Adam Kahane knows something about collaborating with the enemy. Kahane has been witness to some unlikely collaborations. He has been at the centre of peace talks in South Africa, Sudan and Colombia. He has recently taken a step back to deconstruct what he learned from those experiences, and offer his take on how ‘collaboration’ can work between enemies and adversaries.
That’s the core lesson in his latest book ‘Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with, Like or Trust.’ He’s turned his experience into lessons that can be used in the everyday circumstances.
Adam Kahane typically works on large, complex, and global challenges. But, his latest work has caught the attention of divorce lawyers and car salesman. In this episode of the podcast, Adam Kahane shares some of what he has learned about collaborating with the enemy. His teachings are useful to anyone who finds themselves working with people they’d rather avoid.
What you’ll hear from Adam Kahane in this episode:
– Why he wrote a book titled ‘Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with, Like or Trust.’
– Adam talks about the concept of ‘enemyfying’, and why we probably don’t have enemies as many enemies as we imagine we do.
– He also makes the case for why it is immoral, impractical and a ‘complete waste of time’ to focus only on what other people need to be doing, and not on what you can do in divisive contexts.
– In our conversation, Adam unpacks the core message of his book, that the bar for a successful collaboration is much lower than we think – we don’t need to agree on what the solution to a problem is, or even what the problem is to work with people to resolve it.
– Why politicians are more likely to ‘get’ the notion of collaborating with their enemies than people in professions where power dynamics aren’t commonly acknowledged.
– Some practical tips for applying some of the ideas and concepts he suggests in your everyday life.
Resources from this episode
– The 1967 speech Martin Luther King Jr. speech Adam referenced in talking about power and love: Where do we go from here?
Collaborating with the Enemy: Adam Kahane
Mark Coffin: You’re listening to episode #2 of the Govern Yourself Accordingly podcast – the podcast for engaged citizens and public leaders who want to lead change through politics with their integrity intact.
My name is Mark Coffin, and I am your host.
Woman’s Voice: “Why am I here?”
Man’s Voice: “How you ever wondered why criminals who know they can’t trust one another are still able to conduct business with one another?”
[Theme music begins]
Mark Coffin: Today on the show, I speak with Adam Kahane, the author of the new book “Collaborating with the Enemy: How to work with people you don’t agree with, like or trust”
The characters in the TV thriller Blacklist, which you just heard a clip from, certainly know a thing or two about that.
It’s based on the premise that it’s worth it for the FBI to collaborate with known mercenary and fugitive – Raymond Reddington – in order to bring down the people who appear on the blacklists of both Reddington and the FBI.
But – at least in the beginning – there are very few things the FBI and Reddington agree on, like or trust about one another
And according to today’s guest – someone who has worked to negotiate peace in conflict zones throughout Africa and South America – that’s okay.
Adam Kahane: … our mistake is that we were trying to be aseptic, we were trying to be clean, we were we were trying not to get dirty. And that really limited the effectiveness of what we do.
… actually in politics, the strongest agreements are those that different people support for different reasons. This is actually what makes them robust. If we all say that it’s the right thing to do because of this, “what if this is no longer true? What if this becomes no longer important?’
Mark Coffin: Adam Kahane has been witness to some unlikely collaborations, and has taken the time to step back and deconstruct why those collaborations were strong, how they happened and how you and I can use some of his lessons in navigating collaborations with the people we might not agree with, like or trust.
So today on the Govern Yourself Accordingly podcast, I bring you the conversation Adam and I had about collaborating with the enemy.
Adam: I think I’m understanding my orientation more and more as a pragmatic orientation – how do we deal with the challenges in front of us. All of my work has been with diverse teams of leaders, meaning people with different positions, and sectors, and perspectives, almost always including politicians or people in politics, but never just people in politics. Always people in politics, and government, and the business sector, and activists, and community workers, etc.
The frustration I have is around seeing how many important issues are stuck, and how the mechanisms we have don’t enable us to move forward. To answer your question, the main advice I would have for people who have a strong view or position that ‘it needs to be done like this’ is if you can make that happen, if you can make things the way you want them to be, just with you and your colleagues and friends, then go ahead, God bless!
I don’t have anything against forceful unilateral action as long as it’s legal and nonviolent, but what’s interesting to me is what do you do if that doesn’t work? What if simply trying to make things the way you want them to be, doesn’t work because other people want it to be another way, or don’t agree with what you’re doing? That’s the domain I work in.
