This is not at all the world we wanted to leave to our children. A world of radical polarization split along lines of politics and economics, race and faith. A world that feels like we’re dancing closer every day to the brink of collapse. From Supreme Court appointments to the pandemic, protests to wildfires, people are taking sides and digging in their heels.
As Pulitzer Prize winning author, Tom Friedman said recently, “We live in alternative information ecosystems.” Inside our ecosystem, we speak and hear opinions as facts, reject contrary views, and babble our tribe’s beliefs, masqueraded as truth, in the echo chamber of our social networks. Listening exclusively to either one soundtrack or the other is destroying our ability to communicate with each other.
If we don’t figure out how to communicate across our divides soon, how long can America really survive? For that matter, how long can humanity survive?
As much as people disagree on many issues, there is one point on which we all agree. We are not aligned. And so that is where we must begin.
We used to rely on broadcasts of the six o’clock network news to curate a “consensus reality” for us. Now the job of curating reality is ours. The problem is it’s nearly impossible these days to take in the lightning fast flow of conflicting information coming at us, apply critical thinking, and then communicate effectively. That’s why many people, ourselves included, are sticking more and more with the familiar stories and comfortable conversations that take place within our “tribe”.
Admittedly, human beings are tribal creatures. We have lived and worked in groups, adapting to environmental changes as they occurred, for ages. When we felt afraid, we’d seek safety by aligning with our tribe. We’d pull back and zoom in on the ideas and beliefs we shared and already knew. For millennia, this approach worked: our tribes protected us from harm and allowed us to thrive. Today, not so much. We are no longer playing to thrive. We are playing to survive.
Instead of zooming in, we need to be zooming out.
This is not the time to rely on what behavioral economists call “fast thinking”, that read-the-headlines sense making that creates coherence through simple causality, however spurious. If we are to avert devolving into a dystopian future of constantly warring tribes clinging to their humanity, this is the time to align across our tribes and take action together.
And yet, it doesn’t appear as though we want to align. We are each attached to our perspectives and narratives, our beliefs and opinions. Our “truths”. That attachment has us assume that it has to be either your tribe’s perspective or mine, your narrative or mine, your beliefs or mine, your opinions or mine. That reductionistic thinking culminates in the “you or me” soundtrack at the heart of every divide in America and every divide in the world.
This “or” soundtrack stops us from zooming out.
When faced with complex reality, our fast thinking swings into action to draw a conclusion from the available data. The more coherent the data and the interpretation, the more confident we are. Cognitive scientists tell us it is a hard-wired fascination with coherence that makes us prefer one side or another, one story or another. Coherence is a very powerful property. It is what gives a laser its power, a narrative its punch, a person integrity. It should come as no surprise then that, once we have been captured by a coherent narrative, we are far less likely to listen to another perspective. Unfortunately, simple predictions drawn from coherent data and conclusions, while popular, are more likely to be inaccurate.1 Sticking with coherence and its cousin, absolutist cause-and-effect thinking, leaves us open to being blindsided by that which we cannot see.
Our children’s future depends on “and”. That future is only possible if we all commit at the outset to alignment, to empowering multiple expert opinions, and to playing by the same rules.
“And” has us zoom out so that we can see, engage with, and entertain multiple tribal perspectives simultaneously. You share what you see is happening from your tribe’s perspective. I share what I see from mine. And then we can each see what we have not yet seen. When we listen and speak from “and”, we can do away with babbling. We can disagree and still align. We can come together and find our common values. We can collectively cut through complexity and navigate through the mess we are all in to arrive at a safer, more sustainable existence.
Oakland, ranked in our nation’s top 10 most dangerous cities for four decades, proves that listening generously to people outside your tribe works. Between 2012 and 2018, the community cut annual shootings and homicides in half.2 Rather than debate changes to police funding or gun control legislation, Oakland’s stakeholder groups—law enforcement officers, city leaders, social service groups, school districts, probation departments, public health, and community partners—aligned on addressing the roots, not the symptoms, of gun violence.
Police listened to community volunteers teach them about the principles of procedural justice and what it’s like to be on the receiving end of heavy-handed force. A handful of faith-based activists powered up the city’s existing violence reduction efforts by getting a group of multi-faith and community leaders to align on being part of the solution to the problem. This racially diverse group of leaders enrolled yet others—community members, police officers, social service providers and victims of violence—in communicating directly with the 0.1% of the city’s population at highest risk for engaging in serious violence. Everyone collaborated to clear the path for these at-risk adults to access intensive mentoring, training, and support.
What made this approach work was that all stakeholders shared a commitment to creating a safer place in which everyone could live and work. In this, along with other common human concerns), we are all more alike than we might care to admit.
The world our children inherits depends on what each of us do every day to face the inconvenient truths and address the real problems that are in front of all of us.
So do we stop arguing our positions and start listening generously to each other? Do we get curious about what concerns and values we might share? Do we commit to co-creating the future? Do we fully embrace the “and” soundtrack?
As our friend world-renowned cellist Michael Fitzpatrick says, “Change the soundtrack, change the future.”
Mark Thompson, CEO of Dialog Group, is an expert in ecosystems thinking, technology solutions, business development and marketing; Shae Hadden, CEO of Blue Pearl Works. is a transformational writer, executive coach and singer; and Vince DiBianca, founding partner of DiBianca Associates and pioneer in introducing transformational thinking into business, works with leaders on game-changing initiatives.
1 Multi-decade longitudinal studies across multiple disciplines show complex and cautious predictions drawn from multiple sources trounce simple and confident. See Dan Gardner’s Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail and Why We Believe Them Anyway (2010: McLelland & Stewart), p. 27.
2 From 126 to 68 homicides and 561 non-fatal shootings to 277. See Mike McLively and Brittany Nieto’s “A Case Study in Hope: Lesson from Oakland’s Remarkable Reduction in Gun Violence” (April 2019: Giffords Law Center, Faith in Action, and BBGVPC), p. 5. Accessed September 11, 2020.