“And the soul is like the eye: when resting upon that which is truth and being shine, the soul perceives and understands and is radiant with intelligence; but when turned towards the twilight of becoming and perishing, then she has opinion only and goes blinking about and is first of one opinion and then of another and seems to have no intelligence?” (Socrates)

Whilst travelling through a rather derelict location, a piece of graffiti caught my attention – it simply read: “I understand, do you?” I thought about the statement and it suddenly dawned on me, rather uncomfortably, that there is much in life that I really don’t understand – the condition of the human being in various sad contexts, decisions that are made by government officials that negatively impact societies whom the same government officials are supposed to serve, anguish caused by emotional or physical trauma, poverty, religious intolerance, selfish (even irresponsible) business decisions, the desire for absolute power (despotism), manipulation and subsequent disempowerment (repression), etc. The list seems to be endless. The frightening and perhaps noteworthy revelation of the items that comprise the list is that all are not sustainable practices – they are all going to end ultimately in frustration, hurt, retaliation and uprising against injustice. They are all “dead-end” behaviours that demonstrate a lack of understanding and a dearth of compassion and consideration for other human beings.

It would seem that many people are apt to make decisions or judgements with very little real information or facts – insufficient time and consideration being given to issues that potentially impact sustainability and other human and environmental factors. Decision-making is often a knee-jerk process and judgements tend to demonstrate unconscious bias rather than objective thought that shows understanding. Assumptions dominate our internal data-processing and opinions are subsequently warped.

Carl Bereiter (Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age) notes: “Understanding is a psychological process related to an abstract or physical object (such as a person, situation or message) whereby one is able to think about it and use concepts to deal adequately with that object. Understanding is a relation between the knower and an object of understanding. Understanding implies abilities and dispositions with respect to an object of knowledge that are sufficient to support intelligent behaviour”. From the above, there are a few important inferences:

  1. Understanding comes from real relationships – disambiguation (the act of making something clear) results from interpretive and participatory examination of social and many other phenomena. Without relationship, opinions, hypotheses and subsequent judgements verge on philosophical abstraction and are not grounded in factual reality.
  2. Understanding is a psychological process – it is not just mental ascent, but involves social, emotional, physical and spiritual issues. Understanding comes from an empathic approach to a situation – a willingness to identify emotionally with the context of another. It uses reason, but is reasonable with the facts as they present themselves.
  3. True understanding always results in intelligent behaviour – selfish responses are not present when true understanding is achieved. Openness to the facts and their impact on life is the “understanding disposition” of the leader/learner and true understanding implies that one has been influenced irrevocably. The response is thus more mature and considered.

For the leader, a high level of emotional intelligence is required to get to the place of real understanding – an integration and assimilation of emotional, social, logical, physical and other environmental factors which all impact the human condition.

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