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  • Megan Price

People aren't like air and water

Listening to a podcast the other day on a long drive from Vermont to DC, I was struck by the simple truth of a quote from climate scientist, Kate Marvel:


"People do not do what you tell them to do."


Marvel was speaking with David Wallace-Wells, a New York Times science reporter on the Ezra Klein Show Show. The discussion was fascinating and I would recommend everyone give it a listen.


While delving into the complex subjects of carbon emissions, weather systems, and global warming, Wallace-Wells steered the conversation towards the human aspect of the climate crisis. He asked for Marvel’s take on the public’s grappling with these challenges. Marvel's response was both enlightening and thought-provoking:


“I think I am probably the worst person in the world to ask that question of because I am a physicist, right? It is my job to understand how air and water move around in the system.


And air does exactly what physics tells it to do. It’s really easy to understand. It always does the same thing. It fits inside an equation really well.


There are uncertainties that come from the fact that there’s a lot of air. There’s a lot of water. There’s a lot of land. It’s all interacting. But fundamentally, those things do what you tell them to do because they are obeying the laws of physics.


People do not do what you tell them to do. That’s why I find them fascinating, but that’s also why I don’t understand them.”


She is so right. People are not like air and water. They are unpredictable and often don’t do what they’re told, even if sound reasoning suggests that they should. The challenge is that in any given context, we each make unique decisions based on a confluence of complex factors – from roles to needs to expectations.


Where Marvel’s job is to understand air and water, our job in the conflict resolution field and in the fields that we work closely with is to understand people.


Because of each person’s unique perspective and the complexity of what is influencing us at any given moment, our understanding of one another can’t rely on predictable laws. Instead, our understanding of each other hinges on curiosity. It is our job as professionals, whose work with people requires us to resolve conflicts as they arise, to use curiosity well and expect to be surprised.


The Insight approach helps us target our curiosity in a way that is most likely to lead to discovery, so that we avoid hitting that wall of confusion, frustration and conflict.

By illustrating the regular pattern in which we use our minds as we come to know, sense significance and decide to act, and explaining how that pattern is expressed in ways that can be noticed and paid attention to, the Insight approach helps us find inroads and leverage points for understanding why people do what they do.


When we can understand each other, what matters to us and what our actions are meant to achieve, we can make better decisions together, no matter what the context may be – from climate to conflict to compliance.


While our decision-making doesn’t obey the laws of physics like air and water do, we do have the capacity to understand each other - through curiosity.

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