Miles Franklin, the Australian writer and feminist best known for her novel My Brilliant Career, wrote the above words in her autobiography. Like Miles, I believe that all people want and need opportunities to share how they’re thinking and feeling.
Meetings of every kind offer these opportunities. When I walk into our tiny town rural post office, I sometimes see folks for whom a conversation about almost anything with the sole postal worker is clearly important. Perhaps that customer will have little or no other human contact that day. What is talked about is far less important than the act of telling.
Personal meetings like these, whether brief or extended, between good friends or strangers, are fundamental. Many of us are lucky enough to have “someone to tell it to”, though some do not.
Someone to tell it to at conferences
Conferences, whether in-person or online, are also potential arenas for conversations. They are places for participants — who have something in common with each other — to find someone to tell it to. Even if the teller believes that they weren’t fully heard, the act of telling is valuable. (Otherwise, people wouldn’t journal and practice self-affirmations.)
But some conferences offer better opportunities than others. Traditional events relegate conversations to the hallways, to breaks and socials. No conversations occur during lectures. Even post-presentation Q&As rarely evolve into a conversation, which is always between the presenter and a succession of audience members.
Given the fundamental human need to tell, meeting stakeholders owe it to participants to create opportunities and environments for rich conversations in the sessions, rather than just the gaps between them. I have been doing this for 30years, and it’s clear that meeting designs that integrate meaningful conversations into sessions have a transformational effect on almost all participants. (Read any of my books to learn specific techniques and designs that create meaningful and valuable conversations during meeting sessions.)
Have you attended in-person meetings where your hallway conversations were the highlight of the event? I’ve certainly experienced my fair share, and I bet you have too. Don’t get me wrong. Hallway learning and the connections made through conversations struck up between sessions are often valuable and important. But I see meetings where hallway learning trumps a majority of, if not all, conference sessions as failures of design, rather than a fact of life.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could improve the quantity and quality of hallway learning, conversations, and connections throughout an event?
Well, we can. Here are two ways.
1—How to improve conventional hallway conversations
We can increase the quality of conventional hallway conversations by designing a physical meeting environment that encourages and supports them. Create an architecture of assembly: spaces outside the session rooms where people can talk comfortably. Provide a range of spaces. For example, chair pairings, small group furniture arrangements, standing areas with places to park food and beverage, covered outdoor spaces, etc.
“…people, even very smart people, are unable to anticipate the benefits of in-depth interaction with colleagues until they have experienced it for themselves” —Nancy Dixon, The Hallways of Learning
Read Nancy’s article to learn how an office redesign strengthened connections amongst a group of formerly loosely connected peers. [And she gets a hat tip for inspiring this post!] Similarly, your design layout will affect the likelihood and value of hallway learning conversations. And participants most likely won’t even be aware of it!
“Typically, a presenter offers what happened in his or her own situation, but that is not what learners need to hear. Learners are interested in knowing how to adapt the lessons to their situation and for that they need to have a conversation so that the other person can understand their context, and they also can understand the context of the other.”
The trick is to use session designs that blend short useful pieces of content with conversations amongst participants. In effect, you’re providing structured hallway conversations about the content that’s just been delivered. There are many different formats you can use for such conversations (described in detail in my books): pair and trio share, facilitated small group breakouts, fishbowls, etc. You can create conversational groupings at random (“pair up with someone you haven’t met yet”) or use human spectrograms to assign attendees to like-minded folks.
Building hallway learning opportunities into our meeting sessions has additional advantages. Once a session is over, and traditional hallway conversations are about to begin, attendees are ready to continue or start new conversations with the people who were in their session. They are primed to continue to explore and deepen their hallway learning.
I’ll close with a final Nancy Dixon quote from a different post:
“Before people can learn from each other or collaborate on issues, they need to build connections – that is, gain some understanding of who the other person is, including their skills, depth of knowledge, experience, and attitude toward others. People are unlikely to ask each other questions or ask for assistance, until they have built a connection that allows them to learn that the other person is knowledgeable enough and respectful enough to engage.” —Nancy Dixon, Connection before Content
To maximize useful connection and learning at our meetings, optimizing hallway learning throughout the event is the way to go!
