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About this episode
In this episode (Season 4, Episode 4), we welcome guest Randy Lioz to talk about the challenges polarization poses to collaborative efforts and how to engage in some depolarizing practices to improve our relationships and collaborations. Randy is the founder of D.O.C. (Depolarizing Organizational Cultures), a workshop facilitator, speaker and writer.
Kalin Goble: Welcome to Practicing Connection in a Complex World, a podcast exploring the personal stories and collective practices that empower us to work together to help each other, our families, and our communities improve our resilience and readiness in a rapidly changing world. To start our conversation here are Jessica Beckendorf and Bob Bertsch.
Bob Bertsch: Hi, and welcome to Practicing Connection. It’s so great to have you join us today. I’m Bob Bertsch.
Jessica Beckendorf: I’m Jessica Beckendorf. In this episode, we’re going to be talking about depolarizing practices with our guest Randy Lioz. Randy is the founder of DOC, Depolarizing Organizational Cultures, which focuses on leadership and staff training, as well as train the trainer services that help build healthy organizational cultures. Welcome to Practicing Connection, Randy, please tell us a little more about DOC.
Randy Lioz: Thanks so much for having me. This is really exciting. I have just launched the organization and there’s some really cool pathways ahead, I think. I wanted to actually start out by talking about the meaning of the name of my consultancy. Depolarizing Organizational Cultures could actually mean a couple different things. Certainly, we want to work with organizations that feel if there is a bit of friction from polarization within their cultures, and they want some intervention, some skills that can help their folks talk to one another internally and also to external audiences more effectively by using techniques that help us to really connect and have more productive conversations.
There are some interventions, but also it’s about building inherently depolarizing cultures that have an impact on the people within them, and also everyone from people to organizations that they connect with. Building a long-term depolarizing culture within an organization is the best way to really fortify the effectiveness of that organization and make it more compelling and more effective at reaching out to a variety of audiences about its mission.
Jessica: That sounds like a really big job. [chuckles] Thank you so much for sharing some of your work with the world. Before we dig into these practices, can you tell us a little bit more about polarization in general, what it is, what does it mean for people working on teams, for leaders? Tell us a little bit more.
Randy: Yes, definitely. Polarization, inherently, is not necessarily a bad thing. In a democracy, we definitely want folks with very distinct viewpoints, and we definitely want some really in-depth conversations, maybe even intense conversations about what are the best solutions for the problems that are facing our country. When we talk about problematic polarization, the sort of polarization that puts up barriers to connection and actually working together effectively. We’re talking about something called affective polarization, which is about the emotional response that we have to other folks. It’s not about saying that their solutions aren’t the right ones for the country.
It’s about saying that these are bad people and they want bad things for the country. It’s about how you feel about the millions of people who likely voted differently from you in the last election. We really need to get past the idea that those people are trying to hurt the country if we don’t agree with their solutions. Affective polarization is a really tough challenge because it does create barriers to working together. If you really feel that the group of people who disagree with you on policy proposals are not worth your time, then you’re going to have a much smaller potential audience when it comes to advocating for those solutions. You’re not going to be able to make a convincing case to the people who have a different perspective, a very different perspective from you about what works and what doesn’t.
It really narrows your ability to look for solutions, especially creative solutions. We really want to focus on how to connect with people who believe very differently and basically keep the good faith in those conversations to believe that they actually do want the best for the country, but it may look different. How those similar values are expressed may look different in terms of what solutions are actually developed.
Jessica: Just adding a little bit more context. Best for the country, but also bringing it to a much kind of on-the-ground way of thinking about it, best for whatever change effort you’re engaging in with a group of people or best for your organization. One of the things I like to say is a central part of my work is helping people to commit to be in relationship with each other, even when they don’t want to be. This is what your work reminds me of.
Randy: Absolutely. Relationships are really what these efforts are all about. I spent six years with an organization called Braver Angels, and this is where I really got steeped in the techniques and the principles that underlie the focus on polarization. Many of those techniques actually came from the world of marriage and family therapy. These techniques really are focused on the strength of relationships and coming back to what we share in common. As long as we’re able to come back to our common ground. I got so many reinforcements through this work. I’ve run many, many workshops that brought reds and blues together to talk about what they believe. At every one, at the end of a red-blue workshop, people would say, ‘We are so much closer than I had imagined.”
