A thought which continues to fascinate me is one by the great American philosopher annex psychologist William James (1842-1910). He said: "Truth is what works." Often, we seem to think that in order to solve problems we first have to establish what the truth is about the problematic situation. For instance, if there is a bullying problem in a school, we often think that it is necessary to establish the truth about the situation before we can solve it.
We argue: how can we solve this if we are not sure if bullying is actually going on? And how can we solve this if we are not sure about who is doing the bullying? And how can we solve this if we don't know why the bullying is going on. We often think we can only solve problems if we know what is true about the situation and it seems to sound logical doesn't it.
Well, William James suggested differently. He suggested that we should shift our attention from trying to establish truth to the consequences of our behaviors. He said we are creators of reality. By doing things we shape reality. This means reality is continuously being created and developed. More important than making a detailed and fixed picture of truth as it is now is to focus on what works. This is such a powerful idea. Trying to establish the truth about a problem can be difficult and counterproductive. It may be difficult because perspectives on reality often differ importantly. Also, information may be incomplete. It may be counterproductive because it may trigger a defensive response in people when they feel accused (for instance of bullying) and thereby harm relationships.
Following James' suggestion, an alternative may be to relax the idea of having to know the truth about the problem and instead focus on taking steps that work to make the situation better. In practice, this means to formulate a goal and to take actions intended to make progress in the direction of that goal. Then, focus on what actually helps to make progress. This may sound interesting but you may also be skeptical about whether this would actually work. Is it possible to solve problems without focusing much on what is true and instead on doing what works? Are there real world examples in which this approach has proven useful? Yes, there are many.
One of the most elegant I know of is one which was featured very recently on this site: the support group anti bullying approach which was developed by Sue Young. With this approach questions about the truth are largely left alone. It is not necessary to establish if there is actual bullying going on and who did what and why. Instead, a support group is formed which is invited to help the target child to feel more happy at school. Isn’t that simple? Yes. Does it work? Yes.
This is only one example in which it is NOT necessary to 'tell it like it is' or to first get people to agree on what the real version of truth is before you can start improving things. How widely applicable is this idea of letting go of our urge to establish what is true and instead focus on doing what works? When could it be useful in organizations? When could it be useful in international affairs?
Also read: Useful descriptions of reality