Range of Tolerance – 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.