Alternative Narratives

I was watching Bill Maher interview Maajid Nawaz the other day and was very impressed with the Quilliam Foundation he and others had founded. I will probably not do justice to the interesting and necessary work they are doing, but in essence, they are creating counter narratives to the narrative of extreme Islamism so prevalent in the world today. What resonated with me was that they recognized that directly attacking or criticizing Islamism, was not productive and in fact, echoed the communication and behavior they did not want to emulate. Instead of taking a critical approach and chastising followers, they are creating alternatives, so that people have choices away from extremism. Instead of pushing against Islamism and developing more resistance, they are leaving it where it is and building something new.

In many situations, we know that our current state of affairs may not be satisfactory and when alternatives are presented to us we want to take the alternative even if it brings with it a whole host of other difficulties. We know the suffering we have now and so we escape into this meta-narrative that promises us relief. This does not develop or generate agency in us to make critical choices about our lives. Creating alternative narratives allows us opportunities to exercise our thinking muscles and provides ways to enhance our self-esteem, as we take more control of our destinies with viable options.

Alternative narratives allow us the opportunity to make a different type of social world within which to live. We can recreate our identities as we let go of the qualifiers that spiral us down into further despair and instead, we can identify those critical moments that provide us the choices to take different paths that spiral us upwards into a more hopeful and generative space. The support of a network of others in the same struggle allows for strength in community.

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Complexity of Relationships

I was recently noticing how complex and layered relationships are, both personal and professional. I was also feeling grateful that since I have been learning and reflecting on this complexity for most of my adult life I have been privileged to encounter practices that enable me to live into this complexity with the possibility of more constructive outcomes.

In general, I believe that people want to do well, want to be in productive relationships and most of the time are doing the best they can, even if it does not feel that way when interacting with them. Workplaces can be difficult environments and unfortunately they do not always bring out the best in us. In my experience in working in organizations, in consulting to organizations and in coaching people working in organizations, there are situations that emerge in which we may not feel appreciated, we become territorial and are more defensive and protective, rather than open, trusting and collaborative. This is an unfortunate development because when we feel threatened we build walls around us and do everything we can to not feel vulnerable. I believe we need a degree of vulnerability to learn and grow individually and together.

Collaboration requires an element of trust and belief in us and in others. We need to trust that we will rise to the occasion and that others will, as well. The more we trust ourselves and each other and live into our relationships in trusting ways, the better the quality of these relationships and the more rewarding the outcomes. We have choices along the way and these are what can be considered critical moments. They are fateful in that they determine the quality of subsequent interactions. I can live into a relationship being focused only on that moment and not caring or paying attention to what happens after thinking I will deal with it when it comes. However, if I do not live into the moment in a constructive and trusting manner, I will be repairing the damage I caused by not considering “what happens next.”

The recognition that we have choices in the actions we take, how we communicate and how we behave is liberating, scary and a burden all at the same time. This sense of agency means we have some influence and control over our lives and our relationships, so why not take it?

Insider, Outsider

When working with groups there are times I am an insider because I am a member of that group, or I am an outsider because I am brought in as a third party facilitator or mediator. There are benefits and challenges to both roles.

As an insider there is a personal investment and so there is a higher emotional charge attached to any actions, interactions or decisions made. There is an in-depth wealth of knowledge from firsthand experience that can enable us to make more informed choices and decisions. At the same time it is more challenging to practice collaborative skills of engagement, such as listening to understand and not respond or refute, empathizing with the other person and being open to other perspectives and points of view.

As an outsider who is called in to work with a group, perhaps facilitating a decision making process, there is less personal investment in what the actual decision is and more a sense of responsibility for creating the space that supports the group in getting to where they need to be. The benefit of being a third party is that we can maintain our focus on the process and not get caught up emotionally in the content. The challenge is that we do not have in-depth knowledge or expertise of the content and we may not have the awareness that the group is off track from the content of what they need to make thoughtful and realistic decisions for action.

As a facilitator I am very conscious of communication and the use of language. I pay attention to the seemingly slight nuances in what people say because every word, tone and mannerism is fateful in influencing the response, the relationship and the social world the conversation partners are co-creating. This becomes increasingly challenging when I work with interpreters because the language of the communication is not my native tongue, English. I am one step removed from being able to focus on the nuances and delayed from the immediacy of experiencing the communication.

Internally, I have had to make peace with this drawback and believe that the value I add is still felt in that I am able to support people in shifting the quality of their interactions and relationships to being more positive and constructive. If I am not able to do that because the language and cultural differences are too great, then I need to have this awareness and step aside so as not to further obstruct the communication and potential relationship building.

meeting like minded people

It is not often I have the opportunity to sit with groups of people who bring their own passion and talent into a shared space with the purpose of learning and collaboration to make better worlds. I am attending the SIETAR Deutschland conference in Berlin that has as its alluring title “Global Integral Competence: Brain, Culture, Mind, System.” One main focus of the conference is to gather interculturalists to ponder and commit to action on developing cosmopolitan communication so we can create a world in which cosmopolitan culture is the norm. What do we mean by cosmopolitan communication? It implies communicating in ways that honor the other party, honor yourself, and work back and forth in the tensions between the two to arrive at mutual benefits. There isn’t one formula or path to get there, but there are some common themes that facilitate the process, such as being respectful, creating a space for exploration, creating shared meaning and understanding, respectfully disagreeing.

Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) is one such approach as it takes a communication perspective and its concepts and tools embody these qualities. When collective groups of people communicate using cosmopolitan communication we have established cosmopolitan culture because the norm of communication is cosmopolitan. This is not to say it is a utopia because there are still communication struggles that will take place and this is not to assume we can sustain cosmopolitan communication 24/7. We have habits we carry with us into any communication in which we engage and these habits pop up and interfere with us remaining cosmopolitan.

So what can we do to increase those lengths of time and frequencies that we are communicating in this higher level approach to communication? We can continually work on ourselves to develop deeper self-awareness. One way to start is to reflect on the significant influences in your life that helped shape who you are and how you see the world. You can do this with the use of the Daisy Model from CMM. Put yourself in the center and then on the petals surrounding write the significant influences that shaped who you are today and how that affected you. A second way to sharpen your perceptions is to notice three things: What are your own styles and patterns of communication? What are the styles and patterns of communication of others with whom you communicate? What are your reaction to these different styles and patterns?

The first step is to increase awareness so let’s work on that for a while. We can figure out what to do about it once we are more aware. After all, this is lifework so plenty of time.