We often think of change as additive. We become wiser by “learning something new”. What we often overlook is that changing our beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions involves unlearning as well as learning.
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read & write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn” —Alvin Toffler
Unlearning first requires noticing. We are skilled at habituating our circumstances, no matter how unusual. Habituation is valuable because it allows us to adapt to changes in our environment. But habituation also makes it harder to notice that we may need to change our current thinking or behavior.
Thus there’s a delicate balance, a dance, between noticing what is rather than what have become our default ways of thinking, understanding, and acting.
I have spent over fifty years unlearning what people and society told me I was and should be. I’m still on a complex journey of relearning who I am. I work to practice being me in each moment. Change work involves not only intellectual shifts and reinterpretations but also the unlearning of habitual responses to emotional experiences and their empathetic replacement.
At the age of 67, after returning from a meditation retreat, I started running daily for the first time in my life. And I soon learned that the first hill is the hardest.
It was summer, and I had no idea what I could do. So I began by exploring without expectations. I dressed in my regular sneakers, some shorts, and a tee shirt. I live in a rural town with 60 miles of dirt roads, so I ran out of my home and down the 600′ driveway. Wanting exercise, I turned left on the town road and started up the hill. Way before the top I was out of breath, so I slowed to a walk until I got to the top. I ran down some of the other side, decided that was enough for the first day, and turned around and retraced my path. I had to walk up most of my driveway.
The total run and walk was a mere mile.
I wondered if I’d ever be able to do better than that.
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.
“Contains active cultures.” How often have you read this on the sides of yogurt containers? Well, healthy organizations contain active cultures too.
Active cultures — not just for yogurt any more
Just as there are hundreds of different strains of probiotic cultures, there are many ways to think about organizational culture. For example, you might focus on descriptive approaches: an organization’s core beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions about “what is” and “why is”, plus customary ways of interacting. Or, you could concentrate on a behavioral approach: how an organization consistently does things.
Unfortunately, in many organizational cultures the descriptive culture isn’t congruent with the behavioral reality. Ultimately, however you define organizational culture, what interests most people is changing it, hopefully for the better.
That’s where active (aka adaptive or adhocracy) organizational cultures shine.
However, meetings have tremendous potential to change lives. Attendees have something in common: a profession, a passion, a shared experience together. They are with people who, in some way, do what they do, speak the same language, and face the same challenges.
What an opportunity to connect with like-minded souls, learn from each other, and, consequently, change one’s life for the better!
Unfortunately, most conferences squander this opportunity. Learning is restricted to broadcast-style lectures, Q&A is often more about status than learning, and attendees have little if any input into the topics and issues discussed.
Peer conferences support change
The peer conferences I’ve been designing and facilitating for 28 years are different. Yes, you can’t make people change. But, as Seth Godin points out, you can create an environment where they choose to!
Peer conferences create an optimal environment for supporting attendees in the difficult work of making changes in their lives.
Peer conferences do this by providing a safe, supportive, and participation-rich environment that includes the freedom to choose what happens.
A safe environment supports attendees taking risks: the risks of thinking about challenges and issues in new ways.
The supportive environment of a peer conference provides process tools that allow attendees to freely explore new possibilities.
A participation-rich environment ensures that attendees are likely to connect with peers who can help them or whom they can help, thus building networks and new capabilities in the future.
The freedom to choose what happens at a peer conference allows attendees to collectively create the meeting that they want and need, rather than be tied to the limited vision of a program committee or the vested interests of conference stakeholders.
These are the core design elements of peer conferences that make them so successful in creating change. Their very design maximize the likelihood that participants will choose to make useful and productive change in their lives.
“Our species doesn’t operate by reality. It operates by stories. Cities are a story. Money is a story. Space was a story, once. A king tells us a story about who we are and why we’re great, and that story is enough to make us go kill people who tell a different story. Or maybe the people kill the king because they don’t like his story and have begun to tell themselves a different one.” —Isabel, in Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
I love science fiction, which Pamela Sargent calls “the literature of ideas”. In a world where it sometimes seems change is impossible, science fiction explores how our future will be different. Science fiction is also especially rich with possibility for introducing cognitive dissonance: the mental discomfort we feel when aware of two contradictory ideas at the same time.
Above all, good science fiction excels at telling stories. Powerful stories. Stories that routinely predict the future: earth orbit satellites, the surveillance state, cell phones, electric submarines, climate change, electronic media, the Cold War were all foreshadowed by science fiction stories long before they came to pass. Science fiction introduces possible futures, some of which come to pass, by using the power of stories.
Events operate by stories
Like science fiction, events also create futures, and events operate by stories. Just as good stories have a story arc, coherent events have a conference arc. In addition, every event participant creates their own story at an event, just as each reader or viewer individually absorbs and experiences a book or movie story.
It’s incumbent on all of us who create and design events to think carefully and creatively about the stories our events tell. When we do so successfully, the power of stories shapes and maximizes participants’ individual and collective outcomes — and changes lives.
For three months now, I’ve meditated for twenty minutes every day.
Personally this is a big deal, as I’ve struggled to maintain a regular meditation practice for decades. I’ve resolved countless times to meditate daily, and fallen off the mindfulness wagon over and over again.
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.