Mark Coffin: You have an honest perspective of having been in a lot of places where decisions are being made, not necessarily being married to the outcome on either side – at least that’s how it comes across in reading your books – and being more in a mediator role. What is your advice to the people who are on one of those sides, and not necessarily in a facilitator or mediator role?
Adam Kahane: The main advice I would have for people who have a strong view or position that ‘it needs to be done like this’ is if you can make that happen, if you can make things the way you want them to be, just with you and your colleagues and friends, then go ahead, God bless!
I don’t have anything against forceful unilateral action as long as it’s legal and nonviolent, but what’s interesting to me is what do you do if that doesn’t work? What if simply trying to make things the way you want them to be, doesn’t work because other people want it to be another way, or don’t agree with what you’re doing? That’s the domain I work in.
Mark: Right, and just as we were setting up you were mentioning that your latest book, Collaborating with the Enemy, has been recommended by divorce lawyers and car salesmen. There’s something of the everyday factor I think that you’re hitting on, can you talk a bit about what the stimulus was to write it?
Adam Kahane: Well, 100 per cent of my experience is in these big national or global problem-solving areas whether it’s on climate change, or health care, or land reform. That’s the work I’ve been doing with my colleagues around the world for 25 years, but by inclination I’m always trying to see the basics — what’s underlying the phenomena. The great thing about writing a 100 page book, six times over, is you can get down to the basics.
Why Adam wrote ‘Collaborating with the Enemy’
I had two motivations for writing a book. Firstly, my work for 25 years has all been about ‘how can people work together to address the issues they care about?’ so in a way, supporting and promoting and trying to understand collaboration. In a way, this is all the rage now. There’s no end of books and speeches and websites talking about how important collaboration is, which I agree with, but what I see as generally missing in that discourse is an acknowledgement that collaboration is really not easy. It often seems impossible, and in many cases people collaborate because they can’t make anything else work.
So, one of my motivations was to try to rebalance the conversation about collaboration, and the reason I chose this title, Collaborating with the Enemy, which is a provocative title, is that it seems to me that the reason collaboration is intrinsically difficult is it always has this tension that on the one hand, we think we need to work with diverse ‘others’ to make progress on what we’re trying to make progress on, and at the same time we really are reluctant to do so because we’re worried we’re going to be required to compromise or even betray what it is we care most about. That sense of the collaborator as the worst possible figure. So, that’s one reason I wrote it, was to to try to rebalance the conversation about collaboration – that it’s increasingly important and increasingly difficult.
The second reason I wrote it is really related to this thing you mentioned about the book having been picked up by not just people doing my work with people in all kinds of spheres of life – which I’m happy about – is that I started to notice that the dynamics I was experiencing in my work on these large scale issues were being replicated with my work in very ordinary, small circumstances, and it seemed that there was something that goes on in large scale, small ‘p’ political engagements, which also shows up in organizations and families in neighborhoods.
That’s when I thought maybe I’m onto something here, that there’s there’s a dynamic about working together which is the same – literally the same – at all scales, from the interpersonal to the international.
Mark Coffin: It’s almost as if you’re making an invitation to practice at the small level before it turns into a civil war, is that fair to say?
Adam Kahane: Well yes, I’d like to avoid civil wars. I’ve been involved in trying to deal with civil wars in several places, including Sudan and Colombia, and other, less dramatic contexts. I have an interest in things not degenerating into civil war. I’m not so much saying to practice with a partner before you go into politics, what I’m just saying is to notice that it’s the same dynamic. Therefore, you have a chance to practice and see what works and what doesn’t work, and what you’re doing in public life is relevant for what you’re doing at home, and vice versa. There are basic dynamics of what it’s like to try to work with people who are different than us which are the same at all scales. I think that’s helpful.
Mark Coffin: I want to pull up some of the things that you’ve written in the book. You said, “enemyfying is seductive because it reassures us that we were okay, and not responsible for the difficulties we are facing.”
That seems to be pretty common lately, at least in the circles that I’m part of. Watching the political drama unfold south of the border, and even in our own country, watching how quickly someone who doesn’t meet the final check-mark on the progressive checklist, or doesn’t have the right allegiances to a certain group or policy, it can really quickly get to the point where that person is enemyfied.
