You Are Different AND Relevant: That Is Why I Need You

“In a community of knowledge, what matters more than having knowledge is having access to knowledge”…”The different bits of knowledge that different members of the community have must be compatible” (Sloman, S, and P. Fernbach. 2017. The Knowledge Illusion, New York: Riverhead Books, pp.124, 126).

To know what I need to know, I can either input everything I need to know into my brain and remember it, or I can know that it exists and where to access it when needed.  It turns out that our brains are leaky.  We forget most things that we see, and we remember wrong many things we think we remember.  And we are relatively good at finding out where to access knowledge, according to Professors Sloman and Fernabch, who I quoted above.

From the perspective of collaboration and co-hosting, the need to include others’ perspectives is the second step of the O Process for collaborative co-hosting.  The first step is to identify the deeper shared purpose that brings everyone together, uniting their will towards a common future.  The second step is to include those voices, those unique perspectives, that are required to generate the possibility of this deeper shared purpose.  Most things that bring people together, like K-12 education, medical care, or food systems require many different perspectives to come together, in a specific way.  The second step of the O Process invites in those different perspectives that we need.  We need them because they are different, because they see the world differently, and they contribute a different perspective.

While this second step seems obvious to everyone I work with–the need for differently-minded people–most do not act as if it were obvious.  Most who say they get this, then fill the room with like-minded people, not differently-minded people.  I also observe that most people in most meetings are not clear why their specific perspective is needed in the room, nor are they clear on why the voices or perspectives of the other people in the room are needed.  Not being clear on why I or others are in the room leads most people to not listen carefully, to not listen intently, and to not inquire into the differences someone else is seeing.  Conversely, when we are clear that we need other specific perspectives, then we are intent on understanding what they are seeing, what they are uniquely bringing to what we are seeing together.  Completely different processes, experiences, and outcomes.

When I combine this observation with the three levels of collaboration I have described before, I see three ways people relate to their own knowledge and accessing that of others.

  1. When the group process is designed for segregation, I am clear that “I need” something.  I am paying attention to what I need to give and get from any given situation, at most looking to see what I can get from others, if they are aligned with giving me what I need.
  2. When the group process is designed for flocking, I know that “I need others.”  I pay attention to what I need and what others need, as we move in the same space, sometimes working on our own and sometimes cooperating.
  3. When the group process is designed for uniting, I see that “I need specific others.”  I am clear about what we are collectively trying to achieve together, our deeper shared purpose, and the need for very specific perspectives to achieve that deeper shared purpose.  I pay attention to the deeper shared purpose, to each person’s perspective, and to how these perspectives shine light on what we want to achieve.  I need each person to be different, united in a deeper shared purpose, and committed to collaborating with each other on that purpose.

I need you, because you are different, and because you are relevant, like I am, to what we want to give our will to, to the future we want to achieve.

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Seeing What We See–Another Perspective on The Agreements We Accept

The British philosopher Alan Watts observed, “If I draw a circle, most people, when asked what I have drawn, will say that I have drawn a circle, or a disc, or a ball.  Very few people will ever suggest that I have drawn a hole in a wall, because people think of the inside first, rather than thinking of the outside. But actually these two sides go together–you cannot have what is ‘in here’ unless you have what is ‘out there.’

What agreements have I unconsciously accepted, such as seeing the circle from the inside, that limit my ability to see the circle from the outside?  How many ways have I boxed myself into a corner, from which I cannot see the possibilities I am seeking?  Watts’ observation invites me to remember that I was the one that boxed myself in–with the agreements I unconsciously accepted–so I can remove those boxes I put in place, the constraints on what I can see, consciously choosing the agreements I accept.

How Many Voices Can You Perceive at a Time? — the “Cocktail Party Effect”

Recent research shows that where most of us hear noise, the din of a lot of people speaking at once, some people, in this case musicians, can pick out a single voice and the overall harmonic.  Researchers call this the “cocktail party effect,” where lots of people are speaking loudly at the same time, making it hard to hear anything.  That most of us cannot pick out what one voice is saying in the noise of a lot of loud conversation doesn’t mean that nobody can.  Maybe it is a matter of intention and training; the desire to hear different voices and the practice at doing so.  In this case, the musicians need to be able to pick out specific voices or instruments in the mix, and they have a lot of practice doing so.  Intention and practice.

Similarly, Professor Ellen Langer finds that more mindful people are able to notice new perspectives, that someone else brings a different perspective.  In the noise of a conversation, one can perceive that somebody else has a unique perspective to contribute.  And, one can get better at doing this over time.  Intention and practice.

My colleagues and I work with many groups that are taking on very complex social issues.  To address these complex issues, in a resilient way, collaborative processes often require many stakeholder groups to contribute their unique gifts and perspectives.  They are part of the problem and part of the solution, so they need to be involved.  And, they bring quite different perspectives, by definition, of the issue and what they can contribute to the shared intention.  Like with the “cocktail party effect” research with musicians, I find that while most people find it difficult to perceive and value different perspectives in complex social issues, some people can do this.  They have the intention and the practice.  Our ecosynomic processes for working with complex social issues support people in building the capacity to do this, both the intention and the practice–learning how to listen for other unique voices and the practice in doing so.  I see that this is a required skill for addressing complex social issues, a skill we can learn from the example of the musicians.