Gang fights, Bridges and Beer

This idea was sparked by a recent Heineken ad, but I hasten to add that any drink will do! If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth a watch:

Over the years we’ve helped many an organisation move forwards with areas such as cultural change, employee engagement, inclusion, improving customer experience, intractable conflict…the list goes on. And for a long time we’ve been passionately interested - and intrigued - by the role that personal thinking plays in all these things.

What we’ve come to realise is that the status quo in all these situations is something that’s created by personal thinking. Not a lack of tools, techniques or external resources. At their root, they exist because of our thinking. And what’s particularly interesting about a key aspect of that thinking is that its binary. It’s dualistic, for example:

  • ‍Is this good or bad? Right or wrong?
  • ‍Are you with me (or not)?
  • ‍Can we collaborate (or not)?
  • ‍We’ve disagreed about this for ages, how about we find a compromise? (It’s either continue to disagree, or find a compromise).
  • ‍Are you for moving in this direction, or more interested in that direction?

If you listen out for examples like this you’ll find the airwaves are thick with them. People unconsciously create dualistic constructs as a foundation for their life experience, whilst reality is anything but binary. Our personal representations are but a drop in the ocean of possibility, yet we often act as if they were true. They create a fragmented version of reality, and as the great quantum physicist turned philosopher of mind David Bohm put forward so eloquently, fragmentation is the root of the troubles we face in society.

Take the polarised opinions from the Heineken ad: right wing or left wing, male or female, global warming exists or it’s a con. The more we argue our position, the more we tend to reaffirm it, a function of confirmational bias at work.

As Erin Gruwell found at Woodrow Wilson High School, personal thinking creates an association with other like-minded thinkers, which in turn creates groups - or in this case, gangs. Self-segregation resulting in gang fights, lack of class attendance, lack of education which then keeps people stuck with very limited options available for the rest of their life. 

If they live. 

But Gruwell turned this around. (Like to know how? Watch the film Freedom Writers, or get in touch).

As did Heineken (though naturally we’ll treat advertisements with a degree more scepticism than we treat a true life story). 

The two approaches though are similar: 

  • Find out what you have in common first. Build a bridge. Without something connecting you, it’s all too easy to retreat into the world of duality. Whilst we may disagree with someone, it’s always possible to find something we have in common: perhaps an interest, a hobby, somewhere you’ve visited, or a goal at work.
  • ‍Get to know one another better. Not just names and job roles. Be intrigued, find out what’s unique about them - and be willing to share more about yourself: your interests and life experiences.
  • ‍Do tasks together where you have to collaborate.
  • Be willing to be uncomfortable. Binary thinking is easy for us, typically our default programme, so suspending it for a while can feel strange. Being open to people with different perspectives isn’t always easy, but suspending your judgement is key to discovering the gift the person might share with you.

This approach is central to our work on Inclusion, which helped EDF Energy gain Diversity Works for London’s gold award, the first in the energy sector to do so. In our facilitation work, it’s underpinned by the belief that everyone in the group has valuable contributions to make, and it's a central pillar to all work we do to resolve conflict. (We once worked with 2 people where their disagreement was so core to their belief systems that as a result of a big argument, one had locked the other in a broom cupboard and left him there. They hadn’t spoken in 12 years!)

So if you find yourself in a protracted, fundamental disagreement, try this approach on for size. Perhaps the most important ingredients are letting go of ego, suspending our thinking, and being intrigued about what we might learn from the other. Let us know how you get on!

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