When I was a senior policy advisor in the British Government, I saw first-hand how poor communication was a key barrier to development and implementation of transformative social policy (as opposed to policies that just kept resulting in the same old outcomes). People would be in meetings with their own agendas – or at least an agenda; a lot of frustration – sometimes to do with the subject at or hand and/or with all the happenings from their office; a defensive posture, and more often than not, a sense of exasperation – ‘Why are people always asking me to do things that I can’t do and getting mad at me for something that isn’t in my control?’ Perhaps, needless to say, meetings with such participants can easily become exercises in futility. This experience played a significant role in my deciding to turn my professional focus on engagement and leadership, asking questions such as ‘How can we engage with each other more collaboratively and creatively?’ and ‘How do leaders nourish more positive connections between people and encourage us all to see situations differently in order to create a different future?’
It would be false to suggest that my time in government began this shift. I started out my career as a projects director in a think tank, then I moved to a national advocacy organization where I set up a Human Rights Programme. As someone who tended to play the role of ‘Bridge’, I was struck early on by how entrenched people could be in their positions. And how ‘us’ and ‘them’ didn’t always mean ‘Government’ and ‘Campaigner.’ Some of my biggest challenges in delivering success were with other social justice activists. Over time, I would see how in all spaces people were adopting roles, postures, and reflexive – rather than reflective – approaches to their work. From early on, I began developing a sense that some critical fundamentals in our working relationships were askew.
A key lesson, which grew and grew for me over the years, is that people have reasons for the roles they play and the stances they adopt. If you want them to alter their role or stance, understand their reasons for it. This being the case, when we are in situations where the task at hand is to work together – amidst differences – to find solutions to social challenges, we will all benefit by pausing, reflecting and taking time to consider the issues at hand from multiple-perspectives. That is to say, it is worth taking the effort to understand the ‘why’ underneath the ‘what’ of people’s roles and postures.
However, asking ‘why’ is not something we are often encouraged to do, or know how to do – particularly in sensitive situations. We are also often discouraged from stepping out of our ‘understood’ roles – we might be told we would be ‘traitors to the cause’ or even just ‘foolish.’ Or we fear a loss of status and credibility. Well, my journey to date has led me to believe firmly that we need to create more spaces for asking ‘why’ – asking that both of ourselves and each other. We need to be prepared to let go of the familiar beliefs and roles holding us back.
The aim is to see and connect with each other and the challenges at hand differently. This is essential if we are to collaborate and create in new ways – leading to substantive and sustainable change. Albert Einstein once said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Entrenched beliefs and roles are locking our thinking into narrow parameters. They are often unwittingly generating behaviours which undermine our shared values and our shared potential. If we avoid questioning ourselves and each other, then our thinking and behaviours are unlikely to change and we’ll continue to make the same mistakes.