What do we need to understand to mediate connection effectively today? Inventor and computer scientist Danny Hillis gives us some helpful context:
“We humans are changing. We have become so intertwined with what we have created that we are no longer separate from it. We have outgrown the distinction between the natural and the artificial. We are what we make. We are our thoughts, whether they are created by our neurons, by our electronically augmented minds, by our technologically mediated social interactions, or by our machines themselves…
…We are our perceptions, whether they are through our eyes and ears or our sensory-fused hyper-spectral sensors, processed as much by computers as by our own cortex. We are our institutions, cooperating super-organisms, entangled amalgams of people and machines with super-human intelligence, processing, sensing, deciding, acting…
…Our networks of commerce, power and communications are becoming as richly interconnected as ecologies and nervous systems. Empowered by the tools of the Enlightenment, connected by networked flows of freight and fuel and finance, by information and ideas, we are becoming something new. We are at the dawn of the Age of Entanglement.” —Danny Hillis, The Enlightenment is Dead, Long Live the Entanglement
Mediating connection via technology
People usually think of technology as “anything that was invented after you were born”, as Alan Kay put it. But it’s much more useful to think of technology as anything made to solve a problem. Defining technology in this way opens our eyes to technologies that we all unthinkingly use every day, technologies that are essentially invisible because they have always been part of our lives.
We’ve been creating and using what I call human process technology — which includes language, writing, and science — for a very long time. Language, in all its forms, is the oldest human process technology:
“Every culture and tribe has its own language it has invented to solve the problem of real-time communication between its members. These technologies are so old that they are invisible to us. They are part of our culture, the human air we breathe. Language, writing, and science are tools outside our conventional, narrow-scope view of technology. We instantiate these tools using invented conventions: sounds, gestures, and symbols. These sounds, gestures, and symbols, however, are secondary features of these ancient technologies. Ultimately, language, writing, and science are primarily about human process.” —Adrian Segar, Meetings are a mess—and how they got that way
Clearly, we are groping our way towards mediating connection with each other via technology. The COVID-19 pandemic provides a dramatic example. In a few months, we moved from meeting primarily in person to meeting online. Our connection became mediated by screens showing live video of others and speakers broadcasting their voices. Printing, telephones, fax machines, email, and messaging have all impacted how we connect, but nothing has been swifter than our switch to meeting in real time online.
Mediating connection in an increasingly entangled future
If artificial intelligence systems can perform the above tasks now, it’s not fanciful to predict that they will progressively take over human activities that currently mediate connection.
For example, future systems might be able to moderate group meeting conversations. (Imagine a Zoom breakout where an intelligent virtual assistant facilitates a small group’s conversation on a topic.)
Or consider meeting curation: a task that is taxing, if even possible for humans. Perhaps it will eventually be possible that an IVA for real-time meeting curation could do a comparable job to the crowdsourcing human processes I’ve developed during the last 30 years.
Ten years ago, the idea of speaking to your phone to tell it to do something was laughable. Today, the development of deep feedforward networks for acoustic modeling has made such technology invisible to my grandchildren. They just use it—and it (nearly always) works.
So let’s keep in mind how Danny Hillis concludes his article:
“We can no longer see ourselves as separate from the natural world or our technology, but as a part of them, integrated, codependent, and entangled.”
As our technology advances, it will become, more and more, a normal and largely invisible contributor to how we mediate connection. Its benefits—and drawbacks—remain to be discovered.
We all have different responses to adversity, and none of them are “wrong”.
I write this post a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, sparked by the personal experience of an old friend, psychotherapist and author Nancy Leach. She shared the following:
This was the journey
I thought I had successfully managed my emotional wellbeing through almost a year and a half separation from my daughter and grandson, who live in California. I was deeply sad at times, but phone calls, texting and FaceTime usually took the edge off and so I carried on. I was grateful that I and my Toronto family were safe and well, and that I not only love my husband but like him and enjoy his company. The addition of an 8-week-old puppy just before Christmas kept us both incredibly busy and provided many moments of unbridled joy.
Then there was an emergency in the extended California family and in response I hopped on a plane. Twelve hours and two flights later, my daughter and I fell into each other’s arms. I was not surprised to feel a tsunami of love and relief; I was well aware that I was suffering without physical proximity. But I expected the pain of the past year to resolve itself quickly. I’m someone who feels intensely, and I tend to mine feeling for insight, so I figured I was pretty-much in touch with my inner state.
