You and I are connected through these words on the screen in this moment. You may not agree with what you read, but we’re connected by a shared intention of deepening our understanding in some way. Your mind and my mind are choosing to focus on the same words. These words wouldn’t exist without all the teachers I have learned from, or without this online platform. Within this vast and complex web of connections, we directly and indirectly impact each other, for better or for worse. When we see that our self-interest is intrinsically tied to others, we’re able to connect, reflect, speak our truth, be heard, consider different perspectives, and work together.
When we don’t see the connection with others inherent in self-interest, our world gets polarized by competing political, social, racial, and economic perspectives. We live in an interconnected world, but we make decisions primarily motivated by what benefits us. Even though we’re wired for empathy, research shows that it’s largely reserved for people we consider to be in our ingroup. This leaves vast groups of people not considered at all, or even harmed by our decisions. Similarly, business, legal, and academic communities have widely embraced shareholder primacy, which means that shareholders’ interests are considered more important than the well-being of other stakeholders including employees, suppliers, customers, and the environment—which, in the long run, is not good for even the shareholders. For instance, our profit-centered choices that exacerbate problems like climate change, racism, and income inequities negatively impact our organizations, communities, and life on earth.
We live in an interconnected world, but we make decisions primarily motivated by what benefits us. Even though we’re wired for empathy, research shows that it’s largely reserved for people we consider to be in our ingroup. This leaves vast groups of people not considered at all, or even harmed by our decisions.
Over the past year, COVID-19 has helped us see our interconnectedness. A virus that spread from an animal to a human being in one part of the world became a global pandemic within a few months, leaving no individual or nation untouched. The pandemic heightened the tension between our self-interest and the reality of our interdependence. Even simple, seemingly harmless activities such as getting a cup of coffee from our local café or getting a book from the library entail choices—like physical distancing, wearing masks, and washing hands—with potentially huge impacts on many people.
As we prepare to come out of the disastrous aftermath, we need to cooperate and work together in a world beyond the pandemic—in our families, at work, in our communities, and the world at large. Given the vast political, social, and economic schisms we face on each of these levels, how can we cooperate? What role does each of us play in our daily actions and interactions that either add to the divisiveness, or bridge our differences to create conditions for all of us to thrive together? I believe that we must begin by developing a proper understanding of self-interest.
Self-Interest Rightly Understood
At the 75th session of the UN General Assembly in 2020, UN Secretary, General António Guterres stated that “In an interconnected world, it is high time to recognize a simple truth: Solidarity is self-interest. If we fail to grasp that fact, everyone loses.” Even though he was addressing the need for all countries to cooperate in order to deal with the pandemic, he was also speaking to the economic, health, and human rights crises exposed by the pandemic. “Solidarity is self-interest” isn’t a novel idea; it’s been explored by leaders in many disciplines. In 1835, political scientist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, in his book Democracy in America, about “self-interest rightly understood” as the principle that helped Americans of that time combat individualism, working with people who shared their social and political values for mutual benefit. However, his idea of “enlightened” self-interest, as he also called it, falls short in the current context where we need to work together with people across ideological differences.
Rev Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” speaks more directly to our need to see our interdependence beyond those that we identify with. We each can flourish only when we create conditions for all to flourish: “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” wrote Rev. King. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
Uncovering Interdependence at Work
Seeing our interconnectedness in our relationships with each other and all beings can help us live a more fulfilling life, and work together to create conditions for all to live a fulfilling life. However, as I recently saw clearly, aligning our actions with this reality isn’t always straightforward: Even an organization with compassion as a core value can create conditions that prevent people from seeing their interdependence, causing all sorts of organizational mayhem.
I was invited by a nonprofit to work with their teams to support them in dealing with the stress brought on by COVID-19. Many people were quitting their jobs because of the chaos triggered by the pandemic. The increased volume of work, due to the shifting needs of the community, further exasperated the employees, as our discussions made very clear.