Most people probably have some experience with with being both the person who’s been enemyfied or doing the enemyfying seems fairly instinctive. What do you see as the practical ways that people can work around that in a way that’s an everyday way?
Enemyfiying is an everyday phenomenon
Adam Kahane: I think it’s an everyday phenomenon, this idea of treating other people as if they’re our enemies – in other words – people out to harm us. I’m not saying that we never have enemies, but I am saying that we don’t have enemies as much as we imagine we do. Turning opponents, or people who have a different perspective from us, or different interests from us, into enemies is not a productive activity.
“Well, I should say [enemyfying] can be very productive politically, in the short term. This is a classic way to mobilize your base, to have them against those other people. But in terms of finding a way forward, unless you’re happy and successful with crushing your opponents, doesn’t really work.”
So yes, I’m concerned about enemyfying both in the political realm, but also in in the ordinary, organizational, and family realm.
I see examples every day, even in these ordinary realms of people saying ‘I could never work with that person’ and turning a disagreement into a crisis. The result is fragmentation, and ‘stuckness’ in organizations, and in families, and in communities. In another context, somebody called this the narcissism of small differences. I’m really concerned with this phenomena, and the overall message of my book is – if I can put it in terms that I didn’t use in the book, which is ‘relax a little bit’ – to move forward on things is always going to require acknowledging and living with difference and disagreement. It’s always gonna involve just trying to find the next step forward. It’s always going to involve thinking about what is it that I need to do next. The idea that it has to involve agreeing on everything [like] how it ought to be, and what we’re going to do, and who’s going to do it, it does not and can never work.
In a way, what I’m calling ‘stretched collaboration’ is a way of working together that that can live with pluralism and multiplicity and non-agreement and non-certainty because that’s the reality of the world we live in. The point I was making in the paragraph you read is that one of the reasons enemyfying and these purity checklists, and saying ‘I could never work with those people,’ and ‘they’re not just wrong, they’re evil’ – one of the reasons these phenomena are so common is they they let the people who are saying that completely off the hook; ‘this has nothing to do with me, it’s those people, they need to change, or they need to disappear, or they need to be eradicated,’ by definition, I’m completely letting myself off the hook.
Of course it’s easy. I noticed when I was writing this book – when you’re writing a book you’re tuned into what’s going on around you and what what you’re thinking. I noticed that I could easily spend several hours every day mulling over what other people ought to be doing. What my clients ought to be doing, what my goddamn colleagues ought to be doing, what my kids ought to be doing, what President Trump ought to be doing, and in a way it’s a very soothing way to pass the time because it doesn’t require anything of me except to be disgruntled. But it is entirely a waste of time.
“If you stop there, simply being upset about what other people are doing, you are completely wasting your time. It’s impractical, it doesn’t help, and I also think it’s immoral in a sense that you’re focusing only on other people and not on yourself.”
Mark Coffin: There’s something kind of self-destructive about it too. If you’re not improving yourself, and other people aren’t going to change… I heard the expression recently that anger is an asset that does the most damage to the container it’s sitting in.
Adam Kahane: For all those reasons, it’s really not helpful. So the alternative is to bring your attention back to the very basic question: what do I need to do next? I’m not saying that if you change yourself the world changes, I’m not saying that the only thing that matters is self improvement or self development, I’m saying that even if you do conclude that so-and-so, or such-and-such a policy, or such-and-such a person, really needs to change what they’re doing for the situation to change, that doesn’t absolve you of the of the question ‘what do I need to do differently to influence the situation and to influence those other people.’ In other words, what’s my role? What’s my responsibility in this situation, and what am I going to do next?
I measure my own progress in this work. Not [to say] that I never spend time blaming or thinking about what other people ought to do, but I’m a little faster. Rather than it taking months, maybe it only takes weeks. Or rather than taking days, maybe it only takes hours before I can bring myself back to the question [of] what is it that I need to do next, to to make things different?
Why collaborators don’t need to agree on the solution, or even the problem
Mark Coffin: I want to ask you about your experience in Colombia.
So you’re brought in to facilitate peace negotiations in the late ‘90s, and you’ve written that the experience allowed you to understand that “people who have deep disagreements can still get important things done together, where the bar for making progress on complex challenges is not as high as most people think. We don’t need to agree on what the solution is, or even what the problem is.”