It therefore took me by surprise, when a few days later we stopped on the road to talk over the fence with a neighbour. “You must be so happy to be together after all this time” said she. A lump suddenly appeared in my throat and tears came to my eyes. “How was it to be in airports?” she asked, to which I replied, “It was a little crazy, but I didn’t care…” Deep breath as I struggled to let the grief move through me. “I would have walked here.” Sheltered in the soft and deep silence of a redwood forest and in the company of the two I had missed so much, my very cells were releasing the cumulative sadness of more than a year.
It wasn’t until at least a week later that I felt I had fully “metabolized” the loss of a pandemic shutdown. My daughter is of very similar sensibility and often conceptualizes and better articulates an experience we share. She commented that it was almost as if she had been gaslighting herself, telling herself she was okay when she was not.
Of course, we need to “carry on” even when conditions are far from optimal. But I’m sharing this because I wonder how many of us have convinced ourselves that because no family member has been incapacitated with Covid or we haven’t lost our job or aren’t devastated at the impact on a vulnerable child we are doing okay. My “suffering” was but a small fraction of what so many people have endured, and I simply didn’t realize how much ground I had lost.
Well, what is ground but an illusion? The deeper message is one that is always with us, but we don’t always want to acknowledge. When we investigate the nuances of our suffering, we come face to face with the reality that any certainty we feel about life is an illusion. Throughout our lives, our hopes, dreams, plans, even parts of us that identify with a certain narrative or condition must die. In these small deaths is a reminder of the fragility of the “self” we have so painstakingly built over this lifetime – and the reality of the impermanence of all things.
We don’t like to be reminded of our death and despite the passing of each moment, sadness or joy, we cling to all vestiges of what seems to endure. But in the end, we cannot change the law of impermanence; we can only strive to make peace with it. As the worst of the pandemic restrictions ease, I hope I won’t be too quick to put that insight behind me.
Unfortunately, traditional conferences are poor places for this kind of learning to occur, since they’re filled with broadcast-style lectures, during which no interpersonal interaction takes place.
At well-designed meetings, however, participants have plenty of opportunities to engage with peers about topics that are personally important. The key learning modality at such meetings is peer learning.
Peer learning allows anyone to be a teacher and/or a student, with these roles switching from moment to moment. Potentially, everyone has something to contribute and to learn. Peer conferences first uncover the content and issues people want to discuss. They then facilitate appropriate peer learning around topics of interest. My books and this blog provide plenty of information on how to do this.
Of course, in order for peer learning to occur, participants need to share what they know.
And this is where trust and safety issues impact learning.
“It is important to stress that we are all connected through a complicated net of trust. It is not as if there is a group of people, the non-experts, who have to trust the experts and the experts do not have to trust anyone. Everyone needs to trust others since human knowledge is a joint effort…It is well known that low levels of trust in a society leads to corruption and conflict, but it is easy to forget the very central role that trust plays for knowledge. And knowledge, of course, is essential to the democratic society.” —Åsa Wikforss, Why do we resist knowledge?
Why people may not share their knowledge
Knowledge management author Stan Garfield shares sixteen reasons why people don’t share their knowledge. Here’s a key one:
“They don’t trust others. They are worried that sharing their knowledge will allow other people to be rewarded without giving credit or something in return, or result in the misuse of that knowledge.” —Stan Garfield, 16 reasons why people don’t share their knowledge
So, when trust is absent, knowledge fails to flow. But when knowledge flow is stemmed, opportunities for trust are reduced. This is a positive feedback loop that guarantees low trust and knowledge sharing.
This breakdown of trust can happen anywhere. Between individuals, in organizations, and at a societal level. And it is easy for it to happen at meetings.
Designing for trust, safety, and learning
In general, the more meeting attendees trust each other, the safer they feel. The safer they feel, the more likely they are to share their knowledge.
So when I design and facilitate meetings, one of my most important goals is to provide a maximally safe environment for sharing. This maximizes the potential for consequential learning.
That’s why I:
introduce group agreements upfront, one of which has participants keep what individuals share confidential;
create an environment where it’s OK to make mistakes (or where mistakes are impossible);
provide ample opportunities for group discussions, rather than lectures, around appropriate content; and
give people the right to not participate at any time.
The last condition is important. An attendee’s level of trust and feeling of safety may vary from moment to moment during a meeting. Giving attendees the freedom (and responsibility) to decide not to participate and/or share at any time allows them to determine and control what is personally safe to do.
