In my last post, I reflected on the climate concerns of my six-year-old son, Jasper. I’m pleased to report he continues to have a keen interest in the health of our planet, but also that his mindset has shifted discernibly from alarm to curiosity!
Rather than focussing on fear of the worst-case scenarios, he asks insightful questions to explore the issues. He maintains a child's ability to keep an open mind to differing viewpoints, and communicates to learn rather than influence — the innocence of youth! Whilst this may not be conscious on his part (I may even be guilty of reading too much into our conversations!), it does make me stop and think about my own communication style, what can I learn from him?
To give some context, I recently found myself having lunch with a good friend. Conversation shifted to the state of the global economy, specifically the sharp rise in unemployment across developed economies. My friend put forward his view that employers should be free to slash their workforce as appropriate; that employment law requiring due process and fair redundancy payments was an inconvenience, placing unfair burdens on economic interests of companies and their shareholders.
How neo-liberal, how infuriating, right? Well, yes and no. Whilst I was surprised to find we hold opposing views on workers rights during times of economic uncertainty, it wasn’t this that made me uncomfortable with our conversation. Upon returning home I replayed the discussion in my mind, realising the disappointment was more to do with how I handled the discussion. It was less about what we communicated; it was all about how we communicated!
Social media is widely credited with giving rise to the modern phenomenon of “echo chambers”. Increasingly we turn to selective sources to gather our information, typically those sharing our existing viewpoint or values. We receive information that validates our world view, reinforcing our opinions as the universal truth! But what then happens then when we come across alternate viewpoints, how tolerant are we? When I think back to lunch, not very!
I recall the feeling of indignation. How could one of my friends hold such an unsympathetic viewpoint? My instinct was to push back, to dig my heels in and convince him why he was wrong. After all, surely he would come round to my way of thinking once I put the case to him? He did not. Nor did I for that matter!
What I released was that we both adopted a similar approach, communicating to refute rather than explore each others opinion. Neither shifted our viewpoint, nor did we find a meaningful middle ground. Needless to say, we remain good friends, but our lack of empathy resulted in a missed opportunity to learn and grow.
Increasingly, I am recognising the importance of maintaining an open mind if we are to solve the complex sustainability challenges facing businesses and society. Only by embracing cognitive diversity and viewing these challenges through the eyes of others, specifically those outside our “echo chamber”, can we expect to explore new, diverse solutions.
Perhaps we should all view the world through the eyes of six-year-olds!
So, what does this mean. Well for me, it means a challenge, a challenge to step outside my comfort zone. I plan to make a conscious effort to engage with individuals and groups that disagree with my world view. I will put aside time to engage with media outlets taking opposing views to my own on sustainability issues. Whilst I may not always agree, I recognise the need to consciously seek to understand the other side of the debate. Similarly, I obviously need to work on my ability to listen to others, listening to understand, rather than to correct!
Wish me luck.