Mary, an associate for community services, expressed frustration with the communication staff. “I’ve given them very clear instructions, over and over again, and yet they end up doing what they want. It’s like they’re not listening, and they don’t care,” Mary complained. She understood that the pandemic was adding to everyone’s stress and things were changing unexpectedly. Yet, she struggled to feel compassion for the communication staff in the face of what she perceived as their dismal performance. Others echoed her anger towards the communication folks. When asked to share one thing they felt good about, the community services department felt a sense of pride in their own team for being “badass” despite the challenges they were encountering.
The communication department were oblivious of the frustration they were causing to the folks in community services. They had an entirely different challenge: keeping up with the changes, often at short notice, that came from the compliance staff. Their work had not only multiplied because of the constant changes they needed to make to their communication materials, but also the uncertainty of when and how the changes would be communicated to them. They, too, felt really good about how well their team was performing in these stressful times.
When we created a safe space and processes for all the departments to come together, a chance to listen to each other’s perspectives, the employees could see a bigger picture of what was going on for their colleagues.
Meanwhile, the compliance team was making decisions to keep everyone safe, but oblivious to other departments’ perspectives and how their recommendations were impacting others.
When we created a safe space and processes for all the departments to come together, a chance to listen to each other’s perspectives, the employees could see a bigger picture of what was going on for their colleagues. They naturally felt compassion for each other. The solutions that emerged were better not only for all the employees, but also their clients and their overall organizational goals.
While the fact that they came up with better solutions after seeing their interconnectedness isn’t earth shattering, the reality is that it wasn’t obvious to them, just like it’s easy for all of us to miss while going about our days overworked, overwhelmed, discontented, and frustrated by others’ decisions and behaviors. Even though we live, learn, work, and play with others, our biological wiring and upbringing can get in the way of seeing our interdependence. Consequently, we are more likely to make decisions in silos that create redundancies, more errors, increased volume of work, and decreased effectiveness in serving others and attaining shared goals. The good news is that, like the nonprofit employees, we can learn and cultivate enlightened self-interest.
How to Cultivate Enlightened Self-Interest
Enlightened self-interest in the current world isn’t about having a certain religious or spiritual viewpoint—rather, it entails consideration of not only ourselves, loved ones, and groups with shared ideological values, but a commitment to recognizing our mutual interdependence with all others impacted by our decisions. I offer below a combination of practices that you can explore, at the individual level, and within your family, organization, and communities.
1. Create time and space to acknowledge and appreciate interconnectedness
Noticing our interconnectedness and being deliberate in our actions takes time. In the famous 1973 study, researchers illustrated that unhurried people are more likely to notice more details in their environment and help others than people pressed for time. With the increasing demands on our time and attention, our capacity to see clearly and think creatively is hampered. Dr. Edward Hallowell, in his article “Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform,” calls this condition caused by brain overload attention deficit trait (ADT). ADT is characterized by distractibility, inner frenzy, and impatience.
When we’re agitated and feeling rushed, we don’t have the time or capacity to step back and see who we’re impacting and how. Like the people at the nonprofit who naturally came up with solutions that would improve everyone’s effectiveness when they had a safe space to share and listen to each other’s perspectives, we too can make better decisions in our families, organizations, and communities when we build our capacity to de-clutter our minds to fully observe and listen.
Phrases to Authentically Connect with Each Other
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese mindfulness teacher and bestselling author, offers these four phrases we can keep in mind to connect with people in our lives:
- I am here for you. When said with honesty and presence, just these simple words can instantly help us to authentically connect with each other.
- I know you are there, and I am very happy. Pausing to notice and acknowledge other people and appreciating their presence can be transformative. We may feel it’s obvious, but everyone needs to be reminded once in a while that their presence is valued.
For example, we ended every meeting, even when we were running out of time, at the nonprofit with the employees saying what they appreciated about having this time with each other. No matter how hard the conversations had been earlier in the meeting, inclining the mind toward gratitude inevitably got the team members to feel connected and recognize how “badass” they all were, or “how awesome” their team members had been through the pandemic.
- I know you are suffering. That’s why I am here for you. When we notice that people we care about are suffering, just letting them know that we’re there for them can be healing. Having worked with hundreds of people in different contexts, I’ve discovered a common need we all have is to be acknowledged and heard. Even in the nonprofit, a big benefit many employees noted in working with us was having a space to be heard. Before we start fixing problems or changing the person, it’s helpful to stop and see what might be most helpful. Often it’s just your wholehearted presence.