We’re in a media environment that really plays up those differences and stokes people’s rage based on folks who see a different path forward and basically stokes that bad will that flows between these two political tribes that we’ve distilled ourselves down into. When we can focus on what is in common, that makes us a lot more effective at connecting. The other thing, within relationships, our stories are so important. Human beings are a narrative species. There’s even evidence that when we’re pre-verbal, before toddlers have even developed language, they still go through, at the end of the day, they’re kind of processing their day as a narrative with them as the central character, so story and narrative is really essential to who we are as human beings, and it really helps us connect.
One of the things that the polarization work tends to emphasize is that power of story and making sure that people understand that the perspectives that we have developed over time and through each of our individual stories. When we share those stories with each other, it makes it a lot easier to understand how we developed our perspectives and to connect with the values that underlie those perspectives.
Jessica: You and I recently presented at a conference, and it was based on some work that you had done with a colleague of mine. I helped out a little. One of the outcomes of the work was incredibly moving to me, and that’s that after participating in the workshop, it wasn’t everyone, but a huge portion, like 33% up to 50%, depending on the item, said that they found that people who hold political perspectives opposite their own were more intelligent, more honest, and more open-minded. They thought that they were more of those things than they thought before the workshop.
They also felt that people who hold political perspectives opposite their own, they found them to be less hypocritical, selfish, and mean. I feel like even if only 30% of the people said these things, which that was the lowest score, was at 30%, so this was 30 to 50% found that people to be more or less of these things. I think it was a huge impact that this kind of work makes. If we talk to each other, tell each other our stories, tell each other what’s behind what we’re saying and doing, and I’d love to hear your perspective on this, Randy. If we start to tell people what’s behind what we’re saying and what we’re doing, does that have the effect of changing how we start saying things in the future and how we start connecting with people?
Randy: Yes. One of the big aspects of depolarization work is helping people to be more aware of the differences in language that we use, how we talk about our values, and how very similar values tend to be expressed. When it comes to a value like fairness, we talk all the time about how we share those values, and once we’re able to connect and recognize that the other person holds that value is really important to them, it creates a much easier path for connection. As an example of how that value can be expressed very differently, one of the examples that we used a lot at Braver Angels was around immigration and so for blues, for more progressives, liberals, democrats, fairness is about navigating the current system and the difficulties that that system creates and how it can create challenges that might seem unfair.
Dreamers, for example, might have been raised here and don’t really know any other country and so blues would see it as inherently unfair to send them back to a country that they don’t really know. On the other hand, reds tend to really emphasize the fairness of an ordered process that treats people the same and gives people the same opportunities and so the emphasis tends to be on making sure that everyone goes through that process and no one jumps the line, which would be seen as really unfair. This concept is very common to pretty much all of us. Fairness is an inherent human priority but it can be expressed so differently.
Once we talk about how certain things can seem very unfair to us, that can help us connect, and especially if we know the story behind it. If we have a family member or something, who has been affected by this concept of fairness, whether they waited and did the process in the legal way and resented folks jumping the line or maybe they were a dreamer, and so an exception to the letter of the law for them might have been really important and might have been actually the way to realize fairness. Those things, especially with those stories, make our perspective so much easier to understand.
Jessica: Thinking about people who are looking to engage in some community change, maybe there’s a topic that they’re really passionate about and they’re hoping to bring others on board, and they’re hoping to bring a wide variety of perspectives on board, you’ve mentioned a few already, but I’d like to have a conversation around what challenges polarization poses for people who are trying to collaborate on community change or on topic or issues together.
