Cooperation is the foundation of human civilization. Yet it can be fragile, easily undermined by distrust, bias, ignorance, and short-sightedness. How can we promote cooperation and synergy at home, at work, in society, and beyond?
Let me tell you a story. A few years ago I had to go downtown to meet a client. It was around 9:30 in the morning. Along the way I noticed there was a shoe store that was open. Not only was it open, there were customers inside.
This great consumer demand for shoes puzzled me, and it took me days of wondering before I could sort it out. I thought about fashion. I thought about women’s clothing and how many different kinds there are. The breakthrough came when I realized how complicated everything was. There are many options for each article of clothing. Sleeves can have different lengths and styles. Skirts have different shapes and can be made out of different fabrics, etc.
In order for the entire ensemble to work, items have to complement, highlight, and not clash with one another. On top of that, there are fashion no-nos. For example, unless you are in an old-fashioned beauty pageant, you don’t wear heels with a swimsuit.
The right pair of shoes can make or break an entire outfit. As a result, you have to be on a constant lookout for new shoes. When it all works, it’s as if you put together an artistic creation. You feel proud and accomplished; especially if you mixed a cheap or old item with new things and made everything look elegant. You feel good looking pretty (or handsome if you’re a guy). If someone pays you a compliment, you claim you just randomly grabbed whatever was in the closet. On the other hand, you feel self-conscious when you have to wear shoes that don’t match the rest of your outfit, and you vow to never again let that happen.
Fashions change, seasons change, you need to attend some function, or your feet hurt, and you need new shoes again. After a while, you just know you can never have too many shoes. Having more shoes in your closet is like having more colors on your palette. It gives you the freedom to mix and match and to be creative.
But wait! This is only half of the story! Why do some people like tools and going to the hardware store? I’ve created a table showing how “shoes” and “tools” are similar to each other:
By suspending our biases, and using only our observations and imaginations, we’re able to feel what others feel, understand their reasons, and respect their motivations, even if we don’t share the same experiences.
What’s more, we can understand others without adopting their behavior. I don’t have to buy any more or less shoes or tools after reading this article. But the understanding does make me more tolerant. It opens up more possibilities for cooperation.
Seeing how alike we are is of course far better than claiming some people are vain and emotional, while others are crude sexists. In fact, we need to elevate dialog with meaningful similarities instead of shutting it down with anger, hatred, and distrust. We also need to be careful with differences. Differences should be studied, acknowledged, discussed, and respected. But we mustn’t discuss differences without mentioning the deep similarities we share. Doing so makes us think we are more alien than we are.
Life is complicated. A lot of our behaviors and beliefs are developed over a lifetime. We slowly accumulate knowledge and develop a fashion sense or home improvement skills. We make many large and small, random and not so random decisions, to get to where we are. You can’t just walk a mile in someone’s shoes, and expect to know the full history of how they got there. The net result is that we often can’t explain our actions and feelings. It makes it harder for others to understand us. It is any wonder why it’s so hard to cooperate and resolve differences sometimes?
Fortunately, there is hope. There’s a very powerful reason why we can understand people who seem different from us. We humans respond to problems with creativity and ingenuity. We overcome challenges with effort and skill. The specifics of what footwear to wear and what tools you need are of course different, but the resulting strategies and responses are remarkably similar. Once we understand the similarities, we can then say:
“Now I see why you need to shop and buy.”
“I would have done the same thing if I were you.”
“Now I see what a great job you’re doing.”
We can examine our rich behavior, love it, then build a bridge and use it to understand and respect other people’s rich behaviors. We can use this and other comparisons to see ourselves in others, and see the best in others.
In addition to breaking down biases against groups, we also need to learn about individuals. The reason is that stereotypes can only go so far. You have to listen to me if you want to learn about my particulars. For example, my feet are wide and one foot is slightly bigger than the other. The last shoes salesman I encountered listened to me and understood my specific needs. I felt he was knowledgeable and helpful. Now the company he works for is my favorite.
The ability to see past superficial differences, to get to real concerns, to find common ground and create synergy, is one of the most useful political, management, sales, teamwork, and relationship skills ever. It’s lasting and empowering. We need to unpack contexts, break down biases, and counter negative influences that hold back women, men, minorities, immigrants and others. We need to teach this in schools, at the workplace, and promote it on social media.
We spend our lives becoming who we are. It’s time we made it a habit to appreciate and respect how others become who they are. Whatever role you play at home or at work, whatever belief, creed, doctrine, or ideology you subscribe to, whatever status, birthright, privilege you believe you’re entitled to, whatever labels you use to differentiate yourself from others, I challenge you to look past superficial differences, to find meaningful similarities, and to work with others to solve real problems.
We human beings are wonderfully diverse, and share so much in common. It’s when we unite these powerful forces that we’ll create the most equitable, innovative, and lasting advances.
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