Us and Them

October 18, 2016

by Zadra Rose Ibañez, Director of Operations

With elections right around the corner, and the MLB Playoffs in action, I have been thinking about a topic which often intrigues me: Us and Them.

Simon Sinek, in his presentation titled, “If You Don’t Understand People, You Don’t Understand Business” shares an anecdote.

“How many of you are from New York? Are you friends with everybody in New York? No.  But when you go to Los Angeles and you meet someone from New York you’re like, ‘Hey, I’m from New York!’ and you’re best friends.  And when you go to France, you’re on the Paris Metro minding your own business and you hear an American accent behind you, you turn around and you say, ‘Hey, where are you from?’ and they say, ‘I’m from Los Angeles,’ and you say, ‘I’m from New York!’ and you’re best friends.”

Sinek shares that, “when you’re surrounded by people who don’t believe what you believe, when you’re in a strange environment where you don’t feel comfortable, you look for anyone who may share some of the same values and beliefs that you have and you start to build a very real bond with them.”

Feeling a sense of belonging is a basic need, according to Maslow’s hierarchy.  Rooting for the same sports team is an example of finding a common ground, and creating a sense of belonging. So is joining a club or attending meetings for hobbies.

But what happens when your affiliation creates a polarizing scenario?  Or when you are on one side of a controversial issue?

Stephen R. Covey, in his seminal book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People talks about creating Win-Win situations.  While this has become an easy catchphrase / joke, the meaning behind it was instrumental in shaping negotiations and arbitration for years.  The concept is, rather than approach a topic as “My Way or Your Way,” in which case someone inevitably loses; or as a compromise, in which case BOTH parties lose something in order to gain something; Covey discusses a third possibility which is to approach the problem from the same side.  After all, we are all trying to solve something and we are committed to the best for everyone, aren’t we?

This is easy to see in areas such as contract negotiations, discussions on favorite books, and project development, but more difficult with controversial issues such as climate change or civil rights discussions.

It is almost as if we were to draw a Venn Diagram of What I Believe and What You Believe and, somewhere in the middle, we would find areas that we have in common.

us and them

It becomes difficult when examining choices that must inform our futures, such as political discussions or whether or not to have children.  Religion, gender issues, animal rights, where to build a freeway; these are all topics that require in-depth discussions and cannot be viewed from one side or the other to have any impact.  Yet, they are areas where emotions run high and, as humans, we have difficulty putting our “truths” aside to see another point-of-view.

One of my college professors demonstrated this challenge perfectly when she told the story of a standoff between loggers and the local environmentalists.  One side said, “Don’t you love trees and breathing and nature?” and the other side said, “don’t you live in houses and buy toilet paper?”

When discussing ideas such as Race, Nation, Ethnic Group, Class, and Ideology in his book, Us and Them, David Berreby says these concepts – mental images of categories that people use to get through their lives.  As such, these ideas are like any other thought: they have a birthdate in human history, in a time when they arose for particular reasons, belonging to the people who devised them.”

In another section of The 7 Habits, Covey shares that, in order to feel at peace and to be effective, you must focus on working inside of your Circle of Influence.  Unfortunately, most of us focus on our Circle of Concern; a great majority of that area is something we can do nothing about.  His advice is to expand our circle of influence to be able to affect our areas of concern, but not to dwell on things we have no control over.  Simple, in theory, but something that requires daily practice, especially with media of both the journalistic and social kinds.

us and them

So when we’re looking at ways to reach a decision on a tough issue, such as who to vote for or steps to take to alleviate our impact on the environment, it might be useful to put aside existing opinions of each side and try to see where the other person is coming from, just for a moment, and look for any common ground.

Unless it’s the World Series.  In which case, “Go Cubs.”

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