- I am suffering. Please help. This may be the hardest thing to say—either because of our conditioning to not reveal our vulnerabilities or because we feel disconnected and don’t know who to reach out to for help. It’s particularly hard to reach out to our loved ones when we’re suffering because of them. Yet, rather than leaving the cause of suffering unattended, it’s better to address it with the people concerned so we can resolve the issue before it irreversibly damages the relationship.
Organizations often don’t realize the importance of providing employees with processes or space to address issues that come up, which continue to magnify till they become disruptive.
2. Clarify Intentions and Motivations
Remember shareholder primacy? It was the late economist Milton Friedman who in the 1970s introduced the idea of maximizing shareholder value as the primary objective of business, which became the dominant paradigm taught and practiced in business and law. However, this narrow focus on profits is being challenged by some contemporary thinkers and businesses. A longitudinal study in the book Firms of Endearment, pointed out that 18 publicly traded conscious businesses—those that have a purpose beyond profit and consider all stakeholders—outperformed the S&P 500 index by a factor of 10.5 over a period of 15 years. It seems obvious that when we take care of our customers, employees, and suppliers, we win their trust and build long-term relationships that are good for all involved. Yet overall, maximizing shareholder value continues to be the dominant paradigm.
This illustrates the fact that, very often—scientists say 95% of the time—we’re not aware of what the mind is thinking and doing. Past conditioning, like the notion of shareholder primacy, shapes our default thinking, behaviors, and decisions. Even groups of people such as families, organizations, and communities can develop default thinking in the form of systems and cultures that are based on shared assumptions and beliefs that weaken the web of our interdependence.
One way we can disrupt these default thinking and systems is to realign, individually and collectively, with our shared intentions, taking into account who we’re impacting and how. Intentions are our deepest aspirations and values that provide direction. When setting intentions for ourselves or within groups, we can first identify who is impacted by our decisions—who are the stakeholders.
A good practice when setting our intentions is to consider our motivations. While intentions by definition are intentional, and we’re conscious of them, the motivations underlying our intentions can be unconscious. Our intentions refer to the “what” we’re doing, and motivations are the “why” we’re doing what we’re doing. A helpful set of questions I created are:
- What motivates my intentions?
- Will this benefit me and/or others?
- What actions can I commit to that are aligned with my intentions?
If you choose, you can explore these reflections more thoroughly with a RESET practice.
Questioning our assumptions, intentions, and motivations and who is being impacted by our decisions can retrain us to be curious, reimagine, and recognize our interdependence.
3. Cultivate compassion
We’re wired to be naturally empathetic towards people in our bubble—family, friends, and those who share our values and viewpoints—but we often aren’t motivated to feel the pain or help others when they’re in the outgroup, as studies have shown. In order to flourish individually and collectively, we need the capacity to feel empathy and understand people with different perspectives.
In the nonprofit, the employees felt compassion for their colleagues within the department but unable to extend a similar stance of understanding toward employees in other departments. They could appreciate how hardworking and “badass” their own team members had been through the pandemic, but couldn’t see that in other teams.
At a more extreme level, we have all witnessed our unwillingness to see and hear the perspectives of people in political bubbles outside our own. It may be an uphill battle, but evidence finds that it’s worthwhile one: This Stanford study showed that a single, approximately 10-minute conversation encouraging perspective taking and deep listening markedly reduced inter-group prejudice in people with transphobia for at least 3 months. The same approach used by People’s Action, a multiracial movement to build a government and economy that puts people and planet first, yielded results that were 102 times more effective than average persuasion programs to shift 2020 presidential vote choice.
The reason this approach, called deep canvassing, works is because the canvassers engage the voters with non-judgment, curiosity, and authentic sharing, which creates an emotional connection and trust. When people feel heard, they are more likely to reciprocate, and it opens up a possibility for transformation for everyone involved. If we meet each other with a genuine intention to learn about others’ perspectives, we can be open to what might emerge when we’re not leading with an agenda to change or convince others.
