Insight While Driving to Work

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Training for Better Angels, it occurs to me:
Confidence in excellent communication skills in order to enter difficult conversations without bailing or lashing out… is akin to the core stability required to get into and out of a deep squat.
It’s the bending down, feet flat, head up, in control and not falling over, that is the challenge—not the forcing up in a quick, mindless burst of brute strength. Bearing the load all the way down and standing back up gracefully, without causing or suffering injury: that is where our real power lies, in the gym and in conversation.

Training My Better Angels

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First, Happy Mother’s Day to all!

So friends, what do the Better Angels of your nature feel like?  What do they do, how do they speak and act, especially when encountering those with opposing political views to yours?

A New Tribe

Yesterday I attended a skills workshop run by Better Angels, an organization I have admired for a while.  Their stated mission:

Better Angels is a citizens’ organization uniting red and blue Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America

  • We try to understand the other side’s point of view, even if we don’t agree with it
  • We engage those we disagree with, looking for common ground and ways to work together
  • We support principles that bring us together rather than divide us

On the garden level of a Lutheran church on a drizzly afternoon, we sat quietly in a big circle of folding chairs.  I noticed one black woman, one other Asian woman, and everybody else was white.  Most of us were at least Gen Xers; I estimated maybe one third were Baby Boomers.  It seemed about equal numbers of men and women.  Among the 30 or so participants, 6 of us identified as ‘red-leaning.’  The moderators set a clear and firm expectation that we all respect one another, and especially attended to those in the political minority.  As the facilitator explained the objectives and skills, people listened attentively.  Expressions and postures demonstrated eager engagement.  A sincere and almost sad, desperate longing for bipartisan connection permeated the air.

We were all there to practice listening skills to help one another feel heard.  Speaking skills would also be taught, to facilitate ourselves being heard by our counterparts.  Though I felt confident in these skills already, I looked forward to strengthening them in a new group setting.  When I saw we would do role plays I got super excited!  The method, designed by family therapist Bill Doherty, was brilliant—we paired with a same-color partner, and took turns playing blue and red, challenging ourselves to resist judgment, stay open, tune in to our own and each other’s whole presence, and imagine the minds of ‘the other side,’ inviting all of our whole selves to connect.  The central objective was to create an atmosphere of openness, non-judgment, and balanced, mutual engagement.

The Spark

Even before the activities started I thought, “I want to learn how to lead this.  I want to participate, to contribute in a bigger way.”  So when they invited us to stay afterward if we were interested in moderator training, I practically leapt out of my seat.  Turns out you have to apply—no problem—and good, they have standards, yay!  Once accepted, you complete about 15 hours of online training and a Zoom call with established moderators.  Then you commit to moderating three workshops in the coming year.  Woo hoooooooooo!  There are only 8 moderators in all of Illinois, all from north of I-80.  Better Angels holds firm a 50/50 ratio between red and blue volunteers, and disproportionally more blue folks apply, so I may have ‘competition.’  That’s okay—we’re truly all on the same team here!

Ready, Set, Wait–I’ Got This.

When I got home and opened the application, I hesitated a moment.  They seek, first and foremost, volunteers experienced in group facilitation.  Yikes, I don’t have that, I thought.  And yet I felt intrinsically comfortable in that group setting, imagining myself co-leading with relaxed confidence and grace.  Huh, interesting.  I own this communication skill set, as well as the ability to teach it—I feel eminently qualified for this role.  Where did I get that?

Part of the application required a condensed resume, so I pulled up my CV.  Maybe I’ll find something in here to make the case that despite my lack of group facilitation experience, I’m still qualified, I hoped.  I laughed out loud when I realized, I have been facilitating groups for ten years now—every month with my medical students, discussing topics like professionalism, medical errors, burnout, difficult patients, and interacting with industry, among others.  I’ve also conducted workshops teaching motivational interviewing, the quintessential skill set in open and honest dialogue!  In all of these settings it’s my job to make the environment safe for candid discussion, to model non-judgment and open, honest questions.  I lead role plays in which people take on both patient and provider roles to practice empathy for their counterparts.  I have written on this blog multiple times about how much I learn every time I meet with these groups.  No wonder I felt so at ease in the workshop yesterday, I’ve been doing this—training my and others’ Better Angels—for a decade already, and I did not even realize it.  How cosmic.

