Belief Systems as Bridge-Builders, Not Barriers

Our life experiences inform and coalesce into the belief systems that guide our choices.  Choices about organizational strategy, policy, and products or services are born out of beliefs that influence their creation. 

This is one of the reasons that teams with diverse perspectives often make better decisions—they have a greater range of belief systems influencing their deliberations and decisions about what is possible, doable, or desirable. Without that diversity we fall prey to stereotypes, a topic so elouqently explored by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TEDx Talk:  “The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

When we come together with others—at home, in neighborhoods, in volunteer groups, or at work—our respective belief systems come into contact with those that others' hold.  Those belief systems can be the catalyst for considerable conflict if they aren’t surfaced in deliberate and thoughtful ways. 

As Joe Gerstandt notes in this post, "Our individual and collective stances toward difference are incredibly important because they inform how we interact with difference when it actually shows up."  If we can maintain an attitude of curiosity and inquiry into others’ belief systems, we can learn a great deal about them and ourselves.

More importantly, we hopefully can build bridges and pathways connecting any belief differences to enable respectful relationships and positive group dynamics, ones that support making better decisions.  As one of my favorite authors, Margaret Wheatley, observes in her wonderful book, Turning to One Another:We don’t have to let go of what we believe, but we do need to be curious about what someone else believes.”

Here is a series of questions I often use with groups to help support being curious and building bridges.  They can be used in a variety of ways, but I tend to use one of two approaches: (1) I have individuals pair off, interview each other, and then introduce each other to the group; or (2) I invite individuals to note their responses in writing and then have each person share highlights with the group.

  • What are a few of the core beliefs you have about _______?  Fill in the blank with the reason people have come together, either the issue of interest (i.e., mass transit, innovation, neighborhood development, budgeting, etc.) or the role they share (i.e., being a good board member, leader, community advocate, leadership educator, parent, etc.)
  • How have you come to these beliefs?  What experiences and/or individuals have most influenced them?  How and why?
  • Describe an experience that illustrate any of these beliefs in action and the impact it had.
  • When/how have these beliefs most served you well?
  • When/how have these beliefs caused you difficulty?
  • How are your beliefs likely to show up in the interactions we will have together?
  • How do you tend to react when others challenge any of your beliefs in this area or hold beliefs very different from yours?
In Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together, William Isaacs notes that,“You have a dialogue when you explore the uncertainties and questions that no one has answers to. In this way you begin to think together— not simply report out old thoughts. In dialogue people learn to use the energy of their differences to enhance their collective wisdom.”  Using the energy of our differences involves:
  1. Speaking your true voice and encouraging others to do the same.
  2. Listening as a participant.
  3. Respecting the coherence of others’ views.
  4. Suspending your certainties.
Our true voice is tied to the belief systems we hold.  When individuals come together to do work, our belief systems are embodied in what we say and do, yet they haven’t been overtly surfaced. They are monologues in our mind influencing the dialogue we attempt to have with others.   Creating transparency about our beliefs can help us better understand where others are coming from, and in turn, where and how we might go forward together.

 Note: this is an update of an earlier post.