I found the second piece of that statement to be the most unique. I just hadn’t heard it before. Can you talk a bit about how it’s possible that people who don’t necessarily have a similar definition of the problem can be the grounds and conditions, and perhaps even the ideal conditions for collaborating?
Adam Kahane: I’ve worked a little bit in Colombia for a long time, since 1996. 21 years, multiple times, and with some of the country’s leaders, including the current president, through this very difficult, violent conflict involving left-wing guerrilla armies, right-wing paramilitaries, drug traffickers, the government, landowners, business people, NGOs, etc. And it was one of my first experience after I started that work in South
The clearest articulation of this was actually given to me in Colombia, exactly a year ago. October 2016, the president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, won the Nobel Peace Prize before having succeeded in signing a treaty that is ending a 52-year civil war. On the day he won the prize, he put on the official presidential website, this essay about something like ‘the road to peace.’ It included the sentence that one of the most significant events in getting to the peace was these workshops in 1996 with this Canadian, Adam Kahane.
Of course, I was very happy, and I immediately made a link between the Reos Partners website and the presidential website. But actually, I was a bit mystified as to why he would say that, because so many things have been done in Colombia over this period. Big United Nations processes, years of negotiations in Havana – President Santos had himself been the Minister of Defense, and had prosecuted a really tough effort to solve the problem through arms – so I didn’t understand, why was it that he was referring back to this series of small workshops 21 years earlier? Why did he keep referring to this project, Destino Colombia? He brings it up almost every month
In April of this year, I was in Bogota and I had a chance to do a public interview of President Santos, and this is the question I wanted to ask him. Why do you keep referring to Destino Colombia? I’m happy about it but I actually don’t get it.
He gave a very interesting answer that for me, crystallizes the opportunity here. He said, ‘the reason I keep referring to Destino Colombia is because this was the experience where I learned that contrary to my whole political and social upbringing,’ he comes from a very prominent political and journalistic family, ‘contrary to all of everything I’ve learned, it is possible to work with people we do not agree with, and we’ll never agree with.’
“We imagine often that collaboration and working with people means that we’re going to have a bit of a misunderstanding, but if we can really talk together in calm and reasoned voices we’re going to find an agreement. and we’re going to act on that agreement. What he’s saying, and I think he’s right, is it turns out that’s not necessary. That for me, is on the one hand a radical statement, but that’s what I mean by lowering the bar. It is possible to work with people we do not agree with, and we’ll never agree with.”
Adam Kahane: I had another experience in Colombia; a different process where there was a very heterogeneous group of people, including people with very different ideological and political orientations. At a certain point of the meeting there was a very sharp difference of principle. One of the people who was a senior opposition politician, said we can’t go on until we agree on this principle. I did something I almost never do, because it’s not a very smart thing to do, which is say “just trust me here, let’s just carry on with the process.’ For whatever reason, he agreed. We didn’t debate or agree. Yet by the end of the workshop there were lots of things people had agreed to do together. So this was interesting to me. The next day I related this story to a man named Antanas Mockus. He’s one of the most important Colombian politicians. He’s a mathematician, former university rector, just a brilliant intellectual. He had been a very innovative mayor of Bogota twice, and a presidential candidate.
I said ’Antanas, how is it that they were able to agree on what to do even though they didn’t agree on this point of principle?’ He said, ‘Adam, this is a very well-known and important principle in politics. The strongest agreements are those that different people support for different reasons. This is actually what makes them robust.’
If we all say this is the right thing to do because of this one reason, what if this reason is no longer true? What if this becomes no longer important? So he was making an argument that I’d never heard before, which is, ‘we’re happy if people support a certain course of action for different reasons, this makes it robust.’ He said, ‘it’s not an accident that in congress we don’t record. We record the votes, but not the reasons for the votes.’ This is actually liberating.
Why agreement on the problem isn’t the bar for successful collaboration
Adam Kahane: To come back to the specific question you asked what’s needed to move forward is not agreement on the problem.
Usually, the situation we’re dealing with aren’t anywhere near straightforward as problems. They’re problematic situations which different people view as problematic for different reasons; there’s work to be done in this neighborhood of Montreal that we’re sitting in, some people may think it’s about the aesthetics of the neighborhood, some people may think it’s about getting better access to their businesses, other people may think it’s about maintaining their position in the council. Somebody else may be interested because they’re looking for something to do with their neighbors. There isn’t a problem that they’ve all agreed they’re going to solve, but they agree that the situation is problematic, and they agree that they need to work on it. They can agree on some things that they’ll do – maybe not together – but each of them will address the situation.
