This morning, I held a Zoom call with one of my business partners, to discuss the promotion of one of our stars, ‘off cycle’. The discussion became heated on account of a difference of opinion with regard to the right methodology and timing, in spite of the fact that we both supported her elevation.
So I did my usual. I paused to think about why it was that we agreed on something fundamental, and yet couldn’t seem to reach one another, linguistically. The cause of our friction, clearly, was that we saw the issue differently, and thus had different ideas about how to go about the process of advancing our goal of promoting her. That’s normal enough; in fact, it’s everybody’s story, every day that we share feelings or ideas, or collaborate. But behind the obvious sits something slightly less so. The reason that we couldn’t align ourselves, I’m convinced, was because our divergent perceptions led us to discern different realities about what the world looked like as it applied to this topic, and by extension, how to act.
The fact is that each of us — every single human on Earth — inhabits his or her own universe, to very real and material consequence. Last November, I wrote a piece about this phenomenon called It’s Not Real. In it, I wrote, “Most of us live in a world in which we confuse opinions and perceptions with reality, daily, hourly, minute by minute. Most of what we believe to be true — that by which we form our lives and let guide our actions — is nothing even close to what could ever pass as fact. Rather, we are the sum of the conclusions we have drawn from everything that ever happened to us, from which we determined the meaning of our world and everything that touches it. And those conclusions were — and still are — based on extremely personal, non-transferrable feelings that reflect our biases and perceptions about the world and everything in it.”
Because no two people live the same life, no two people feel the same way about anything, if you dig below the headline.
The influences over our perceptions are so broad, and the way that we interpret them are so inextricably linked to all of our other perceptions, we live, as I said, in different universes. Reality is no more than what we determine it to be. The good news for anyone watching carefully is that if history has taught us anything, it’s that we have perpetually and readily traded the reigning ‘truths’ about any and every topic for new ones, just as soon as we decided it was in our interest to do so. From God to planet Earth to systems of governance to beliefs about our own origins to the benefits of vaccines, our ‘truths’ have traveled far and wide, sometimes swinging like pendulums, and will continue to evolve as we do, for as long as the human brain remains a product of pure biology.
Which brings us to why communication matters.
A good friend of mine, Michka Bengio, recently shared a thesis he’s been developing about how people connect with one another successfully. He’s invested heavily in understanding this to support a career spent in the world of hospitality, and a personal interest in helping people become less lonely. So while he learned how to support people in their individual needs and wants through his professional experiences, he hopes to help them ‘stretch’, to find common ground or work through their differences in the spirit of deeper connection. He has landed on two words to describe these two ways we achieve this.
He says we connect either by bonding over commonalities, or by bridging over differences.
I think it’s brilliant. When we meet one another, we are immediately drawn to those with whom we find common ground: either they look like us or share some form of cultural inheritance, or we find topics or shared passion or viewpoint. People who share political views ‘piss and moan’ about the tragic views of shared rivals. People who support the same sports team dress up together or discuss statistics, as they vie for victory by association and the demise of the other team(s). Mothers bond over their children perhaps more than anything else, investing — in my experience — an enormous amount of their time together on that single topic — certainly more than most fathers I know. Architects hang out with other architects. Lawyers with lawyers. Hipsters with other hipsters… it goes on.
What has fallen away dramatically — alarmingly — is our tolerance of dissenting voices; of disagreement. This is the reason that while Michka, and others, are looking to find better ways of connecting people through bonding, he is mostly interested in how we improve our ability to bridge difference. Social media’s algorithmic eco-chambers and the president of the United States’ penchant for vilification and finger-pointing — for dividing and conquering — have unleashed our inner ugliness on one another, and with it we are seeing the evisceration of quality communication.
The gloves are off, and everyone is paying the price. When all we perceive is ‘The End of Days’, we revert to animal behavior. Our cerebral cortexes shut off, and our amygdalae take over.
It’s not pretty.
We now use emojis to connect in lieu of language, which turns us all into judges — not friends — as though we are each Caesars at the Games, ruling with our up- or downturned thumbs. Our attention spans are so scattered that we scarcely pay attention beyond a headline, reacting largely to our mastery over the sound bite. When we do listen, we look for things that resonate (which is normal), but we have lost our patience in others’ contrasting voices, partly because we no longer have to submit to hearing one another’s words in person, preferring to click or swipe away what we don’t want to hear. It’s harder to walk away from someone, or to hurl insults at them, when they are right in front of you. And as the world increases in complexity and interdependence, we shrink further and further into our shells, holding on for dear life onto what we think we understand, so that we can convince ourselves that our feet are on firm footing. Few of us have the stomach for being perpetually in limbo. When we do emerge from our shelters, it is as often as not to lob toxic verbal mortars at one another through shaming, insults and character assassinations.
The need for bridging — a word that connects notions of tolerance, listening, curiosity, patience, empathy, uprightness, virtue, support, understanding, sharing and dialogue — is paramount in our lives right now.
Bridging differences is like any other skill or quality: we need to learn it. Moreover, we need to practice what we learn, if we’re to get any good at it. It is no simple matter to put oneself into another’s shoes, or to prioritize understanding them, if doing so is inconvenient, or potentially cross-purposes with our own needs or desires. It takes strength and courage to broaden our own views, or beliefs — to stretch them enough to make room for others’ perceptions, for several reasons. First, doing so requires us to risk the stability of our worlds, and the ideas upon which they are built; because in the process of bridging, we are forced to revisit these, and sometimes admit our understandings may have been biased, or outright misguided. Second, it requires us to be vulnerable with others — to allow them to risk hurting us emotionally; because in order to listen properly — with any fidelity — we must lower our defenses. Third, there is no guarantee that our attempts to bridge will be reciprocated, or successful; and therefore we risk giving of ourselves without receiving anything in return. Our egos are fragile enough that as a rule, we demand concurrence to avoid feeling alone, or less valued; and to equally avoid the need to revisit our beliefs (see reason 1, just above).
But one cannot grow without engaging the this most creative act of destruction — that is, the act of destroying something known, or comforting, or safe, for something unknown, and potentially destabilizing.
To bridge we must take a leap of faith. It is easier if we remind ourselves that personal growth and interpersonal connection are their own reward. We win when our world views expand, allowing us to see farther. We win when we invest in reducing our own fears — of the unknown and of ‘the other’, even if ‘other’ refers only to a point of view. To enrich one’s own perceptions, through increasingly complex and nuanced understanding, is to be empowered to make better decisions and deeper connections.
There is no downside to the act of bridging. Every reason against doing so comes from a place of fear. As Seneca the Younger said in the year 18 (that’s not a typo), “There is nothing so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness it is in your expecting evil before it arrives!” The expression has percolated through the ages, being attributed to no fewer than 12 luminaries, including Mark Twain. His version, it’s purported, went, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
So all that remains to do is to act with courage when it comes to bridging, because the overwhelming chances are that the fears you may have in doing so won’t materialize; rather, the overwhelming likelihood is that only good things will come of it.
A number of high-powered Silicon Valley tech titans — the same ilk as those who ironically brought you social media — are working on a number of initiatives to improve on the quality of our lives and institutions. To name just a few, they include Jordan Hall, John Vervaeke, Daniel Schmachtenberger, Tristan Harris and Jim Rutt. They, and dozens of other geniuses, are putting the might of technology behind an attempt to rewire what’s broken. While some of them are focused on the structure of the institutions themselves (economics; ecology; food security; education; infrastructure) and how they can be improved, others are choosing instead to focus on the quality of our interactions, per se — as an antidote to the toxicity of social media and political shaming.
It is fertile ground for innovation.
So how do we create bridges?
People like Priya Parker, the facilitator-advisor, and author of The Art of Gathering, redirects her clients’ focus toward the purpose of their (inter)actions, as a frame for pulling us outside of an egoic state of mind, to become mindful of what we hope to achieve by connecting with others: the deeper meaning of gathering. David Bohm, whose unorthodox contributions to physics are considered among the most important of the 20th century, and whose eponymous “Bohm Dialogue” has been widely used in the field of organizational development, trades on ideas and practices related to free-flowing, non-hierarchical, sustained dialogue in which participants suspend judgment or action, and instead focus on understanding and championing one another’s viewpoints, as a springboard toward overcoming the isolation and fragmentation that he observed in society, as far back as a half-century ago.
Dialogue, from the Greek dialogos (literally, ‘stream of meaning’), is the basis of connection. No matter why it is that we communicate — to simply transact with others, or to fit into our community, our workplace, or a group of friends — the outcomes are a product of our mastery of dialogos. It is the clear-headed appraisal of society’s alarming downward trajectory that has lit a fire under people like my friend Michka, and the other characters I’ve referenced.
It recalls an ancient piece of wisdom, courtesy of Epictetus — the slave-turned-Roman statesman who championed Stoic ideals of a life lived in virtue: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
We need to recapture our ability to inject quality into our dialogues — and to listen better, with both ears — to help us bridge differences, to gather with intent and purpose, to suspend judgment in favor of understanding and connection, so that we may overcome the increasing levels of loneliness and isolation that we — especially the younger generations — are experiencing at alarming rates.
