By Jennifer Horn-Frasier and Holly Adams
Jennifer: I’ve been thinking a lot about the complex problems we citizens of the world face today, the ones that have no easy, obvious solution. We read news stories about the tussling and political theatrics involved in hammering out critically needed legislation. We watch climate activists express distress and frustration at a lack of progress on climate policy and action. We hear the hollering around issues such as immigration and social justice. These are big, big issues that we ignore at our peril.
Compounding the challenge is the fact that media outlets love covering conflict and drama.
It’s profitable to stir up anger and fear. This creates a perception of chaos and a sense of mistrust. Craving order and clarity, people seek comfort in messages that reinforce their views, which means they are less likely to talk to people who don’t hold the same views or who, worse yet, might challenge their views.
But what if there was a way out of the fear mongering and echo chamber? I’m an optimist and a practitioner of Strategic Doing, so my answer is: We need to have more conversations.
Seriously. We need to actually talk with one another. We need to speak our thoughts and listen to each other’s thoughts.
The only way complex problems are solved is through deep conversation among people of diverse perspectives, expertise, and experience. Deep conversation allows people to share what they know so that individual knowledge becomes shared knowledge. Shared knowledge can become applied in novel ways, which in turn produces pieces of the solutions for complex problems.
There is nothing quite so energizing as being in the room where knowledge and ideas are being connected and turned into solutions. Whether it’s debating a colleague’s idea for a new economic development effort or gathering community members to envision ways to help high school students tackle social justice, engaging diverse people in deep, focused conversation is the most effective way to develop solutions.
Of course, deep and focused conversations don’t happen by chance. This is good news, because it means that there are steps we can take to make sure they happen and that they happen more often.
First, create and maintain expectations for what Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School calls team psychological safety, which provides team members with a sense of safety when speaking out. You can achieve this by focusing on shared learning rather than specific outcomes and by asking questions, listening carefully, and contributing meaningfully to the conversation. It also helps to consider the physical location of the conversation; it’s best to talk in a neutral location that is accessible and welcoming to all participants.
Second, use ground rules to ensure that everyone has equity of voice, which means that each person speaks for roughly the same amount of time. Research from the National Science Foundation shows that this practice leads to improved collaboration among group members.
Psychological safety and equity of voice work together to help group members develop trust. Once trust among group members is created, then the true work of addressing and solving complex problems can happen.
Take a moment to visualize how this happens: Did you know that the Founders set rules of civility for America’s 1787 Constitutional Convention? One rule required members to actively listen to those whose turn it was to speak. Another specified how the group would ensure that everyone gathered would have a chance to speak. Adhering to these rules helped the 55 delegates, who held a wide range of views (often ones that clashed), produce the Constitution, an astounding feat.
Can you imagine the Constitutional Convention taking place in today’s contentious political environment? Neither can I. Now imagine how current elected officials could improve the odds of a successful legislative outcome by teaching and practicing psychological safety and equity of voice. Wow! What a difference it would make.
Are you currently part of a group wrestling with a tough problem? Could these practices make a difference in reaching your desired outcome?
Holly: I’m totally in agreement with what Jennifer is saying. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. But if we can use some ground rules (psychological safety and equity of voice) to create trust between opposing sides, we’re on the right track to bringing back sanity and social progress into our lives, no matter where we stand.
Trust is an integral part of Strategic Grit™. When we use strategic grit to solve big problems, we have to be ready to experiment with different iterations, and we have to trust ourselves and our process. We can’t be fixated on failure because failure is required for growth; it’s the only way we know for sure what will and what won’t work.
Judith E. Glaser, author of Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results, says it well:
To get to the next level of greatness depends on the quality of our culture, which depends in the quality of our relationships, which depends on the quality of our conversations. Everything happens through conversations!
