Words of Wisdom for
Leadership, Learning, and Life in
Exactly 99 Words
99's On the Go

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99-Word Stories by ,
Creative Learning Director of
The Flirefly Group.
© 2012 Brian Remer
Updated May 2012

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99's on the 9th

Ideas based on 99-Word Stories that
come to you on the 9th of every month.

May 2012

What's Fair?
How's the water today? That's a common question among the morning lap swimmers at the pool. On any given day, one person will say it's too hot while another complains that it's too cold. There is no pleasing everyone!

What I find most difficult, though, is not having either hot or cold water but having both. The biggest stressor is experiencing the sudden shock of going from hot to cold as you swim a lap. It's nearly impossible to become acclimated.

Whether team responsibilities, household rules, or tax laws, it's the inconsistencies that produce the most discontent.


You can build upon the theme of this 99-Word Story by using some of the following questions for your own reflection or to spark a discssion within your team or organization.


There are many ways to understand this story as the discussion questions suggest. If you or your group would like to compare or contrast your interpretation with an outside viewpoint, consider this analysis:

"I don't deserve to be treated this way."
"She was out of bounds; she got what she deserved!"
"Everyone deserves a fair shot at the prize."

When things don't go our way, we are quick to wave the fairness flag. We look for a referee, a mediator, a policy, a law, a precedent, or even just an empathetic ear. Fairness, or the perception of it, is an important factor in our ability to work, play, compete, solve problems, make decisions, and live together harmoniously. If it works for you it should also work for me. Maybe things are not always equal but the reason for the inequality is understood and agreed upon; it's fair.

Some of the most egregious violations of fairness have happened when one group of people has fixed the environment so it's fairer for them than for others. Different pay scales for women and not allowing same-sex marriages are issues that come readily to mind. In those cases, the negotiations begin as people strive to agree upon what is fair and how to balance out the inequalities. And the initiators of the negotiation will be those with less power who experience the unfairness most severely. It makes sense. People in power benefit from policies and environmental factors but are blind to the fact that those benefits aren't available to everyone. The imbalance has become just another tree in the institutional landscape.

Wouldn't it be great if people with more power could regularly check in with others to make sure they have not institutionalized unfairness? Peter Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (ISBN 0-385-47256-0, Doubleday, 1994), writes about developing an aptitude for "skillful discussion." By this he means the ability to suspend one's assumptions about how the world works and entertain the idea that another person may have a point of view that is equally valid.

To do this, one has to balance advocacy for one's point of view with inquiry about the ideas of others. In order to come to agreement, we have to reveal the source of our ideas along with the suppositions we use to justify them. We need to share our ideas and invite others to question and expand them. The intention is to create a flow of dialogue where both our thinking and the thinking behind our thinking are revealed. "Here is what I believe and this is how I came to my conclusion. How do you see this issue?" With skillful discussion, institutionalized inequalities can be revealed while restoring fairness and trust.

Of course, skillful discussion can also be practiced by victims of unfairness or inequality. Anyone can use a simple opener like the one above to, as Senge says, "create a container in which collective thinking can emerge."

With an open mind and the willingness to both share and inquire about assumptions, you can wade into any conversation, no matter how turbulent, without getting into hot water.


Did you use this 99-Word Story and the discussion questions or interpretation in your work or personal life? If so, about your experience! If you would like help using 99-Word Stories in your organization, please me.

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