In 2005, I joined a men’s group. Eight of us get together for two hours every fortnight. One man chooses a topic and leads the meeting. A couple of months ago, Brent offered the following life story exercise via a preparatory email sent in advance:
Sharing our experience of others directly with them can be incredibly powerful. Let me tell you a story…
Not long ago, I was working at a multi-day workshop with a 6-person group that included someone I’ll call D. D self-described themself as mentally ill, bipolar, and with psychological issues. They spoke slowly, and described themself as not emotionally available, and often confused about what they said.
D also shared that they:
Felt isolated and wanted to get better at connecting with people;
Believed that other people couldn’t easily understand them and didn’t like them; and
Had a hard time deciding whether to attend the workshop.
It’s an advertisement and carefully staged, but I wonder if there are lessons for NCDD folks in the largely positive response to this recent Heineken ad:
The resulting conversation was fascinating and instructive. So I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing it here, and have added links when possible to the participants. I hope you find it a valuable dialog on the important issue of bringing people together across divides.
I loved seeing two people get to know each other quickly before tackling a subject. I don’t see any of the presented issues being discussed during the participant’s time together, so see neither “left” nor “right” changed views. The issue they worked on was constructing a bar and participating in a get-to-know-you exercise.
“Right” viewers may have changed their willingness to discuss their viewpoint with someone on the “other” side, but we can’t assume they were any less willing to discuss differences before being invited to participate in this filming.
After their joint beer, the opponents may keep their original beliefs, although now appreciate someone with an opposing belief.
Maybe our differences continue because no one invites us to discuss issues and we don’t have public places to discuss and work on them outside of establishments selling products.
Yes, there is a lesson in the largely positive response to this advertisement. The general public is not offended by the suggestion that bridging the divide is simple.
For those of us who actually try to address the divide, this can feel like discovering that the Matrix is real–there are few allies to be found because so many people are lost in fantasy.
But that lesson can be misleading. Fantasy can’t last forever. When the world actually collapses, the public response to this advertisement will change. At that point, people will see Heineken as an intoxicant. Cigarette ads used to get positive responses too, but don’t anymore.
Today I enjoyed the pleasure of playing with a three-year-old. Fantasy. Fantasy. There is no point at which people fully escape the instinct to fantasize or the instinct to honor the fantasies of those we love. Reality does force itself upon us from time to time–but not typically at times when we are likely to formulate a response to a Heineken ad.
I’m not seeing this as fantasy. It includes echoes of interactions I’ve had or seen myself. I would say that it doesn’t represent the full range of possible outcomes for such conversations: no one walked out on their bar-building partner, for instance, and there were no heated words. Of course, it wouldn’t include those things: at bottom it’s an ad. Perhaps its value is to get people thinking about the possibility of dialogue—people who’ve never even considered it before.
I was disturbed that there was no dialogue. Before the beer and the bar segment, there were only statements of belief and projections onto the ‘other’. Very sad that they used beer and a bar to seduce us into thinking that the divide could be crossed in that way. If there was anything positive about this ad it was that they were able to portray well several real divides (naming it publicly is a first step towards moving into it and past it) and that people had the capacity and willingness to form relationships even though the divides still exist. We can hope that in their willingness to form relationships that might last, that they could eventually dialogue about their differences.
Be careful about discounting fantasy. It’s one of the ways children and adults deal with reality. Yes, fantasy can be used to deny reality, but it can equally well be used to cope with reality by playing with its elements and making sense of it. When you see a child playing with fantasies, you are quite often seeing a child dealing with stark frightening reality in an oblique but much needed way.
The key to using fantasy to face rather than avoid reality is multiplicity, which is why children will tell the same story dozens of times, with slight variations, to explore a very real danger or concern. For narrative sensemaking to work, there can never be only one story. We’ve forgotten this function of fantasy because Disney and other cultural appropriators have unified and sanitized some of the deep and dangerous stories with which we used to make sense of reality. But fantasy is still a useful mechanism for coping with reality, and there are ways to help people use fantasy to face difficult problems, get new ideas, come together, and thrive.
To build on what Cynthia is saying, fantasy, or dreaming, is also how we envision a desirable future. In fact, it’s essential for imagining what we aspire to.
The social science behind Appreciative Inquiry points to the role that aspirations play in moving towards what we can imagine. In fact, it can be a matter of live and death. Social scientist Fred Polak, author The Image of the Future (1973), found that cultures die when they cease to have a positive image of their own future: “As long as a society’s image is positive and flourishing, the flower of culture is in full bloom. Once the image begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture does not long survive.”