Randy: Absolutely. Polarization really puts up barriers to working together in many ways because it’s about trust. Relationships, where you’re trying to achieve a goal together, can only exist if there’s trust, if you believe that your partner believes in the same priorities and the same values that you share and so if that trust is undermined, you’re really not going to be able to achieve much together. Also, there are a lot of external audiences that you clearly need to connect with on all the goals that you’re trying to pursue. Being able to speak to a variety of different audiences, even ones who you see as maybe making choices that hurt people that you care about, if you are- basically the writing of anyone whose decisions you see as harmful, then it really dramatically narrows the audience of people that you can actually connect with and enlist in the fight to make the change that you’re looking for.
A lot of the emphasis is on going back to that language that we talked about, how conservatives and liberals tend to use language very differently and being able to speak that language effectively and perhaps respect how different people use language and connecting with them on that level, meeting people where they are, as they say. Having been involved in the world of depolarization for the past six years, my group of friends and contacts and those who I talk about politics with really expanded. I felt that I was a lot more effective at connecting with–
I come from a relatively liberal background and most of the family members, the friends from the– I’ve lived on the coasts for most of my life. Those folks tend to be pretty blue, but I definitely have gained an immeasurable sense of my effectiveness by connecting with more conservative folks and I’ve also really come to appreciate the values that they espouse and how those values can complement mine and sometimes provide much-needed checks on excesses, even of the groups that I tend to support and whose priorities I really value. Speaking that language has really– It’s been a long-term journey and it does sometimes require you to suspend a little bit of disbelief.
If you’re skeptical about someone’s rationales, to ask those curious questions, curiosity should definitely always be at the center of this work and so if you are suspending a little bit of that disbelief and the scripted reactions that we tend to have to someone’s perspective about an issue, then it really gives you a lot more time to dig in and say, “All right. How did you get there? How does this idea that makes not a lot of sense to me, how does that hold together in your mind based on the influences, the experiences that you’ve had that create a worldview that is quite coherent to you?”
Jessica: Randy, you mentioned trust a little bit earlier and how it’s difficult to trust people that we think nasty things about. You didn’t say it that way but [chuckles] I do a workshop on trust and that’s something we talk a little bit about, is when you think of someone who you have deemed untrustworthy, what kind of words come to mind for you? A lot of really nasty words come up for people and so no wonder why if we don’t hold trust for somebody or trust in their motivations or whatever kind of trust we need, it’s no wonder why we have a really difficult time working with them.
Something you brought up earlier was about how we tend to trust people who hold similar values and similar worldviews as to our own. What I wondered is obviously you don’t need to hold similar values and similar worldviews to actually work with someone and to be able to talk with them and to be able to possibly trust them so I’d love for you to react to that and answer. I’m curious about how expanding your own network of different perspectives, how that affected your ability to trust people who think differently than you.
Randy: I think you’re right that you don’t necessarily have to have the same values to be able to work together. Trust can be built on similar values in gender trust because we believe that if someone wants the same things, if they value the same things for the country, for the community that we share maybe, for those people around them, that they are going to make similar choices to us about policy decisions and just individual choices that promote those values, but the fact is that some people have different values based on if they’re from different communities, who is around them that’s important to them.
My family is always going to be more important to me than to other people, but that doesn’t mean that I need to develop a sense of distrust because people aren’t looking out specifically for my family. It’s the same for organizations. We all are parts of different organizations that don’t necessarily have the same priorities and so when we have two organizations working together, we know that each organization is going to value things differently and we should be well-advised to understand how each organization prioritizes things so we can respect that, so we can say, “Okay, well, I understand you’re a different person for me, you work for a different organization”, and that necessarily your priorities should be different.
One of the things that I think some organizations especially these days make a little bit of a mistake in condemning others who don’t share the exact same priorities. One of the examples that has come up recently I think is the focus on social justice and perhaps racial justice in particular. There are now organizations that are centering those priorities within their goals when they hadn’t really been before. It’s tough to criticize because those are priorities that I hold dear for me and that I think that our society would do well to make progress on. That progress is about valuing all people and their inherent humanity and giving people access to the same opportunities regardless of who they are, regardless of how connected that we feel to them.
There can be issues with insisting that certain priorities be centralized for an organization that doesn’t necessarily come from that same tradition and that has really important work to be done, right? The ACLU I think is a good example because in the immediate wake of George Floyd, they, along with many organizations, started to reprioritize things to focus on racial justice. The ACLU in particular has a strong history of defending the rights of free speech, that has been very central to their mission and to their tradition of actions in the past.