So my application is submitted!  I should hear in 15 days.

* * *

Friends, would you consider joining this group?  What are you curious about?  What makes you hesitate?  Who in your circles would be great at this work, and will you share this information with them?

Thank you for reading, and wish me luck!

The Optimist and the Cynic

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Are you an optimist or a cynic?

I consider myself to be, wholly and without question, an Optimist—with a Big O.

In The Art of Possibility, Ben and Roz Zander describe a cynic as a passionate person who doesn’t want to be disappointed again.

By this definition, cynics are not altogether hopeless and negative; they are simply wary and cautious based on past experience.  Still, I judge cynics and find them tiresome.  I reject their gloom and doom outlook.  Sometimes I really just want to throttle them.  In their presence I turn up my outward optimism to happy headbanger volume.  I can tell this makes them a little crazed—they see me as Pollyannish, idealistic, and naïve—and likely wish to strangle me, too.

And here’s the thing:  I also possess a deep cynical streak; one that can really overtake my consciousness sometimes.

Every day I campaign ardently to empower myself and those around me, pointing to all the ways we can claim our agency and effect positive change.  I advocate for using all of our kindness, empathy, compassion, and connecting communication skills, in every situation—take the high road!  Be our Best Selves!  And yet at the same time, a darker part of me, my shadow side, silently tells a contemptuous story of the forces we fight against.  I paint a sinister picture in my mind of impediments made of ‘the other’ people—the small minded, the pessimistic, the underestimating, unbelieving, rigid, unimaginative, distrustful, conventional, supercilious, and condescending themThey are not like usThey are the problem.

Of course this is not true.  It’s just a story I tell—a counterproductive and self-sabotaging story.  How fascinating.

Sometimes I tell this unsympathetic story aloud, out of frustration, impatience, and exasperation.  Sometimes I actually name people and label them all those negative things I listed.  It feels justified and righteous.  But then I feel guilty, as if my worse self kidnapped the better me and held my optimism hostage until I vented against my better judgment.  I wonder when my words will come back and bite me in the butt?  What will I do then?

I suppose I can only claim passion and disappointment.  Sometimes I let the latter get the best of me and allow shadow to overtake the light.  It happens to the best of us; I can own it.  There is no need to disavow the disappointment and disillusionment, the dissatisfaction with what is.  If I didn’t care so much—about patient care, public policy, physician burnout, patient-physician relationship, and relationships in general—I would not suffer such vexations.  And it’s because I care so much that I fight on, to do my part to make it better.  I stay engaged in the important conversations, even if I have to take breaks and change forums at times.

Yes, I, the eternal optimist, harbor an inner, insubordinate cynic.  While most of me exclaims, “Humanity is so full of love and potential!” another part of me mutters subversively, “Also people suck.”  Some days (some weeks) the dark side wins, but it’s always temporary.  The Yin and the Yang, the shadow and the light, the tension of opposite energies—that’s what makes life so interesting, no?  We require both for contrast and context, to orient to what is in order to see what could be. 

The struggle for balance is real and at times exhausting.  And it’s always worth the effort.

Humanity

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NaBloPoMo 2018: What I’m Learning

I have festered all day drafting this post in my head.  Procrastinating.  It’s still a jumble, so I’ll give it my best shot:

Donald Trump is a human being.  As much as I want to hurl epithets and lob rotten tomatoes at the television every time his face appears, or take a sledgehammer to whatever device I hear his voice on, I know these are unproductive responses to the emotions he triggers in me.  Breathe.  Must. Do. Better.

