Tuesday, August 09, 2005

A day among rabbits

I don’t remember if I have blogged about rabbits and bears before, but today I spent all day with rabbits, and it is time to talk about this difference, not just a difference of style but a distinction that cries out to be made. Before I start, though, let me fend off the fire of my more judgmental critics: I am an unusual personality type, and your kneejerk assessments of my motivations are likely to be mistaken. It has taken me years to learn that what people think of me is not what I am, but what people think of me can do real harm. So please, suspend judgment to the bottom of this essay. Thank you.

I am an unlikely revolutionary, an INFP in Meyers-Briggs parlance, introverted and intuitive, feeling rather than sensing, and perceiving rather than making judgments. God alone knows how I came to be led from a small, rural county in northern Georgia to a small, rural county in northern Vermont, but I do believe that I was led from change to change and from challenge to challenge. I continue to learn what it like to live in this unlikely skin, and I continue to be surprised. For example, I recently learned that extroverts think it is okay to talk at the same time as thinking. Introverts like me find this unbelievably rude. Extroverts think I am rude because I don’t concentrate on what they are saying. Well, uh.

Personality type is one thing, and communication style is another. Several years ago, I was having a lot of trouble communicating with others in the white shoe investment bank where I worked. People didn’t get me. And I didn’t get them. So I went outside the firm—an almost inconceivable step in the insular company where I worked—and attended a seminar on Communication Strategies for Women. It helped, you know, to take the gender issue off the table. And what I learned in that seminar changed my life.

After lunch, the facilitator instructed us to self-select into one of the following four groups: Owls, Tortoises, Bears, and Rabbits. The Owl communication style is the one favored by my ex-husband. Owls prefer not to talk to anyone, preferably not ever. Owls make excellent computer programmers as long as they are not responsible for defining system function. Tortoises are masters of consensus. They talk to everyone, and on that dimension are the opposite of Owls. Bears growl: “What is the bottom line here?” Rabbits are into process. Rabbits wouldn’t know a bottom line if it bit them. Rabbits talk with their hands, are very creative, and may not be able to finish sentences. Rabbits interrupt; Bears hate interruptions.

As I sat looking over the definitions, I turned to the woman to my left and said, “I really don’t know what I am. I can be pretty decisive when I need to be, so I guess I am more of a bear.” To my everlasting astonishment, she looked me up and down and said without another thought, “Oh no, you are a Rabbit.” Together, we walked over to join the Rabbit group.

Now here is where it gets interesting. I looked across the room at my second choice, the Bears. They were all wearing black, navy or charcoal skirted suits and sensible low heel pumps (remember, this group is all women). Hair was straight, blunt cut to the chin. Jewelry and makeup were understated. They were quietly waiting for instruction from the authority figure in the room.

In contrast, the Rabbits were all wearing bright colors and had curly hair. They were all talking at the same time, and nobody seemed to mind. I thought about how I was never able to control my hair until I accepted that I need really good haircuts that work with the curl. And I looked down at my bright red blazer. And I knew, for the first time, that I was truly a rabbit. I was with my own kind for the afternoon, but most days I worked among the bears.

The first takeaway for that day was that when you attempt to communicate with someone you need to have the skills to flex to their style. If you are a rabbit talking to a Rabbit, go nuts! Never finish a sentence. Revel in process. But if you are talking to a Bear, remember that if you want your message to be heard, you will need to speak Bearish. Cut to the chase. Skip the process. Go for agreement with next steps. If you try to feed process to a Bear, you will only annoy the Bear. And you will jeopardize getting agreement with your proposition.

This changed my life. Above all, I am practical. It is important to me to get to the answer I think is right; it is not important to me how I get there (well, we are presuming a baseline of ethics, morality and good will). But do I care if my personality is propped up along the way? Not one smidgen. So I stopped having moralistic judgments about the Bears among whom I worked (it didn’t happen overnight, and it was pretty easy for me since I don’t tend to be judgmental anyway), and I was astonished to discover that if I talked like a Bear, my ideas were accepted far more readily.

The second takeaway was that if you are talking to a group, you should aim your message to the person in the group most different from you. The others will come along of their own free will.