I agree with Cynthia and Peggy that fantasy is a tricky topic. To be anti-fantasy is to be anti-human. And yet, to be anti-reality is also to be anti-human. If we believe fantasy should have non-trivial limits, then we need to do the work of specifying those limits.
I also agree with John that it is kind-of-encouraging to see that Pepsi and Heineken bother to address the divide at all. What makes me say “Ouch!” is the uncritical public response to it.
To me, the good situation would be that the ad starts a conversation which makes a constructive difference. I assume that was what Adrian had in mind (and I do appreciate his raising the issue, even if I say “Ouch!”). Unfortunately, the following more public response (which does call-out the fantasy) seems too angry to be constructive:
Honestly, I find it difficult to be surprised that fantasy did not inspire a constructive conversation. The only experiences we share are those of reality, so reality must be the basis of our common language. In public deliberation to solve communal problems, I think we should privilege science (when available) over fantasy. I hope no one interprets that as discrimination, because I do think there are other contexts in which science should not be privileged (e.g. generative, instead of comparative).
There is a problem when people drag the communal conversation into fantasy because they can’t (or don’t want to) learn the science. Three-year-olds who do this face something at least as violent as being forced to go to bed. We expect the conflict to be different among adults. In modern democracies, we even insist that adults who don’t do the science nonetheless have a duty to vote…
Mere voting or empathy will not satisfy me when I bring scientific evidence to a disagreement. I cannot be convinced that truth changes just because I love you, or because you outnumber me. Call me stubborn and unfeeling, if you must, but I don’t think I am alone in this, so I don’t think it would be helpful to dismiss this view.
We should probably not attempt too deep of an examination of a beer advertisement lest we discover that its motives are at root, capitalistic – surprise!
On the other hand the message – as I interpret it – demonstrates a valuable lesson. An important prerequisite to exploring differences of opinions/ideologies, is making sure that we have humanized and legitimized every person holding those opinions. In this ad, I see a brilliant (if truncated) example – for those of you who know him – of Humberto Matujrana’s definition of love; which is granting legitimacy to the other.
True, we did not see where the conversations went after the beer was opened. I don’t think we need to, that, for me at least, is beside the point. What struck me was how the set up of:
needing to collaborate while building something concrete
getting to know the other person in their own words (the 5 adjectives)
appreciation by the other person for positive qualities they see in me
– were all vital building blocks. Once that foundation of connection between two people was in place, it allowed for a different kind of conversation to emerge even though the participants have opposing ideological stances.
The Heineken ad, along with this one from TV2 in Denmark on All That We Share, show that when we humanize the people we have been conditioned to think of as “other”, we are in a much better place to enlarge our collective options, than if we keep thinking of people as fixed sets of characteristics or as believers in this or that system that we personally find abhorrent. They also show a vastly different approach between European and American commercials!
We are all of us, far more complex, nuanced, mysterious and extraordinary than any model or theory. From where I stand, it seems pretty clear that there are very few thoughts that are easily and quickly shared with others that produce an immediate resonance. On the other hand, people very easily and quickly share emotions. It is instinctual (unless life has conditioned it out of us) to feel joy when we see it being expressed by those around us – even if it comes from another species – think the joy we get when our pets are excited to see us. Likewise with sorrow or fear.
My experience as a facilitator is that when we focus on creating the conditions to feel empathy and kindness and friendship towards people, we get a lot farther in opening people to work with diverse and even conflicting viewpoints than we will if we are focusing solely on changing minds. In the Heineken ad, this seems quite clearly shown. The people who stayed for a beer were not sitting down with someone who represented a threat to their ideological position. They were sitting down with someone they had come to respect as worth listening to. And that is something that in my book, is worth paying attention to.
I am aware that what I am pointing to regarding creating the conditions for engagement is anecdotal and does not rise to the level of peer-reviewed science. I invite anyone who doubts that this approach is effective to engage in experiments to prove or disprove the hypothesis. Perhaps working together, we can create a science of collaboration through conversation?
That’s another “Ouch!” because the ad is based on the techniques of conflict resolution experts. That’s right, instead of telling people that disputes which can be resolved through scientific test ought to be resolved through scientific test, conflict resolution experts are telling Heineken (and the world) that these disputes should be resolved through empathy. I’m not suggesting that empathy is not part of the solution, but it’ the easy part–not the actual bottleneck.