Ever since the 2016 campaign started in June of 2015, three and a half years ago already, I have felt an almost daily rage like nothing in my life yet.  I’m happy in some ways to report that it has not improved—I have not normalized this aberrancy of an administration.  But the constant animosity is not good for my health.  And the escalating divisions and vitriol between various groups of people, ever more visible on phone cameras and instant video, erodes our humanity every day.  I think I’m also increasingly sensitive to it all now.  On one hand I’m glad because awareness of humanity, and opposing those who diminish it, is good.  But again, it costs me.

Donald Trump is the personification of dehumanization (oh, the irony).  Some may feel this is an exaggeration, too strong a word to use.  It is not.  He is a hardened master of this insidious craft, and we are each capable of the same, whether we admit it or not.  It starts with making people abstractions—by seeing them, even very subtly, as less than whole people with feelings and needs equally important as our own.  Simon Sinek discusses it eloquently in his book Leaders Eat Last; you can read an iteration of his thoughts in this interview.  He describes CEOs like Jim Sinegal and Bob Chapman who, in hard times, gave employees raises and decreased workers’ hours, respectively, rather than laying anyone off.  I learned during a lecture, though I cannot find the citation (Boehm, 2015?) that only 17% of healthcare CEOs take the well-being of their employees into account when making decisions.  Sinegal and Chapman sacrificed some numbers to save people, Sinek says.  Too many leaders sacrifice people to save the numbers.  Turning people into abstractions is both akin to and a step toward dehumanizing them.

I have a friend who used to criticize people, ideas, or things by saying, “That’s (he’s) so gay.”  He would deny his negative attitude, deny that he was using ‘gay’ as a derogatory term.  He would also deny that he was biased against homosexuals.  I believe he would never treat anyone badly because they were gay, let alone commit any kind of hate crime.  But ‘being gay’ was a negative abstraction to him.  It was abnormal, something to be derided and shamed—to be scorned.  His objection to the idea of homosexuality made homosexuals, as a group in his mind, less than.  I think we all do this more often than we know.  I wrote about it last year, describing how doctors in different medical specialties talk about each other in pejorative stereotypes.  We dehumanize each other every damn day.

Brené Brown describes this clearly in her book Braving the Wildnerness:

Dehumanization has fueled innumerable acts of violence, human rights violations, war crimes, and genocides. It makes slavery, torture, and human trafficking possible. Dehumanizing others is the process by which we become accepting of violations against human nature, the human spirit, and, for many of us, violations against the central tenets of our faith.

How does this happen? Maiese explains that most of us believe that people’s basic human rights should not be violated—that crimes like murder, rape, and torture are wrong. Successful dehumanizing, however, creates moral exclusion. Groups targeted based on their identity—gender, ideology, skin color, ethnicity, religion, age—are depicted as “less than” or criminal or even evil. The targeted group eventually falls out of the scope of who is naturally protected by our moral code. This is moral exclusion, and dehumanization is at its core.

Dehumanizing always starts with language, often followed by images. We see this throughout history. During the Holocaust, Nazis described Jews as Untermenschen—subhuman. They called Jews rats and depicted them as disease-carrying rodents in everything from military pamphlets to children’s books. Hutus involved in the Rwanda genocide called Tutsis cockroaches. Indigenous people are often referred to as savages. Serbs called Bosnians aliens. Slave owners throughout history considered slaves subhuman animals.

Again, you may think that I over-exaggerate here.  What’s the big deal, you say, when surgeons say internists wear flea collars (stethoscopes)?  Or when Trump calls Mexicans criminals and rapists?  When he calls women dogs, Miss Piggy, and Horseface, you say, it has no real effect.  Sociology begs to differ.  It is a slippery slope from thoughts to words to action, and Donald Trump has poured oil on the Slip ‘n’ Slide by the bucketful.  Don’t believe me?  How else could we countenance forcibly separating toddlers from their parents when they arrive on our doorstep, fleeing violence and seeking asylum, sending the children across our country and deporting the parents, with no intention of ever reuniting them?  If that’s not dehumanization I don’t know what is.

Once again, Brené Brown says it much better than I:

Today we are edging closer and closer to a world where political and ideological discourse has become an exercise in dehumanization. And social media are the primary platforms for our dehumanizing behavior. On Twitter and Facebook we can rapidly push the people with whom we disagree into the dangerous territory of moral exclusion, with little to no accountability, and often in complete anonymity.

