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22. Fostering Our Common Humanity
Perhaps you have come to the end of the book after reading all the chapters that precede this one. If that’s been your path, you are now well acquainted with the Reasonable Person Model (RPM) and have seen its wide applicability and the strengths that come with a simple yet far-reaching framework. Alternatively, you may have landed here because the title of the chapter intrigued you. Fostering our common humanity is certainly a vital and challenging goal. What do these authors have to offer? The quick answer is this: they propose a few overarching themes rooted in the insights of the chapters gathered in this book.
RPM views reasonableness as a consequence of how people’s informational needs are met. It is not surprising that as information-dependent creatures, we are keenly sensitive to information—its availability and understandability, its fit with what we know or expect, its emotional impact, how manageable it is, and where we fit in. The list of our sensitivities is huge. One of the things we know from RPM, however, is that long lists serve poorly to meet our informational needs. Instead RPM organizes these needs in terms of only three domains: model building, being effective, and meaningful action (Basu & Kaplan, Chapter 1).
If reasonableness is a function of having our informational needs met, it cannot be a quality that some people possess and others lack. We probably all consider ourselves to be reasonable much of the time and have all been unreasonable on some occasions. We have all been in situations that failed to bring out our best, and we have all, knowingly or not, created situations that failed to bring out the best in others. In other words, situations are the critical element. We can also think of these as contexts, circumstances, or settings. Or we can consider them as environments. Supportive environments, as we have used the term throughout this book, are those that help to foster reasonableness; they are environments that bring out the best in ourselves and fellow humans (Figure 22.1).
RPM offers a framework, not a solution. It reminds us that bringing out the best in ourselves and others can be fostered by the ways environments support our informational needs. By the same token, it helps us understand that failures to meet informational needs are likely to discourage reasonableness.
All too often, the many ways that hinder or undermine reasonableness become evident in hindsight rather than as they occur. Building on the foundational chapters that focus specifically on the RPM framework, this book provides a multitude of examples of ways to enable reasonableness and develop supportive environments.
The examples offer great diversity of contexts, including:
- Rural Oregon (Gallagher, Chapter 8)
- Privately owned forests (Bradley & Cooper, Chapter 12)
- A prison (Ginsburg, Chapter 9)
- Inner-city gardens (Ryan & Buxton, Chapter 11)
- The classroom (Kumler, Chapter 18)
The examples encompass many approaches, including:
- Mediation (Hollett, Chapter 15)
- Collaboration (Monroe, Chapter 14)
- Awareness plans (Duvall, Chapter 20)
- Organizational leadership (Bardwell, Chapter 7)
- Public participation (Grese, Chapter 19)
- Structured volunteer program (Wells & Pillemer, Chapter 10)
The examples also offer a variety of ways to understand our own and others’ perspectives, including broad concepts such as:
- Attachment (Petrich, Chapter 13)
- Tools for learning to see (A. Kaplan, Chapter 17)
- Tools for sharing mental models (Kearney, Chapter 16)
- Empirical research (Phalen, Chapter 21)
Despite such a wide range of contexts, approaches, tools, and modes of analysis, these examples also highlight shared issues that cut across specific contexts. This final chapter explores some of these crosscutting themes. Just as RPM is more portable and adaptable because of its simplicity, we have grouped these themes in terms of a few key issues for enabling supportive environments and fostering reasonableness.
We are all creators of circumstances that can be more or less supportive of our informational needs. The environments we create can be physical—for example, arranging a room to make it easier to have a view out the window and perhaps planting a tree or flowers that can add to the restorative benefits of that view. The environment can also be virtual—for example, arranging a computer screen to reduce clutter and make it easier to access desired destinations. Many of the chapters in this book discuss programs, processes, or interventions—each of these can also be considered environments. Each can be designed to reduce visual and auditory distractions, facilitate the tracking of needed information, and encourage us not to persist too long at a given task.
