How to gain insight vs. gathering insights (4 of 4 parts)

The opportunity: moving past the barriers toward gaining insight into people


The new approach to gaining insight (vs. gathering insights) would have to:

  1. Challenge basic human concepts to understand people in a more fundamental way
  2. Get out of the process entirely to avoid predetermining the solution
  3. Listen to legitimately different opinions often to eliminate our personal biases
  4. Start fresh—no client need or interest in-mind that might skew perceptions

About a year and a half ago, I began holding a “Conversation Group” on the first Friday of every month. Rather than taking a purely philosophical approach like Phillips’ Socrates Cafe, the group simply votes on a topic and converses on that topic for ninety minutes. Previous topics have included: “freedom,” “respect,” “achievement,” ”creativity,” spirituality,” and “compassion.” The discussion begins with the easy question “What drew you to this subject?” and takes off from there with little interjecting or redirecting needed from the moderator. Every time, exposure to such different perspectives leaves an indelible mark. After the group concludes, returning to your exact original point-of-view is nearly impossible, and you are suddenly armed with the information (and clearer vision) to create an even richer one.

Granted, this probably sounds a little like a frivolous ‘New-Age’ undertaking (e.g. Gratitude Group, Meditation Retreat, and so on). But bear in mind, I thought I understood a good bit about the human concepts that make up the fabric of people. I fancied myself an acute observer of human behavior on a daily basis, and was convinced my search to uncover insights successfully found truths. But the simple act of pulling together a room full of strangers to speak with one another has helped me understand people on a deeper level than I ever could have imagined possible.

How often do you just listen to the opinion of a room full of strangers like a sponge, with no intent, no solution to be had, no immediate outcome in mind—just absorbing the dialogue? Not doing hardly any speaking yourself?

Almost never.

Truly, it is hard to describe the sharing and learning that happens in the conversation group. So allow me to let the group speak for itself. This is a short excerpt  (the first five minutes or so) of the conversation group I led recently on the topic “Try vs. Tried enough” (these are not direct quotes).

I opened the discussion by asking what drew people to the subject.

“I’m particularly interested in this right now,” said a young masters student. “I am training to be a scientist and in the lab, we try things all day long. Some of them work out the way we suspected, and others don’t work at all. Often, the ones you try the hardest to perfect go awry, and the ones you don’t try hard on succeed in some way you never fathomed. I’ve always thought trying harder makes the results better, but in the lab, I’m finding that’s not true.”

“There are plenty of things that trying has no impact on,” offered another. “I was raised to believe that trying equates success, but when I think about the things that really matter to me? Those are people things: relationships, friendships—and no matter how much you try at those, the result is outside of you. In fact, sometimes the more you try, the more those important things can confound you.”

Someone else piped up, “I take issue with the word ‘try’ in my own life, actually. The way we think about trying there’s always an outcome in mind: there has to be something to try to achieve. But to me, I just try to enjoy the journey I am on, no matter where it leads me. I try to revel in the experience of my life versus the destination”

“I get that,” said another person, brusquely. “Sometimes we try at bad things. Trying isn’t always positive. What if you try to suppress an emotion like sadness or grief? It can be extremely toxic, and yet I know I have done that in my life. It takes a lot of energy to try to hold things in, and I look back now and wish I hadn’t tried so hard to do that.”

My perception going in had already been completely shredded. If I’d been asked to write a batch of insights about “trying,” I would have written something simplistic about Americans and their can-do attitude. That success is made of effort, and failure is for people who do not try as hard. I left knowing instantly how one-dimensional that viewpoint was, how shallow those assumptions and generalizations had been.

While this growth in personal knowledge is exciting, it currently doesn’t benefit anyone but those in the room. I found myself trying to capture the conversation in notes to make sure the learning stuck—which made me wonder, as Christopher Phillips did in his book, what if those group discussions were collected somewhere? A place where some of the most fundamental aspects of people’s lives are examined through different perspectives?

Thus, I’ve created The Insight Inn – this blog, a place where the richness and depth of these conversations will be captured (while protecting the privacy of those who participate). It will catalog the twists and turns of these rich discussions around fundamental human topics. When anyone wants to more deeply understand different viewpoints on central topics people wrestle with every day, they can stop by The Insight Inn, and find something more thorny, more robust than what else might emerge from 15 minutes of searching on the internet.

I believe these conversation groups have deepened my understanding of people, and gave me tools to move from gathering insights to gaining insight. It is one avenue toward a more fundamental understanding of the things I thought I knew about. It is a way to reduce reasoning by analogy, and start creating something entirely new from the ground up. Maybe there’s something in these discussions that can help others as well. Or maybe some potential discussion leaders are out there, who might want to lead groups and work with me to post the threads?

A little less assumption, a little more understanding—or, why this matters

Former United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson once said, “Understanding human needs is half the job of meeting them.”

Businesses are struggling more than ever to meet people’s needs. In the days of mistrust of corporations, immediate feedback via social media, attention fragmentation, and so on—it’s never been more difficult to really reach and impact people. Every business seems to be scrambling to do something different in an effort to produce a different result. Potential solutions include reworking the business model, relying more on data, becoming content creators, thinking more like business consultants or hiring innovation companies—and so on, and so on. This attempt to better meet people’s needs might require huge changes, huge investments, or huge amounts of time.

If we wait for the changing of business to reach individuals.

In the meantime, if individuals in business want to help their companies and clients get better at meeting people’s needs, we could try to understand people better outside of the system and bring the INSIGHT IN(N).

Enjoy the already-posted discussions on Stereotypes and Compassion. The blog will be updated by me once-monthly. Unless I get a few co-conspirators.

Want to join the Insight Inn? Click on the Follow button on the right sidebar.

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