Jakarta, 12 December 2018 — If people would send you hate mail, would you box back or invite them to discuss your differences over coffee and see where you might agree?
In many countries today, the political discourse is adversarial. You either belong to this party or that party, and the differences seem as clear as black and white. You win or you lose.
The Westminster model of democracy, in particular, looks prone to creating such deep divides, as we can see on both sides of the Atlantic. In other parts of the world, you can sometimes find more willingness to discover areas of consensus among the political parties, and to build on those.
Our online habits don’t help. The binary distinction between political positions is exacerbated by today’s online culture where you are encouraged to be either in favor or against something, with very room to explore and express the nuances in between. Polarization along deep divides seems to be the name of the political game today, with social media amplifying whatever position we hold in echo chambers.
When more people get sucked deeper into the political divides, the chances are diminished of finding better solutions to today’s problems, which invariably are complex and need a multi-faceted and collaborative approach.
Coach Judith Glaser, author of Conversational Intelligence, described how many executives get trapped in a tell-yell syndrome of tirelessly advocating their own position, without really listening to the other side. This rarely produces effective solutions.
The telling and yelling can also be done in writing.
A politician who knows all about that is Özlem Cekic, a woman with an ethnic Kurdish-Turkish background. She was elected to the Danish parliament in 2007, and quickly experienced how divided people can be. She started receiving hate mails, in large numbers.
At first, she deleted the hate mails. However, when the problem grew more urgent and threatening to her and her family, a friend suggested that she reach out to the writers and invite them for coffee.
In her TED talk, Özlem explains what she learned from having hundreds of such coffee dialogues.
What she discovered, to her surprise and consternation, was that she actually had a lot in common with many of her hate mail writers. By learning to suspend judgment about the person on the other side of the table, and seeking to understand each other, they gained valuable results.
In setting up these one-to-one coffee dialogues, Özlem expressed her trust by asking that they meet in the home of the hate mail writer. And she always brought food, understanding that sharing ideas through dialogue would be easier when also sharing food together.
Building on her dialogue experiences, she recommends that we challenge ourselves to invite someone from the opposite end of the political spectrum to sit down together and have a dialogue without judgment. The next step would then be to go beyond blaming others for problems and explore what each of the two partners could personally do about those problems.
Researchers of Integral Theory estimate that roughly two thirds of the world population still exhibits an ethnocentric mindset that strongly distinguishes ‘us’ from ‘them’ and invariably values their own group over others.
Developmental psychologists see this as arrested personal development, because each of us human beings has the potential to expand our worldview to be more non-judgmental and inclusive as we keep growing up.
On the other hand, as long as we keep telling and yelling at each other across the political aisles or other social divides, the task of tackling our societies’ complex problems will be so much more difficult. And unnecessarily so.
Judith Glaser introduced a higher level of conversations which she called transformational. Typically, in that kind of conversation, the parties will explore a common understanding and discover what better solutions they can create together through collaboration. It’s an amazing experience when you see for yourself how this works. It takes a process of trust-building to get there.
In her problem of dealing with the hate mails she received, Özlem Cekic realized that she didn’t want to continue living in fear for herself and her family, so she confronted the writers and decided to make an effort to bridge the ethnocentric divide and the backstabbing and instead reach out to the other side.
Learning from her experience, Özlem now describes herself as a bridge builder. Rather than ignore the problem or take it on by boxing back, she found a better way, through dialogue.
It’s easy to find problems and blame others for them. What bridging leaders do is to find common ground and win people over to working together. That starts by discovering common perspectives and shared emotions, and thereby build trust.
Besides Judith Glaser’s work, another excellent resource to learn more about creating effective dialogue is Floor de Ruiter’s book Driven by Dialogue. Warmly recommended reading.
So what about you? Do you want to follow the wisdom of the two-thirds of the world population and live your life in an ethnocentric mindset focused on winning victories, or do you want to rise above that, hang up your boxing gloves, and become a bridge builder?
Better than Boxing
Take a look at the boxing gloves in the photo above. Just like their brand suggests, engaging in positional conversations (advocating by telling and sometimes yelling) can last forever. As Özlem’s story shows, however, that depends on you. We have a choice. If and when you allow your mindset to expand to see that listening and dialogue will make better results possible, a new world opens.