March 3, 2016 Pearson Blog: Narrative Strategies for Thinking Different and Better

By Carol S. Pearson

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I’ve been reading the gospels and thinking about Jesus’s teaching to “judge not that you be not judged” in the context of depth psychological teachings about withdrawing the projections that make us see others in the light of our own stories, rather than as they are. Many have warned of the Warrior archetype tendency to view those who think differently from us as enemies. Right now, our country seems locked in a Warrior story, which results in politicians, even of the same political party, having to attack each other to get media coverage, because it is attacks that are regarded as “the story.” Moreover, the Republican and Democratic parties more and more are treating the other as if it is the enemy and using words as weapons. And, when words are weapons, those wielding them see arguments about policies as a way to prevail and stop questioning whether what they are advocating is actually good for the country or the world. Citizens who love to follow the drama of attack after attack can fall into the trap of forgetting that what candidates are advocating have real consequences, so they also fail to take the time to make educated decisions before they cast their votes.

Living in a culture caught in a Warrior complex reinforces this story in all of us. That confronts us with the difficult task of knowing how to differentiate ourselves and our views from others without demonizing and attacking them. For example, how does a young person differentiate from his or her parents without having to make them wrong? How do we have no-fault divorces in marriages, in the workplace, and in friendship when the temptation is so strong to cast the other party as villainous and ourselves as victimized and when our stories and related values are so different that we reach an impasse?

So, here are a few strategies for healthy differentiation I’ve learned from others over the years:

  • It has been said that if a tiger is charging you, you do not have to demonize the tiger to get out of the way. The tiger is just being the tiger. So too with people. Some of them will attack you because that is just what they do. It is not necessary to demonize them to get out of their way, but it is necessary to have the discernment to recognize that a tiger is a tiger.
  • I realized early on through observing a more experienced leader that it was possible to remain civil with someone with whom you have significant values disagreements. I watched him defuse serious conflict with others just by saying calmly, “This is how we differ.” He then quite respectfully and objectively used active listening to show that he had heard his antagonist, after which he stated his view of the situation. To me, this is the “holy grail” of effective leadership. I never forgot it.
  • It often is said that when we point a finger at someone else, the rest of our fingers are pointing back at us. Those other fingers are warning us to recognize urges in ourselves similar to what we judge in others. This awareness has helped me recognize when I was not being as true to my own values as I thought I was being, calling me back to integrity. In practice, this means that I pay attention to the small ways that I am like the person who I inwardly criticize for doing similar things in much larger ways.
  • Neuroscience tells us that people are more likely to project blame onto others when they are frightened and the fight, flight, freeze response kicks in—in this case with an emphasis on fight. If we just take time to turn our attention to our breath, we can calm down, engage the cerebral cortex, and understand the views of others as information, not as an attack, even when their affect is hostile.

There also are ways that seeing a larger story can be helpful. For example, the conflict between the police and African Americans tends to be covered in the light of the Warrior story that emphasizes mutual antagonism. However, if we moved out of a Warrior story, we could see that both sides are frightened and grieving for the violent deaths of those they love. If they were to recognize how much they have in common, they could join forces to work to make currently crime-ridden neighborhoods safer. So, too, in our personal lives, we can try to get out of ourselves enough to see bigger patterns.

Zachary Greene, a colleague of mine, has written about the Women in Black as an example of moving from my story and your story to discovering the story we are in together.[1] The Women in Black are Jewish and Moslem women who grieve together for those they have lost in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and then work together for peace. I find their example to be inspiring, helping me to escape the little wars that are so easy to get into with people who just see the world differently than I do.

For example, when my husband and I argue, I remember that it is natural when living a love story to have serious disagreements. Love stories in romantic comedies always include misunderstandings that seem as if they might lead to a breakup. The happy ending comes when the couple makes up and love triumphs. If you are in a primary relationship, arguments with your partner help you reassert your individuality, so you are not swallowed up in being a couple. At the same time, knowing that you are living in a love story can help you refrain from questioning the relationship itself when you think or want one thing and your partner another. This recognition allows each of you to listen to the other. Then you can dialogue about how each of you can think what you think, and get as much of what you want as possible, without leaving the relationship. The same applies to conflict in your organization with your boss or co-workers, or your direct reports.

Remembering the values, mission, and vision of your enterprise can help you discover what larger narrative you are in together. Conflict can be defused by revealing how each of your perspectives can contribute to a “happy ending” in the situation you find yourself in, and how that situation is simply one episode in your larger shared story. There also are times, as I believe we are experiencing as a nation, when the larger shared story no longer fits current needs. In such cases, it always is good to revisit the most positive impulse in the origin of the relationship, the organization, the community, the nation, etc. In our nation’s case, that was the belief in everyone’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” If you agree with me that this was our founding impulse, you can then become curious about what each political party, each citizen, and each sector can contribute to realizing this dream.

Thought questions:

  • Who and what are you tempted to be judgmental about? Is there something in what they are doing that frightens you? How might you stand your ground and stay true to yourself without making them wrong?
  • Is there anywhere in your life that you feel attacked by others or that you are being pulled into a “let’s fight” mode when you would rather just get along? How might you find a shared origin story, or larger story, that helps you move out of that mode of relating?
  • What larger stories can you notice that you are playing a part in—in your personal relationships, at work, or as a citizen? What narratives inspire and light you up, giving you hope and the energy to be a positive force in the world?

I would love to hear whatever responses you would like to share.

[1] See Carol S. Pearson, The Transforming Leader