Our clients and colleagues often ask us how to develop the skills necessary to work in complex social, political and economic systems. The idea for the “Minimum Specifications for Doing Our Work” series arose out of thinking about the ‘hidden’ skills we are using: the daily practices that are integral to our work but are often invisible.
Reos Partners recently completed an 8-month leadership training for a client, in which we taught a cohort of their staff skills for leading systemic, experimental, collaborative processes. At the conclusion of the course we heard the following feedback: “When we asked for this training we thought we would learn facilitation tools and how to design agendas. But the most impactful thing we learned is the skill of taking responsibility for ourselves, and how powerful that can be in transforming systems.” As a result of this feedback, I decided to share some of the ‘minimum specifications’ we taught in the course.
My colleagues and I recently worked on a dialogue process in a country where increasing violence is leading to civilian protests, daily fatalities, and concerns about economic stability. A team of 50 leaders participated in the process, from government, military, civil society, business, religious groups, and trade unions. Many times, participants expressed anger and frustration with the dialogues, with one another, and with us. They said, “This is wrong; you are wrong!” This input was hard to hear. I lost sleep. I worried about how to fix the situation.
What became clearer to me during my reflections on the peace dialogues is the critical difference between my approach when I’m working from ego and when I’m working from connection. When I’m working from ego, my decisions come from a desire to be approved of, to be a hero, and most importantly, to be correct—which all contributed to my lack of sleep and concern.
The thought that leads my actions in ego is, “What can I get from this?” Concentrating on what can be gained from an interaction narrows my focus to what should happen, which prevents me from accepting what is actually happening. After receiving the feedback in the peace dialogues, I began to worry about my reputation, rather than staying focused on how to continue to create space for connections between participating leaders.
When I’m working from connection, I let go of the illusion that I have control over others. The thought that leads my action in connection is “What is happening?” followed by “What is needed of me?” To get to these questions, the skill I practice is tracking when I want to be approved of, for my actions or for my ideas. Once I notice I’m working from ego, often I can get back to connection on my own. At times, I need to ask for help from a trusted colleague. The skill required is shifting my focus back to what is actually happening, regardless of whether or not I like the current situation. I can either be correct or aware—but not both at the same time.
When I am working from connection, I have space for what is emerging in the group, whether it’s fear, resentment, hope, or insight. I share what I am noticing and thinking while listening and being willing to be changed by what I hear. I stop evaluating my worth based on others’ reactions; I hear feedback about the process and about myself without cascading into defense.
In the bigger picture, working from connection rather than from ego contributes to a space where other people are invited to notice and name what is happening—a capacity that gets shut down by ego. In my experience, once participants in a group are able to name and to accept the current reality, they are much more able to see the roots of the issues they are grappling with, rather than merely their symptoms. Once the roots of an issue are visible, the actions needed to move forward are clearer. For example, in the peace dialogues, clarity came through deep listening over months of time, in which leaders who thought of themselves as enemies began to discover ways in which they were aligned, despite ongoing divides and deep wounds.
In the work I do at Reos, a minimum specification for creating systemic, collaborative and experimental processes is to notice (and to admit) ego, which is helped by designing and delivering in teams. Distinguishing the difference between working from ego and working from connection has taken years to develop, and still requires daily practice. This subtle process of internal work is a key aspect of stewarding spaces in which actors transform systems.