Here’s what I believe:

  1. When the president of the United States calls immigrants animals or talks about grabbing pussy, we should get chills down our spine and resistance flowing through our veins. When people call the president of the United States a pig, we should reject that language regardless of our politics and demand discourse that doesn’t make people subhuman.
  2. If you are offended or hurt when you hear Hillary Clinton or Maxine Waters called bitch, whore, or the c-word, you should be equally offended and hurt when you hear those same words used to describe Ivanka Trump, Kellyanne Conway, or Theresa May.
  3. If you’re offended by a meme of Trump Photoshopped to look like Hitler, then you shouldn’t have Obama Photoshopped to look like the Joker on your Facebook feed.
  4. When we hear people referred to as animals or aliens, we should immediately wonder, “Is this an attempt to reduce someone’s humanity so we can get away with hurting them or denying them basic human rights?”

When we engage in dehumanizing rhetoric or promote dehumanizing images, we diminish our own humanity in the process. When we reduce immigrants to animals… it says nothing at all about the people we’re attacking. It does, however, say volumes about who we are and our integrity.

Dehumanizing and holding people accountable are mutually exclusive. Humiliation and dehumanizing are not accountability or social justice tools, they’re emotional off-loading at best, emotional self-indulgence at worst. And if our faith asks us to find the face of God in everyone we meet, that should include the politicians, media, and strangers on Twitter with whom we most violently disagree. When we desecrate their divinity, we desecrate our own, and we betray our humanity.

So I resolve to stop participating in the erosion of humanity.  When I hear dehumanizing language from anywhere, especially among my own tribes, I must resist the urge to respond in kind.  I will look for opportunities to call it out.  It is so damn hard, I feel so often like a pressure cooker waiting for the valve to release.  So I must practice patience, kindness, mindfulness, deep breathing, and all of the habits I reviewed here yesterday.  I must find it in myself to always hold another’s humanity as sacred as my own, even (especially?) the people I despise the most.  It will be a lifelong exercise in discipline and agape love.  As the Obamas teach us, we must stay Fired Up, Go High, and Be the Change.  I can do this.  Donald Trump is a human being.

Debate Prep

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Debate Prep

NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

Families gathering for Thanksgiving present a perfect opportunity to practice some excellent communication skills.  How we each show up—generous, combative, kind, resentful, curious, or judgmental—will determine our experience and that of those around us.

For this post, I refer to a short, accessible list of tips for conducting ourselves optimally among friends and family with whom we disagree.  It’s from The American Interest in February 2016, “The Seven Habits of Highly Depolarizing People” by David Blankenhorn.  I recently joined an organization he founded, Better Angels, “a bipartisan citizen’s movement to unify our divided nation.”  I list here his 7 habits and my interpretation thereof.

1.      Criticize from within.  “In other words, criticize the other—whether person, group, or society—on the basis of something you have in common.”  This is where DB invokes Abraham Lincoln’s reference to “the better angels of our nature” in his first Inaugural address.  Honestly I don’t know what he means here, but I have decided to take it as a recommendation to find common ground.  For instance, maybe we can all agree that our current healthcare system is deeply flawed and needs reform, and start our debate there.

2.      Look for goods in conflict.  Rather than accepting any false dichotomy of all good and right (your position) versus all bad and wrong (my position), which is the definition of polarizing, we can look for what’s good and right on both sides.  As a progressive, my opinions and positions revolve around inclusion, equality, and lifting up the oppressed.  I imagine my conservative friends’ chief concerns are individual autonomy, personal responsibility, and preservation of traditions.  If we withhold our usual default judgments of one another, we can recognize the importance of each and all of these core values.  We can also hold space for how they sometimes compete and conflict.

