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Change Starts With Empathy (Even For Your Enemies). Here’s Why:

2023 June 25
by Greg Satell

On September 17th, 2011, protesters began to stream into Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan and the #Occupy movement had begun. “We are the 99%,” they declared and as far as they were concerned, it was time for the reign of the “1%” to end. The protests soon spread like wildfire to 951 cities across 82 countries.

It failed miserably. Today, a decade later, it’s hard to find any real objective that was achieved except some vague assertions about “building awareness” and Bernie Sanders’ two failed presidential campaigns. Taking into the count the billions of dollars worth of resources expended in terms of time and effort, that is abysmal performance.

As I explained in Cascades, there were myriad reasons for #Occupy’s failure. One of the gravest errors, however, was the insistence on ideological purity and the lack of any effort to understand those who had different ideas from their own. If you expect to bring change about, you need to attract, rather than overpower. Empathy is a good place to start.

Finding Your Tribe

In 1901, before he became employed by the patent office, a young Albert Einstein put out an advertisement offering tutoring services in math and physics. Maurice Solovine, a Romanian philosophy student, responded to the ad but, after a brief discussion, Einstein told him that he didn’t need lessons. Still, he invited Solovine to come and visit him whenever he wished.

The two began meeting regularly and were soon joined by another friend of Einstein’s, a young Swiss mathematician named Conrad Habicht, and the three would discuss their own work as well as that of luminaries such as Ernst Mach, David Hume and Henri Poincaré.  Eventually, these little gatherings acquired a name, The Olympia Academy.

Einstein had found his tribe and it became a key factor in the development of his “miracle year” papers that would turn the world of physics on its head in a few years later. It gave him a safe space to let his mind wander over the great questions of the day, formulate his ideas and get feedback from people that he trusted and respected.

This is a common pattern. Similar tribes, such as, the Vienna Circle, the Bloomsbury Group and the “Martians” of Fasori have, if anything, led to even greater achievement. So it’s easy to understand how those protesters descending on Zuccotti Park, finding themselves amongst so many who saw things as they did, felt as if they were on the brink of a historic moment.

They weren’t. And that’s what’s dangerous about tribes. Although they can lend support to a fledgling idea that needs to be nurtured, they can also blind us to hard truths that need to be examined.

Developing A Private Language

A tribe is a closed network that, almost by definition, is an echo chamber designed to develop its own practices, customs and culture. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is common for these networks to develop their own vocabulary to describe these unique aspects of the tribal experience and to make distinctions between members of the tribe and outsiders.

Consider what happened when Congressman John Lewis, the civil rights legend, showed up at an #Occupy rally in Atlanta.  The protesters refused to let him speak. He left quietly and issued a polite statement, but an opportunity was lost and real damage was done to the movement and its cause. If John Lewis wasn’t welcome, what about the rest of us?

Later, the man who led the charge to prevent Congressman Lewis from speaking explained his reasons. He cited his suspicion of Lewis as part of the “two-party system,” which he felt had betrayed the country. Yet even more tellingly, he also explained that his main objection was due to the “form” of the event, which he felt was being violated.

It is common for tribes to fall into this kind of private language trap. The function of communication is inherently social and, if the customs and vernacular that you develop becomes so archaic and obscure that it is unable to perform that function, you have undermined the fundamental purpose of the activity.

Clearly, in any dialogue both the speaker and the listener have a responsibility to each other. However, if you consistently find that your message is not resonating outside your tribe, you probably want to rethink how you’re expressing it.

Shifting From Differentiating Value To Shared Values

Once you start separating yourself off and creating a private language for your adherents, it’s easy to fall into a form of solipsism in which the only meaningful reality is that of the shared experience of the tribe. Many aspiring revolutionaries seek to highlight this feeling by emphasizing difference in order to gin-up enthusiasm among their most loyal supporters.

That was certainly true of LGBTQ activists, who marched through city streets shouting slogans like “We’re here, we’re queer and we’d like to say hello.” They led a different lifestyle and wanted to demand that their dignity be recognized. More recently, Black Lives Matter activists made calls to “defund the police,”  which many found to be shocking and anarchistic.

Corporate change agents tend to fall into a similar trap. They rant on about “radical” innovation and “disruption,” ignoring the fact that few like to be radicalized or disrupted. Proponents of agile development methods often tout their manifesto, oblivious to the reality that many outside the agile community find the whole thing a bit weird and unsettling.

While emphasizing difference may excite people who are already on board, it is through shared values that you bring people in. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the fight for LGBTQ rights began to gain traction when activists started focusing on family values. Innovation doesn’t succeed because it’s “radical,” but when it solves a meaningful problem. The value of Agile methods isn’t a manifesto, but the fact that they can improve performance.

You Never Have To Compromise On Common Ground

One of the things that sticks in my head about my experiences during and after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine was an interview with Viktor Pinchuk. who is not only one of the country’s richest oligarch’s, but also the son-in-law of the former President and, at the time, a member of the Rada, the Ukrainian Parliament.

He was, by any definition, a full-fledged member of the “1%” that #Occupy took to the streets to protest. Before reading the article I would’ve expected him to be bitter about the abrupt shift in power. Yet he wasn’t. In fact, he explained that his biggest concern during the protests was that his own children were in the streets, and he feared for their safety.

The insight underlines one of the fundamental fallacies of failed change efforts like #Occupy and others, both in the streets and in the corporate world. They imagine change as a Manichean struggle between two countervailing forces in which we must either prevail or accept defeat and compromise. That is a false choice.

The truth is that any change we win by vanquishing our opponents is bound to be fleeting. Every revolution inspires its own counter-revolution. Lasting change is always built on common ground. The best place to start is by building empathy for your most ardent adversaries, not to give in to them, but to help you identify shared values.

After the Orange Revolution was over, we would learn that Pinchuk’s father-in-law, Leonid Kuchma, who was still in power, ordered the most reactionary forces in his regime to stand down. As it turned out, there were some places that even the famously corrupt leader would not go. In the end, he understood that his legacy, and therefore his interests, lay with the protesters in the streets.

Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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The image is from our post-Orange Revolution ad campaign for Korrespondent. The captions says “Not a word that isn’t needed” along with the tagline “Make Your Own Conclusions.”

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