What happens when we connect with "the other"

As I take stock of another year gone by, one thing I am reflecting on is that this year I really embraced my own identity as a connector, liaison, mediator, network weaver, and culture nomad. It took me years to realize that it's no coincidence that most of my collaborators are leaders of networks. I love assisting them with addressing the unique communication challenges that come with bridging identities, disciplines, industries, and/or sectors.

One of my personal favorite ways to traverse apparent divides is to attend conferences where I can meet with folks outside my own industry. What makes conferences so much richer in my opinion than other learning experiences (books, podcasts, webinars, even classes) is that they are like "microtribes." Attending them is like immersing yourself in a group that has specific languages, behaviors, and ideologies. You get exposed to a range of perspectives and ideas from different people who tend to share similar roles, experiences, and/or goals.

This past year I had the great fortune to meet with many microtribes - from ones focused on data to ones filled with art to ones all about civic engagement. At each conference I attended, I was both enough of an insider to want to be there but also enough of an outsider to be reminded of all those things that we experience when different tribes come together within workplaces, networks, even nations. For me it was a ongoing experiment in connecting with "the other," or someone significantly different from me.


Here's what I noticed happens to us when we visit other tribes and meet those who are different...

First, we get uncomfortable. In particular, we feel confused and perhaps even conflicted. For example, I got confused about what feelings folks were holding back expressing publicly, how they neglected to think more consciously about including those not at the table of power, and why it was so difficult to talk about profit and purpose and passion in the same sentence. I felt conflicted about what I could or should call attention to for the benefit of other attendees (for example, of course whether the visuals speakers may or may not have used were effectively conveying their ideas).

If we stick through this initial displeasure, we are sure to discover and learn. Of course I learned so much: about how rapidly Denver is changing and why, the history of social network analysis, religious traditions associated with sustainability, how designers are helping orgs respond rapidly to stakeholder needs, not to mention about countless tools I can use to support my work and that of my collaborators. We also have an opportunity to teach others who may not think, understand, or act the way we do. For me this often looked like demonstrating and/or teaching graphic recording, sharing how creative work can catalyze social change, and encouraging other creatives to become more socially and civically engaged.

As we learn, our connections and conversations, including within our own tribe, deepen and our potential for collective transformation expands. By participating in multiple conversations I was able to notice larger trends. The chaos that environmental advocates and civic engagement professionals groaned about was the same chaos that creatives called us to embrace, for example. While more people may be more willing to talk about equity and inclusion (and notably some still aren't), the conversations tend to be surface, cyclical, or, sadly, not among a diverse group of people. Overall, too often when people come together, they are thinking only of appealing to their own tribe and not about including the people who will help move them forward.

What I couldn't help notice above all else is the great paradox of so many people talking about how there isn't enough conversation nowadays. Personally, I think there's plenty of talking. What there needs to be more of is learning, or in other words more willingness to get uncomfortable. That's the best way we get to action, specifically the kind that really matters.

I invite you to look for ways to let yourself grow through discomfort next year. Perhaps you'll consider volunteering in an unfamiliar neighborhood, attending a conference you don't really belong at, or simply asking someone you disagree with to teach you something that perhaps you can then pass on to someone else.

I know being a "nomad" isn't for everyone, but most of us do like to travel to new lands every once and awhile. If we want the tribes we belong to - our families, workplaces, cities, and nation - to be better, we probably need to do it more often than we like.

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