3.      Count higher than two.  Again, away with the false dichotomies and binary, all-or-nothing thinking.  We can do better than oversimplified arguments like single payer versus free market healthcare, or “You want a capitalist free for all” versus “You want to strangle us all with regulations.”  This point feels like a natural progression from the first two.  If we can first agree on some common perspectives, and allow that the ‘other side’ has at least one valid point of view, then we may be more likely to look together toward a more nuanced conversation/negotiation about potential solutions.

4.      Doubt.  This one is about humility.  We must practice holding space for the possibility that we don’t know everything, that we could be wrong about something, or a lot of things.  This is admitting that we each always have something to learn, and we may need to evolve and adapt our position based on some new learning.  “Doubt—the concern that my views may not be entirely correct—is the true friend of wisdom and (along with empathy, to which it’s related) the greatest enemy of polarization…  Doubt often supports true convictions based on realistic foundations, just as doubtlessness is nearly always an intellectual disability, a form of blindness.”

5.      Specify.  Avoid and shun overgeneralization.  Blankenhorn invites us to consider four ways to do this.

a.      Practice a “persistent skepticism about categories.”  Left and Right, Conservative and Liberal, even Republican and Democrat—avoid labeling as if all members of each of these categories or groups are carbon copies of all others.  “It’s… worth remembering that, in many cases, creative and categorical thinking are at odds with each other.”  Think about your friends who listen to both country and hip hop music, or those who are socially liberal and fiscally conservative.  Pigeonholing serves nobody.

b.      Consider each issue separately and on its own terms.  Avoid applying broad and heavy ideological frameworks to topics like healthcare, gun violence, immigration, or LGBTQ rights.  Again, this practice depends on the other habits: finding common ground, counting higher than two.

c.      Privilege the specific assertion (including the empirically valid generalization) over the general assertion.  To me this means evidence.  It means objective data; we must find facts that we agree to be demonstrably true, on which we agree to found our debate.  We are allowed to have and state our opinions, but we must acknowledge that they are opinions and not necessarily empiric truth.

d.      Rely first and foremost on inductive reasoning.  [Deductive reasoning works from the more general to the more specific…Inductive reasoning works the other way, moving from specific observations to broader generalizations and theories.]  This method of thinking and speaking, I think, may be less susceptible to bias, especially if we try our best to be objective in our observations.  It is the difference between “you have a fever, severe fatigue, and body aches that started all of a sudden; you were recently in close contact with someone eventually diagnosed with influenza, and you were not vaccinated—you probably have flu” and “flu is going around, you feel sick, you must have the flu.”

In general these practices are extremely difficult, and require significant attention and effort.  In the face of relationships with emotional baggage, raised armor, and close quarters, they feel that much more challenging and impossible.

6.      Qualify (in most cases).  Allow for our statements and assertions to be less definitive, more nuanced.  This is a corollary to practicing doubt.  Prepare to hold space for exceptions, to discuss how one size of anything really does not fit all, and things are never as simple and clear-cut as we would like.  “Of course, in today’s world of dueling talking points and partisan political warfare, qualifying—in the sense modifying or limiting, often by giving exceptions—is frequently treated as a sign of insufficient zeal and perhaps even wimpiness.  But for the serious mind, the opposite is true.  To qualify is to demonstrate competence.  And for the highly depolarizing person, to err is human; to qualify, to divine.”

7.      Keep the conversation going.  Relationships live and die by communication.  Communication is complex and difficult.  If we are to save and nurture our families and democracy, we must exert the energy to speak kindly, listen for understanding, seek shared goals, and see one another as fellow worthy humans rather than abstract enemies.  Avoidance may keep things quiet, but it does not facilitate true peace.  Engagement does not necessarily mandate confrontation.  We must learn to do this better.

I return to this list often, and find myself straying from the practices in my everyday thoughts and interactions.  Right now I’m really working on not calling people names in my head, so I’m less likely to do it out loud or on social media.  This is what I expect of visitors to my Facebook page, so I feel obligated to walk the talk.  Some days I fail—the plane goes down in crimson flames of ad hominem contempt and rage.  Nobody’s perfect.  So that’s why lists are helpful.  Should we expect to uphold all seven habits equally well all the time?  No.  And our families, communities, and country will be better for our honest efforts anyway.

