Chapter 13. How Do We Disrupt Coherence Compassionately?

You’ve got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going because you might not get there.

—Yogi Berra, What Time Is It? You Mean Now?

By now, it’s clear: disruption, upheaval, conflict, and disturbance interrupt the current state. They reveal unexpected aspects of a system, differentiating some element or elements that were previously invisible. Perhaps the issue is civil rights: people of color or those with disabilities saying they have a place, too. Or maybe nature reminds us that we are not as independent from our environment as we thought. Disruptions help us to notice differences that are ignored aspects of our systems.

This chapter explores a role that disruption plays in emergence: surfacing useful distinctions. It introduces compassion—the capacity to enter into and be moved by another’s experience—and it describes the relationship between compassion and disruption. It offers tips for cultivating compassion and a powerful practice of compassion—hearing, seeing, and loving. The chapter explores the question of when it makes sense to disrupt. It shares a story of learning how to compassionately disrupt in a situation in which one person seemed to be the disturbance. It ends with tips for disrupting coherence compassionately.

Using Disruption to Surface Differences That Make a Difference

Sometimes we shut down when facing disturbance; sometimes we open to possibilities. How we respond is a choice. The more open we are, the more likely we are to notice the creative potential. Consider these responses to the emotional roller-coaster of journalism:

  • The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has closed its doors, part of the wave of newspapers folding. Who’s next?
  • I’ve taken a buyout and have done public relations work for a year. How can I find my way back into the journalistic work I find meaningful?
  • With journalism in such upheaval, what do I tell my students?
  • If not gatekeepers, what is our role?
  • As a reporter, how do I interact with the audience?
  • With ad revenues falling, what is the business model that can sustain journalism?
  • How do I connect my community in civil conversation so that news engages more than just professionals?

Whatever your opinion of journalism, good information—and conversation—is essential to democracy. As people make sense of the shifting landscape, their perspectives surface different aspects to explore. Inherent in the responses above are the differences that make a difference: organizational resilience, the journalist’s role, educating the next generation, revenue sources, meeting the investigative needs of communities, the relationship between journalist and audience. Journalists are revisiting all of these and other operating assumptions. What endures? What changes? Disruptions help tease out distinctions so that we can see them more clearly. They help us to see our system as a whole in all of its complexity by opening us to new facets of what we face.

Until the recent arrival of social media, journalism’s form had been stable since the 19th century. No wonder those who grew up inside that system are disoriented, angry, fearful, or grieving as it falters. Yet it is hard not to be swept up in the enthusiasm of new media people who are inventing its future by turning old operating assumptions on their head. The interplay between those in mourning and those inventing creates a wild mixture of pleasure and pain. To borrow a phrase from Margaret Wheatley, we are hospicing the old and midwifing the new.

You might ask, “With so many disruptions coming at us, why disrupt anything? Why don’t we just figure out how to respond?” In fact, where there’s a natural or human-made disaster—a tornado, a financial crisis, something outside our control—most of us spend little time finding someone to blame. We just act. When we are out of immediate danger, we can contemplate prevention of or preparation for a recurrence.

Still, whether we like it or not, disruptions that affect us may cause us to disrupt others. Take, for example, a newspaper editor who is laying off 40 people because his paper is dying. He is in the midst of creating upheaval, however reluctantly, and wonders how to do that well.

Compassionate Disruption as an Entry to Engaging Emergence

Compassion helps us to face disruption, whether we cause it or are on its receiving end. Disrupting compassionately is an aikido strategy that grows our capacity to deal with difference, upheaval, conflict, and the unknown. Whether we are outside a system wanting in, inside the system wanting to change it, or even faced with an unexpected event, like a hurricane or an accident, bringing compassion into the equation shifts our focus and our options. It aids us when we create disruptions, providing a velvet glove for addressing a difficult situation.

Compassion, at root, means to suffer together. It honors our common humanity. Whether we cause or simply get caught in a disruption, compassion means that we face the situation together. In the most challenging situations, choosing compassion can bring us comfort, strength, and courage. Compassion helps us to speak our truth, even if we’re angry or grieving, connecting us even as it differentiates what matters to each of us. With practice, disrupting compassionately becomes a gift, liberating individual voices and helping us to discern meaningful aspects of what needs to change.

Whether inside or outside a system, we can set the tone of the interaction. Imagine compassionate World Trade Organization protests. Either free or fair traders could take a first step, creating a different sort of disruption. Either could propose interacting with the “other.” What could emerge if we were to delve underneath the notions of free and fair trade?

When we disrupt a system from the inside, compassion usually comes more easily. Like the editor who has to lay off 40 people, we probably know those we are disrupting. When it’s personal, our hearts are more likely open to those we are disturbing.

With experience, we recognize that dissonance indicates the possibility of new and better options. Knowing that makes it easier to be curious rather than resistant or defensive. What if compassion were a guiding ideal for those plotting revolution? Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Gandhi, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood this principle. Although the systems they faced were hostile, their strategies for engaging were compassionate, applied with clear intention and commitment. And they changed their worlds. Such is the power of compassion for disrupting rigid systems.

Tips for Cultivating Compassion

Because compassion is something many of us rarely contemplate, I offer some thoughts on reconnecting with your sense of compassion.

Listen with your heart. It is a good companion to the mind. Our emotional center brings a different perspective. Hear what it has to say, without judgment.

If it’s been a long time since you have listened deeply to yourself, chances are there’s a message backlog. It can be overwhelming at first. If so, try the following:

  • Create a welcoming environment for yourself before you begin.
  • Ask for support from a friend, a counselor, or even a workshop.
  • Journal. Write without judgment. And, if you wish, burn the pages when done.

Forgive yourself and others. Forgiveness frees energy that keeps us stuck. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided a remarkable space for clearing national pain and anger.

