Drops of Sensemaking

The last month and a half, filled with heartbreaking news about the war in Ukraine, probably brought many of us a sense of meaningless. While trying to make sense of what’s going on outside, on the political scene, I have faced an inner sense of revolt and absurd, at once with confusion and worry, feeling paralyzed and, at the same time, activated to take action and help, all at once, triggered by the hallucinating recent events. Along this period, reading posts about how life (should) goes on, at the same time with the shattering news on the war in Ukraine, it was and still is, very confusing.

Nevertheless, I was trying to understand how I can still navigate all those contraries and create sensemaking.

Why do we need sensemaking?

Sensemaking is defined by Oxford Dictionary as “the action or process of making sense of or giving meaning to something, especially new developments and experiences.” Sensemaking is about how we structure the unknown so as to be able to act in it. This is important to understand since sensemaking responds to ambiguity, uncertainty, complexity. I would say that creating sensemaking is critical for moving forward in life self-conscious and purposefully. 

The sensemaking concept was leveraged by Karl E. Weick, organizational psychologist, who builds in the ‘70s on Mann Gluch fire case, where a tragic incident occurred in 1949, when 13 US Forest Service smokejumpers lost their lives during a large-scale fire.

Weick theory demonstrates that small groups become vulnerable to “loss of meaning” when faced with extreme and unfamiliar conditions. He considers that this loss of meaning results from the individual being unable to “make sense” of what is happening. 

In other words, it is normal to experience this state of confusion in the face of this overwhelming feeling that the world is no longer a rational, orderly system.

As C. G. Jung was saying in 1965 already, “Meaninglessness inhibits fullness of life and is therefore equivalent to illness. Meaning makes a great many things endurable—perhaps everything.”

Therefore, the idea of sensemaking as the creator of bearable when we are facing the unbearable, shows its criticality.

How we create sensemaking?

The question that comes up next is: how we can still create sensemaking when the circumstances shut down the process of this apparently natural process?

K. Weick proposes four aspects considered being critical to leadership and group resilience in face of sensemaking lack:

1. Improvisation. Groups that train together and work together will probably be able to improvise solutions through their shared experience and collective knowledge.

2. Wisdom. Weick thinks that ignorance and wisdom grow together; in other words, the more you learn, the more you realize that there are things you do not know. Therefore, the wise will always avoid extreme confidence and extreme caution, therefore, he/she will become more adaptable.

3. Interaction. Promoting wisdom within a group requires interactions. This means listening actively to each other and trusting other’s opinion.

4.Communication. Fostering wisdom also means being honest and communicating appropriate, helpful information in a respectful way. When honesty, trust and self-respect are fully developed and appreciated, the group is stronger, more resilient, and better able to deal with the storms will face.

Reading about Weick proposal, I was happy to see that there are solutions for filling in the dots when sensemaking is missing.

At the same time, I couldn’t stop thinking to what Jung was saying: “When we are unconscious, life has no meaning.”

Based on that statement, it seems that sensemaking has another layer with profound roots in how, we, as human beings, play our own role on the inside stage of our internal events. And this is what, according to Jung, apparently gives meaning to human life.

When we realize we live within the web of life, that we are all part of the same play, we start getting sensitivity for what is essential and we start developing our capacity for inner sensemaking. 

Giving ourselves the chance to improvise, to think out of the box, to use our inner wisdom, to interact and communicate deeply with ourselves, revealing the unconscious, all of these offer the opportunity to deal with the unexpected, with uncertainty, while building meaning.

In a world that seems (is) senseless, we create INNER SENSEMAKING. And maybe that’s all that matters. For now.

Elisabeta Angelescu

Career and Life Coach