We know that in Skokie, Illinois, they defended the right of Nazi party members to march. More recently in the wake of Charlottesville, when the Right Movement wanted support, the ACLU basically had a change of heart and said, “Okay, well this is harmful to people who we care about, to marginalized groups and so therefore we’re going to change our approach.” I found myself to be critical of that because I think that when it comes to the ACLU’s core mission, that defense of free speech is so key to our society. When you start to differentiate, say, “Well, based on who you are and what you believe, your right to access that tradition, that right of free speech in this country should be curtailed”, that can be a dangerous path. Who has the right to decide what are the values of organizations that should have access to those inherent rights?
I think that John Lewis made the argument that when we start to quash speech, it is often the most marginalized groups that actually pay the price. While I certainly don’t agree with a lot of the groups that the ACLU has defended in the past and held up those rights to free speech. I think that the principle itself is so important and so that should remain at the core of the ACLU’s mission. There are plenty of other organizations which I also very much support that center the racial justice mission in their organizations. I think that if we are able to defend speech in an appropriately or robust way, that those organizations will still have access to it. Also, the people who are arguing against racial justice, for example, their arguments won’t be relegated to the darker portions of the web or society.
They will be still subject to scrutiny and counter-argument which will give those racial justice organizations the chance to make the case that no, racial justice is not only right but it’s good for society and good for everyone in society.
Jessica: I would imagine that relegating certain types of speech only to those dark places, I would imagine that that would have the effect of increasing polarization.
Randy: Absolutely, yes. I’ve definitely made the argument that de-platforming people based on their perspectives is really not the way to go. I certainly think that there are certain posts, tweets, et cetera, that are actually directly inciting violence or doing things that are really counter to the rights of other people, they’re infringing upon the rights of others. In those cases, yes, those specific tweets or posts, et cetera, should be taken down, right? To de-platform a person completely or an organization completely based on some of the views that you disagree with, that I think is harmful and does have the effect of pushing those conversations to where they can’t be exposed to the light of day.
Bob: I think the challenge or potential challenge for somebody who cares about an issue in their community and wants to take this approach is organizations have boundaries. If you breach those boundaries or particular boundaries in the interest of depolarization, do you open yourself up for your organization being co-opted by those people that you opened the boundaries to?
Randy: This is a- it’s a really important question, I’ve been having a long-running conversation with my brother who has centered racial justice in his career. He’s a progressive activist, he’s a brilliant lawyer who he now works for NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the work that he has done- I have great admiration for him and he’s been a great role model. We have a long-running conversation about the difference in our approach about how to achieve those goals that we largely agree on. For me, it is about bringing as many people into that conversation as possible, even those whose views we have- experience as toxic and who create concern for us about people we really care about.
Recently, we were having a bit of a conversation about the limits to the variety of ideologies that can exist within an organization. His viewpoint is that if an organization opens itself up to a wide variety of ideologies, that could actually undermine its mission and create internal strife and really not be the way to achieve that. I tend to believe that anyone who would join an organization that has that mission, is inherently going to value that mission personally. I do think that there are ways to value that mission with very different understandings of how to achieve it. Someone who- I would imagine that for his organization for example that there could be a place for conservatives within that organization that are making arguments about economic development in communities for example.
Who feel like a highly capitalistic and market-driven approach that opens up opportunities for a wide variety of people is one of the best ways to achieve advancement for people of color and so I would never want that conversation to be shut down. I would always want them to be fostering a level of ideological diversity that considers more creative solutions especially because we know that in political tribes and especially in the media environment that we’re currently in, where if you speak outside of the tribal orthodoxy, it can feel very dangerous because you can get sidelined, you can really get cast out of your community and there’s nothing that feels more dangerous than being alone. In a political sense, being politically homeless feels like a serious threat to ourselves and our ability to be a functional member of society.