Practice. It gets easier the more we do it. Ultimately, checking in with your heart feels as natural as listening to your mind. They are great partners.

Do your own research. Find out what works for you. A growing body of evidence suggests that compassion affects our health, productivity, and lifespan.

Practicing Compassion

My colleague Mark Jones offers the simplest practice I know for being compassionate. He calls it HSLing (“hizzling”). The practice grew out of an audience with the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama told Mark that we all need to be heard, seen, and loved, or mischief occurs.

HSL stands for hearing, seeing, and loving everyone, including yourself. Mark developed a simple diagnostic:

  • When people don’t feel heard, they shout or shut up.
  • When they don’t feel seen, they get in your face and turn into bullies, or they become invisible.
  • When they don’t feel loved, they do a dance of approaching and avoiding—coming closer to you and then moving away.

In all cases, the remedy begins with listening. While hizzling can be used on any scale, the easiest way to start is on the scale of one to one. The next time you face a disturbance in the form of one person, join the hizzle experiment.

When Does It Make Sense to Disrupt?

Have you ever experienced or witnessed injustice? Perhaps it was on a small scale—an ethnic joke at work. Or maybe you have seen situations with constant dissonance—hostile environments, dangerous conditions, even unintended actions that trigger you in some way. Anytime we experience dissonance, we face a choice. Do we engage with it? If we suspect that staying silent means that the situation will get worse, the pressure to act increases. If we step in, we will amplify the disruption or calm it. Calming disturbance, particularly when it is emotionally charged, suppresses or ignores the deeper issues. This strategy generally results in more challenging disruptions down the road.

Of course, if we decide to amplify the disruption, that brings consequences. Engaging is never an easy decision. Yet disrupting a situation can surface useful distinctions. For example, in September 2008, when U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson appeared on television, he disrupted business as usual by making the worldwide financial crisis visible. The crisis brought unprecedented international cooperation. Given the severity of the situation, financial leaders quickly focused on a few key actions—making useful distinctions—to prevent collapse.

Distinctions that lead to breakthroughs do so because they uncover answers that meet individual needs and contribute to the larger system. Disrupting compassionately increases the likelihood of such productive consequences.

When One Person Is the Disturbance

We have all been in groups with someone who seems to poison the experience for everyone else. Perhaps he or she is always objecting or complaining or undermining the spirit of the group. Often that person has an important piece of the puzzle and lacks skill in bringing disruptive information forward in a way that others can understand it. Years ago, I was part of a management team that grew in compassion and effectiveness because one member was a constant frustration to the rest of us. We discovered the value of compassionate disruption as we learned how to work successfully with him.

He just didn’t seem to fit. He was always a holdout on important decisions. No matter how much we reasoned with him, ignored him, or marginalized him, we couldn’t seem to manage him out of his disruptiveness. It drove the rest of us nuts. For the longest time, we couldn’t figure out what value he brought. He just got in the way. One day, I overheard some of his staff talking. I was amazed at their loyalty, their respect for him! I pointed this quality out to some of my colleagues, and our attitudes started to shift. We all admired his ability to inspire loyalty in his staff. It was a skill many of us wished we had. Now that we knew his staff loved and respected him, we had to admit that he was doing something right. We began to feel a little compassion for him. Yet on department-wide issues, we would spend precious time trying to convince him that he was wrong.

At some point, I started spending time with him one-on-one. We talked about his world—he was Latino and had grown up in a different culture than my everyone-is-Jewish-until-proved-otherwise world. As I listened, I began to respect the wisdom in his ideas. And my compassion grew. I, too, became a loyal fan. At staff meetings, when he objected, rather than joining my peers, I started to draw him out, to seek the gem of truth, the difference that made a difference, that I knew would be there. We became allies. I would ask him questions that helped us to hear what he struggled to say. Over and over, he saved us from ourselves because he knew how the staff would respond to the choices we made. We became a more compassionate management team. When disruptive decisions were necessary, we were far more conscientious in how we communicated and implemented them.

Most of us think, if the “problem” person would just leave, everything would be fine. While sometimes that is true, more often, if the person leaves, someone else takes her or his place. More likely, the disruptiveness is a sign that something deeper is going on. Perhaps a value or perspective is currently not welcome in the system. That one person sees it as vital to the system’s health and well-being. Taking action may create dissonance, but that action is usually intended to bring value, to surface a useful distinction. If we simply react to the behavior, we miss the opportunity to learn what gifts the dissonance might contain.

My colleague taught me the value of engaging both head and heart when causing disruptions. Knowing that we may bring pain to another might cause us to want to shut down. The courage to stay open to what our hearts tell us in the moment of disrupting better equips us to discover creative distinctions that lead to emergence.

Tips for Disrupting Coherence Compassionately

Disrupting compassionately involves keeping your heart open, honoring those you are disrupting.

Be clean about your intention. If your actions serve a greater good, proceed. If you have even a hint of ego, desire to overpower another, or want revenge, revisit your intentions.

Respect those you disrupt. Treat others with dignity. Whatever they have done, be conscious that your actions affect them and others.

Seek the differences that make a difference. Disturbance causes differences to surface. Look for the gems hidden in disruption.

A key principle:

  • Welcome disturbance.

How do we find potential in the midst of disruption?

Ask possibility-oriented questions.

A key practice:

  • Inquire appreciatively.

Asking appreciative questions is the most effective practice I know for disrupting compassionately. It interrupts the status quo so smoothly that even in challenging circumstances, those disrupted access enthusiasm and creativity. It often finesses the feeling of disruption.

Compassionate disruption opens the way to creativity. We can help it along with a question: How do we engage disruptions creatively?

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On to Chapter 14. How Do We Engage Disruptions Creatively?