Magical thinking

The term, ‘magical thinking’ is one generally used to refer to an aspect of child development. It describes a form of wishful thinking that is characteristic of young children. In principle, we grow out of it as we develop through adolescence into adulthood. It relates to situation where results are expected to arise without our making them happen. For example, a young child may believe that if they want a bike for their birthday and really do want it enough, then it might just transpire that they get the bike they desire.

I have said that we grow out of it ‘in principle’, but what I feel is important to recognise is that not everybody does, or at least not completely. Magical thinking in adults is not uncommon (or in some adults at least). An example, I am very familiar with is the assumption that learning will happen by magic. Countless times I have come across people who sit through a full-day training course, for example, without making a single note (they can’t all have photographic memories!), without making much of a contribution to discussion and then return to their place of work without a plan as to how they intend to put the learning gained into practice. And yet, at the end of the course, they will often hand me an evaluation form in which they claim to have learned a great deal and proclaim it to have been an excellent learning experience. I generally make the point on such courses that, unless participants are clear what their plan of action is for putting the learning into practice, the chances are that all the important issues explored will have become a distant memory within a week. So many people seem to expect learning to happen as if by magic, without any effort on their part.

Others may not even bother to attend training courses or engage in other learning activities. They seem to assume that simply by doing their job over time they will get better at it. Magical thinking once again.

But it isn’t just about learning – that is just one example. Often people will have problems and concerns that are causing them considerable difficulties, and yet they may take no steps whatsoever to do anything about their situation. It is as if they are hoping that the problem will just go away by magic. Of course, some problems do go away of their own accord, but having this as a general problem-solving strategy is unlikely to be fruitful for the vast majority of situations.

The same unhelpful strategy can also be applied to relationship difficulties. When a couple, for example, have tensions to deal with, a common, but basically unwise, reaction is to say nothing and do nothing. The lack of (intended) communication then becomes a form of (unintended) communication in its own right – that is, it gives the message to both parties that their partner is doubting whether the relationship is worth the effort involved in resolving the tensions. And, of course, that is much more likely to increase the tensions than to work towards resolution.

The ‘antidote’ to magical thinking is purposive action. This means being clear about what you need to learn, what problems you need to address or what tensions you need to resolve and developing an action plan for taking the steps involved. Of course, things won’t always go smoothly or without any hitches. Sometimes, working these things out can be difficult and complex. There will be obstacles and setbacks from time to time. But, compared with sitting back passively waiting for magic to happen, the chances of significantly improving your situation are considerably higher.

Listen to both sides

Every one of us on the planet is a unique individual, a person in our own right, with our own unique perspective. Of course, there are various things that people can have in common – the influence of culture and upbringing, for example. We will share certain views with particular groups of people because of political affiliation, religious belief, educational experience or whatever, and so there will generally be considerable overlap between, say, my perspective and that of many other people. However, there will not be a single person whose outlook will be exactly like mine. Even identical twins will have significant differences of perspective on certain issues.

One of the implications of this is that conflict is inevitable. By conflict, I do not mean aggression, hostility or violence – these are the consequences of unresolved or mishandled conflicts. Human beings are very effective conflict managers for the most part. We tend to be quite skilled at making sure that we interact peacefully and have a number of strategies and rituals for helping us to do so. For example, a queue is one such strategy, in so far as it enables us to avoid conflicting interests degenerating into a free for all or set of aggressive encounters.

Conflicts often arise from differences of perspective. What to one person was friendly banter was perhaps to another a person a demeaning put down. Much of this stems from cultural expectations (turning down what is regarded in my culture as an invitation that I am free to accept or decline as I see fit may, in someone else’s culture, be regarded as a slight, an offensive refusal to accept the hospitality offered). Cultural differences can be a great source of learning and enrichment, but they can also be the basis for conflict.

Language is also a key factor. However effective we may be at putting our messages across clearly and unambiguously, there is always scope for misunderstanding and misperception, due to the nature of language itself and how it operates. Consider, for example, the word ‘sanction’ which can have opposite meanings depending on the context. It can indicate approval (‘The proposal has been sanctioned by head office’) or disapproval (‘Ian’s failure to attend the meeting is likely to result in sanctions against him’).

When we are called upon to respond to situations involving conflict (between ourselves and another party or between two other parties), it is therefore essential that we take into account the different perspectives involved. ‘There are two sides to every story’ may well be a cliché and an oversimplification of some complex interactions, but it none the less has more than a grain of truth in it.

So, when it comes to managing a situation where two or more people are in conflict it is important not to take sides and try and determine which person (or group) is ‘correct’. What is much more helpful is trying to facilitate the process of people understanding each other’s perspective and thereby reaching an acceptable accommodation – you hear both sides and help them listen to each other too. This is why mediators are trained to remain neutral and support people in resolving their own conflicts, rather than bring their own perspective to bear and thereby just complicate the situation further.

Where you find yourself in direct conflict with one or more parties (individuals or groups), try to understand their perspective to enable you to move towards a resolution. This is not about ‘giving in’ or letting go of your own views, but, rather, trying to find a constructive way forward based on mutual understanding. As well as this being much more effective it has the added bonus that you are likely to earn respect. Win a battle, you generate resentment; lose a battle and you generate contempt; avoid a battle by skilfully negotiating a positive way forward for all concerned and you generate considerable respect (which then puts you in a stronger position for managing any future conflicts).