I just wouldn’t want the leaders or the staff of organizations like that to feel like they can’t make an argument that they feel is consistent with the core mission of the organization, but falls outside the traditional orthodoxy of how that mission is usually pursued for them to stay silent and feel like they don’t have a place in that culture, in that organizational culture because that culture is not fostering a sense of belonging for people who have a wide range of ideologies.
Jessica: Let’s get into talking about how we can address these challenges. How do we work together to address depolarization or to address polarization, I should say? How do we start doing that?
Randy: When you start to get to specifics, there are some really fundamental principles that I think we always need to be returning to. One of them is the idea of connecting before you offer your own perspective. This was something that– Dr. Bill Doherty is a leader of Braver Angels. He’s one of the co-founders of the organization. I’ve had a chance to work with him very closely, and this was, I think, the fundamental principle that underlies a lot of his thinking and his design of workshops that help people connect. The idea is that only once you have made the person that you’re talking to feel heard and feel like you’ve actually connected with what they’ve said, should you even try to offer your perspective to them.
That will give you a much better chance that they’re going to be receptive to that perspective, that they’re going to give it the time that they have seen you give their own perspective. For me, the way that I think about the type of listening that we do in order to be able to fully connect, I call it reflective listening, and that really has two parts. One is the basic reflection in terms of paraphrasing. Reflecting back directly to that person what you heard them say. Also, the way I think it is most effective to show them your understanding of what they’ve said is to really get to the values that they are focusing on in their statement. Reflection in terms of reflecting back, but also reflecting on those values that you hear in their statement.
It could be fairness, it could be appeals to authority. There’s so many moral frameworks that we use for our values. Really understanding what one of those frameworks that someone is appealing to with their statement helps you to go deeper with that. One example could be picking up on a value and saying, “Okay, well, it sounds like this value is expressed on this issue. Do I have an understanding of that value and is this perhaps another way that that value is expressed? Correct me if I’m wrong.” Always be willing, be listening for corrections to your understanding so you can really connect with what they’re saying at a very deep level, and try to even internalize their understanding of that value.
Jessica: I love this practice because I use a similar practice all the time in some of the workshops that I’ve run, where I ask people very specifically to listen for the person’s strengths and to listen for the person’s values and to reflect those strengths and values back, and check in on whether you understood them correctly. One of the reasons I just want to remind everyone, one of the reasons this is so important is earlier in our conversation, Randy, you mentioned that people can say they have the same value, but the way they think about that value is very different. This is such an incredibly boundary-spanning way of communicating with each other, reflecting these values back, and checking in that you understood them correctly.
Randy: It’s about being flexible in your conception of what a value is and how it can be expressed. I also think that as part of reflective listening, you might start to get to that sharing of your own perspective a little bit by saying, “Okay, well, I actually share that value in my life. This is what it looks like. This is how I apply it.” See if that person can connect with that application because maybe they will. It might be unexpected to you how they connect with it. Maybe they can build off of that. We can really emphasize all the things that we share in common.
Everybody wants their loved ones to be safe and healthy and prosperous. We certainly have different ideas about what our sphere of concern should look like. How big that should be. Should we be as concerned with folks in other countries as we are with folks in our communities? I think there tends to be a difference in terms of how liberals and conservatives think about the size of our sphere of concern. I think that there’s very rational reasons that each one sees that sphere of concern differently. As a liberal, I’ve always felt like my sphere of concern should be really, really big because why do folks in other countries, especially those who are disadvantaged hugely by the systems in our world, benefit from less of my concern than those who live in more proximate conditions both geographically, the type of society, things like that.
Of course, the counterargument is focusing our concern on those closer to us, that concern and action that stems from it can actually be more effective. We are more easily able to connect with those people and understand their needs. In terms of where we put our energies, there’s just really good arguments for the different philosophies that can underlie the answers to those questions. Let’s talk about them. Let’s talk about why we place those priorities differently. I think that inherently when we assume good faith, that it’s actually really easy to understand how folks express those priorities.
Jessica: Do you have another practice that you could share with us that dovetails into this idea of listening for your values?
