I, as do all my Learning Consortium colleagues, seek to help people connect with each other through genuine conversation: speaking fearlessly, and listening attentively and with respect. I recently had an experience that showed once more that this is so very necessary and eminently possible, even when the individuals involved come from all strata of society, or business.
Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands joined a dialogue group in a village in the southern part of The Netherlands. She had heard, from the Queen’s representative in the province of Brabant, about the stimulating discussions which had been conducted there around the tensions created locally by the massive livestock farms and sheds.
There we sat rather stiffly with the Queen at our table, and with the Queen’s representative and with her lady-in-waiting and her chamberlain. The ice was broken swiftly, however. When I said that it was out custom to open discussions by reading a poem she spontaneously asked whose poem it was.
The members of the group (citizens, farmers and local community officials) had prepared themselves well with a number of questions which I had sent to them, but I offered the Queen the opportunity to ask her questions and express her wishes concerning the discussion first. She had many questions! And they were good questions, because she had studied the reports of previous discussions well. A spontaneous discussion followed. I did not have to do more than ensure that each of the different groups of stakeholders could speak freely. Nobody attacked anyone else. Everyone spoke in a civilised manner, with a pronounced local accent. The Queen exhibited a strong personal involvement with the lives of the citizens in this agricultural community.
Protocol dictated that the Queen would indicate when the discussion had to be ended. But after 45 minutes, 15 minutes later than planned, I had to signal that we really had to close things down.
We all saw her again later during a reception in the town hall. Once again, she took the opportunity to engage the group in discussion. It was heart-warming to see how the ten stood, shoulder to shoulder, in a circle around the Queen and continued their exchange of views in a very open manner.
Many of us have been confronted with that question at some point, maybe even recently. The question often leads to some confusion. Sometimes we can’t think of an immediate answer. However, generally we think of something plausible and offer an explanation of sorts, and then in the form that can best be called a rationalisation. An honest answer would often be: “I don’t know!”
Neuroscience and psychological research suggest a fascinating if sometimes troubling alternative: we do not (consciously) know why we do or say certain things, or make certain decisions. Decisions to do or say things are created in the subconscious mind, to which we have no direct access. In other words, no matter how self-aware we may think we are and no matter how skilled we are in interpersonal behavioural skills we sometimes say and do things, which are hurtful or puzzling to others. How often have you thought to yourself, “I don’t know what got into me?” or “I was beside myself”?
Who is the “me” that something got into? Who or what is the “self” that I was beside? Recent research has not offered a quick answer, but it raises interesting questions.
In one apparently simple experiment, a subject was placed in a brain scanner and told to press one of two buttons, one of which he held in his left hand and the other in his right hand. He just had to make the decision and immediately push whichever button he liked. Surprise: the person watching the brain scan knew a full six seconds before a button was pushed which one it was going to be! So who or what ‘decided’?
There are a number of good books about neuroscience, like David Eagleman’s Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. BBC’s ‘Horizon’ programme has run several fascinating documentaries, available on YouTube, like “What makes us good or evil?” The field may be a scary one to get into, but it can lead to a better understanding of what we like to call our ‘self’, and a more compassionate understanding and acceptance of others – and their sometimes strange behaviour. The ‘buttons’ that we sometimes push, or get pushed, are deeply buried.
I recently facilitated a dialogue between Q fever patients and goat keepers. It was a rewarding and also an extremely emotional session.
The lives of many Q fever patients had been devastated because they had the misfortune of contracting a serious illness while walking or cycling past a goat farm. But the lives of the goat keepers had also taken a dramatic turn. Though they had taken all the measures required by government agencies, their goats had fallen ill, and had infected innocent passers-by. In many cases the farmers had been required to destroy half their goats.
In spite of the charged atmosphere and the strong emotions on both sides, a splendid discussion developed.
During the preparation, and following a series of interviews with both sides, I selected two cases in which either a patient or a farmer had found him- or herself placed in a difficult situation. The patient was, with difficulty, able to work only two or three hours a day. When he prepared to go home at the end of his few hours at work, his colleagues sneered at him, remarking with some sarcasm at the fact that he could go home to sit in the garden while they had to continue working. The goat keeper had recently organised a third meeting with worried neighbours in her own living room. During that meeting the mayor and a representative of health services had confirmed that the farmer had done everything by the book. Nevertheless, as the meeting broke up, a visitor bitterly accused the farmer of gross negligence.
In the course of the dialogue I invited the parties to put themselves in the other’s position. What would they feel, think and do in such a circumstance? This resulted in an extremely moving discussion which was experienced by all as very healing. ‘Healing’ because of the new awareness of, and acknowledgement of the other ‘side’. There was a sense of being heard and understood, and a ‘connection’ was established between all the individuals, from both sides. ‘Healing’ also because the dialogue permitted all those present to connect quietly, and at the same time intensely, with their own feelings.
Listening carefully, empathizing with the ‘other side’ and sharing deeply felt feelings resulted in ‘connections’ where these had previously been impossible.
Making personal connections with colleagues is a necessity if you wish to influence them in a positive manner; hence also the title of our book, “Making Connections”. There is an additional reason however, as discussed in an article by Phyllis Korkki in the New York Times. Research has shown that there are a great many lonely people in organisations. This carries with it a great cost to both the individuals concerned, and the organisations in which they work.
Connecting to lonely people