The point about all of this is that it lowers the bar. It makes collaboration much less exigent than we imagined it to be. We don’t have to agree on the solution, or the problem, or the plan on who’s going to do what. Therefore there’s lots of room to feel our way forward.
Everything I’m saying might well be surprising to ordinary people, people with a policy background or a planning background who think an optimum solution is required for every problem.
Why politicians ‘get’ collaborating with people they don’t agree with, like or trust.
Adam Kahane: I don’t think this is surprising to politicians or diplomats. What I admire about politicians and diplomats is they understand that most situations require us to work with people we don’t agree with her like or trust, and that’s not an impediment to making progress.
When I started to talk about my book publicly was the end of 2016, and I was interviewed on the CBC. The interviewer said, ‘what advice would you have for Prime Minister Trudeau?’ It was just before he was going to make his first visit to Washington to meet Trump. There were lots of Canadians and commentators who were saying, ‘you’ve got to stand up for us on this, you’ve got to really tell him off about this,’ and I said I don’t have any advice for Trudeau. This is a situation that politicians and diplomats know how to deal with, and in fact it was a great visit. He knew that he had to find a way forward with Trump. I can’t ignore Trump or the American administration, it’s just not possible. He wasn’t going to necessarily agree with him, or trust him, but he had to find we can do together, and he did.He’s still trying to do that. We’ll see whether it works or not, but what I’m [talking about] is actually obvious to skilled politicians and diplomats. It’s just not obvious to the rest of us.
Mark Coffin: What is it about the political environment, or culture? Why do you think it’s more intuitive in that space, or more obvious in that space?
Adam Kahane: James Hillman said that the reason these things are easier in politics and business is because those are spheres in which power is understood and not rejected. In politics and business, it’s understood that different people have different interests, different ambitions, this is normal life, this is what you have to deal with. There isn’t this appeal, this impractical and sentimental appeal, to put our personal interests aside and focus on the good of the whole. This is the need to work with the ways in which we’re all part of a larger whole – which I call love, the drive to unite the separated – and at the same time to work with power.
Hillman argues that power is not seen as a problematic thing in politics and business, whereas in religious communities and social work, and other helping professions, it’s seen as a problem. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘power without love is reckless and abusive’. Everybody looking out for their own interests without any sense of the larger hole is reckless and abusive, even genocidal, but King went on to say, ‘love without power is sentimental and anemic.’ This is crucial, and in politics and diplomacy and business, this is very well understood. This is the the daily work that brings important perspectives and skills to dealing with things.
Mark Coffin: It seems like there there’s an understanding of power in political spaces, but perhaps not the the same understanding of love as would be there in the helping professions.
Adam Kahane: No, not at all. When I wrote a book called Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change, and the Spanish edition of the book was published by a political unit within the United Nations. it’s important for me to have the book published in Spanish, but again I didn’t understand why was this book was of interest to them. The head of that unit, a Bolivian political scientist named Antonio Aranibar said, ‘Adam all politics is about power and love.’ In other words, all daily politics is about how can we move forward with a larger ambition which requires us to come together, and at the same time working with the interests of the parts. It’s all about how to deal with wholes and parts. A skillful politician can do that.
My longtime colleague, Betty Sue Flowers, was the director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin. When I published this book Power and Love, she said, ‘if you want to really understand power and love, study study LBJ.’ I’m a Canadian, I didn’t know much about the story of LBJ. I said, ‘what should I read?’ She said to read Master of the Senate, this very important biography by a man named Robert Caro who has written four huge volumes of LBJ biography, around four hundred pages all about the period which many people consider to be the height of LBJ’s political skill, when he was the Democratic leader in the Senate. Specifically, it was about how as Democratic leader of the U.S. Senate, he succeeded in getting the first piece of civil rights legislation through the Senate in a hundred years. Not only that, he had been elected as Democratic leader on the understanding that he would never do that.
