The power to change (and heal) the world
My journey to becoming the coach I ultimately want to be started in earnest at the beginning of 2018. At that time, I had been consulting, training, and mentoring business teams for 5 years. My journey began, like so many others, with curiosity - how was coaching different from what I was doing already? I read some books on the subject and tried to figure out how to integrate the psychology, skills and tools of coaching to the work I was already doing. The reading inspired me to deepen my knowledge, so I researched coaching schools. Oh my, there are dozens of them.
But then I found CRR UK, and their training program on Organisation and Relationship Systems Coaching(TM). I had found my passion.
What that course taught me, above everything else - and it taught me a lot - is that ORSC has the power to change the world. Yes, I really mean it. Bear with me, I will explain.
We are a species divided.
We categorise and organise people by their race, their religion, their political beliefs, their clothing, their language, their accents, where they live, the food they eat and the way they do everything from greet people to prepare and consume a meal.
In pre-historic times, communities kept us alive and safe. Small family groups began to coalesce into small, and later larger, tribes. These tribes built their own rules and behavioural norms, a belief system - a group identity. Tribalism helped us gather more food than we could as family groups, and it helped us defend ourselves against wild animals and other social groups. It is built into our evolutionary biology. But is it still helpful? What is the purpose today of tribalism?
We have evolved over hundreds of thousand of years to seek out "people like us". The more like us we find someone, the more affinity we have for them, the more we understand them, believe them, support them and stand up for them. But the converse is also true - anyone not like us gets less of our understanding, trust, and support. And in recent years, we have started to focus more and more intently on the things that divide us.
This division, this focus on our differences rather than our similarities, leads to everything from school bullying through toxic workplaces to civil wars and genocide. Yes, the basis for all of this is the same.
All of the world's problems are caused by a mindset of "us versus them".
Recognising differences is fine. In fact it's a good thing in and of itself. However, problems arise when we fear the "others", choose to treat them differently (less well than our own group) or create an imbalance of power in our favour.
And this starts when we are young.
At schools across the western world, kids congregate in groups - 'tribes'. The tribe of 'popular' kids not only don't integrate with the geeks for example, members are actively discouraged from associating with those in another group. To amplify this, leaders of the popular group will punish or ostracise any member who flouts these unspoken 'rules'. Break the rules and not only are you out of the group, the people who were your friends yesterday won't talk to you today because (for example) "you spoke to the fat kid at lunch". This divisive environment teaches us at an early age to associate only with those like us. And that deep-rooted belief can sometimes stay with us through to adulthood. Or it can be made to change, through the appropriate application of particular strategies.
Belonging to a group, a team, a community, is a powerful driving force in all of us. In the early 1950s, Muzafer Sherif conducted a series of experiments, that came to be known by the camp where they were held, as the Robbers Cave experiment (link is to the scientific paper, or search for it on YouTube for a summary).
Twenty-two 11-year-old boys from middle-class Protestant families were brought together in two groups in efforts to understand inter-group and intra-group behaviour and conflict.
In the first stage of the experiments, two in-groups were formed but out of sight of each other. De-facto leaders rose from within each group and the rest followed. Co-operation and tolerance was high, the boys encouraging each other to acts of bravery and learning, although two boys were ridiculed for being homesick. Evidence of criteria for behaviours necessary for inclusion were already emerging. Anyone not following established behavioural norms was either called out or ignored.
However, as soon as one group caught sight of the other playing on 'their' baseball diamond, their first reactions were either to "run them off" or to "challenge them". This led to an ongoing attitude of 'possession' of camp resources (e.g. "our" baseball field").
Distinction between "us" and "them" emerged almost immediately.
In the second phase, a tournament of competitive group events was organised. While norms of sportsmanship were established early on, these soon gave way to "increased name-calling, hurling invectives and derogation of the out-group, to the point that the groups became more and more reluctant to have anything to do with one another".
Defeat led to a flag being burned, and a fist fight the next morning. On the night of day 3, the Rattlers raided the Eagles' cabin, overturning beds and ripping mosquito nets. Staff had to intervene when discussions for retaliation included references to using rocks! At the end of this stage, both were clearly-structured in-groups with a strong identity and a fierce sense of rivalry.
So far the experiment had revealed the tendency for the boys to form hierarchies, build strong social bonds within their in-group and to compete with others. Any element of friction escalated to various stages of conflict (from derogatory or contemptuous comments all the way to fist-fighting and suggestions of further violence). "The state of friction was produced systematically through the introduction of conditions of rivalry and frustration perceived by the subjects as stemming from the other group".