 

 

It Must Be True Because…

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NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

Funny how fear crops up sometimes.  It’s especially distressing when you fear your own ‘team.’  But we are here to learn and grow, so we step forward. My point in this post is to practice critical appraisal of research data before accepting or integrating it; especially if I am biased toward it.

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A fellow progressive Facebook group member posted this photo with a message of glee and encouraging everybody to disseminate.  I admit I also initially felt justified and righteous when I saw it.  But something kept me from sharing on my own page.  I should do this more often, perhaps—let something marinate for 24 hours before sharing, just to make sure it’s really something I want to engage with.  I ended up commenting that I think we should be careful about disseminating this kind of oversimplified graphic, as the data may not justify the claim.  I await the angry backlash.

After reading the article in Business Insider from whence the figure came, I had more questions than answers.  What are  Farleigh Dickinson University and Public Mind, anyway?  “Researchers asked 1,185 random nationwide respondents what news sources they had consumed in the past week and then asked them questions about events in the U.S. and abroad.”  What were the questions?  How were they chosen, and how do we know they represent broader knowledge of current events?  “With all else being equal, people who watched no news were expected to answer 1.28 [out of 5] correctly; those watching only Sunday morning shows figured at 1.52; those watching only ‘The Daily Show figured at 1.60; and those just listening to NPR were expected to correctly answer 1.97 [out of 4—why the ask one less for this?] international questions.”  Are these differences statistically significant?  And regardless, if the best we can do is answer less than 40% of domestic questions correctly, yikes.  How do we know this actually represents the population?  How does this data compare to similar research findings, maybe ones published in higher caliber, peer-reviewed journals?

The Business Insider article did link to the study report it referenced. I consider this to be a sign of responsible journalism—I look for it in the publications I read—access to the primary literature, so I can dissect and interpret ‘data’ for myself.  Turns out the study was a follow up in 2012 of an initial survey done in 2011 that reported similar findings.  The specific questions and statistical methods are included, as well as discussion of the results.  And while it’s not as rigorous as I am used to reading in peer-reviewed scientific journals, with sections for abstract, background, hypothesis, methods, results, discussion, and conclusion, I could follow the language and rationale of the authors, for the most part. I think they could have done a better job making a distinction between correlation and causation.  I also wished for a discussion addressing implications of the data and recommendations for further study.

Interestingly, I found a Forbes article entitled, “A Rigorous Scientific Look Into the ‘Fox News Effect.’”  I thought it was going to answer all of the questions I asked above.  It started out appropriately skeptical:

In 2012, a Fairleigh Dickinson University survey reported that Fox News viewers were less informed about current events than people who didn’t follow the news at all. The survey had asked current events questions like “Which party has the most seats in the House of Representatives?” and also asked what source of news people followed. The Fox viewers’ current events scores were in the basement. This finding was immediately trumpeted by the liberal media—by Fox, not so much—and has since become known as the Fox News effect. It conjures the image of Fox News as a black hole that sucks facts out of viewers’ heads.

I got excited when I read:

I have done similar surveys, both of current events and more general knowledge. In my research too, Fox News viewers scored the lowest of over 30 popular news sources (though Fox viewers did at least score better than those saying they didn’t follow the news). The chart’s horizontal black lines with tick marks indicate the margins of statistical error. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, a news satire, had the best-informed viewers.

Turns out the rigor of this scientific look at the FDU data amounted to not much more than pointing out that correlation does not prove causation.  The author, William Poundstone, is a prolific non-fiction author and biographer of Carl Sagan, so I imagine he has formidable expertise parsing research data, though I don’t see any published research or surveys of his own.

In the end I’m satisfied, because I have done my homework on this topic.  I feel righteous again because, this time, I extricated myself from ‘liberal lemming’ (is that a thing? If not then I just coined it) mindset…  But it took some time.  And writing about it has cost me some psychic energy for organization and expression.

