Monday, March 1, 2010


Why I love Twitter:
every time i see sarah palin speak i despise her more and more for her ignorant, half-formed ultra-reactionary received wisdoms"

Let's start with a statement of the blindingly obvious: this is not an analysis of Sarah Palin, her works, plans or values. Marcus doesn't seem to be  trying to convince anyone. He is simply stating his values here: his opinion.

Why do we do this? 
1.     We nail our colours to the mast as a rallying point for the right-minded to gather at
2.     We reaffirm and reinforce the core beliefs of the right-minded
1.     the values that bind us  together
2.     our view of how the world works
3.     our interpretation of the data and
4.     our assessment of what is important and
5.     our assessment of what is true
3.     We reaffirm and reinforce our own identities
Powerful reasons.

But, deep down, we know the catch, don't we? As we reinforce the beliefs of the right minded and bind them to our own identities, we devalue the beliefs of the wrong headed. (The Astute Reader will have noticed that I am using "right minded" and "wrong headed" rather loosely. "In-group" and "out-group" would be more clinically accurate.) We blind ourselves to the  data that doesn't fit our story. 

And the wrong-headed quickly become the enemy.

We find ourselves in a feedback loop. Having an external threat helps to rally people around the core, sacrificing self interest and inconvenient details of governance. So it is clearly good for the leaders to encourage this feeling of threat. From the outside, it appeared that Osama bin Laden and Donald Rumsfeld were mutually benefiting from their exchanges of threats. It's a win-win for the power-hungry on each side. 

Less so for the bombers and the bombed, of course.

On a less exalted scale, a team that fails to engage fully with the world outside may never know that it has fallen by the wayside until it is too late. This often shows up as a focus on internal politics rather than real external competition and customers. The Department in John le Carre's The Looking Glass War  is a fine example. The British motor industry in the 1970s is another.

The real competition is NOT the same as the wrong headed. The wrong headed could be any group that has a different view from the right minded. Remember, these groups form to reinforce the values of their members. The values of the workers and the management in a single firm may be much further apart than the values of the management of that firm and its most bitter competitor. 

The same principle holds true for any external challenge. We tend to confuse the statements of belief with fact. We all know that Gordon Brown ran up record debt in the good times and was unable to  respond when the crisis hit. We know this because we read it in the press and because we want someone to blame for the economic crisis. It fits and supports a powerful and satisfying narrative. It doesn't matter how many times government ministers bleat the actual statistics (that the government had paid back 1/6 of the debt they inherited before they started intervention in the economy in late 2007 / early 2008): they don't fit the story, so they don't get heard.

But what if we want to fix the external problem rather than our own reputations and personal insecurities? Then we need to build mutual understanding. This is usually difficult, for a number of reasons:
  • we see our position as right and theirs as wrong
  • we are blind to gaps in our data
  • we focus on blaming them for their errors rather than on understanding the different contributions made by each of the players. (Hint: it's hard to change your own behaviour, but much harder to changes someone else's. )
Anyone who has read the work of the Harvard Negotiation Project will recognise this language. Their book, "Difficult Conversations" (Stone, Patton, Heeler) lays out a very clear map of the problems common to all really difficult conversations (good title, eh?). And, of course, suggests proven strategies to overcome the problems. And explains why these strategies are hard to implement and gives solid, practical guidance. THe editorial review from The Author gives a good idea of the substance of the book, if you are seriously considering not buying it.

Start by levelling the playing field in your own head. If you don't have a spare lifetime to experience the world as "they" see it, try stating your viewpoint in tabloid headlines. Stand back, compare and contrast. You will automatically start arguing "yes, but..." to explain that real life is richer and more complex than the headline implies. Try and apply the same arguments to their headline. 

Then you can start a real discussion to understand the whole problem. If you're really lucky, you might even start to solve it. Together.