Beyond a point of view

There is one idea that shapes my work and dominates my thinking more than any other. I run into it everyday. I lay awake at night pondering its impact. It holds the key to relational effectiveness and business strategy. It determines whether I am grumpy after a Carlton loss and … wait for it … it is the foundation of world peace. You might think I’m joking; but I’m not.

It is perspective.

Most of our lives we get taught to defend our point of view. This is a great skill and provides us with confidence and a sense of conviction. In a western democracy we are led to believe that in the market place of ideas the competition for truth will yield a worthy winner. Undoubtedly this is a noble context in which to live, much more desirable than a forum that is regulated to the point of public censorship. (Not withstanding the argument that in the West big media shapes the public consciousness.)

I think it is time to add another major idea into the mix. That is, ‘We cannot presume to understand reality until we have explored it from alternative vantage points.’

As I write I sit in a North Melbourne Café, only a pane of glass separates me from the people walking past, presumably on their way to work. I wonder what Monday morning means to each of them. I wonder what home context they have left behind. I wonder if they are loved, and if they love. I wonder how they process the news that an Australian soldier was killed this morning in Afghanistan, or if they care. All this might be interesting, but does it matter?

It matters when we share a stake in something. It matters particularly when they are the ‘other’. For too long we have presumed that we know the ‘other’. Who is the other? Today the other might be: an Afghani soldier, a teenage binge drinker, our difficult customer, the family member with whom we are frustrated, our indigenous neighbour ….

Einstein changed our appreciation of the world by introducing a simple idea; what you see depends on where you see it from. The predictability of Newton, as brilliant as it was, unraveled. We need a similar revolution in popular sociology. The rigour of argument and defence of conventional wisdom must be challenged by learning to see from the vantage point of the other.

We can start by asking some questions that we may not be used to asking; Who else is involved? What do they see, what are they experiencing? The critical piece of this is not to presume we already know the answer. We might think we do, but we don’t.

Our family lives will be enhanced by stopping to ask and listen. Our workplaces will change radically when we seek the perspective of all stakeholders and make decisions that embrace the collective good. Our communities will be healthier when we develop ways for people from different perspectives to come together to share. Our nation will adopt a radically new direction when political divides offer opportunities for new insight rather than lines for petty combat. Our world will feel a more hopeful place to be when difference invites dialogue.

What are some experiences you’ve had that on one hand have challenged your view of reality, and on the other have enhanced your appreciation of the ‘other’?

The Russians love their children too…

Some people seem oblivious to the needs of others around them. Twice in the last 20 minutes I’ve had the same bag, slung over a shoulder, knock into me as its carrier tried to weave his way to where he wanted to be. It wasn’t so much that his bag hit me … it was his complete disregard for the impact he was having on those around him that stunned me. Beyond that level of dysfunction, most people operate with at least a consciousness of the perspective of ‘the other’. But a normal appreciation of the needs of others will not be enough.

I have been pondering what it takes to go beyond empathy, to identify deeply with ‘the other’. In my last post I eluded to the realisation of prejudices I didn’t know I had. I am increasingly convinced that the capacity to identify with ‘the other’ is a fundamental competency for dealing with the major challenges in the decades ahead; human pressures on the ecosystem and climate, population, extreme poverty for 1/6th of the world’s people, and globalisation.

A few weeks ago, Maria and I watched Thirteen Days, the story of how close we came to nuclear war. In the wake of his extraordinary leadership through that crisis, President Kennedy delivered a speech that so impressed then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, that it paved the way for a nuclear test ban. In that speech he said, “So, let us not be blind to our differences – but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. We are all mortal.”

On the eve of the collapse of the Cold War Sting released a song that ‘reached’ me in my relative naivety, ‘I hope the Russians love their children too.’ The words still penetrate my Anglo centric propaganda-ed view of the world. Or more close to my current context, Saudi women with only their eyes exposed also play aeroplane games with fluffy toys on planes to occupy their fidgety children.

We are facing enormous challenges. Our world has evolved so quickly that none of us are prepared. No-one has been here before. (…as Peter Senge reminded us at the SoL Forum) Our institutions are not ready to change as rapidly as is needed. Our collective and individual behaviour lags our consciousness by way to much. Our lifestyle inertia holds us back from action to bridge social and ethnic divides, from adopting the environmental practices we know are necessary, from curbing our personal preferences for the common good. And there are not only global problems, we are every week confronted with local community and personal ones too; work / life balance, young binge drinking and violence, rampant consumerism, loss of meaning …

Adam Kahane helps us understand the nature of these complex problems.

  • They have dynamic complexity. Cause and effect are not closely related in space and time. We need systemic solutions.
  • They have generative complexity. The future is unfamiliar and undetermined. It is not a matter of applying solutions that have worked in the past. As it is said, today’s solutions create tomorrow’s problems.
  • They have social complexity. No single entity own the problem of has the capacity or wherewithal to create a solution independently of all the stakeholders.

However, in order to bring the different stakeholders around the table, whether it be in the context of the Arab – Israeli conflict or a family roundtable about domestic expectations, we have to become better at suspending our own judgements and seeing the world through the eyes of another.

The rewards will be staggeringly significant.