Not All Differences Are the Same
It is easy to say we should use our diversity
creatively. It is less easy to actually do it. We soon
discover that some differences are more resistant to creative
use than others.
With our different life stories, all we need is the
willingness to share, to openly give and receive. There's no "mutually
exclusive" energy inherent in them, so we can just let them
bubble up and flow among us, yielding quite naturally whatever
they have to offer. Sharing stories of our different experiences
of life (including what just happened) may be the most powerful,
readily available, universally applicable tool we have for transforming
discord into understanding.
With different cognitive styles, personality structures,
modes of learning, etc., we need a practical understanding
of what they are, the unique strengths and weaknesses of each
variety, how they relate to each other, and how they can augment,
stimulate or undermine each other. With this kind of wisdom, we
can arrange things to get synergy sparking among us.
Different interests, needs, information and perspectives
may require specialized tools if we wish to dig into them for
deeper insight or to integrate them to discover larger coherences
and commonalities. A holistic perspective helps (because it assumes
that there are always bigger, deeper realities to access), but
it also helps to have specific techniques that smooth and speed
our discovery of the bigger picture.
One approach offered by Jack Recht in his "Co-Creative
Process" is to get all such differences out into the open
as soon as possible, just listing them. Then the differences are
sorted into three categories, each with its own handling.
- Complementary differences can usually be implemented
- Differences that are "just differences"
get prioritized or divided up in some way that allows them all
to get dealt with in a reasonable way.
- Conflicting differences get submitted to some form
of mediation or conflict resolution.
For many of us it is particularly hard to share different
cultures or deep feelings. It can require special effort to
reach out with interest, curiousity and appreciation. It may also
require a special shared language or safe environment, a certain
amount of humility and a tolerance for ambiguity. But none of
this need involve much expertise beyond masterful listening. We're
repaid for such efforts with powerful interpersonal or intergroup
Differences like those above are potential resources readily
usable by our collective
intelligence as we learn to deal with our shared circumstances.
However, the differences that follow can feel more like
obstacles to collective intelligence.
The first one sits right on the edge between resource and problem:
What do we do when we discover basic differences in
our values, realities or missions, such that each perspective
is valid within its own frame of reference but they're mutually
exclusive together? I once watched a group of pro-choice women
working against nuclear war discover that their staunchest Congressional
anti-nuclear ally was a pro-life Catholic. They not only could
not agree whether to support him for reelection, they could barely
listen to each other, so high were their emotions.
In such extreme cases of different perspective, we face real
challenges. To the extent we share at least a value of tolerance
(and often other values), we may find we can agree to differ or
set aside our differences while we search for new common ground.
In deep and abiding differences, however, we may find our group
splitting. Most groups resist such splits -- or else break apart
in rancor. A seldom-used option is to actually facilititate the
split in a spirit of good will and helpfulness, and then look
for ways to build community or coalition between the new groups
created by the split.
Finally we come to differences that are not just differences,
but serious dysfunctions. In the absence of truly masterful
handling or a powerfully co-intelligent group culture, these dysfunctions
tend to either dominate or unravel the group. These include:
- firmly held, mutually-exclusive and antagonistic positions
-- especially intractable disagreements about how to deal
- ego investments;
- vested interests and intentionally hidden agendas;
- many insanities, addictions and other seriously dysfunctional
- institutionalized, historical or compulsive hatreds or fears;
- institutionalized, historical, compulsive or severely oppressive
patterns of relationship (dominator/victim; win/lose)
The differences mentioned earlier differ from
these actual dysfunctions in that the former, if addressed creatively
or at least moderately well, can actually help the group achieve
its objectives. The dysfunctional differences described in the
list above, however, do little but hinder task achievement and
need to be overcome before progress can be made. They seldom respond
readily to reason, good will, good listening or simple know-how
(although particularly potent forms of love and deep listening
can have remarkable impact). Real dysfunctions like this require
special wisdom and skill to work through. Their only potential
contribution lies in how much wiser or more bonded a group may
become if it survives the process of working through them
or overcoming them.
Since synergizing any diversity requires time and attention,
diversity in general is often seen as a barrier to task-oriented
work. This perception is usually mistaken. In this last category
of differences, however, this perception is often quite accurate:
These differences are barriers, more often than not. To
the extent we need to accomplish a specific task, we'll need to
minimize, eliminate or transcend these dysfunctions. The most
simple tools, of course, are the exclusion of such differences
from group activities or the exclusion of people who manifest
them, temporarily or permanently. We can do this from within the
group or we can appeal to a higher authority (like mommy or the
BUT: All exclusion, however necessary for the survival and
functioning of a group, is an admission that we are not big, wise
or competent enough to embrace our full diversity, our complete
wholeness. Whenever we exclude (or blame) part of ourselves, individually
or collectively, we disown responsibility for that part, as if
the rest of us had nothing to do with how things came to be the
way they are. Our disavowal gives the disowned behavior all the
power it needs to reappear again someday, often over and over.
Habitual exclusion of parts of ourselves creates a "shadow,"
a dark side that we don't want to think or talk about. The psychological
or cultural force required to repress our dark side will, to a
surprisingly exact degree, undermine our individual and collective
intelligence. Exclusion may be effective in the short term, but
it always carries a long-term cost.
The only long-term solution is psychological/spiritual healing
(wholeness-making), both of individuals and the group, starting
with an acknowledgment that we do have a dark side -- all of us,
individually and collectively. To the extent healing is successful,
it frees up co-intelligence.
Unfortunately, this can take a commitment of time and attention
that many of us are unwilling or unable to invest.
In summary, my point is not that "it is wrong to exclude,"
but rather that exclusion can only be temporarily successful and
that we should be mindful of its implications about us and our
future. After all, the vast majority of exclusion that is done
in this world is not done to handle dysfunction, but to distance
ourselves from whatever we find uncomfortable, unfamiliar, distasteful
or challenging. When that's our motivation, we can't help but
exclude valuable diversity. So exclusion often turns itself
into a dysfunctional obstacle to co-intelligence.
The use of domination and exclusion can only be considered
wise when it is used mindfully as a stop-gap measure, followed
by efforts to heal and to change the group's relationships, procedures
and structures to nurture more positive behaviors, not just to
stop unwanted behaviors.
In short, we need to allow ourselves to exclude dysfunctional
differences temporarily in order to complete our current business
-- all the while acknowledging the risks of doing that. This is
the proper role of temporary denial, politeness, repression, "tabling"
conflicts for later, etc.
To the extent all of us in a group or community share a culture
of trust, respect, partnership and an ethic of learning and evolution,
we'll be able to transform differences into creative resources
for our collective intelligence. So it remains true that an important
test of our co-intelligence is our ability to realize that understanding
Ten strategies for dealing
Diversity is as big as the