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<xTITLE>Diversity: Breaking out of Intellectual Bondage</xTITLE>

Diversity: Breaking out of Intellectual Bondage

by Tom Oswald
November 2004 Tom Oswald
The concept of diversity means a lot more than that which we generally tend to associate it. Popularly, we tend to frame diversity in terms of discrimination on basis of gender (please, it’s NOT “sex;” it’s “gender”), skin color, religious affiliations (or absence thereof), sexual orientation, physical ability, or appearance, and increasingly political and cultural perspectives. Taking a closer look at these ‘sorting’ schemata, I believe it all comes down to how we think, or don’t think, about these differences and how we choose to deal with them. This choice of perspective either enables us or handicaps us, and the choice is really up to the individual.

The creative, innovative, diverse thinking we seek in problem-solving tends to be limited by what each of us brings to the table in our own minds based largely on our ideas, perceptions, perspectives, and value systems to name some. My point is that though we may suffer from various degrees of intellectual bondage, we can resist this adverse tendency and even turn the phenomenon to our advantage.

Becoming completely free of intellectual blockers and limiters is all but impossible. That does not mean we should not bother to try. We can practice raising our awareness and actively confront this stuff, whatever it may be for each of us. We can each try to gain greater control of what we do with our minds (or conversely, don’t do) and strive to maximize our velocity for intellectual capital, as individuals or as a group. This can be an extremely rewarding process. Achieving this can also be very challenging and can create substantial discomfort and frustration.

In mediation, I frequently witness examples of the effects of limited or otherwise handicapped problem-solving creativity and imagination. Many of us practitioners have seen parties attempting to resolve an issue while suffering from some degree of intellectual bondage that blocks and limits them. The objective of this essay is to help us recognize and deal with these blocks to problem-solving creativity, ideally in real-time rather than in retrospect, and to help us break free of intellectual bondage.

Just the same, as we actively resist overt control or domination of ourselves by external forces about which we are aware, we need to be vigilant to avoid external influencers about which we are unaware. We must adopt pro-active stances to increase our creativity and to expand it. We need to be on our guard, to be vigilantly aware of how our lives, choices, thoughts, and actions are limited and controlled by what we do with what we carry in our heads. We need to actively grapple with the material that retards our lack of creative ideas and fresh approaches. This discipline is most valuable in the practice of our profession as it is powerful in all aspects of life and thought.

Practitioners and parties can be brought to suffer these limitations by a variety of means such as socialization, education, personal choice, or the ‘crucible of events’— often products of what we have been taught, learned, and programmed. Conversely, this blocking can also be the result of what we have not yet learned, experienced, or been exposed to.

Intellectual limiters can be voluntary and involuntary in nature. We can be aware of making choices that block us, or we can be completely oblivious to the very notion that we are suffering from intellectual bondage in any sense. Attitudes and pre-dispositions are extremely powerful regulators of individual, and group intellectual velocity. Predispositions to valences of interpretation can also be extremely limiting.

In conflict, we often get hung up on a faulty connection between our interests and what we think needs to happen in order to get our interests respected and fulfilled. Often, we only see one way to approach a situation based on our sets of imperative interests. We can become obstreperous in demanding that the unique solution we visualize must be the one selected. This is exactly where this concept of intellectual bondage rears its ugly head, bedevils our thinking, and thwarts the resolution process from moving ahead. If we actively seek a diverse approach to our problems by simultaneously defending against limiting thinking and striving for creativity, we can better avoid the morass that commonly plagues parties in conflict.

We can train ourselves to detect these undesirable tendencies and learn to assertively foster thought patterns that may be more provident and rewarding. First, we must develop the ability to sense, realize, or detect a limiting thought or idea. We need to learn to become more aware. Next, we need to learn how to overcome that blocking frame of mind. The lessons I took from college Judo and Jacket-Wrestling serve me well here. I’ve learned to apply a judo-esque reversal of opposing energy in a sort of intellectual maneuver. Here’s how I try to do it.

After detecting and recognizing the limiter, I strive to understand it, to analyze its patterns and biology. When I know better how it is created or fostered or at least what it ‘looks’ like, I can better strive to be alert for the development of other similar sorts of restricting viewpoints. On really good days, I strive to find a way to convert that which has been a limiter into an expander. Conversion does not always work for me, but it sometimes does. In any case, the whole exercise proves to be an excellent way to learn more about my thoughts. The process teaches me how to be more alert to similar patterns and to deal with them in a closer-to-present-time manner. This helps my effectiveness in mediation and in many other aspects of life.

I fully expect that many of us go though such processes in our own minds, in our own individual fashion, although I’ve never read anything where this kind of process has been articulated. How do you handle this sort of thing? How do you work to keep yourself sharp, tuned up, and on guard against ‘hardening of the attitudes?’ What are your techniques to deal with other such creativity limiting “intellectual bondage” diseases?


Tom Oswald is a civil/commercial mediator and conflict consultant from Boston. He practices both domestically and internationally and has been employed as a civil case court mediator.  Professional publishing includes editing the Commercial Section for, several pieces in various Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR) publications, and others. He has held national professional leadership positions in his field including 2 years service as Co-Chair of the ACR Commercial Section and previously as Vice President of the Mediation Association of Northern Ohio.

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