Adam Kahane Talks About How to Work Together in Our Polarized Society

By Peter Page Peter Page has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team
Published on October 1, 2021

In case you have forgotten since last Thanksgiving dinner with your entire family, our country (and actually most of the world) is deeply polarized. Even if you move to Colorado or Oklahoma to find likeminded people, you will likely find yourself working with people who don’t think the way you do (especially if you are elected to Congress). Adam Kahane, director of Reos Partners, has been looking to defuse polarization for more than 30 years.

Adam Kahane has facilitated collaboration between teams of executives, politicians, philanthropists, generals, guerillas, civil servants, trade unionists, community activists, clergy, and artists in more than 50 countries and in every part of the world. His work and methods have been praised by Nobel Peace Prize–winners Nelson Mandela and Juan Manuel Santos.

Adam Kahane shares his ideas about collaboration and how to achieve it in newest book, Facilitating Breakthrough: How to Remove Obstacles, Bridge Differences, and Move Forward Together. He makes two very important points. First, there is usually no good alternative to collaboration if you’re running a business or government. Second, people don’t have to be in complete agreement about everything to collaborate on what is important to everyone involved.

We asked Adam Kahane just how bad polarization is, how it can be managed, and why it is that the more divided we are, the more we need to find ways to talk with each other.

I suspect many of us underestimate how polarized the U.S. has become because we’ve siloed ourselves into communities of people who think as we do. What does the data tell us about polarization?

It tells us that a minority of Americans—only 4 in 10—believe there’s any hope of us bridging our differences and coming together.

Worse, this polarization extends beyond the U.S. It occurs everywhere in the world: in Canada, where I’m from, and in other countries, which I know well and have worked in, whether it’s Colombia or Thailand or South Africa or the United Kingdom. We’re witnessing increasing polarization, fragmentation, and even the demonization of others the world over.

It’s not that people simply disagree with one another or believe other people are wrong. They think, “You’re evil. You’re the devil, and how could I ever work with the devil?”

It’s this amplification of polarization that has dangerous consequences.

With increasing use of vaccine mandates to quell the COVID-19 pandemic, what is your advice for managers who want to bring their staff back to the office but who know that not every member of the team is willing to get vaccinated?

My advice is to be aware that managing involves doing two things simultaneously: looking after the health of the organization and what’s needed for the whole to function well, while also looking after the interests, preferences, and needs of individual team members.

For instance, a manager shouldn’t say, “The only thing that matters is the good of the whole, so just buckle down and comply.” Nor should a manager say the opposite, which is, “Well, you should just do what works best for you.”

Managers must tack back and forth between these two opposite positions. Does everyone have to be in the office? Will it work for some people, at least for some time, to continue to work remotely? Are there jobs that require less contact with others? Or, when all of that is explored, is the answer, “No, we understand you don’t like it, but this is the only thing that will work for the organization”?

What are the essentials needed for groups to move forward solving problems when not everyone agrees?

I’d like to share a story about this. Twenty-five years ago, I worked in Colombia during their civil war. In 2016, long after that work, one of the men I’d worked with, Juan Manuel Santos, succeeded in negotiating an end to this 52-year war and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Nobel Peace Prize’s office put out a statement, which said, among other things, that the work he and I had done 20 years before had been an important milestone in achieving peace.

Naturally, I was very happy, but I didn’t understand why our past work had been so important. A few months later when I asked this question, Juan Manuel Santos replied, “It was through our work together that I realized it’s possible to work with people you don’t agree with and will never agree with.”

Most people believe everyone must agree to be able to move forward. But a better way to think is: “Maybe we don’t agree, but we’re going to disagree together. We’re going to talk and have a drink, and we’re going to find that we do agree on some things.” A group needs to find where they agree—and keep moving.

Keeping a group moving is important for two reasons. First, when there are things we agree should be done—things that you should do, that I should do, or that we should do together—we build trust between us and in our ability to work together.

The second reason is that as we work together, our disagreements lessen. We find that yes, we still don’t agree about X, but X isn’t as important as we thought it was. And so, we can agree to disagree on X and focus on other things.

What is the biggest obstacle to bridging serious disagreements, and how can a facilitator address it?

One of the biggest obstacles is when people don’t listen. This is hard to overcome, especially when people are in conflict, don’t trust each other, or are frightened.

A facilitator can help by taking your thoughts about the way things are, what should be done, or what’s true, and suspending them as if they’re on a string in front of you. You can look at it, I can look at it, and we can talk about it. Sure, by the end of our conversation, your position may not change, but you might see things differently.

Having informal conversations during coffee breaks, going for walks in pairs, eating meals together, or using Lego bricks to build models of challenges can help people explore ideas in this same, suspended way.

By employing these methods, we’re saying, “I’m going to share how I think about this, but I’m open to changing my mind. Maybe we’ll agree. Maybe I’ll even understand why you think what you do. It’s not that you’re uninformed, belligerent, or my enemy. Even if we disagree, there are still things we can do together.”

You have a new book out titled Facilitating Breakthrough. What moved you to write that book now?

The world needs more and better collaboration. We need to find ways to work together because we can’t succeed in dealing with today’s pressing issues alone. To do this, we need more and better facilitation. The traditional ways of facilitating are inadequate, so I wrote this book about a third kind of facilitation, transformative facilitation, which enables people to move forward together.

Are you hopeful the tensions in society will ease?

While I’m not optimistic that tensions in our society will ease, I’m hopeful. My firsthand experience has shown me that it’s possible for people to collaborate and move forward together, even with people they don’t agree with, like, or trust.

I’ve seen this with my own eyes. I know it can work. I know it can be taught. I know it can be learned. I think that sharing examples of success, sharing the practices and recipes for success—the core of the book—will enable people to work together productively.

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By Peter Page Peter Page has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team

Journalist verified by Muck Rack verified

Peter Page is the Contributions Editor at Grit Daily. Formerly at Entrepreneur.com, he began his journalism career as a newspaper reporter long before print journalism had even heard of the internet, much less realized it would demolish the industry. The years he worked a police reporter are a big influence on his world view to this day. Page has some degree of expertise in environmental policy, the energy economy, ecosystem dynamics, the anthropology of urban gangs, the workings of civil and criminal courts, politics, the machinations of government, and the art of crystallizing thought in writing.

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