Today, I spent all day among Rabbits, and you would think I would find it restful. Oddly, no. A native Rabbit, I have been called to spend many years among the Bears, and I have come to appreciate their unique qualities. Most of us fall somewhere on the Rabbit-Bear spectrum and somewhere on the Owl-Tortoise spectrum, and we move one direction or another depending on...well, just about everything. And so I found myself at the end of a full day’s conference on Managing Conflict in Community saying: “Conflict, what conflict? We never got to the conflict.” And also feeling mildly cheated, that we didn’t get more done, that we had so few real specific recommendations. “Where’s the bottom line?” I growled, feeling very Bearlike.

And yet. We did move toward our goal, even if we didn’t get there. It was a step forward.

The most interesting comments all day came from a woman named Susan who pulled two visual aids out of her back-friendly purse: a can of WD40 and a roll of duct tape. “When it comes to conflict management,” she opined, “we need tools. Tools for lubrication and tools for binding us together.” I spoke to her afterward, introduced myself and let her know how much I appreciated her practical advice that we need to find real tools to work our way through conflict. And when I spoke to the conference organizer, he admitted that he was hoping that the conference would make that leap to exploring tools to resolve conflict, while we spent a lot of the day in a group hug, affirming what is right about Vermont, but not making a lot of meaningful steps forward.

Now stop it, stop it, stop it. I am a Rabbit, remember. I support that affirmation is important and that process is a good thing. But I am driven to live among Bears—I honestly don’t know why, it’s not as if it is comfortable for me—and I found myself defending Bears to this group of Rabbits. Besides the disappointing lack of specific recommendations, I noticed something interesting about today’s conference: there were no Bears. Although rabbits pride themselves on their inclusiveness, there were no Bears. Well actually there were a few in the morning session, but they left.

What do I mean that there were no bears? Well, in Vermont there are regional development corporations, and I was the only RDC director in attendance. There were planning commission representatives, but we all know they are "quasi-communists," or that is how the Bears put it.

How sad it is that we all have these labels that we apply to each other—labels that allow us to believe that others’ views have less value than our own. When I walked in this morning, one well-dressed one woman was quipping to another, “Oh no, you have to go to the Economic Development session. You have to shut down all those traditional economic development types.” When she saw my face, she tried to make it a joke, but it really was not funny. I pinned on my nametag, complete with the name of my traditional economic development organization, and moved on.

As I stood talking at the end of the day to a couple of very excellent Rabbits, I realized that they had conducted a “community visioning” exercise in my town. As I inwardly wished for the earth to swallow me up, I confessed that every time they used words like “social capital” and “safe space for productive dialogue” it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I have been living among Bears. Bears have feelings, too, it turns out, and they are offended when people feel entitled to tell a store owner what kind of store they will or will not “accept.” They are offended when their (to them) rational requirements for efficiency are judged negatively. They are bemused, then offended all over again when their requests for “common” sense and “common” decency are mocked.

And you know what? After living with Bears for so many years, I am starting to get them. I am learning that Bears have skill sets--particularly in the area of conflict management--that are not intuitive to Rabbits. And yet Bears will not willingly engage with Rabbits. They vote with their feet, and we are all poorer for the lack of interchange.

That was one theme for the day.

The other was that for a conference that proposed to be about the how to work with conflict, there was surprisingly little conflict. And yet, why am I surprised? People don’t like change and they don’t like conflict. I embrace change. How else could I have come full circle from rural northern Georgia to rural northern Vermont, with some skills and capabilities to share? And I treasure conflict. That is the legacy of my New York investment bank life—a life I never knew I wanted, but that taught me so much.

Here are the few things I know about conflict:

People don’t always agree.

They often have good reasons for their viewpoints.

Pretending to agree does not work. We need to get the disagreement on the table if we ever expect to move past it.

Here are the few things I know about conflict management:

We need to accept that people will disagree. We need to avoid judging others as “bad people” or as simply misguided and uninformed if they disagree with us.

We need to conduct a respectful dialogue, but we need to avoid using the term “respectful dialogue” to shut off opposition to our views.

We need to say often and loudly “I could be wrong.” I was wrong at least twice today, not counting the times when I did not know I was wrong.

Conflict management skills exist, can be learned and can be taught (WD40 and duct tape)

Big values are in conflict:

The drive to decentralize versus the drive for cost effectiveness

The drive to make rules versus the drive toward personal freedom and personal responsibility

Today’s issues versus the issues for the long term

Once we start hitting the limits of the laws of time and space, we know we are having the right discussion.

Much conflict is subconscious, discernable only as emotion, which may be judged "inappropriate." But emotion has a message for us.