What I took out of this book is that the genius of Lyndon Johnson, or an apologist like Johnson, is he knew better than anybody how to reconcile the interests of the parts, and the interests of the whole, which is completely about power and love. The biographer said of him that in his whole political career, ambition and compassion had been in opposition because he’d always been interested in civil rights and he’d always chosen ambition. But for the first time in his career ambition and compassion were aligned. In other words, what he thought really needed to be done for the country was aligned with what he needed to do to become the Democratic presidential nominee.
The specific incident in the book which amazed me – because it showed a skill that I don’t have at all – is there’s this vignette where Schlesinger, the Harvard historian, goes to visit Johnson at his ranch in Texas, and Johnson regales him for hours without Schlesinger getting a word in edgewise, going through every single one of the Democratic senators that he was leading. For each and every one explaining how to influence them, whether you reach them at their wife’s home or their mistresses home, whether you get to them through their lawyer or their clergymen, whether they’re most influenced by the electricity lobby or the farmer lobby, in other words the skill required to pass this once-in-a-hundred-year piece of legislation, was the skill required to know exactly, in very fine detail, what is it that mattered and could be used to influence each of these 50 people.
It wasn’t as though Johnson said. ‘this is what’s needed for the good of the whole, let’s all get behind civil rights, it’s our moral duty.’ He did say that and it was influential, but he also knew exactly what he had to do to pay off people, who did he have to give a damn to in their district, who did he have to strong-arm via their brother-in-law. That for me is the the perfect example of employing power and love. He was considered, at least in that stage of his career, the master politician. The greatest Senate majority leader of that era.
Mark Coffin: It’s similar to the stories that have been playing in Nova Scotia lately, about Allan J. MacEachen, former deputy prime minister of Canada that played a very similar role in getting the Canada Health Care Act through, and bringing public health care to Canada by working with the others that have gotten credit for it, like Tommy Douglas. I have a lot of conversations with people who think that kind of strategizing creates an edge, or it’s on an edge that people are not necessarily willing to cross because they think that’s dirty or manipulative.
There’s an exchange between Jon Stewart, The former Daily Show host who was being interviewed by the former Obama strategist David Axelrod, who asked him ‘should young people be engaged in politics?’ and his answer was ‘yes get into it, but don’t get it on you.’ For a lot of people when they hear that they laugh, and then they think the kind of thing you’re describing is what many would perceive as the ‘getting it on you’ part, and this feeling that it shouldn’t have to be that way.
Adame Kahane: I’m not saying that everything that goes on in politics is worthy of emulation. I’m not making the generalization that everything politicians do is a good thing, but I am fundamentally disagreeing with the premise you just outlined. For me, what’s involved in working with power as well as love is recognizing that different people have different understandings, and interests, and backgrounds, and cultures, and that’s the way things are.To say, ‘Well can’t we just put all that aside and focus on this one thing that I think is important,’ or some some larger abstract whole of the community, or the country, or the globe, to me that’s more manipulative.
Mark Coffin: How so?
Adam Kahane: Because when I say to you ‘could you just put aside what matters to you, let’s focus on the good of the whole’ what that really means is can you put aside what matters to you and focus on what I think is more important. I noticed this because of my role as a facilitator.
When you’re in a group of different actors from different parts of a system, and the facilitator says, ‘could you all just leave your agendas at the door and focus on this thing we’re all here to do?’ there’s only one person in the room for whom their own agenda and the agenda of the meeting are the same, and that person is the facilitator.
Of course, the facilitator or the boss can say that, but everybody else? They have lots of things they’re trying to deal with.
They have the concern of the subject of the meeting and what the community should do, but they [also] have their own department, they have their family, they have their political position, they have their business. T ask them to put that aside, to me, is manipulative. The point I’m making is that the reality of the situation is we have different people, different interests, with really different concerns, and different things they need to do different. Different ambitions. To be productive and to be respectful and to be democratic, you have to deal with that.
One of the Colombians said to me, when we were talking about what could we have done better in that work in 1996. We included in that work in 1996, the guerrillas and the the business community, and certain politicians. But we excluded the then-government of Ernesto Samper because Samper was thought to have taken bribes from narco traffickers.
So they were excluded from the work we did, and in the end ended up greatly limiting the effectiveness of the work we did, because they were excluded.
The organizer of the project, Manuel José Carvajal, said to me many years later, ‘our mistake is that we were trying to be aseptic.’ It’s exactly this image – we were trying to be clean, we were trying not to get dirty, and that really limited the effectiveness of what we do.