However, we are creators not only of our own circumstances but of those of others as well. Such situations, contexts, and settings can be momentary or long-lasting, intentional or inadvertent, concrete or abstract, incidental or sizable. We rarely consider our actions as possibly undermining reasonableness, but often they do. We are often aware of the consequences of actions of others, especially when they generate emotional reactions—for example, when our clarity is reduced, our actions are thwarted, or our path is obstructed. Alas, we are less likely to think of ourselves as creating (or negating) supportive environments for others. Supportive environments are more likely to happen when we consider the informational needs of those whose actions are impacted. In many ways, this very book could be considered an attempt to create a supportive environment for its readers. In this chapter, we draw on examples from the entire book to offer a few themes that help in making environments more supportive of informational needs. Some of these themes run counter to the status quo and can be challenging to implement in a culture valuing instant information and immediate results. Nevertheless, they represent small steps that can make big differences in supporting reasonableness.
Less Is More
That advice is much easier to offer than to heed. Why is it so important? Simon’s (1971, pp. 40–41) insight offers a part of the explanation:
In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.
These statements speak to our limited capacity—a recurring theme through many of the chapters. However, Simon fails to convey the emotional costs of our “information-rich world,” which are particularly critical to the less is more mandate. Overabundance of information comes at personal and societal costs. People are uncomfortable when they fail to understand their world. They can become ornery when their head is spinning. They shut down and tune out information that may be vital.
Simon tells us that we humans all have a limited capacity for information. More accurately, we have limited attentional resources, and these are critical to our processing of information. Too much information “creates a poverty of attention.” Such a deficit can express itself in a variety of ways that are not conducive to learning, a sense of competence, meaningful action, pleasantness, or compassion. In other words, respecting people’s limited attentional capacity is essential for fostering reasonableness.
More than likely, however, it is not malice or ill intent that leads us to overburden someone’s attentional capacity. Often it stems from an eagerness to share information, to give advice, to offer solutions, to enrich someone else’s perspective. In many cases it is even a person’s responsibility to impart knowledge. After all, we train to become experts; we seek coaches to benefit from their expertise. As S. Kaplan (Chapter 3) described, it is that very training that leads experts to give one more bit of detail when restraint may in fact be more supportive to the recipient.
Less is more is thus intimately linked to RPM. When we are swamped with information, have difficulty knowing where to focus, or react emotionally to the pain and confusion created by this overabundance, our informational needs are violated. We are not at our best. Something has to change!
The overabundance of information is not likely to be what changes. Information surrounds us, and we even hunger for it. We are all experts, and we all seek the knowledge of experts. We reach for digital devices to access instant answers. Whether or not we find the answers, we can be assured of being bombarded with additional potentially intriguing information. To foster reasonableness, however, we need to find ways to create supportive environments that make the richness of information manageable.
What is “less” and what is “more” is often seen differently depending on one’s familiarity. In many situations desired information is unequally distributed, and furthermore, these inequalities are framed in terms that extend beyond the context of the information itself. Expertise is often characterized in terms of power, wisdom, and superiority, and those lacking the expertise may be seen as inferior, less able, or lazy. Such attributions are unlikely to bring out the best in people! Expertise, however, is not a quality of a person but of a domain of knowledge. What is often cast as lack of expertise is more appropriately a lack of knowledge with respect to a domain. Physicians are trained to be experts with respect to particular information; their patients, however, have a great deal of expertise about their own situation.
When the domain of expertise includes knowledge about communicating effectively, the challenges can be reduced substantially. Individuals sought as coaches and mentors often appreciate that their roles are not only to impart knowledge but to do it in a way that brings out the best in the other person. Patience is valuable, but more important are the opportunities that coaches create for the recipient to absorb information at their own pace and order. Effective mentors are more likely to recognize that incorporating the knowledge and perspective of the “nonexperts” is invaluable for finding a path for an approach that would be useful. With the intention of helping the recipient learn and grow from the experience, the coach or mentor listens to and observes how the intended recipients react to information to gauge when frustration overtakes clarity and when less is more. Similarly, sensitivity to feedback can provide invaluable input for the coach or mentor while also generating opportunities for participation.
