by Tom Atlee
(reprinted with permission)
A review by Tom Atlee
NAVIGATING A WORLD OF DIFFERENCES
Greg Nees’ Connecting Hearts and Minds: Insights, Skills, and Best Practices for Dealing with Differences is exactly what it says it is. It is the most readable and comprehensive guide I’ve seen for dealing with many different kinds of difference – culture, gender, cognitive style, personality, history, values, the stories we tell ourselves… Here is a taste of what Nees sees and shares.
At the heart of it all, Nees is talking about what he calls “mind distance” – the distance between the way you and I view and feel about things. He assures us that we can reduce that distance, while noting that success in this requires “mindsight”. Mindsight is an ability to know our own internal world well enough to (a) be able to monitor our responses to others and (b) recognize what might be going on in their internal worlds so that our responses are useful rather than problematic.
SEEING INTO “THE BLACK BOX”
Our own and others’ subjective lives are like a “black box” whose depths are usually well hidden from our view. When something happens, we and other people react to that event and also to each other. We may know that something is going on between the stimulus and the response, but we usually don’t know much about what it is. We only see the reaction. We are fundamental mysteries to each other and often to ourselves. We create “brain maps” and “stories” and “assumptions” to try to get a handle on what’s going on. Sometimes we’re right, but very often we’re wrong. And when we act on our wrong assumptions, things go off the rails. Of course our own self-deceptions and the lasting impacts of previous negative experiences skew our responses even further.
This feedback dynamic between my internal world and yours – our tendency to increase or decrease the mental distance between us – is what Nees calls “the social motor”. The social motor rumbles on, generating rapport and then alienation, often operating quite out of control, tumbling us into polarization and even violence. It takes considerable mindsight to know when to “push the pause button” and get a grip on a larger perspective that can help us shift gears. Being aware of culture, gender, psychology, neuroscience, and other human dynamics can be a great help in spotting what has gone wrong and what to do about it. Connecting Hearts and Minds provides a tremendous amount of guidance in navigating the whitewater rapids of human interaction with mindfulness and empathy.
BRIDGING THE GAP
If one person’s culture, gender or upbringing tells her to maintain boundaries, to act respectful no matter what, and to focus on listening and calculating (since everyone else like her does that), and another person’s culture, gender, or upbringing tells him to get up close with other people, to assert his views and put everything out on the table (because everyone else like him does that) – and if both these people are on a corporate team or in diplomatic negotiations – the results can be quite messy. Unless, of course, they know enough – or are at least willing to be uncertain and curious – about each other’s internal worlds to recognize, tolerate, and not be triggered by their differences, so they can expand their “window of tolerance” and separate what’s really happening from their interpretations about it. With these capacities, they can reach beyond their reactivity into deeper understanding of each other and break the downward spiral of their mutual incomprehension.
Our first task (aside from developing our mindsight) is to create safety for the people around us. They have to feel that it’s OK to be the way they are when we are with them. This opens a space of trust where they can then see who we are. Our second task is to learn how to speak truth into that trusting space in a way that maintains the safety needed for the social motor to continue generating rapport, even in the presence of disagreement or discomfort.
THE HABITS OF CULTURE
When we’re in our own culture – when we’re “with our own kind” – this is much easier to do than when we find ourselves with people radically different from ourselves. Cultures have assumptions and practices relating to gender roles, to equality and hierarchy, to what behaviors are considered decent or disgusting, to the proper relationship between the individual and their group, to boundaries, and to so many other things, many of which are not at all obvious to an outsider. Nees points out that many of these assumptions and behaviors serve to create shared in-group contexts that feel safe and predictable for in-group people. However, when someone from another culture enters those contexts and behaves very differently, they generate disturbances within and among the others involved, sometimes without anyone actually knowing the cause of the upset. Each party simply assumes the other is stupid, impolite, arbitrary, barbaric, whatever. An antidote to this is, of course, to be curious, to ask questions, to learn about each other’s cultures, to get to know each other, to be aware enough to set aside our assumptions long enough to reduce the mind distance between us.
THE COMPLEXITY OF COMMUNICATION
This task is complicated by the complexity of communication itself. Everything we say (and often what we do) involves not only its actual content or topic, but also our intentions and the very different intentions others may ascribe to us. Furthermore, what we say and do – and how we say and do it – communicate things about who we think we are – and who those around us are, and what kinds of relationship we have – all of which can be understood or misunderstood by others. This problem becomes even stickier when we consider that nonverbal signals have more ancient potency than the more recently developed verbal ways of communicating. It takes skill and attention to be aware of all these simultaneous levels of shared or different meanings unfolding between and among us all. We can’t just assume that our words and behaviors mean the same thing to another person; we need to remain alert and curious. And when there seems to be a misunderstanding, we need to switch from communicating content to building trust and safety – including, where needed, practicing forgiveness and saying we’re sorry.
GETTING BEYOND COLLECTIVE INSANITY
These interpersonal dynamics can become even more potent (and disturbing!) when they scale up into forces that shape the character of whole segments of society. Our unwillingness to see the Other – people of a different sort – as fully legitimate or even human – generates profound social sickness often readily manipulated by those who have or seek social power. We find this dynamic in marginalization, oppression, war, and, in its most extreme form, genocide. The explosive formula of “us against them” is a polarizing story energized by emotions tied to identify, perhaps the most fundamental aspect of our individual and collective psyches and our sense of safety.
Antidotes to this insanity range from tolerance and empathy to an expanded “world-centric” identity (contrasted with egocentric or socio-centric identities) in which we see ourselves and other people as citizens of the world and members of the human family. Some of us might extend Nees’s broader sense of identity even further than he does, viewing ourselves and everyone else as participants in the dance of Life or as diverse faces of the Divine. In any case, all such expanded identities lead us inevitably to the moral implications of interconnectedness, the realization that “We are all in this together.”
A REALLY GOOD BOOK
I’ve tried to offer here a glimpse of at least a few highlights from the detailed landscape this book covers. But what is truly remarkable is that Nees illustrates them all with dozens of stories and backs them up with recognized authorities and research in dozens of very diverse fields. Although this book is primarily targeted at “interculturalists” who deal professionally with cross cultural interactions of all kinds – it is a veritable field day for anyone interested in dealing with any kind of difference. And that, I think, is all of us.
The review by Tom Atlee is also at Amazon: