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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 immediately.
  • 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 bonding.

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 with disagreements;
  • ego investments;
  • vested interests and intentionally hidden agendas;
  • many insanities, addictions and other seriously dysfunctional personal behaviors;
  • 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 police).

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 in practice.

See also:


Ten strategies for dealing with diversity

Diversity is as big as the universe
Human Diversity
Personality Typing
Multi-modal intelligence

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