There are tools we can use, but it is important to use the right tool at the right time. WD40 is a bad tool if you are trying to get traction. Duct tape is a bad tool if you are trying to open up possibilities. We can disagree about tools and timing.

Nobody—neither native Vermonters nor flatlanders, neither rich nor poor, neither educated nor uneducated—can clam supreme knowledge of what tools to apply in what circumstance. It is important to recognize our own styles and capabilities and know what kinds of problems we are good at solving, as well as the kinds of problems where we need varied kinds of input.

Bureaucracies (state or town) tend to grow unless checked. It is important to understand how the checking process works--inevitably, it will involve conflict.

Here is what I—as a Rabbit—know about creativity:

It is all about creating options. And there is always another option.

I refuse pigeon-holes. I refuse to allow Rabbits to dominate conversations with unfair tactics. I refuse to allow Bears to opt out of important discussions.

Creativity depends on number of ideas (a Rabbit function), inclusiveness of many thinkers (Rabbits think they do this well, but they don't), and the skills to sort through ideas and move into action (really, Bears are better at this than we are). Another of the important themes for today that intrigued the Rabbits was that for successful projects, action often leads awareness (a Bear axiom). Rabbits far prefer to start with awareness, proceed into analysis...and are then paralyzed by possibility.

Disconfirming information—information that is different from what I have believed so far—is really useful to me. Therefore, I want to have the freedom to test ideas in (oh, how the term grates!) a safe space for productive dialogue, free of snap judgments of people less comfortable with conflict and ambiguity than I am.

And here is what I—as a human—believe about fundamental truth:

Once we recognize conflict, we have various approaches:
Talk the other person out of it (education? lobbying? influence?)
Trade, i.e. negotiate an equitable deal, or
Vote (one person, one vote)
Anything else is dirty politics.

It is possible--sadly, it is more often the case than not--that education, lobbying, influence, negotiation, and voting can be misused. Up to here, we have been assuming a common base of ethics, morality and good will, but that is not always what we face.

If you want to have a voice, you have to show up.
People bring their own baggage and blinders to every discussion. It takes skill as well as will to discern the issue before us, but with faith, hope and charity, we will rise to these occasions and work through conflict to new action plans that will keep Vermont the exceptional place that it is.

The great thing about Vermont is that the entire state is chock-a-block with interesting, thoughtful and principled people, who are more tolerant of differences than in most places I have lived. When I walk with Bears, I ask them to stretch to be more Rabbit-like, to claim notions like the creative economy for their own. When I spend the day with Rabbits, I ask them to reach out and include the disenfranchised, unvoiced Bears. But I deeply appreciate the richness of a state that can accomodate this variety of ways of being with a commitment to dialogue and democracy. And I appreciate the democratic traditions of Town Meeting that foster certain common skill sets that lubricate the social fabric.

Another good comment today--that democracy is a contest of wills. Let us never pretend otherwise.


carlakeet said...

All this time I've been trying to figure out if I'm a hedgehog, or a fox.

It does seem as grass-roots democracy works in Vermont. Is it because it's geographically small, more easily managed, easier to get people on the same page? It just seems like you get results there. I was intrigued to hear on WAMC recently that VT is going to contact every state resident to survey if they have health insurance or not. Can't wait to hear that stat, and the policy initiatives that might result.

"Democracy" in NY is positively byzantine and clunky in comparison to VT, not to mention the eternal upstate/downstate divide. Maybe it works on the local (municipal) level, but even there given some limited experience in NYC gov't, it can be a bit of a sham.

Karen said...

One day on the ferry from Staten Island, as I was ranting about something or other that was "out of control" in NYC government, the older and wiser woman next to me stopped me cold with this comment: "Well, of course, New York is basically unmanageable, so what do you expect?" It really changed my attitude when I stopped believing that anyone--not Giuliani or Bloomberg or anyone--could manage the teeming chaos that is NYC.

Now I think that is one of New York's strengths, that it recognizes that it is an organism that fundamentally cannot be tamed. Sure you can clean up the graffiti on the subways (and nobody will notice until you launch a million dollar ad campaign) or you can reduce crime rates, but it all goes in waves.

In Vermont, we still have the illusion that we ought to be able to manage things within our borders and the illusion that there is no need to have a strategy about things that come from the big, bad outside world (like healthcare and energy costs). Both are dangerous illusions.