The killing of George Floyd by police on May 25th sparked the biggest uprising against racism in our history. There have been demonstrations in the U.S. against racism for decades, but this time the uprising quickly spread around the world, and it’s still frontpage news three months later.
But what started as peaceful demonstrations have often descended into violence, and debate has often led to polarisation and acrimony, all of which reduces the chances of achieving the changes that we are all looking for.
So, what can we learn about how the BLM debate has been conducted, and how could we utilise these lessons to effect positive change inside the organisations where we work?
1. Change vs. Transformation
Let’s start with being clear about the difference between change and transformation. If something changes, it can change back. If something transforms, it can never change back. Some obvious examples in nature include when a chrysalis transforms into a butterfly, or a tadpole transforms into a frog. For us, learning how to ride a bike is an example of a transformational change. Once you have gone through that moment where you ‘get it’, you can never unlearn it. You will know how to ride a bike for the rest of your life. Cool, isn’t it?! Transformational changes do not only relate to learning how to do something physically. I remember when I had my first child, lying on a mattress on the floor of the hospital, heart pumping, realising the enormity of it all, and understanding for the first time in my life what full responsibility really means. Something shifted inside, and it affected the way I showed up in all aspects of my life. I will never not understand that.
What we need with racism is transformation, not change. There have been many changes since the riots of the 1960s in the U.S., but racism is still endemic. And of course it’s not just endemic in the U.S., the reason why the demonstrations have gone global are because it’s a global issue.
Our experience working in organisations gives us some insights into what’s going to work and not work in the BLM debate. The current demonstrations and debates are unlikely lead to the changes that most people are hoping for. And it comes down the quality of the listening.
2. Levels of Listening
There are three levels of listening1 I’ll outline here, and I’ll give examples of what we see happening in organisations again and again.
Level 1 – Downloading
Listening to confirm what you already know
Level 1 listening is called ‘downloading’. At this level of listening, I am just listening to try to reconfirm what I already know, or to confirm my current opinion which I have no intention of changing. In the picture, the black circle represents the boundary of myself, and the red dot represents the place from where I am listening. The unbroken line represents a barrier between me and you.
Downloading is understandable, but it doesn’t lead to transformational change. We often see this in organisations, people showing up to meetings, playing the game of smiling and nodding, but having already made their minds up. Similarly when people demonstrate, they are clear about what needs to change, not how to make the change. For that, something else needs to happen.
Level 2 – Factual Listening
Listening with an open mind
The next level of listening is listening with an ‘open mind’.
At this level, we are interested in understanding what the other person is thinking. I open my mind, and seek to understand the other person’s point of view. In this picture, the place from where I am listening is more on the edge of myself, like I’m coming to the window and looking out through the curtain. But the line in the circle is still solid, signifying that my barriers remain, and although I am interested in what you are thinking, I am not going to change my point of view.
If we listen with an open mind, we can get into debate. Having debate with others is a significant positive step from downloading, but also tends to not lead to transformational change. The problem with debate is that, like a game of ping pong, one person wins and the other loses, and people don’t like losing. If someone loses a debate, it does not mean that they have changed their mind, they tend to just retreat and come back better prepared to make sure that they win the next debate.
Debates about racism have been raging for decades. And here we are.
Level 3 – Empathic Listening
Listening with an open heart
This is where things can start to shift. In level 3 listening, we start to let go of our ego and our need to be right. Our perspective shifts from ‘me’ to ‘we’. In addition to listening with an open mind, we also listen with an open heart. We care about how the other person is feeling, and show that we care. We demonstrate empathy and compassion.
In this picture, the line is broken, signifying that the barriers between us and the other person are breaking down. The place from where we are listening is outside the circle, signifying that we are listening from the perspective of the other person, considering both what they are thinking and how they are feeling.
If we can open our hearts, we can get into dialogue. This is a different world to debate. In debate, we are playing ping pong and there is a winner and a loser. The word dialogue comes from the Greek work ‘dialogos’, which means ‘meaning flowing through’. A helpful image for dialogue is the image of water flowing around. When in a debate the focus is on winning, and when in dialogue our focus is on the other person and the dialogue. ‘The solution lies in the dialogue’2, and what we find again and again is that if people stay in dialogue, ideas for how to move forward emerge, which all parties are happy to commit to.
What makes dialogue so challenging is that it’s not possible to get into dialogue without doing ‘inner work’ on yourself first. This was the focus of a recent article by my colleague Dr. Poli Tan, Pause for Inner Research on Racism.3
3. Getting into dialogue
Achieving transformational change for us humans is difficult. We are hard-wired to avoid or resist change. Since the days when we lived in caves, we have known that change means danger. So over hundreds of thousands of years our instincts have become fine-tuned to resist and avoid change (flight / flight / freeze) and we have learned to build structures around us to keep us safe.
Some of these structures are external, like institutions and systems and teams. And some of them are internal, like beliefs and mindsets and assumptions. And if we want to achieve transformational learning or change, we need to let go of, or shift or blow up some of these structures, to enable us to move forward.
And guess which structures we find harder to change?…
It’s easier for us to see things ‘out there’. Our eyes look outward, not inward. We are good at looking at things and judging them, that’s what we have been doing since we were born. It’s harder for us to see things inside us, because it’s not the way we were naturally built. ‘The candle does not illuminate itself’, so it takes more work, more practice to be able to shift things within us.
But if we want to change (and not change back), then it’s work we have to do. Because the internal fortresses of beliefs and assumptions that we have built are even stronger than the external fortresses. You can tear down or dissolve an institution, change a system, disband a team. But what if you have a deep-seated fear that you have carried with you privately since you were a child? Hmm, that doesn’t feel comfortable, so I’ll just focus on trying to change the external stuff thank-you. That’s my safe place, my comfort zone.
Watching how things are unfolding with the BLM debates provides some good reminders if you are trying to achieve transformational change in your organisation or community:
1. Transformational change comes through dialogue, not through debate or downloading.
Pay attention to the interactions you see around you. What kind of conversations are people having? What is the quality of the listening? And,
2. It starts with you!
If you want to shift the quality of the listening, the most effective place to start is with yourself. Opening your mind and your heart, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and listening from that perspective, will lead to different conversations, and now is a great time to have some different conversations.
If you would like some more resources about dialogue, please see below.
1. Levels of Listening
This is based on the work of Otto Scharmer, senior lecturer at MIT and founder of The Presencing Institute www.presencing.org. For more information on Levels of Listening see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLfXpRkVZaI
In the full model, there is a fourth level, Generative Listening (listening ‘from the future wanting to emerge’).
2. ‘The Solution lies in the Dialogue’ is the tagline of Peter Nixon who specialises in negotiations and dialogue in Asia https://www.potentialdialogue.com/peter-nixon
3. Article: Pause for Inner Research on Racism, by Dr Poli Tan