I once had a conversation with an African American colleague about her experience with racism.
We were both attending a workshop my partner and I were participating in to teach her team about the Social Lab methodology in the South side of Chicago.
Racism was one of the central conversations we were all trying to have, but it was difficult because hardly anyone there was used to having any kind of dialogue between white and Black people about racism.
Maybe you can imagine the tensions in the room. Less than half the room was white, more than half were people of color.
My African American colleague and I were out at dinner on the last night, and both being social emotional geeks we decided to conduct an entire conversation strictly in the language of Non-Violent Communication — a method of communicating that severely limits the words and phrases used to the language of feelings and needs.
We wanted to talk about her experience with racism.
We wanted to keep the space safe for her most of all, and we also wanted to see if we could create a shared understanding: could she feel heard and understood by me, a non-American white woman?
After about two hours of her sharing and me listening, reflecting what I heard back to her and making empathy guesses about her feelings and her needs, she said she was surprised that her very intimate and painful experiences as an African American woman dealing with racism nevertheless had something universal enough in them through the language of feelings and needs that allowed me, product of my white privilege as I am, to enter into her experiences enough that she felt heard and understood.
No one assumed that I could fully know the experience of racism; that would be absurd.
But I could listen, check what I heard with her, we could notice my assumptions together, and I could hold space to hear her.
She never told me if there were any problems with how I showed up for her; she was a very kind person used to moving through the world of whiteness so I am not sure if she would have — especially given how easily and generously her and others stepped in to soothe any ruffled feathers and forgive emotions expressed by the white people in the room.
It’s no doubt exhausting to try to correct white people when they blunder; a social risk not usually worth taking.
However at the end of the conversation we both expressed surprise and warmth at what we had accomplished together, and I said something like: there is so much that we humans have in common! She reminded me with some force that our differences are very important, that our diversity mustn’t be overlooked in the drive toward common ground.
Point well taken.
My take away is that instead of trying to create consensus and alignment, instead we need to create a fellowship — a diverse community of people who may need to hold strongly to their point of view, but who can work to find common ground based on archetypes rather than compromise, or dominance, or power.
I think this is the real holy grail of teamwork.
Let me explain.
When you think about a group of people who work well together, do you think consensus is the goal? Is the feeling of harmony the goal of great teamwork for you?
I can completely understand that you’d think these things are all excellent outcomes for great teamwork, but there is a profound problem built into that. If you strive for harmony and alignment, you most likely will shut down the voices that bring dissent, difference, and diversity in order to achieve alignment.
You won’t mean to, of course. Of course you wouldn’t!
You will try and bring in those voices. Perhaps you’ll play the devil’s advocate, constantly challenging your team mates to think through “other” or opposing points of view.
But let’s just face head on something that happens in human beings: a natural and likely unconscious gravitation toward those with whom we are similar, either by looks, or ideologies, or culture, or values. Or all of the above.
I’d like to say that consensus, alignment, and harmony is NOT the answer. If it were, we’d see less bias and more diversity. Instead we need to actively and consciously create the conditions for diversity of all levels and complexities to have a voice in the room.
Let me show you what I mean.
The terrain we are traveling here has to do with two main functions:
1. Becoming awake to our world-view;
2. And only after that, work to find common ground with others based on archetypes, not compromise.
The Problems With World-View
The danger always comes in unconscious bias, meaning in this context, we assume we know what the other is thinking and feeling, but don’t realize we are assuming. We look at the world through the lens of our own world-view, but don’t see the lens.
Owen Barfield said that we can create seven different world-views before breakfast. He means that we definitely HAVE a world-view, and we can change it if we choose to.
We have to wake up to the lens through which we look before we can actually, practically, concretely, create space for diversity.
The Common Ground Of Archetypes
When we look for common ground with the different other, we can look for it in archetypes; in the spaces that are universal. Only then can we begin to build the skills for creating consistently regenerative meetings, relationships, and colleagueship that can heal implicit bias on many levels.
Feelings and needs are universal experiences, for instance, with which every human being on this earth can identify. We can find common ground in experiences that create certain feelings in us: sadness, anger, outrage, relief, release, confusion. Similarly, there is a word for needs like connection, for space, for autonomy, or to be heard, or to be seen — in any language.
This may sound very challenging in a world that does not value feelings nor needs. No one wants to be judged as touchy-feely, or needy.
I get it. You can’t show your feelings in the workplace.
Nevertheless, this is the very place where we can find the right kind of common ground, and it’s time we made use of it.
If we can learn to use a new language, that speaks of archetypes rather than conclusions, opinions, or rhetoric, then we can build new ways of speaking and listening that heal, regenerate, and can be infinitely more creative and free.
But now I want to ask you: how might you create space where you are and in what you do for the voices of diversity? What can you change, or begin doing, today?