Is Divisiveness Inevitable?

Have you ever found yourself showing support for something or someone, followed by backlash that makes you question your choice to show support in the first place? Even if you still have the same feeling of support, others’ responses might have shown you that the situation is much more complicated and nuanced than you’d previously thought. This happened to me last year. It was a painful experience at the time, but one that helped me to see more of my own blind spots and understand more of my privilege.

I thought of this again in recent weeks as I saw some discourse unfold online about a news story. New Zealand had approved paid leave following a miscarriage or still birth. The story was shared widely and largely celebrated, but along the way the narrative changed slightly – many posts stated that New Zealand was the first country to approve this. Then I started to see some rebuttals, which pointed out that India introduced this policy in 1961 – a full 60 years earlier – and that while New Zealand’s policy allowed for three days of leave, India’s allowed for six weeks. One thread then went on to talk about India’s mixed success in implementing this policy (most people don’t know about it or feel too much pressure from their workplace and don’t take it). Meanwhile, another thread said that it was “interesting” that people were ignoring India’s policy and applauding New Zealand’s; that New Zealand wasn’t the first country to do this, it was simply “the first white country.” That comment then led to a new round of criticism from people pointing out that calling New Zealand a “white country” overlooks the Māori indigenous people (tangata whenua, or ‘people of the land’), whose history on the land predates European New Zealanders by around 500 years.

So while the story was initially something many celebrated, the narrative around it became much more layered and complex. All the layers are valid, and there’s a lot to explore in each. At the same time, these veering narratives can be disorienting and confusing. While this might be more obvious in national or international stories, this also takes place on a personal level – especially when you step out to show support for something or someone. It often feels easier – and less risky – to keep your head down and say nothing outside of your most trusted circle of friends and family members.

But is this divisiveness inevitable? I don’t believe it is. So what makes the difference?

This Week’s Tips:
This week, while working with a client’s executive team on developing their “Inclusion Credo,” I was struck anew by the power of personal stories. Even though the framework we used included sharing a personal story, many people skip it – it can be vulnerable and uncomfortable, and after all, we all ‘know’ the value of inclusion, so it’s easy to focus only on what is “the right thing to do.” And yet, the credos that included a story of a personal experience and connection were so much more impactful and inspiring. After all, a personal experience is one that can’t be disagreed with or negated. This week:

  1. As you consider who or what you voice support for, ask yourself what your personal connection is. You will intersect very differently than your team members, your friends, or even your family. While you may have a core value that you feel strongly about, ask how you personally intersect with the person or issue at hand. Why is this meaningful to you?
  2. Don’t share your core value without your story. Sharing a core value without sharing your personal connection can come across as being superior (“I know more about this than you; I’m right, and you’re wrong”). It’s quick and easy, but it can set up boundaries and “us vs. them” divisiveness. Resist the temptation! Share how this resonates with you; what’s your story connected to this issue? Sharing this helps people to understand a real human experience, and a perspective they might otherwise miss.
  3. Assume that behind each core value there is a personal story. When you read, see, or hear someone speak strongly about an issue, assume that they have a personal story behind it. If you get the opportunity – and especially if what they’re saying challenges you in some way – ask them what their personal connection is. Inviting them to share their story may help you to see differently.

If you try this week’s tips, let us know how it goes in our Facebook group – we’d love to hear your experiences.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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