Clear as mud: the messy business of sense making

by Amanda Harding


Home in my North London maisonnette after an excessively long, intense day in Save the Children's Vauxhall offices, pulled between a tricky recruitment for a new country director in Sierra Leone, the launch  of a global child soldier campaign loved by Comms but risky for our local teams in Liberia and a frustratingly bad phone line to the education team in Mali reporting extraordinary progress on local language community schools ... my clumpy mobile rings just when I'm ready to turn in. This is the late 1990s. Communication with Monrovia is at best dodgy and more often completely cut as soon as it rains ... and it rains all the time in Monrovia. A call at this time of day is never good news. Our country director, experienced, self-assured and respected, explains calmly down the line that she is crouching beside her vehicle, the driver beside her on the ground, and the project officer sprawled underneath a little shaky. I can hear the sound of automatic fire, instructions being shouted, the screech of breaks and above all Jane's heavy breathing in my ear. My role isn't clear. What am I expected to do? How can I possibly make any sense of this and bring value?

I spend a lot of time trying to do something called "sense-making".  For myself, in a way that only a 50+ privileged white European woman can! Of my very grown-up teenagers, in a way that only an overly concienscous, feminist, vegetarian verging on the yiddisher-mama can. For my clients, my colleagues and my work-partners and most certainly the gatherings I'm often convening and the groups I'm apparently guiding ... sense making seems to be what its all about and what they call on me to do for them and with them.  

Even wikipedia has its own "sense making" slot and academics from all disciplines  have moved the term from its common-sense origins to a lofty ivory tower. But bottom line, and cognitive science aside, the appetite for sense-making has never been greater. And for good reason.

My own experience, mixed with some reading, a lot of listening and a lifetime of observing suggests that if we want to both connect the dots and make a stab at placing some new more positive and constructive dots on the collective canvas we would do well to follow these five pointers:

1. Develop empathy ...  and with that the ability to listen, to comprehend the other both intellectually and emotionally, but without having to agree or be complicit. 

2. Start the conversation where others are, not where we would like them to be.

3. There is no blue print ... always consider context, have the intelligence to hand, and with that what works and what doesn't with an eye to building on the best. 

4. Make the links ... bottom-up vs top-down are out-dated notions. Active connections that bring people together who, each in their own way, is trying to work out what's up, creates possibility for some collective sense-making.

5. Sense-making is never be the responsibility of one individual. Checking back, some triangulation and fact-checking move off-the cuff headlines to valuable insights.

Image by Igor Kopelnitsky

Image by Igor Kopelnitsky