Listening is invaluable for countering expertise challenges. However, when people say “I hear you,” they often signal the opposite—that they were not listening or do not want to take in what you are saying. By contrast, when someone has been listening, they might signal it by offering an interpretation of what you had said or by asking a question. Active listening entails building a mental model of what is discussed or observed. Indeed, listening can require multiple sense modalities—for example, taking note of perplexed expressions or smiles. It can also require a great deal of patience, tolerance of silence, and withholding of judgment. Listening is difficult and demanding because it draws on our limited attentional resources.
When we do invest in listening, it often becomes easier to gauge how much information to convey and in what form it is useful to the recipient. We can also reap the benefit of witnessing that we are making a difference. We might discover insights we never had before. Solutions might emerge that seemed unlikely previously.
Listening has the additional benefit of being a clear expression of respect (Basu, Chapter 6). It is an expression of caring for others, of valuing them. Respect is a remarkable antidote to many conditions that are contrary to fostering our common humanity. Being shown respect goes a long way toward addressing injustice, whether real or perceived. It reduces loneliness. It communicates generosity and kindness. It increases trust. While a useful way to practice less is more, listening thus has many additional benefits that help to foster reasonableness.
(It is amusing to apply these same considerations to listening to oneself. Tuning in to our own situation can be an expression of respecting our own capacity; it can lead to creating supportive environments that bring out our best. It might lead to taking the advice we know to offer others, such as turning off digital devices, going for a walk, or stopping an activity before we become irritable even if we have not yet completed the task.)
Participation and Engagement
Participation offers a means of listening and being listened to. It provides opportunities to become connected to others and to a larger purpose, to expand one’s mental models, and to feel that one is making a difference. Through participation, seemingly hopeless situations can open possibilities for oneself and others. The overwhelming global growth of the nonprofit sector is evidence of the compelling dimensions of making a difference, with benefits not only to the populations aided but also to the millions of individuals engaged in these efforts.
While volunteer efforts can have many benefits, the challenges of volunteer retention speak to some vital issues that can affect how satisfying the experience is. Unlike paid employees, in many situations volunteers can more easily leave a situation that is no longer fulfilling their needs. Allen and Mueller (2013) focused on both role ambiguity and voice as factors contributing to volunteer burnout and intentions to quit. Role ambiguity involves lack of clarity about tasks and expectations—or, in RPM terms, failures of mental models to guide one’s behavior. By contrast, voice entails communication and the response to feedback about needed corrective steps. Here the role of listening is critical, as is showing respect to someone who has made the effort to offer feedback and suggestions. Showing support and appreciation of volunteers’ efforts can go a long way toward retention (Garner & Garner, 2011).
However, unlike participation that takes little time or effort (such as casting a vote), for many people involved in volunteer and stewarding activities, advice that less is more is not heeded. The needs are huge and tangible; it is also clear that their involvement is making a difference. By feeling connected and part of a larger effort and witnessing the enormity of the needs, many involved in these efforts are likely not to follow the advice they might give others. This is particularly true for those who are at the helm of the nonprofit organization or activity (as is true in the case of Bardwell, Chapter 7, and Ginsburg, Chapter 9). In such contexts it becomes even more important to consider ways to make the environment more supportive and to have essential players remain engaged and effective.
Participation is an important means of gaining a sense of ownership. We want our efforts to have been worthwhile, to make more than a momentary difference. Many collective efforts, however, fail because those involved have not bought in to the process. Local desires are often ignored in favor of organizational objectives. Participants do not own the knowledge that would allow facile problem solving and engagement. Leaders fail to create opportunities for participants to take on leadership roles. These all-too-common occurrences prevent the very ownership that would lead people to be vested in the outcome. A supportive environment would therefore foster ownership. This requires an up-front investment in helping community members not only to understand the process but also to help define it. It often obliges leaders to relinquish control and experts to forgo seeking the perfect solution in lieu of a muddling approach that makes people feel that they can make a difference.