I think this is a case of “When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” and so-called conflict resolution experts having little more than empathy in their toolbox.
Ken, thank you for a thought-provoking post… indeed, “we are all of us, far more complex, nuanced, mysterious and extraordinary than any model or theory.”
your evocative words strongly remind me of one of my teachers… while he may not be so well-known in this community, many of us in the Focusing world are mourning the passing of Dr. Eugene Gendlin, philosopher, psychologist, and extraordinary listener…
As to the connection with this topic… Chris, I’m curious about what you mean, when you say “science”… do you mean mainly the “hard sciences”, such as physics and chemistry?
reason I’m asking, is that it seems that there is a lot of research recently in the social sciences and the human sciences, about such things as confirmation bias — what are the conditions under which people are willing to even consider information that differs from their current belief systems. And so I’m curious as to whether you would consider such research as “science”…
There’s also been a tremendous amount of scientific research in the last 10 years especially, on the subject of empathy, including its role in cognition… so I am not understanding the contrast between “empathy” and “science” as two non-overlapping entities.
But back to some points of agreement… yes, I see the exploration of “reality” (as in, what are our current conditions) as important as the exploration of “fantasy” (what do we want to create). Holding both is key to creative tension, a concept originally formulated by Robert Fritz and later popularized by Peter Senge.
Some eminent scientist have maintained that creativity is also involved in science, though that’s not how we are usually taught to think of as science… and, maybe more to the point here, creativity is key for generating possibilities and new understandings, especially in public policy situations where as much as we might long for it, there is no clear “one right answer” that satisfies everyone’s initial positions.
To come around full circle: the human process of creating new meanings and new understandings was Gendlin’s philosophical interest, which led him to psychology and to Carl Roger’s work at the University of Chicago. Many people are aware of Carl Rogers as the “founder of humanistic psychology”; few are aware that Rogers had a deep and abiding respect for science, and was the first to break the taboo against “intruding on the sacrosanct process of therapy” in order to place tape recorders in the therapy room (with consent from all involved.)
Thus Rogers was able to conduct research by analyzing a huge number of transcripts of therapy sessions; meanwhile Eugen Gendlin had become Carl Roger’s research director. For anyone interested in the kind of listening that supports the creation of new meaning (whether or not you are a therapist), I am including two somewhat technical resources below, along with some more popular resources.
I share Chris’ position that facts established though the application of the scientific method to evidence ought not to be evaluated by popularity polls. However, I think there is a role for empathy-building in laying the groundwork for, on the science side learning why a person is resistant to an inconvenient truth, and on the denial side creating trust that the opposing side isn’t manufacturing false facts for an ulterior motive. An uninformed opinion is not equally valuable as an informed judgment, but the people within whose brains those opinions and judgments reside are of equal worth. So helping them communicate makes sense.
I have participated as a book in a Human Library. It was interesting and rather fun. It confirmed for me Harvey Milk’s urging everyone to be out so that people would understand that yes, they did know someone who would be affected by a proposed law. The tricky part is to keep it from becoming a judgment on a different person’s worth as a human being. I’m not sure the ad got that right. I was more impressed that they were building something together. That is not always possible, and it can create new conflicts, but it is also an excellent way to get past bias.
This has been an interesting discussion. I had not seen any of the advertisements before.
Rosa asked what I meant by “science” as a tool of conflict resolution distinct from empathy. Carolyn phrased it well.
When I wrote “disputes which can be resolved through scientific test ought to be resolved through scientific test” I did not mean that we ought to use psychology to figure-out how to make our opponents’ minds more pliable. I meant that experiments can tell us whether cigarettes cause cancer, or whether human activity is causing the climate to change, or whether the only value women bring to a society is to birth children, or whether gender identify necessarily aligns with development of sexual organs.
A conflict resolution expert who doesn’t know how to design and manage such experiments would be missing something very important from his/her toolbox. Disagreements on these issues are resolved if the science-deniers are busy trying to do better science.
Carolyn suggested that the science-supporter can use empathy to discover why the science-denier instead continues to resist, but then what? The bottleneck is not our inability to see the real pain that science-deniers are suffering–the bottleneck is that we cannot allow that pain to sway our beliefs about the science. The real pain will never go away–there will always be pain–so we ultimately have to say, “Too bad for you, but that doesn’t give you any right to deny the science.”