Randy: Yes, what I would say is curiosity has been just absolutely central to the work that I’ve been doing. It not only benefited my conversations about things like politics, it really benefited my ability to connect with people who just see the world differently in a variety of ways, especially if they’re in a very different stage of their life. I actually had a relationship last year with a woman who has a daughter who is now 10. It was my first experience being in a role that was parental. I really found that in those types of conversations that the most effective way to connect was to really just be curious about what they were going through.
What was creating frustration and how maybe I was contributing to that or how I wasn’t noticing experiences or factors that didn’t create frustration for me. I felt like in every difficult interaction it was always really, really useful to come back to curiosity and just ask as many questions as I possibly could, and especially questions that are open-ended and sincere. It can be really tough to craft a depolarizing question because we tend to bake assumptions and even accusations into our questions when we’re having intense discussions. That is the quickest way to trigger someone’s defensiveness. In political conversations, in conversations about our different interests. the amygdala, which is the fear center of the brain, can be so active.
In fact, we can trigger the amygdala with threats to our self-image just as easily as we can to threats to our safety if we start asking questions that have an accusation that’s baked into them. Especially we so often include accusations of hypocrisy in our questions. “How could you believe this when you believe this other thing?” What you find is the human condition is so inherently complex that we are all inconsistent. That’s the more charitable version of the word hypocritical. If we– The old advice about not casting stones when we live in a glass house. There are so many ways that we can run into trouble by focusing on someone else’s hypocrisy and forgetting about our own.
I really like to focus on what has created maybe the dissonance between what someone is saying and what they’re doing, or two different things that they might be espousing. Because I have just as much dissonance in my own life about the things that I believe. I hold concepts in my head that seem to be incompatible, but as a human being, you have to do that. Yes, focusing on curiosity, especially when there seems to be some inconsistency, let’s find out where that stems from. What part of the human experience that is creating that, because we’re probably going to be able to relate to that inconsistency very much ourselves.
Jessica: Randy, this has been such a pleasure. Thank you so, so much for being here. Where can we learn more about your work?
Randy: Please visit my website, it’s depolorgcultures.com. This episode is going to be coming out before my launch event on May 11th. That’s going to be at noon Eastern. It’s going to be a one-hour event. What I’m aiming to do is show people involved what we can do for an organization, how the exercises that we’re going to be using might look for folks who are coming from a single organization. There’s so many advantages that organizations have when it comes to driving the mission of depolarization. One of them is that they create a shared space for us. There are a lot of challenges with the shared spaces in this country disappearing because people are sorting themselves, both geographically and digitally. We are encountering one another, especially those who believe differently a lot less often.
Organizations still provide a venue for people who believe differently to encounter one another. They also provide shared goals. Shared goals are great for strengthening relationships. When you have people who are often really passionate about their organization’s mission, and you give them the chance to talk about that passion, it can really reinforce those relationships in an organization. Then finally, I mean, organizational culture tends to roll up to the larger culture of society. The norms that we are perpetuating and advocating for in our organizations tend to set the norms that become more accepted within society. We definitely want organizational cultures to be healthy in order for our societal culture to be healthy.
It’s really going to talk about why that organizational focus and how we can use that to really advance the cause of depolarization in this country, affective polarization. We can actually think of our fellow Americans as those who all want our country to be strong and to be welcoming for a variety of people and to be a great place for a lot of different people to live great lives.
Bob: That’s it for this episode. Thanks for joining us. You can keep up with Practicing Connection by subscribing to the podcast in your favorite podcast App, by signing up to be part of the Practicing Connection Community @oneop.org/practicing-connection, and by following us on Twitter. Our Twitter handle is @practicingcxn.
Jessica: Thanks again to our guest, Randy Lioz, for joining us for this conversation. We’d also like to thank our announcer Kalin Goble, Hannah Hyde, and Terry Meisenbach for their help with marketing, and Nathan Grim, who composed and performed all the music you hear on the podcast. Finally, thank you for joining us. We hope you’ll join us again soon. In the meantime, keep practicing.[music]
Kalin: The Practicing Connection Podcast is a production of OneOp and is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, US Department of Agriculture, and the Office of Military Family Readiness Policy, US Department of Defense under award number 2019-48770-30366.
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