Everyday Actions to Broaden our Perspective and Connect
How can we disrupt our habitual reaction to fight-flight-or-freeze in the face of disagreement, and instead invite curiosity and compassion? Because of neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to rewire itself to adapt to new circumstances—we can retrain the brain for enlightened self-interest, which allows us to understand and appreciate different perspectives and work together. Here’s how.
Find similarities with people you disagree with
In the examples that I cited above about deep canvassing, the canvassers trained themselves to be curious and connect with the voters as human beings, finding values and life experiences in common. Similarly, when working with the nonprofit, we started the discussions by noting their values and intentions, which helped to create a sense of shared direction, even though there were individual and departmental differences.
As a town councilor, I’ve used this strategy when our constituents approach us to voice their concerns. Their frustration sometimes feels unjustified and misdirected at the town council. A reminder that these people care about the same issue that I care about helps me to redirect my focus to ask, “What are the gaps in our understanding of this issue, and of one another?” When I ask questions without emotional reactivity, the conversation typically ends up being more productive than when I’m letting my amygdala (i.e. the emotional center of the brain) run our conversation.
We can actively develop compassion with this “Just Like Me” loving-kindness practice that I learned from my mentor and favorite mindfulness teacher, Mirabai Bush. This practice helps us remember what we share as human beings.
Meet people outside of your ideological bubble
Actively seek opportunities to get to know people who think differently than you. The Hands Across the Hills project is an example of the transformative potential of dialog and deep listening among people in different political bubbles. After the 2016 elections, this project got Kentucky and Leverett, MA residents to visit and live with each other’s families to understand why “red state” and “blue state” voters see things differently. When these people came together, not with the purpose of changing each other, but to genuinely learn about each other, their perspectives were broadened and transformed. At the nonprofit I worked with, having regular cross-departmental huddles (with guidelines for psychological safety) was extremely helpful for building empathy.
The benefits of diversity of thought are widely accepted but hard to practice. We’re wired to prefer perspectives that feel familiar and we agree with. Three areas where we can actively cultivate diversity of thought are in leadership, schools, and families.
- Diversity of Thought in Leadership: We know that diversity of thought prevents groupthink and promotes innovative solutions. One way that I try to bring diversity of thought on critical issues in our town is to invite thought leaders and experts representing different and even opposing points of view to our district meetings to help us all look at the issue from multiple perspectives. It’s tempting to only bring in experts to promote our initial position on the issue, but better solutions inevitably emerge from considering competing needs and points of view. Leaders can create psychological safety by inviting, encouraging, and supporting diversity of thought. This happens naturally when leaders are emotionally secure and socially competent. Once we get over our discomfort around disagreements, we can see that the outcome of deliberate and diverse thinking is better for all concerned. It’s a messy process and doesn’t work in linear ways but it’s a worthwhile commitment and practice.
- Diversity in The Classroom: How can teachers help their students with diverse backgrounds—race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, and economic status—feel accepted and reflected back in non-diverse classrooms? They can start by pausing to ask a simple question that Jeff Lefebvre, a 2nd grade teacher at Crocker Farm in my town, asks himself, “Who’s in front of me?” He adapts the books, conversations, and holidays they celebrate in class to reflect the diversity in his students. He and his wife, Alex, have curated a mini library of rotating books from the local library to acknowledge the culture and heritage of their students. Not only is this essential for students with different backgrounds but also to deepen and broaden their own perspective and that of their students so they can think critically and thrive in a multicultural world.
- Families Practicing Enlightened Self-Interest: Children learn from what they see their parents do and say, in person and on social media. We may be venting, as human beings need to do from time to time, but it also teaches our kids that it’s OK to disregard and insult people outside their bubble. Instead, parents can be intentional in sharing diverse experiences with kids through their choice of books, movies, travels, and family rituals. I wish I had created a Christmas ritual with my son, like my friend did: She gives her sons Christmas money to donate to a cause of their choice. How cool is it that they are learning as children to think and care about others?
We all had to reset in 2020 because of the pandemic. In 2021, let’s work together to not just return to where we were, but with a revived recognition of our interdependence, create conditions for all beings to flourish—in our schools, organizations, and communities. We can draw inspiration from US Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s words, which she offered in her poem “The Hill We Climb” during the 2021 presidential inauguration:
“And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us. We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.”
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