The five themes are strongly interrelated. Expertise readily undermines the less is more principle, but participation is not immune to it either. Listening, really listening, provides contexts for feedback and can make engagement more satisfying. Ownership arises out of such satisfying opportunities when understanding is enhanced, exploration is encouraged, a sense of competence is enabled, and meaningful action abounds.
In all these instances, supportive environments can play critical roles. They may arise through a simple realization about positioning furniture to maximize a view or come about through more concerted problem solving, such as in searching for ways to reduce procrastination. Supportive environments can be personal or shared. They can be physical places and objects as well as conceptual. They can be temporary or long-lasting. While they cannot be prescriptive or formulaic, RPM provides some principles that are likely to apply broadly across many situations.
Most of the important challenges we face are not fully understood and lack straightforward solutions. This turns out to be true at all scales, from the personal level to the global. Furthermore, solutions are often impermanent. RPM represents a way to think about solving problems rather than a how-to manual. The portability of the framework encourages use in new, untested applications. The diversity of examples in this book demonstrates RPM’s wide applicability. However, the examples are necessarily in their own contexts, and the solutions are unlikely to be context-free.
Using RPM effectively to seek solutions is likely to entail exploration, sensitivity to feedback, and further exploration. That’s how mental models develop—gradually and with experience. That is also what small experiments are about. The underlying notion is that incremental steps are more likely to lead to useful outcomes than the search for perfection. “Small” is relative, and “experiment” is metaphoric, or certainly broadly construed. Manageability is an important criterion for the scale of the effort, and sensitivity to outcome is a key ingredient for thinking of it as an experiment. This way, we may learn that the approach was not quite on target; we can also discover—as so often happens—that a useful solution was not as anticipated.
Small experiments are ways to create supportive environments and adapt them based on what we have learned. As information processors, we are built for solving problems. But many solutions are not right the first time. A more meandering approach allows us the opportunity to make small, regular efforts; learn from mistakes; and adapt accordingly. This is not only the case for each of us individually but is equally true in our efforts to act meaningfully and make a difference. It is thus not surprising that small experiments are discussed in many of the book’s chapters.
Fostering our common humanity requires that we have the attentional resources to be reasonable. This is particularly challenging, as we are bombarded with information, demands, distractions, and choices. Finding ways to offset these onslaughts on our attentional resources is particularly well suited to conducting small experiments. Various authors have suggested some approaches to taking such steps.
We recall Steve Kaplan’s insight, shared in many of his classes: “There is a lot wrong with this world and much of it due to our mistakes. But this is a good thing, because if the world was in as bad a shape as it is AND we were doing everything right, then we’d really be in trouble.” Global challenges abound—climate change, persistent poverty, growing inequality, political polarization, loss of biological and cultural diversity, and too many others. RPM is not a solution but a portable and transportable framework to better utilize the human resource by bringing out the best in those who must bear the burden of these challenges.
Underlying RPM is the belief that by meeting human informational needs we can move closer to solving these complex challenges. RPM helps in framing the problems, in seeking solutions, and in getting buy-in. People are tenacious where hope exists. Each of many small steps—small experiments—can yield remarkable insights and solutions; their cumulative impact can be enormous.
We humans drift on a spectrum between reasonableness and unreasonableness. As these chapters have shown, supportive environments can help guide us toward the former. To do so, they must speak to the human desires to explore and understand, enhance competence, be part of the solution, and participate with others toward meaningful goals. By fostering reasonableness, we can better bring out the best in ourselves, each other, and our common humanity.
- Allen, J. A., & Mueller, S. L. (2013). The revolving door: A closer look at major factors in volunteers’ intention to quit. Journal of Community Psychology, 41(2), 139–155.
- Garner, J. T., & Garner, L. T. (2011). Volunteering an opinion: Organizational voice and volunteer retention in nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 40(5), 813–828.
- Simon, H. A. (1971). Designing organizations for an information-rich world. In M. Greenberger (Ed.), Computers, communication, and the public interest (pp. 40–41). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.