Home Concepts Decison Making & Problem Solving In Over Our Heads: Living and Learning in the Cave

In Over Our Heads: Living and Learning in the Cave

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Observing the Shadows

Plato’s Cave provides us with one of the earliest and still most poignant allegories concerning the relationship between reality and fantasy. Would Plato be particularly inclined to reinforce his allegory of the cave if he time traveled to the 21st Century? He probably would be disturbed regarding what he sees and witnessed and would, in my opinion, describe it as a cave (once he began to understand what is happening around him in this much different world of the 21st Century). I believe that Plato would conclude that our contemporary 21st Century world is even more complicated and ironic than he had suggested regarding reality and fantasy.

Part of the opening to the cave is selectively blocked out. As a result, the shadow is only part of what could appear on the wall. Our sense of reality is selective, both because we don’t want to see it all (or are unable to see it all in terms of our cognitive and affective capacity) and because other members of our society (who also live in the cave) have the capacity or authority to select what does and does not enter the cave from outside. For example, CNN news in the United States is quite different from the CNN news that appears elsewhere in the world. Al-Jazerra is disconcerting for many Americans in large part because information conveyed over this news station is quite different (and quite a bit more extensive) than what is presented on most American networks–particularly regarding international news.

As professional coaches, are we ever to play the role of de-selector? Do we ever encourage alternative perspectives? Do we ever share information with our client that they usually do not receive (such as feedback from their co-workers)? Do we link our clients with alternative sources of insight and “expertise” regarding the world (cave) in which we all live? Many years ago, the Nobel Prize winning scientist, Michael Polanyi (1969), wrote about the important of focusing on that From Which we attend rather than that To Which we attend. On the one hand, he was referring to our own internal state: we tend to be highly influenced as we take in information from the outside world by our own internal state. Recent studies in neurobiology tend to confirm Polanyi’s perspective. This shift in attention, however, also refers to our analysis of the outside information itself: we should look not just at the content of the messages we receive from the outside world, but also at the sources of this content. Who is selecting what images are allowed to enter the cave and be projected on the wall? Why are some images selected while others are blocked? As interventionists, are we in the business of assisting our clients with Polanyi’s shift in attention?

Listening to “Expert” Interpretations of the Shadows

Once again, I will push Plato’s allegory of the cave even further. As citizens of the 21st Century, we are not actually observing the shadow on the cave wall. Rather we are listening to or watching someone else comment on the shadow and its meaning. They are identified as “experts.” Or we see a replay of specific shadow images and then hear or read the expert interpretation. It seems that most of us tend to prefer listening to the expert comments and observing replay of the shadow (or parts of the shadow) rather than observing the actual shadow (let alone leave the cave and observe the real world in operation).

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