The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Making sense

The most common way we are taught to make sense of observation is by taking a linear approach.

It’s an approach built on understanding how something can be described as a number of steps that can be executed one after the other. It’s building on the idea that a cause and effect relationship can be influenced within the relationship.

Take for example the idea of behavior we’ve learned and feel a need to change. With a linear thinking approach we might look at the behavior we have now and compare it with the one we want. Building on that comparison we’ll develop a new plan showing us how to get to the new behavior. May it be by being confronted with the situation we find difficult. May it be by giving ourselves a number of small steps to be executed until we reach the new behavior.

It’s based on the idea that once we’ve made sense of the process by describing it we can change it in a predictable manner. What makes this approach attractive is, that it can be prescribed. The challenge of this approach is that it works best when the process can be isolated.

A system thinking approach, on the other hand, isn’t linear. It uses the idea that the whole we are observing is a system that is interconnected and part of a larger system. As larger systems consist of smaller systems from which the larger systems emerge they somewhat remind us of matryoshka dolls. To make sense out of our observation we can’t split it up in parts but have to discover its dynamic. It works by figuring out how that observation is coherent.

If we go back to the behavior we want to change, then a system thinking approach will seek to understand how that behavior is helping the system to exist. What does it help us do? How does it make sure that the system performs well. To get a grip on that, Transactional Analysis uses, for example, the stories we tell us about life, others, and ourselves. Stories we’ve elevated to a pattern that can be described with a script.

Using such an approach, changing a behavior is a result of understanding its purpose and transforming its context, possibly making the purpose superfluous or irrelevant.

The challenge of this approach is that there will always remain a part that is not completely understood. Influencing the system will not come with a guaranteed result. Something attractive about this approach is, that it disconnects from an idea of right and wrong. Everything serves a purpose that can be changed once uncovered.

Both approaches are useful. One helps to understand how something is built. The other helps to understand what it’s for.

This means that we need to know what we are trying to understand to find the appropriate approach.


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