By Tuesday Ryan Hart
In the past week, I’ve had the good fortune to engage and host several conversations specifically about working in difference. These have ranged from short conversations over dinner tables, to small workshops, to a large conference of almost 4,000 people. Working with difference is in the air, it’s on our minds, and it’s in our hearts. And we must grow our capacity to do this.
The large conference I attended was geared primarily toward People of Color, and the topic of difference, being different, noticing difference, embracing difference, singing, laughing, and shouting difference were all part of the stated intention and appeal of the conference. I heard several people say that this particular conference with other folks who were different like them was the place that they received nourishment for the rest of the year when they went out into the world of people who were different than them.
And so I thought again about our expectations and tolerance around difference and how they impact our strategic work.
I want to clarify here, that as I reference working in difference, I mean racial, gender, class, sexual orientation, and other fundamental differences that are based on the bodies we were born into, the lands were born onto, the groups we belong to, and the experiences we have had in our lives. These differences are based on historical legacies of inequity and oppression, and they all reflect and impact the futures we can expect.
I do not simply mean difference of opinion.
I think this is an easy confusion to have in strategic work, where we deeply value differences of opinion. We know that we need to have diverse stakeholders in the room, but this is often conceptualized as the need to have differences of opinion to be able to see all sides and come up with the best solution.
Though difference of opinion is valuable, the confusion comes when we believe that getting differing opinions into the room is the goal. When instead, we need different experiences, different ways of relating, different ways of understanding the world based on some of those fundamental differences mentioned above, to make the work possible. When we gather folks who are at their core different from each other, differences of opinion naturally flow and the work and solutions become more robust. Strategy is stronger. Implementation is more realistic. The work becomes better.
Transformation becomes possible.
Differing opinions don’t bring this. Difference does.
That is why we need difference in our work. And to truly invite difference in we must build our capacity to hold and host these kinds of differences. We need to deepen and explore what hosting and working with difference over time looks like. For too long we have said that we want to host processes where we hold difference well, when what we really mean is that we want people to transcend difference, resolve it, or get through it (hopefully quickly) so that we can get to work. Hosting difference well is a leadership capacity just like any other: it must be cultivated over time. It takes curiosity, perseverance, and a willingness to be uncomfortable.
Because difference is uncomfortable. Difference is edgy.
Even in the midst of almost 4,000 people last week coming together to celebrate difference, we noticed how challenging and uncomfortable it was to truly stay with difference. To notice it and not allow ourselves to collapse into a false affiliation with each other. To have agreement where it was true and to hold our differences with love and fierceness. And we knew it was important work to do together.
As long as we play in the world of different opinions, we will stay in the head and try to sway each other, win with our data, facts, or superior understanding. Or worse, try to convince each other we know the right way and that others should come along for the sake of consensus and “shared” purpose. In doing this, we undermine the work of strategy and meaningful change. When we move into the world of deep differences, we know that the goal is not to come to consensus in the way of viewing the problem or seeing the world but to feel our discomfort and edginess together and only then come to an agreement about what’s the next step to meet all of our futures.
And to do it again the next time we’re together.
Added Jan 19, 2016: Since writing this blog, I have been struck by our - my own, too! - continuing desire to “get though” difference to the other side: those places that we can agree on. I continue to believe, though, that this intent is problematic and inherently marginalizing, especially to those who haven’t had the historical power to disagree with dominant culture/worldview.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how, as sometimes the only brown face in a room, my expression of my experience of difference may or may not be palatable to the folks I’m working with. Aware of the group pressure to go along even when I know my perspective is different and valuable, I silence myself.
And I likely silence others, too, in the name of getting to those places we agree on.
But here’s the thing: there’s real work to be done, and we need all of our difference to do it. So I’m committing to more consciously step in courageously and fully in difference - with my clients and colleagues. There will likely be a few stumbles. I’ll be sure to let you know about those. Please share yours, too!