My daughter is a typical teenager. While she prefers seeing her friends in person, she has no compunctions about connecting online, through a number of social channels: TikTok, Roblox, Snapchat, Instagram, and ‘old-school’ text chat groups. She fluidly shifts from one to the other, such that she’s almost never unplugged from something social. In her world, there is little downtime, apart from sleeping. Every single time I turn my back, without exception, she grabs her phone. So when she approached me just a few hours ago with a brewing drama over others’ interpretation of her words and behaviors, to ask what I thought she should do, it was the perfect opportunity to listen deeply, then share a few things I took a lot of lumps for earlier in life, before I learned some critical lessons in bridging. I shared that text-based interactions are fraught with misinterpretation due to it being devoid of emotional cues — our expressions, our body language, and our intonations — and that if something doesn’t resolve itself in 3 or 4 text exchanges then it’s time to pick up the phone and work through it together (she’d been at it for 1.5 hours, by then!). I also shared that by definition, online interactions are anything but interactive; rather, they are sequential one-way feeds, stripped of rich dialogue; and so the opportunity to bridge emotional gaps were best handled with a medium that allows ‘real-time’ discourse. Next, I told her that in order for her friends to feel heard, she had to put herself in their shoes and acknowledge — validate — their feelings, but without sacrificing her own in the process, in order to establish the premise that all needs — hers included — matter. I suggested that she acknowledge how the other girls could’ve perceived what they did (by describing it back to them) then add an explanation citing why what she had done was the right choice for her. And finally, critically, I said it was important to remind them that she expected her friends to support her, too, and not to be needlessly judgmental.
She took notes on her iPhone as we spoke. it’s 2020, and she’s 14.
Well, she ignored the part about waiting, because she was too excited by our discussion. As she retrenched into the ongoing melee, she was able, in just two exchanges over a five-minute span, to resolve everything. “The fight’s over,” she beamed. She said her friends were conciliatory; that they had misunderstood her intent; that they appreciated her acknowledgment of their feelings, and that they, too were sorry for their emotional outbursts.
Said another way, because she primed them to do so, they each stopped feeling attacked long enough to own their own feelings and create space to have empathy for one another.
I felt a bit like a proxy weapon, helping her leverage a 51-year old brain against teenage ones. It’s not a fair fight. Except that the purpose of the exercise was to bridge the relationships by using some good tools; so I was okay with it.
The payoff, for me? I armed her with new weapons; and got unusual props for being an emotionally connected dad — one that keeps the door open for our own mutual trust.
The reason I’m telling this story about my daughter is twofold. First, social media, which consumes an increasing amount of our time with diminishing returns on the quality of our dialogos, and connection — is fueling the degradation of some foundational societal values, among them our ability to cohere, to feel good about ourselves in the context of others, and to support our extended communities. We can see this in Twitter wars, trolling, cyberbullying, extreme polarization and the alarming rise of depression, anxiety and stress. As I wrote on July 17, rates of all three have increased by 55% in just seven years, according to HCUP.gov, while suicide death rates are up 34% since 2000, according to businessinsider.com. In all categories, young people (ages 12–25) lead the upswing, logging 50–100% increases over an eight-year period.
Second, my daughter’s social behaviors — like those of every other child — are reflective of her parenting. They are not old enough to have deeply entrenched, longstanding beliefs. They are still searching, forming and reforming their understandings rapidly, based more on the vividness of their ideas and imaginations than on the depth of experiences. And because of this, they are still open, and mostly pliable, which is why they are so vulnerable — and so raw — when it comes to their social interactions. They watch and listen to us far more than they let on. So what we advise them — and how they see us interacting, with them or with others — will invariably influence how they act toward one another, and perceive the quality of their community. Simply put, our children are reflecting and interpreting behaviors and values that we’ve helped to set into motion.
Which means that if we don’t know how to communicate with one another, then our children will have even less of a chance of successfully bridging their differences. That is, unless they get it from elsewhere.
To say it again, the quality of our communication drives the quality of our community, and the richness of our lives. If we are not exercising our abilities to connect and bridge difference — and everything that goes into it — then that muscle atrophies, and along with it, our society begins to fail.
In fact, without quality dialogue, society is doomed to collapse, in time.
And this is exactly what we are seeing. Anyone with any ability to pull back and see the world beyond our egoic myopia knows that our current trajectory is an end game for civilization — one with an earlier expiry date than many of us realize.
And yet, it is so easy to prevent this. All it takes is our ears, and our intent. Scholars and toolsets abound; and an increasing number of social scientists and entrepreneurs are aiming their sights on arming us before it’s too late. But we must be honest with ourselves about how our actions are contributing to the polemic. Either we are making the world better, or we are weakening it. Every time we retrench and attack, or just stop listening — stop exercising tolerance, curiosity, patience, empathy, uprightness, virtue, support, understanding and sharing — it weakens all of us. By contrast, every time we exhibit courage by saying “I don’t know” or “Tell me more,” or “I understand your feelings,” or “Please tell me about your experiences, beliefs or feelings” we strengthen our community. This isn’t about b*ullshit. It’s about rebuilding our empathy. And we cannot rebuild that without first learning to actually listen, hear and internalize what we are being told. That’s because every time we suspend disbelief, or judgment, long enough for our perceptions — our universes — to expand, we become stronger, individually and as a collective.
We build bonds.
And in doing so, we inch closer to achieving dialogos; and with it, our potential, and our inner peace.