knowledge, I want them to make the decision and I don’t want to be part of that decision. There’s many of those cases.

In the larger societal context, there is a piece of consent like in “the consent of the governed” where I go along with decisions. I think the key is how we respond when somebody actually ISN’T going along. We have the sense of people going along, but they’re doing it in a very passive-aggressive way. They are resisting even though they seem – on the surface – to be going along. This happens in workplaces. I think I read a statistic that 20 to 30% of people are completely checked out at work. They don’t care. So I think you are right that this is an element of consent, its shadow side that we need to be alert to. People are showing up; they seem to be there, but they are really not.

To me it is much more how do we respond when people resist or when people give us feedback that they’re really outside their range of tolerance. How does the system respond to that. The appropriate response is to adapt to that information and to bring the person back within their range of tolerance because that is actually going to create a smarter process overall.

Tom: I want to tap into that. You tied consent to power. And I’m thinking about how we talked about how risk and range of tolerance can be a window into important things we might be missing. And I’m thinking about how we don’t just deal with power in our wise democracy project. We look at power, participation and wisdom. So, having seen how consent can be used as a window into power dynamics, if you use it that way, I’m now also seeing that it can be a window into participation, if you use that way. And it can be a window into wisdom – into taking account more of what needs to be taken into account – if you use it that way. There is a funny way in which the consent and range of tolerance dynamic covers a lot of ground in our 3-D – three-dimensional – democracy approach. So when the system responds well to dissent, it is opening the window on these things. “There is something there to know: This is an indicator, a little message is being sent, so let’s look at it.” I see lots of power in that.

And when you say it’s present in power, that’s really true. But there is a funny way in which the power dynamics are so distorted in society that people are hyper-aware of that dimension, even at an implicit feeling level, so that’s where all the current interest in consent is coming from. But now I’m realizing an expanded realm in which we can use consent. You already do that, albeit not so explicitly. But we can use consent-based process to access wisdom as well as power dynamics. And it can expand power, it can expand participation, and it can expand wisdom – if we use it that way.

Tracy: Yes! This idea that power is a pie – that if some people get more power, then it must mean that other people get less power. But I think it is much more like happiness. If I share my happiness and my joy with you, I am not giving it away. We can actually amplify our joy. When you are talking about our initiative, and we are trying to make these large scale changes right now very quickly, more people having access to being able to communicate “I am out of my range of tolerance” and being listened to – that is the essence of having power, to having influence – and thus bringing more people to power brings more people to our mission and to the work we are doing. It is more power to the mission, it is amplifying – it is not sharing power in the sense of giving it away and having less.

Tom: To the extent that I listen to your range of tolerance, your consent and your concerns, and I open up to what’s underneath all that and behind it, you become (interestingly!) more willing to hear my concerns and consent issues. And so that expands our mutual range of tolerance.

Tracy: Yes. And here is another thing that is interesting. The more that you listen to me when I say “This is really important to me. This is out of my range of tolerance and I need this to be adjusted” – the more you listen to me and respond to that, the more I’m likely to defer to you, and to actually give you more authority because I know that – when it is important – I can have that influence and that power when I need it. I will actually “let go” more and don’t have to be in every meeting.

Tom: You will have the confidence that I will most likely take your concerns into account in the future. The probability that I will take your concerns into account grows the more you see me taking your concerns into account. You see that I get your interest and that I can step into your worldview. It’s like: “Okay. I understand that people like this need this and see things this way. So I’m going behave like that even if those people are not immediately around me.” And you, the concerned person, go: “Ok, I’m willing to give that person power and participate in granting them the power.”

Tracy: “Yeah, I trust you now. I trust that you care about how things affect me.”

Tom: That is interesting: consent and trust. We don’t have “trust” embedded in this pattern language explicitly, but I’m always interested in how the different patterns might contribute to that and this is a really specific example. It’s gigantic. Wow, thanks a million, Tracy!

Tracy: I think it connects to so many patterns, Tom. This was a great conversation! Thank you.

Tom: Anybody who sees this video should do extensive comments at the end of the pattern page about what YOU think after listening to this interesting interaction.

Video Introduction (34 min)

The video for this pattern is an experiment in conversation instead of lecture.

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