So yes, Jennifer. We need to have conversations. Real dialogue. Meaningful exchanges. And physically/neurologically, we cannot have deep conversations if our brains are in a state of fear. Fear triggers our amygdala. Think: fight, flight, freeze, or appease. As Glaser explains, we need to move on the Conversational Dashboard™ from Level 1 (amygdala engagement, which focuses on self-protection), through Level 2 (limbic engagement to begin regulating emotional response), and on to Level 3 (prefrontal cortex engagement to allow openness and flexibility in thinking). When we aren’t fearful, we have the greatest capacity for strategic thinking (and doing!) and collaborating to find creative solutions.
As an illustration, my most important personal and professional relationships are built on trust. Good things come out of these relationships because when I engage with people I trust, I don’t have to filter my thoughts or be concerned about whether my well-being is being somehow threatened. There is a shared understanding that we are willing to do what it takes for the “greater good,” there is no ego involved (no winner/loser), and there is a respect for what each person contributes to the conversation, even if there’s no agreement.
Our brain needs to be out of fight/flight/freeze/appease mode in order to trust and, in turn, to engage in true dialogue to solve complex problems. When trust is lacking, our ego will try to limit our engagement to protect us from feeling stupid or otherwise threatened. We’ll waste energy on filtering our thoughts, over-analyze before sharing anything, and generally cause the process to be extremely inefficient. This is a clear indication we lack psychological safety.
To make it work, we need a basic level of self-awareness. Are we modelling the behaviors of trust that we expect from others? Trust is a two-way street, so if we want people to trust us, we have to trust them. And during a prolonged conversation about a difficult topic, maintaining this trust is going to create some uncomfortable feelings, so we’re going to need persistence, aka strategic grit. If we don’t persist, we’re likely to end up with a solution that’s only slightly better than status quo, or we might even quit. Instead, we must find motivation in our discomfort.
When I look at what’s happening in our world right now, I believe many of us lack strategic grit. We let our emotions control us and we leave the room as soon as we are confronted with an idea that doesn’t match with our own. We squirm at the discomfort of knowing that our views cut us off from others, even those we love, but we can’t summon enough grit to simply listen. Our emotions rule our lives and as a result, we can feel isolated and miserable. Out-of-control emotions limit our creativity and problem-solving abilities and make us vulnerable to egotistical thoughts and actions. I think it’s safe to say there’s not a lot of psychological safety in our world right now, and that hurts us all.
But it doesn’t have to stay that way. Wouldn’t it be exciting—and powerful—if we all took even the smallest steps toward building trust?
Putting it together: The tools we’re recommending—psychological safety, equity of voice, and persistence to listen to others without prejudice—could help you and your organization, or even your family, to find connection and common ground.
The bottom line is that most of us in are a place we’ve never been in before. We don’t know what the future holds. Trust = confidence and results when it comes to the problem-solving process. And we’ve got a lot of problems that need creative and innovative solutions.
Our challenge for you today is this: Take a chance on a conversation with someone different. See what unexpected ideas emerge.
About Holly: Holly works with individuals and teams to help them forge and refine purposeful leadership and authentic collaboration as they navigate planned routes and unexpected detours. She is a certified Human Resources Professional and Mental Toughness Trainer. Learn more at https://hollyadamsconsulting.com/.
About Jennifer: Jennifer helps businesses, nonprofits, community coalitions, and governmental entities with strategic evolution: tackling complex problems, determining strategic direction, and developing a discipline of action to create a new future. She is a Certified Strategic Doing Workshop Leader. Learn more at http://bluebirdskysolutions.com/.
About Strategic Grit™: Strategic Grit was born of the lessons (sometimes painful, sometimes joyful) we learned thanks to pandemic times. We learned some of these lessons on our own through research, study, and personal experience; others we learned through our work with clients. But the theme that stands out is this: Those best equipped to ride out tumultuous times are agile, persistent, and forward-thinking. These are people and organizations with Strategic Grit, a resilience that is not random but planned, effective, and durable.