These tendencies can also be found in and between adult social groups; just think of rival sports fans and political activists! The most interesting aspect of the whole experiment - at least as far as this article is concerned - was what happened in the final stage.
In Stage 3, staff at Robbers Cave introduced superordinate goals, "the attainment of which is compelling, but which cannot be achieved by the efforts of one group alone."
The first was to obtain drinking water (certainly compelling) by solving a problem and removing boulders. Co-operation between members of the two groups was immediately evident. When water finally flowed again, those without canteens (the thirstiest) were allowed to drink first, even by members of the other group. This was not the end of animosity between the groups but the start of co-operative behaviour.
The second was to get the boys to agree on a film they wanted to watch and to pool their collective funds to procure it. A deliberately stalled truck that wouldn't start led one boy to suggest that all of them together could pull it with a tug-o'-war rope. Increasingly turn-taking between groups was the chosen solution to sharing while retaining group identity.
Introducing tension creates conflict a lot faster than reducing tension leads to collaboration
It became evident that the introduction of superordinate goals started the process of collaboration between rival groups, but a key learning from the experiment was that introducing tension creates conflict a lot faster than reducing tension leads to collaboration.
The rise of the internet and social media has resulted in the situation that contact between rival groups is only a click away. 'Like' or share a controversial post on social media and someone from your rival group will undoubtedly comment, often in derogatory, insulting or contemptuous fashion, regardless of the presence or absence of factual information. In spite of its stated original purpose of "connecting people", social media has become a medium for reinforcing and escalating tension and conflict.
Cicela Hernandez was an ordinary teenager in an ordinary school, who was constantly picked on for looking different. When she moved schools, she decided it needed to stop. So she became a bully herself. One day she took another student into a toilet stall and punched her repeatedly because "she looked so weak and vulnerable. I saw myself in her and that made me angry." This made her one of the popular group when they began to normalise and reward bullying behaviour.
Most bullies are popular kids, and their rank and power are determined by their popularity. Those who bully are the ones who abuse that power with impunity. Being mean to others increases their popularity.
While there is undoubtedly some satisfaction to be gained from having power over others, there is also an element of (often unrealised) guilt.
When a teacher passed Cicela in the corridor and said: "I've seen you bullying the other kids. What's wrong and how many I help you?" she felt ashamed and humiliated. She resolved there and then to change her behaviours.
It was her awareness of her behaviour and that there was something wrong with it that led to her remarkably sudden change of mindset.
What is it that makes us ignore, tolerate or even promote and support bullying? That sense of Belonging and Identity. Those needs are so powerful that some of us are willing to tease, harass and bully others in order to be included.
Social exclusion has been shown to hurt in the same way as physical pain (it activates the same centres in the brain). So is this behaviour always simply been a part of us?
As babies, we are much more likely to find affinity with 'nice' people or characters than unkind or mean ones. In one experiment (reference), after watching a puppet show with stuffed toys, 85% of toddlers chose, when offered, the character that had exhibited qualities of kindness in the show. Our sense of 'good' behaviour is mostly inherited (reference). Even our primate genetic cousins have been demonstrated to show a strongly-developed sense of fairness (reference)
But it doesn't takes much to override this natural tendency we have for kindness.
In fact, there is some evidence that all of us are capable of inflicting pain on others - even those we care about - in order to belong or to serve a purpose we perceive as good or important, overcoming our biological tendencies.
The famous Stanley Milgram experiment at Yale in 1961 showed that ordinary people were prepared to inflict increasingly painful electric shocks to others in the belief that they were helping the researchers gather valuable data for scientific purposes. 65% were prepared to exceed danger levels (in reality no-one was actually being hurt). Only when they were required to hold someone else's hand to the pad that administered the shock did they start to show reluctance or refuse. When it was a friend they had to administer shocks to, only 15% administered the strongest shocks.
The most extreme example of this willingness to hurt others we don't have a close affinity with is to demean or dehumanise those not included in the in-group.
Throughout history, there have been numerous examples of this. Probably the most well-known is the dehumanisation of Jews (who were likened to rats) in Germany in the 1930s and '40s. Even the guards at concentration camps have given evidence at war crimes trials that they thought they were doing a good thing.