So yes, I am saying that if you want to deal with the world as it is, and you’re not a dictator that can just steamroll over everybody’s different interests and particular needs, then yes. For practical – and I would argue for moral reasons – you have to be willing to engage with the minutiae and the dirt of of what different people want and need. This is particularly important in Canada, where for me, one of the really hopeful characteristics, or potentials, in Canadian society and Canadian politics is we’re willing to live with pluralism.
Pluralism doesn’t just mean different kinds of ethnic food and restaurants. It means there are ways in which we are different, we have different understandings and ambitions, and even cosmologies, that will not be harmonized. That’s the lesson from the residential schools. Don’t try to make everybody the same! You have to be willing to deal – to live with this permanent difference and permanent disagreement.
Mark Coffin: I want to close with a question that I end up with after reading your books, and books like yours. A lot of the ideas are very compelling and attractive at the rational level, but then when I get in situations –– or more often when it’s an hour and a half after a situation where I would’ve had an opportunity to practice something that you’ve taught – I realized that the more emotional part of my brain probably hijacked the rational part in that situation. And I wonder if there’s a piece of advice that you might suggest for folks that are kind of onboard with the spirit of what you’re recommending, but perhaps worried that in the heat of the moment when we have an opportunity to practise that our rational faculties escape us, we might not have the the instincts to act on it.
Adam Kahane: I do have a piece of advice, and I’m not sure it’s about rational or emotional [thinking]. They’re both important faculties, but for me the the most basic skill in working with diverse ‘others,’ working with multiple wholes, working with power and love – those are all equivalent statements – the most basic skill relates to how we talk, and how we listen.
That’s the the basic substance of how we work with others. By talking and listening. The trap we often fall into is what Otto Scharmer calls downloading. There’s an idea about what’s going on, or what needs to go on. I have this idea about what’s going on, or what ought to go on, or about the truth of the situation, and I just keep repeating it. This is actually the whole of the story; that the picture in my mind is the whole truth, or maybe because I’m afraid if I said what I really thought, it would be impolite or dangerous in some way.
In talking and listening, the first challenge is to escape from downloading. To escape from operating as if what I’m thinking is the truth about the situation. Years ago, somebody pointed out a very helpful helpful way to escape from this – which is when I find myself pounding the table with with certainty about the truth, and ‘let me just tell you again what what you need to know, and what you need to do, and and so on’ – just put at the beginning of the sentence, ‘in my opinion.’ And if that doesn’t work, try ‘in my humble opinion.’
It’s sort of funny, but it contains within it a really helpful capacity. To take a little distance from, ‘this is what I think.’ I’m not going hide what I think, but it’s my opinion about the situation. This is what my experience leads me to believe. It opens up the possibility that maybe, as we talk about it, I’ll see it from another perspective. Maybe you can attack that idea, [but] you’re not attacking me. The the simple suggestion is to just open up a little bit of distance. Suspend your beliefs or your position. You may, at the at the end of the interaction, still think the same thing you thought at the beginning. It’s about spin, not abandon. You’re opening up the possibility that maybe, as we talk about this, I can see it in a different way, or see another aspect of this – another part of the situation that’s also important.
The downloading reflex often has this enemyfying dimension about what the truth is – that you need to do something different. They often go together. This, for me, is a very practical thing that can be done in all of the situations we’ve been talking about.
Mark Coffin: Thank you. I was just laughing because in a heated discussion with my partner this weekend, she gave me the exact same advice. ‘It would just be better if you said ‘in my opinion’ in front of whatever you’re about to say that we disagree on.’’ So she’ll behappy to hear this. Thank you for your time, and good luck in whatever’s next for you.
Adam Kahane: Thank you.
[Outro Music Begins]
Mark Coffin: That was this week’s episode of the Govern Yourself Accordingly Podcast. Thank you so much for tuning in.
As always, you can find links to any of the articles, resources and books that were mentioned in the show by scrolling through the episode description, and show notes over at Springtide.NGO/GYA2. That’s for Govern Yourself Accordingly Episode #2.
Govern Yourself Accordingly is a podcast produced by Springtide, and we are a Canadian Charity committed to helping you lead change through politics with your integrity intact. Find us at Springtide.NGO, facebook.com/springtideco; or on Twitter @SpringtideCO. You can find me on Twitter @MarkCoffin.
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