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The Transformative Power of Engagement

Updated: Sep 10, 2023

When’s the last time you had a unilateral argument with a neighbor, friend, colleague, or partner? Perhaps this followed a perceived slight or simmering tension that no one spoke about directly but recycled in your mind alongside nagging thoughts and negative feelings. Maybe you picture yourself arguing with this person, defending yourself against what you imagine their thoughts, feelings, and perspectives to be, and telling them why they’re wrong. What if, in undertaking this imagined battle, rather than having a laugh at the internal drama, you double down on what your imagination produced, transforming imaginings into intractable beliefs about who your opponent is, who you are, and the prospects of mutual respect and collaboration?

Mental acrobatics like these are human- but they’re also dangerous in their tendency to inaccurately recast our opponents as more simplistic and unnuanced than they are. Worse, they can lead us to conceive of people, communities, or organizations as “other”, devoid of the concerns, aspirations, joys and needs that we all, in some way, share. When unilateral arguments, imagined perspectives and agendas, and social distancing endure long enough, the way we interact changes. Sometimes, we situate ourselves on the proactive offense, or squarely on the defense- even though no real conflict has occurred. Other times, interaction stops- because why bother? In either case, what began as different imagined realities becomes dangerously real as functional communication is replaced by assumption and untested conclusions.

This all too-common way of processing discord can manufacture conflict from simple disconnect or escalate actual conflicts and obfuscate their resolution as assumptions take life as fact. These human dramas play out the world over, and at every level: over neighbors’ fence lines, between friends new and old, inside families’ homes, among colleagues, across political divides, and between organizations and their stakeholders. What’s the cure? It’s the sometimes-tough medicine of engagement.

Consider the last time you approached someone you thought might be upset with you with open hands: asked if you could talk, shared that it felt like maybe something was wrong, showed them, in language and listening, that you cared to understand the issue at hand. Consider how things played out when, from a place of openness and curiosity, you expressed wanting to see the issue’s resolution, because for you, shared peace meant quite a lot. I was on the receiving end of this recently, in my personal life, with a brave counterpart who sensed a problem, approached me with care and curiosity, unwound my fears with simpler truths, and in doing so- in engaging with me, human to human- no longer fit the mold I’d assigned her. Her audacious engagement and authenticity disarmed me, and clarified that while our differences are many, so are our commonalities, and potential to learn from one another.

I’ve observed it my work, too, for a client with ambitions to expand their operation in a unique, hardworking, and tightly knit community sensitive to change. An influential local leader and critic of my client failed to respond to my many requests over a two-month period to talk about the local community and their concerns about my client’s work. When I arrived uninvited on the door of his institution, in actual and vulnerable human form, he grudgingly agreed to give me five minutes of his time. We talked about who I was, where I’d come from, how I thought about my work, and what I hoped it might achieve. Five minutes turned into two hours as he shared frankly that I wasn’t what he’d imagined, and told me about who he was, how this community had become his chosen home, what he valued and considered right, and his concerns he felt my client might pose to those things.

We also talked about what it might mean, and what it certainly would not, to sit at that same table, but with my client instead. We talked about what it might mean, and what it would not, to share his values and concerns audaciously, and to listen to my client’s response. We talked about what it would mean to be open to seeing the thing through- seeing what my client would or would not do with the information he shared, and if it would somehow impact the content or method of my client’s next steps.

This man and my client did in fact decided to come together, to a table, and to have a number of conversations. Years later, they are in relationship- one wherein they talk openly about what’s happening, can behave with sensitivity and respect of another’s needs which are no longer erroneously imagined, and wherein their understandings are expanded by the other’s unique knowledge and insight. None of this was possible when they were disengaged figments of one another’s imagination, embroiled in separate unilateral arguments. It took the audacious vulnerability of becoming real with one another, and of listening with the intent to learn. It took letting go of the fear of what a conversation might mean for the sake of possibility.

Time will tell where they go from here because relationships, more than many things, are dynamic, fragile, and require continued care. But theirs is a lesson in not only what is possible through engagement, but what is necessary for us all. We live in a complex world of serious and connected challenges that require urgent resolution- from climate change and environmental health to peace and security, and economic and social wellbeing. We are, in a way, going to solve these challenges together, or eat stone soup alone. As different as our concerns and aspirations might be, when we look deeply, there is always common ground. This is a time for audacity, authenticity, and collaboration. It’s time to engage.

Understory has more than 20 years of experience in designing strategies for engagement and shared value, and in facilitating relationship building or repair. Reach out for a conversation about how we can support your success.

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