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Listening and Learning to Navigate Tough Work and Social Groups

An expert interview on how to stay oriented toward constructive conversations.

Key points

  • When we focus on how we are right, we immediately shut down possibilities to learn and listen.
  • Asking "How are they right?" is a game-changing question that opens us to valuable if difficult insights.
  • Leadership is crucial for this to happen in the broad political and social landscape.
  • Our society is facing challenges that present opportunities to improve our capacity to relate and succeed.

I recently read Finding a Place to Stand: Developing Self-Reflective Institutions, Leaders, and Citizens, by Edward R. Shapiro, M.D. ​​Feeling that he had so much worth sharing, I reached out to the author, who kindly agreed to an interview. This is the second of two posts. You can find the first here.

When we are working with other people, from significant others to family groups, to professional teams and other social systems, it's easy to focus on how we are right and how they are wrong. A simple reframe, asking ourselves, "How are they right?", can turn a fight into an opportunity for connection, collaboration, and learning. Asking how the other person is right completely changes the way we listen, from defensive to receptive.

Working in groups and social systems: How are they right?

GHB: What does taking a system perspective do for us?

ERS: Realizing that groups can get caught up in irrational behavior helps us, as individuals, to develop the capacity of participant-observer. We can stand back a bit, take our feelings seriously, and notice when the group isn’t focusing on the task at hand. That recognition might allow us to risk taking up leadership by speaking to the group’s excessive dependency, helping to slow down a fight or flight, or recognizing our withdrawal and overcoming it when the group idealizes other members.

The systems perspective also allows us to listen better to pressures on the outer boundary of the organization. For example, regulatory agencies, government, and competing institutions serve as feedback from the larger society about our institutions’ work. We don’t just have to fight or surrender to these pressures; we might listen more carefully to what they are saying and learn from them. Adapting our missions to the world as it exists is a response to these pressures, making it more likely that we will succeed.

It is so easy to see how “the other” is wrong: too rigid, too punitive, using the wrong information. It privileges us and devalues them. Listening for how the other is right is difficult but not impossible. Seeing systems in interaction increases the possibility of discovering congruence between their missions and ours, improving the chances for negotiation.

GHB: What happens to an individual in a complex world?

ERS: As individuals, we are bombarded with stimuli from social media, increasingly rapid social and technological change, and transformations of previously recognizable family and gender structures. At the same time, the institutions that we used to depend on—religion, health care, education, and government—are less dependable. The search for stable solutions, simple answers, and seemingly coherent ways to understand a complex world has led many of us to turn to autocrats who, by insisting on their unique strength, offer simple solutions. Holding onto the complexities of our actual world requires individuals who can learn from others, take up leadership roles, and connect shared humanistic values with work.

Finding our various groups in our minds and joining them more fully can help in overcoming isolation and disengagement. When we are working with others around a shared task, we learn from different perspectives and have a better chance to grasp rapid change. We can find ways to adapt our organizations to outside pressures without losing our missions and use that mission focus to develop a shared picture of our rapidly changing world.

GHB: What are other lenses people can use to help navigate emerging realities?

ERS: I think it is important for us to pay attention to what we represent. Our current social scene emphasizes our differences (gender, race, ethnicity, religion); it affects our politics.

An individual without a group is lost.

As individuals, we might think that we know who we are. But others may perceive us in ways we might not recognize.

A young black woman once said to me, “When you speak, my mind goes blank.” She made it clear it had nothing to do with what I was saying, just what I represented to her: a tall, white successful American man—and the history of slavery. I resisted that representation, but once I let it in (“How is she right?”), I had a more complex sense of how I might take up my citizen role in a country struggling with a painful history.

Donald Trump has become powerful because he represents himself as an idealized, fighting figure to those who need to depend on someone who says, “Only I can fix it”. And Joe Biden is struggling to the extent that the Boomer generation that he represents is fading away. Yet he also represents the post-World War II generation that recognized the need to stand up for shared values in a world that had placed them under attack. That attack persists today.

Our polarized political life turns people across differences into “the other”. Yet, across political differences, people have similar values. Joining institutions with missions that stand for those values and address the needs of society can help turn “the other” into “one of us”.

GHB: Where do you think things are headed? Will people be able to rise to the challenge?

ERS: Many around the world are worried about the implications of the upcoming American presidential election. The choice of leadership in the United States can have far-reaching consequences globally. Authoritarian leadership, while simplifying a complex world, often does so irrationally. I am very worried about the lack of national leaders who have a global perspective. We need them to navigate the complexity of this changing world and sustain a moral focus instead of narrowly maximizing personal, economic, and social power. Recognizing that a democracy’s survival depends on engaged citizenship challenges all of us to find a place to stand.

Among many other accomplishments, Dr. Shapiro is former medical director and CEO of the Austen Riggs Center, and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center. He is a principal in the Boswell Group of New York, a founder of the International Dialogue Initiative, and on the advisory board of Partners Confronting Collective Atrocities. He is a distinguished faculty member at the Erikson Institute for Education, Research and Advocacy. He has published three books and more than 50 articles and book chapters on human development, personality disorders, organizational and family dynamics, and citizenship, presenting papers around the world.

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