May 25, 2004

Whose Experience Matters?

I was recently reminded of a quote I've long valued:

"People only understand things in terms of their own experience, which means you must get within their experience."

Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals

Despite what I see as the fairly obvious face value in such an observation, I recently have found myself in quite a few settings where people seem fixated on denying the reality of others' experiences. The result has not been pretty, nor has it enhanced the quality of the thinking in the subsequent conversations that ensued.

Most disturbing to me has been watching meeting facilitators and seasoned executives promulgating this leadership malpractice. What do people think can be accomplished by essentially telling others that their experiences aren't valid or that they are not entitled to be think what they are thinking?

To be fair, some of the comments these facilitators and executives were reacting to would probably be judged by many as outlandish, oversimplifications, or just plain wrong. I can relate to the challenge they must have felt. Often when facilitating, I am confronted by an individual's observation that seems completely removed from what others in the group have been sharing. At those times, I have to resist the temptation to dismiss this minority viewpoint. It is far more expedient to do a "bump and run," barely acknowledging the individual's response and redirecting attention to where the "real issues" seems to reside.

What generally keeps me in check is remembering what it has felt like to be on the receiving end of such a dismissal. It doesn't feel like a bump and run; rather its impact is more of a hit and run where the perpetrator has left the scene of the accident. Sometimes it has carried a tone of "you’re not worthy." And the deliverer of the message has frequently come off as insensitive, arrogant, or condescending. Why anyone could think such a disrespectful reaction to an individual's contribution could lead to anything positive is beyond me.

But in the spirit of trying to get within the experience of individuals engaging in this behavior, I've been reflecting on its possible sources. One obvious reason is limited time and patience. If you feel you need to make something happen quickly, you're less likely to explore viewpoints you consider tangential or unrelated to the mainstream or "party line" perspective. Another possible reason could be a lack of self-awareness. Perhaps these individuals do not realize how controlling and dismissive their behavior is being perceived. Lack of skill in managing diverse viewpoints in a group setting could be another challenge. It can be difficult to hold the space of a group so that every individual's contributions get an appropriate level of respect and attention. And finally I think some individuals unknowingly assume their life experiences are more representative of the norm than is probably true.

In talking about these possible reasons with a colleague, she admonished me to quit being so generous to the perpetrators. Her explanation is a far simpler one: she sees these individuals as bullies who really aren't interested in exploring opinions that differ from their own. Their essential attitude is that their experience is the only one that matters. Individuals who feel differently should just keep that to themselves.

And now I find myself most troubled by the fact that she may indeed be more right than I want to believe.

1 comment:

Mark Anderson said...

I'm just back from a board meeting where my most contrarian board member took me aside and told me that friends and advisors had told him to talk and criticize less in order to advance his role on the board.

He indicated that he found this difficult because regardless of the topic, he knew that he was "always right."

In a situation like that one, I'm not sure what can be done. Whether someone is life-long bully, or is someone who feels annointed with the right answers, the outcome is similar.

Being too attached even to a process outcome can cause frustration. The ultimate responsibility for the group's feeling good about its work is the groups--not the facilitator or the chief staff person.