I am not saying that pain should be ignored, but it shouldn’t be attached to science like earmarks to a bill. There are limits to whom gets to be part of any conversation, and unwillingness to preserve the integrity of social epistemic practices puts one on the outside of a natural limit.
What I’ve learned from moderating National Issues Forum deliberations is to probe for what each person values that underlie their positions because until those are out in the open the conversation cannot move forward. Each individual who denies climate change has his or her own particular concerns.
Some I’ve heard are that it will be used to justify more government intrusion into the individual’s freedom; that it will mean giving up the comforts of modern civilization and returning to a spartan 19th century way of life; that it threatens the person’s job. That allows us to talk about how we might respond to climate change in ways that minimize nanny government or maintain the important aspects of modern life or create new jobs and help workers transition. And the NIF emphasis on acknowledging tradeoffs and recognizing who does not benefit allows us to plan ways to address the pain of change.
I’m not saying that everyone can be brought into a productive conversation this way. But I know from bitter experience that saying “it is a scientific fact” does not get work. I wish it did.
Thank you, Ken, for your wonderful comments. It seems all too easy and common these days to vilify and disregard those who hold significantly different values than we do. As we use the instant one-to-many communication of Facebook or Twitter, we amplify difference as much as we do similarity. Beliefs and intentions built on falsehood and fear are reinforced as much as those informed by fact and science.
Since the Brexit vote, we have seen the consequences of our infatuation with the internet, social media, and those posing as legitimate sources of knowledge. We have significant numbers of citizens who seem unwilling or unable to be in respectful dialogue. Unwilling or unable to learn, unlearn, and relearn.
And so. . . what happens when we break the rules of civil discourse? When conversation is no longer able to influence people’s learning, understanding, beliefs, and action?
And if. . . we no longer have a way through communicated language to create common meaning sufficient to coordinate action together, what can catalyze new sense-making, new shared meaning, and coordinated action towards a shared purpose?
Research into the dynamics of complex human systems suggests an answer. We have tumbled from the presumed stability of the status quo, into a time and space of chaos. We know that simply saying “you’re wrong” or “why can’t you see what I see the way I see it?” Isn’t going to work. We’ve seen the power of a dominant new narrative to dramatically change minds and behavior.
And. . . Our narratives come from our experience. Even as we retreat from the space of civil discourse, it is experience that formed our knowledge, understanding, values, and intentions. It is experience that may catalyze new shared meaning, and make possible new dialogue and coordinated action.
My concern is that we will not collectively choose to walk into the room and build an Ikea bar together with those holding views very different from our own. My concern is that we may only change our thinking and behavior in the wake of a catastrophic event we all experience. One, perhaps, in which many may suffer.
I hope we will choose to walk into the room with An Other. I hope we will choose to experience collaboration, catalyze new meaning, and engage in dialogue for new possibility. Yet hope is not probability.
I appreciate the reality check on the feeling of “See! It is possible to talk across the divide!” I am not quite ready to trash to whole idea though.
Yes, Heineken picked the easiest hot-button issues and people to represent each side in a sensational kind of way. The fact of the matter is that people do exist who have either ill-informed ideas or just plain mean-spirited attitudes toward those who differ from them. We have to find some way to co-exist them too, not just ones who have ideas or attitudes we like. If this simplistic approach gets someone to consider that a trans woman (for example) might be a human being worth getting to know then that is something. The alternative as I see it is to pretend that people with bad (from my point of view) ideas or attitudes don’t exist, which is silly. Or to try to legislate or shame them out of existence, which is scary. I vote for reaching out as many times as it takes.
Even though I think it will never work, I second the motion to reach out as many times as it takes. I am not suggesting that science should never overrule people the way parents overrule a three-year-old. I just think the story shouldn’t end there. Our commitment to each other should go beyond the settling of any particular dispute, and that commitment needs to include a commitment to achieve mutual respect (eventually) no matter how impossible.
Suppose you could ask any test of my commitment to achieve respect for you–not just drinking a Heineken with you–what would it be?
A HT to Chris Santos-Lang who reposted this conversation recently and sparked me to reproduce it here.
The other day, Celia and I were walking in Boston’s beautiful Arnold Arboretum when she asked me who’d responded to an email I’d sent. When I pulled out my phone to answer her question, she said she felt she was walking with a third person, a stranger.