D is for Dance from Seth Godin’s grownup ABC book. “Dance with the resistance!” is one of the key highlights for me. “Dance with the resistance” to me means to be open to ideas that are seemingly conflicting or contrary with your own thoughts and convictions. Many years ago, I primarily saw “issues”, “black & white”, “right way and wrong way”. Lately I have been seeing more of “people”, “situations”, and “feelings.” I also am more aware than ever of my capacity to be wrong, and that challenging my beliefs make the proper convictions stronger, and quickly eliminates the areas where I may have been wrong, or not seen things in the proper perspective.
There are many reasons for my surprising shift in attitude over the years. I have been in management and project management for decades now, primarily in the technical field, but also outside of that sphere. I am continually amazed at how difficult it is to achieve shared understanding between people on the same team; and even more surprising, how difficult it is to realize that you do not have shared understanding when you think you do. A conversation may go like this. “Hey Bill, we had to make the decision to stop doing ‘B’ and go with ‘A’. Please direct your team accordingly. We all need to stop working on ‘B’ and start working on ‘A’ immediately.” Bill would repeat it back, “OK, so, stop working on ‘B’ and start working on ‘A’, immediately.” I would confirm, and even send a follow up email to reiterate the main points. Three days later I would pass Bill in the hall. “Hey Bill, how is ‘A’ coming along” To which, Bill would laugh out loud and reply, “Hey Bob, that’s funny! You mean how is ‘B’ coming along! Remember the conversation we had a few days ago?”
Things would of course escalate from there. I would produce the email I sent and print it out. Bill would argue vehemently that I was mistaken. That my email clearly said to keep doing ‘B’. The rare instances where I would actually have the care and patience required to really dig in and figure out what was going on, it would ALWAYS end up being related to a super huge difference in perspective and experience. While we were saying the same things, each of our brains were interpreting what was said completely differently based on our current attitudes, beliefs, convictions, and context. Before I can have a meaningful dialogue with anyone and hope to come to a point of mutual understanding of a particular issue or topic, I need to walk a mile in their shoes. I have to understand where they are coming from, what their context is, what their perspective is.
I eventually started to apply this in other areas of my life. There were many people in my life whom I really respected and liked, that had some radically opposing views from me on various topics from poverty to gay marriage to abortion to war, capital punishment, you name it. I would think to myself, and sometimes say out loud, how could you possibly believe that, or think that? Don’t you have any common sense? Well, as it turns out, when I started taking the time to try to understand WHY individuals believe what they believe, it would begin to make more sense. When I understood their context, their perspective, their history, their passions, their hurts, their dreams, it was much easier to understand their positions on various issues.
Understanding someone’s perspective doesn’t always mean I completely change my opinions on a particular issue, but it does mean that I can respect, and understand why someone may think the opposite. I can believe that they are still a good person, and, may very well be a better person than me, even though they hold different beliefs. My new perspective has had the unintended consequence of making me a much better person. I am more clearly able to articulate the things I do stand for. I am able to be heard and understood more thoroughly by people I may disagree with. I now, at a minimum, know that I SHOULD be trying to get to the person, the experience before I get into the issue. I am not always able to execute on that, but at least I am now willing to admit that I was wrong, ask for grace, and strive for understanding on a peer to peer, respect basis.
You cannot achieve mutual understanding with someone through a passing conversation. You have to experience a much deeper connection over a longer period of time. You have to “dance” with them as it were. Look into their eyes, understand how they feel, where they are coming from. Not in a romantic, creepy sense but in an abstract sense. The feminine side of me that has been developing over the last 20+ years of marriage and raising several daughters can really appreciate the dancing metaphor when it comes to mutual understanding. The male side, not so much…