The willingness of ordinary Cambodians to join the Khmer Rouge and commit astonishing atrocities is another example, as is the Rwanda conflict between Hutus and Tutsis (referred to as cockroaches in propaganda).
We are astonishingly easily persuaded. And the dehumanising of others is not confined to our dark past; it is alive and thriving today.
In 2018, 342 Americans were asked to rank themselves on how 'evolved' they were on the Ascent of Man scale, They rated themselves a collective 90%+. But they rated immigrant Mexicans as only 76% evolved.
This perception is not limited to Americans either, in case you are wondering. In Europe, perception of the evolution of Muslims ranked in the mid-60% range. Britons, Greeks, Spaniards and Danes all ranked muslims as less evolved than themselves. A similar picture emerges if you ask Israelis to rank Palestinians. And when you ask Palestinians to rank Israelis!
This is clearly preposterous. This perception we have of other people as somehow 'less human" is a clear indication of the result of dehumanising propaganda. This phenomenon has even been mapped through brain activity. The medial pre-frontal cortex, that area associated with social interactions, is not activated when we think about dehumanised groups. They simply don't matter to us.
But we do care, deeply, about those who are in our in-group. Football fans, for example, will leap to defend with their fists and bodies another member of their tribe who is under threat from rival supporters. Like soldiers on a battlefield, their team colours and badges are uniforms to distinguish one from the other so you know who the 'enemy' is. Ardent fans even talk openly of 'hating' rival fans.
This is ironic - the very sense of identity and belonging that is so important to all of us, not only builds positive regard, even love, between members of that group, it creates an equally strong negative regard to those outside the group.
In Columbia, after a bloody conflict between government forces and FARC rebels, a peace treaty was rejected (50.2% to 49.8%) by the people of Columbia because they didn't believe FARC supporters wanted peace, and thought they wouldn't integrate.
When neuroscientist Emile Bruneau interviewed FARC members about their lives and what they wanted to happen, and showed the video clips of the interviews to other Columbians, they were struck by how alike they were in reality.
In the late 1980s, South Africa was in crisis. The campaign of disruption and civil disobedience against 'apartheid' - just another form of dehumanisation - was growing increasingly violent and then-President F W de Klerk realised something had to give; that peace would have to involve some compromises. That led to the release from prison, in 1990, of Nelson Mandela, who repeatedly stated that the time was ripe for conciliation, for mutual respect. Cabinet Minister Roelf Meyer said of the subsequent negotiations in which mutual trust began to appear : "if you can say to your opponent 'I trust you to the extent that we are going to resolve this', that's powerful".
That powerful force is Empathy. In recognising the inherent humanity in "the others", in understanding their point of view and that it is equally important to your own. Therein lies the answer to conflict and the power to heal the world.
I write this in the winter of 2020.
Around me, I see a world where there is increasing focus on division, on exclusion, on protection and power over others, on "us" versus "them". We have only to think of North Korea, Gaza, Myanmar, Ukraine, Somalia, Yemen and others.
Our politicians are so intent on selling us sound-bites and slogans while jockeying for power, they appear to have forgotten what it is to lead.
This is not a future I am excited about. But there is hope. Hope in a different kind of power - the power of Empathy.
We all have the power to choose our actions, no matter what we believe. We can all choose to treat others - all others - with kindness, curiosity and empathy, instead of abuse and dismissal or exploitation. We are all 'in relationship' all the time, with our family, our friends, our colleagues, our representatives, and our neighbours. What we need to do is change how our 'tribe' is in relation with other 'tribes'.
Instead of insulting those we don't agree with, what if we were more curious?
Instead of trying to protect 'our culture', what if we were to learn more about others?
Instead of dehumanising others, what if we were to share stories and ideas with them?
Instead of trying to increase our own power over others, what if we were to seek consensus?
Relationship Systems coaching focuses our attention on the Relationship System rather than individuals. A cornerstone of the model is that the Relationship System is the client and we coach the whole relationship system.
What if we were able to coach the House of Commons? The House of Representatives?
What if we had been able to facilitate alignment conversations between Leavers and Remainers back in 2016? Where would we be today if coaches had been able to foster an increased understanding of the various points of view of each side? To bring increased awareness of the real issues, help distinguish fact from fiction, help everyone align around a future we could all get behind? What then?
I believe that conflict in all its forms - from petty playground teasing, violent demonstration, extremism and wars - can be resolved through the creative and intelligent application of:
Awareness, Empathy and Kindness.
This is the power we can bring to the world. The power that the world needs most.