Anne Leslie: Know Thyself


Newsletter 145 - August 9, 2023


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After giving a wonderful plenary talk at the Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution's Annual Symposium, which we wrote about in Newsletter 69 (January 12, 2023 ), Anne Leslie has expanded on those ideas in an article which recently came out (in print) in the Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution. This is a summary of that article, which we will link to as soon as it is available online.  What we think is so important and so useful about Anne's work is the insight she brings to the challenge of figuring out how to make a positive difference in our communities and world, despite the daunting complexities and uncertainties of the modern world and our invariably limited ability to influence events. 


by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

August 1, 2023

Anne starts her article by reflecting on her own inner thought processes about her career and her participation in the Seshat Project (a project that brings together conflict resolution and security professionals to learn more about "hybrid" and "gray zone" warfare and effective responses to it. Both Anne and Guy and I are among 50 other participants working on that project.) Such musings in a professional journal, she notes, "might seem unnecessary, disconcertingly intimate, [or] borderline inappropriate." But, she says

we all need to first take a journey inside to examine ourselves, benevolently and critically, if we are ever to understand the individual contribution each of us can make in our daily lives to strengthen the collective cohesion that supports democracy, promotes peace and prosperity, and enables well-being.


We need to intentionally and consistently push beyond our natural psychological comfort zone to explore the beliefs we hold about ourselves and others, our hopes and our fears, our value systems, our affiliations and repulsions to certain groups and their doctrines, our relationship to time and uncertainty, and our predominant mental models and psychological biases, before we can have any chance of successfully deciphering, navigating, and positioning ourselves in the great power competition that is at play in the gray zone all around us. Whether we realize it or not.

She then went on to reflect on her attitude toward facts, certainty, and ambiguity.  Trying to be a good student in her earlier years, she sought absolutes, always seeking to have the "right answer."

I wore myself ragged in the process and had to learn a whole new way of being, that involved embracing ambiguity instead of railing against it and accepting that “good enough” would have to be enough when an absolute answer failed to materialize. Certainty turned out to be a false friend and an impossible standard to maintain. 

So, while our education teaches us to memorize the right answer, that learning process does not help us in real world situations.  We are conditioned to think in simple either/or, right-or-wrong modes, which may yield short-term gain, but often long term harms, she says. Further, educational specialization means that we are poorly equipped to handle multi-disciplinary problems—which almost all of our pressing societal-level problems are— as our frames of reference are too constrained to see the full complexity of such situations. Anne says that she now responds differently than she was taught, by purposely moving out of her "comfort zone."

I compel myself to consciously suspend what I believe to be the right answer and nudge myself to further inquiry, preferring to be part of the group that arrives at the best analysis or the best solution rather than relishing the ego boost of imposing a personally held version of ‘the truth’ about a given situation.


Today, I advocate for radical curiosity and intellectual humility which, when combined with ambition, grit, and hard work, combine to provoke unusual and exciting opportunities that I seize in the affirmative, even when there is no pre-defined path forward or a prescribed outcome known upfront. For aficionados of serendipity, I really can’t recommend this approach too highly.

Anne then points out that our individual and group identities also influence the way we see the world, interact with others, and with problems that face us. 

The narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves and about others are intimately linked to the relevance we accord (or not) to certain events in relation to the lives we lead, the roles we play and the perimeters of the “lanes” we find ourselves operating in.


Everyone has the agency (albeit to varying degrees) to build their awareness, direct their thought processes and decision-making, and drive their behaviors and consumption patterns in a manner that can either contribute positively to a liberal democratic outcome we qualify as desirable; or conversely, undermine the fabric of our societies through the slow burn of corrosive acts of attrition.

Anne ends her article by saying that

we are not all equally endowed with the same level of ability and means to contribute to shaping and protecting what matters in our societies. However, there is nothing stopping each one of us from being united in caring about what matters in our societies. Nothing, that is, except ourselves.

If there is one thing that each and every one of us possesses, it is the power to know ourselves and to change ourselves. For better, or for worse.

The choice is ours.

Indeed. We couldn't agree more. As we have said in many other places, each of us has a role to play in preserving or destroying this democratic society we live in. So far, it appears that most of us (meaning citizens in general, politicians, and surprisingly,  a good number of conflict resolution professionals) are still choosing to take the simple  us-vs-them, I'm-right/you're-wrong mode of thinking. This is eating away at the fabric of our democracies and our societies in ways that increase the level of political dysfunction and the risk of authoritarianism and violence. We need to change course and work together to find a more constructive way forward that involves the whole society, not just our own half. We hope that at least some of our readers will take Anne's words to heart, examine themselves, and change what needs to be changed to play a constructive role in their families, workplaces, communities, and societies at large. She offers an excellent model for those trying to build a career in today's complex and contentious world.  If you have other thoughts on this important topic, we would love to hear (and share) them. So, please send them along.

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