As I write this it occurs to me that it would be much more time efficient to just not believe anything I see or hear on any media platform—just be skeptical about everything and leave it at that.  Huh…  Nope.  That feels too much like willful blindness, which does not align with my core values.  It’s worth taking several minutes sometimes and disengagement, to verify the quality of what I take in on a daily basis.  I hereby commit to making this a regular practice.  I’ll let you know when I find anything really worthy of integration and dissemination.

 

Diversify Your Network

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NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

Are you friends with a plumber?  My friend Dennis is, or was, as of c.1997.  I forget his friend’s name, let’s call him Frank; they knew each other in high school.  Dennis and I were both medical students when I met Frank.  Looking back he must have thought I was a little strange.  I asked what he did for a living, and when he told me he was a plumber I interrogated him, hard.  “What’s that like?  How do you train, is there a school (I was a straight-through biology pre-med who knew next to nothing about trade schools)?  What are your hours like, are there days when you don’t work?  How do you figure out what the problem is?”  I was just so curious—I had never met anyone who did that kind of work, and it was so different from anything I knew.  He didn’t talk to me for long.  We were at Dennis’s birthday party and Frank quickly found other friends to connect with.

I’m so grateful to work in medicine, where I get to meet people from all walks of life every day.  In the exam room I have met coders, lawyers, teachers, construction workers, professional dog walkers, stylists, food critics, financial columnists, hedge fund managers, engineers, HR directors, leadership coaches, musicians, and myriad others…but I can’t remember any plumbers.  I love when I have time to ask, “What’s that like?” and “What do you spend your days doing?”  I always learn something new, and the best days are when I find some parallel between our work lives.  My husband the orthopaedic surgeon remembers patients by their x-rays.  I remember them by their social histories.

The Harvard Business Review sent an article to my inbox today entitled, “How to Diversity Your Professional Network.”  It cites studies that show “people who are connected across heterogeneous groups and who have more-diverse contacts come up with more creative ideas and original solutions.”  Reading it triggered an avalanche of memories and cognitive dot-connecting, hence my story about Frank.

First, I’m reminded of my first coaching call after accepting my new role at work.  Coach Christine asked about my ‘allies,’ the people whose counsel I value and who will hold me up and accountable through the growth process and pains that are leadership.  She pointed out that allies are not always people who agree with me.  They can be my challengers, my opposition, my rivals.  Through them, I am forced to grapple with my own integrity; they serve as the crucible for my values.  This idea helps me stay open to people whom I might otherwise dismiss.  Diversify.

Second, I remembered of The Big Sort, by Bill Bishop.  It’s thick with data and research, but the part that struck me hardest was the idea that our ideology becomes more extreme when we spend time with like-minded people.  I suppose you might think, well yeah, duh.  But when you consider how this affects decision making on the individual, community, and policy levels, it’s a little scary.  In his description of research by Cass Sunstein and colleagues, Conor Friedersdorf writes:

But for all the benefits of agreement, solidarity, and spending time with like-minded people, there is compelling evidence of a big cost: the likeminded make us more confident that we know everything and more set and extreme in our views. And that makes groups of like-minded people more prone to groupthink, more vulnerable to fallacies, and less circumspect and moderate in irreversible decisions they make.

Groupthink.  That reminded me of Originals by Adam Grant, a book I have listened to at least twice now.  As I have thought incessantly about culture and how to nurture a healthy one where I work, Grant’s advice on hiring for contribution rather than fit holds my feet to the fire:

Emphasizing cultural fit leads you to bring in a bunch of people who think in similar ways to your existing employees. There’s evidence that once a company goes public, those that hire on cultural fit actually grow more slowly because they struggle to innovate and change. It’s wiser to follow the example from the design firm IDEO, and hire on cultural contribution. Instead of looking for people who fit the culture, ask what’s missing from your culture, and select people who can bring that to the table.

So what does all this mean?  I have decided to take it as validation of my curiosity and desire to learn as much as I can from a vast array of different people.  Whether I know them socially or professionally, whether our diversity is race, culture, politics, religion, or music preference, there is always something that connects us.  The search and exploration are what make life colorful and fun.

I wonder whom I’ll get to meet tomorrow?