Learning the right lessons – it is possible to engage

Early in the Coronavirus pandemic I shared a few articles about the dangers of learning the wrong lessons from the data that was being thrown at us about how different countries were doing.  I want to follow that up with some articles about what we can learn about the virus.

My reason for saying this is that whilst we’ve seen some ill informed panic mongering -both from those who think we have done no-where near enough to stop the pandemic and those who think we have over-reacted – there is a temptation the other way.

So the main point I want to make here is this.

We should respect and listen to experts. All opinions are not equal in value. But this does not mean that our opinions are not valued.

Early in the crisis, people pointed out the danger of not staying in lane. The point was this, we so often hear the phrase “everyone is entitled to their own opinion” that start to believe it without realising how non-sensical it is.  that I may have opinions on the virus, but no, my opinions do not have equal value. That’s because whilst opinions include interpretation and value judgement, they do need to be based on objective facts and that means we need people to take the time to uncover and understand those facts. 

Staying in lane means that we listen first to those who have expertise, scientists and medical practitioners, more than that, we need to listen to the specific expertise in the field, which for coronavirus is not just about hearing from doctors or even virologists, we need epidemiologists to tell us how a pandemic is likely to play out.  My opinion does not have the same value as theirs.

However, early on, I noted that we need other expertise too. Responding to a pandemic is not just about the medical facts. Rather, we need people with systems and statistics expertise to know how to plot and interpret the data available. We also need people who understand processes and equally important are those who understand human behaviour.

I also want to take that a stage further, there is a point when all the information needs to be evaluated and sifted leading to a decision on the way forward. Advisors can only go so far in sharing the expertise, at some point someone has to step forward and make a call. The buck stops with them and so that’s why we have political leaders making a decision.

This is important because it shows that it is possible for lay people like you and I to assess all the information coming at us and to make a judgement call. This means that just like Boris and Keir, it is possible for you and I to have our opinions and given that the scientists disagree, it is okay for us to disagree too. However, that requires an  adult conversation.

What do I mean by an adult conversation? Well the psychological approach known as Transactional Analysis suggests that our conversations are where we process transactions between each other. There are healthy and unhealthy ways of doing this. The approach identifies two main types of conversation

  • Parent to Child
  • Adult to Adult

At the extreme, Parent to Child transactions allow no space for rational engagement. Rather one party acts like the parent and passes on authoritative information and commands The other party, acting as the child just accepts and obeys without questioning.  This may happen in personal relationships including within physical families between literal parents and children It can also happen metaphorical when someone acts like a parent or child in their conversations with me.  Finally it can happen culturally where a belief becomes part of the accepted wisdom and folklore of a culture so that it is accepted as tradition.

It is worth saying that away from the extremes, there may be times when it is helpful simply to accept the authority of another and immediately obey. Military institutions operate on this chain of command and it enables flexible and urgent response.

However, according to transactional analysis, the best conversations are adult to adult where both parties learn something, where there is space for genuine dialogue. This enables understanding, challenge, careful consideration and buy-in.

Two much of our engagement with modern politics relies on parent to child instead of adult to adult conversation, packaged soundbites and an insistence that we trust the experts. I believe it is possible for us to engage constructively, to hear the advice and come to informed conclusions.  This means that whilst I may not be an expert in epidemics, I can have an opinion and even something useful to contribute to the discussion about how we move forward.

I would make one distinction. My opinions don’t in the end have that big an impact on the battle with COVID-19. However, when Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock express their view they are carrying a heavy burden of responsibility.

On the other hand -when I give advice from my lane – as a pastor, the spiritual implications are huge.

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