He uses the term ‘deconstructive’ – a term I have also seen used in the book ‘Seven Languages for Transformation‘ by Harvard Professors Kegan and Lahey to describe both feedback and conflict.
The idea is much older than that, of course, and runs as a theme through much work on dialogue – including that by Bill Isaacs (Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together – one of my favourite books), who refers back to David Bohm. It is also central to the ideas of Chris Argyris and many others. In fact, I am pretty sure the idea can be traced back and back, probably to ancient thought including Taoism and beyond.
So what does it mean? Putting it into a modern context, the starting point for me is how we perceive ourselves and our relationships.
If we see ourselves as unitary figures, each with our own problems and failures, and if we adopt a critical mindset, then deconstructive criticism doesn’t make much sense. Surely our aim is to point out the failings of others and fix their problems? To be constructive – in other words to help and support them as they “grow”.
Extend that a little, and add in a little sympathy for the human condition, or perhaps guilt at our own imperfection, and the idea is now that we need to find our own flaws and figure out how to eradicate them.
But take a different perspective. Start with the idea that everything is how it should be. That people as individuals and the relationships they inhabit are fine, just fine. In fact, they are perfect – in the sense that they are in balance, in a perfect homeostasis – like everything in nature.
Take a different perspective – that we are not unitary figures, but that we are all connected, that we are part of complex systems, in fact, part of a single complex system. Unboundaried parts involved in a complex interplay, perhaps one that cannot even be understood by us – not simply cogs in some giant machine.
Then what deconstructive means is to try to understand our own role in that system. To understand how what we say and do, and even what we think and feel, joins together with what others say and do, and think and feel, to create a particular result.
Deconstruction is about stepping away from blame, stepping away from a position of superiority, or, equally, of inferiority. Away from a position of condescension, or of false innocence. Of stepping away from knowing.
I am probably misinterpreting it but doesn’t the Bible say that knowledge is the root of all evil? I know for sure that my own tendency to think I know the answers is the biggest block to my understanding. It is only when I start to suspend my certainty in my own knowledge and beliefs that some sense may start to creep in.
As Tony Schwartz, and Kegan and Lahey, and all the others point out, giving feedback to others from a position of knowledge is fundamentally flawed.
What works better is to examine our own role in the systems we inhabit. How is what we are doing, thinking, feeling affecting the results we get?
This is how problems can be helpful – not because we can identify them, solve them, eradicate them. But because problems teach us something about how we are. I can learn how superior I can be. And that might just help me start the process of starting to solve myself.