From the Hyper-Polarization Discussion: Anne Leslie: Embracing Ambiguity

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Newsletter #69 — January 12, 2023 


New Newsletter Format

As we noted in newsletter 68, we are experimenting with dividing our previously long, three-section newsletters into three (or more) separate and shorter newsletters.  This one focuses on a particularly important (we think) post to the BI/CRQ Hyper-Polarization Discussion about a talk Anne Leslie gave in November to the Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution's Annual Symposium. The usual Colleague Activity and Beyond Intractability in Context posts will come in the newsletter after that. 

What do you think of this new format?  Do you like it? Or did you prefer the sections all together with less frequent newsletters? Let us know!


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From the BI/CRQ Hyper-Polarization Discussion

By Heidi Burgess 
Originally published in the Discussion on January 5, 2023

This year's Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution's Annual Symposium was entitled "Negotiation Strategies for War by Other Means," highlighting work of Project Seshat, a project looking at "hybrid" or "gray zone" warfare and how it intersects with negotiation. The project looks at the many ways ways in which what we call "bad-faith actors" are trying to undermine and distort a wide range of negotiation processes. Guy Burgess and I (Heidi Burgess), as well as Anne Leslie and about 50 other people have been participating in this endeavor for about two years now.  

Anne gave the keynote address at the November 18, 2022 symposium, and her comments offer sound advice for all of us as we try to find a path through today's complex, dangerous, and hyper-polarized environment. Educators may find it especially valuable for for students and young people who are starting to think about career plans. For that reason, we have asked Anne to participate in the discussion, and she agreed to do so after she finished up a few other writing obligations. 

In the interim, however, we wanted to share some of the ideas she presented in her keynote address at the Symposium, and urge our readers to watch the whole thing.  It is available online as part of the entire symposium proceedings on YouTube. Anne starts at about 23 minutes in and ends at about 53 minutes in. 

By way of introduction, I should add that Anne is Cloud Risk & Controls Leader for IBM Cloud. Her focus is on Security Intelligence and Operations Consulting. << Born in the Republic of Ireland, she now lives in Paris.  She asked that she be introduced at the Cardozo Symposium as a person who "brings people together who might not otherwise come together." That interest and skill is part of why her comments are relevant here, but so, too, are many other things she had to say. Read on!

As a last note, most of what follows are Anne's ideas. The direct quotes are either indented and italicized, if they are long, or simply put in quotes in the existing text, if they are short. Material not handled that way is still mostly Anne's ideas, but I have paraphrased her words.  When I have added my own thoughts, it is clearly marked as such.


Anne started out talking about how she learned, as she became a parent and her life became chaotic, that she had to let go of the notion of always being in control, of having an answer, of always being right. In school we learn that there IS a right answer, and we should have it. But in the real world, particularly in chaotic or complex situations, there isn't always an answer. "There's a choice. There’s a selection of imperfect options and the need for a decision.” So we have to accept the possibility that we'll make mistakes.  We just have to make the best decision that we can. 

That decision, she advised later in her talk, should be based,on our values.

Our interests might be transient. Our positions might change. Our values should not. We need to be really clear about what our values are. We need to articulate them, and be really clear that there is a congruency between what we say and what we do. For instance, in Europe and in the U.S., we say we value freedom: freedom of speech, freedom of action. We say we value the individual. We say we want to defend the fabric of our democracies.  And yet, when you start drilling down into what is happening in our public sector institutions, what is happening in our private sector corporations, do individual decisions and behaviors actually reinforce that? That’s a big question.

She answered that question by saying that "often decisions do not align with our values." As an example, she pointed to corporate decisions about whether to stay in or pull out of Russia after it invaded Ukraine. “These decisions reinforce or undermine what we say we stand for.”  There are lots of reasons, lots of excuses for violating our values (for instance, for profit). But it is important to ask ourselves "are we bringing ourselves closer or further away from the place we want to live?"

This question relates to individual decisions as well (Heidi speaking here.) If we want "justice for all," can we treat some people differently than we treat others?  If we want "freedom of speech," can we declare some ideas off-limits or unacceptable? If so, how do we do this fairly? Do we believe in the Constitution or not?  Do we believe in the rule of law?  If so, we should behave as if we do, rather than trying to figure out how we can subvert one or the other.

And since we have interrupted Anne here, we'll add one more of our own thoughts. Yes: in complex situations we have to make decisions with incomplete (or even inaccurate) information. And we might be wrong.  But if we consider our answer to be a hypothesis, and any action we take on it to be an experiment, and then, if we watch what happens, and we maintain flexibility to change course if things do not go the way we want, we are in a much better situation than if we insist we are right and plow forward, no matter what happens.

Going back to Anne, she said that we must be able to see and understand why we frame things the way we do, and why others frame them differently.

So it’s important to consider how we think about things, how we label them, the narratives we build about them. It’s important to ask ourselves whether we are clinging onto a belief system that might not be helpful? Or it might be preventing us from seeing new ways of looking at really complex topics that require collaboration.

Her expertise, she says, is bringing disparate people together and, most importantly, practicing what she calls "radical curiosity" and "intellectual humility." Intellectual humility, she asserted, "is more important than domain knowledge."  It ...

... is the ability to suspend what you think you know and allow yourself to be open to the possibility that there are things that you haven’t seen, things you have misunderstood, other perspectives. It doesn’t mean you are wrong, it means you are permeable to learning more.

In corporate situations, she said,  "people have an urge to be seen as being right, as opposed to contributing to getting to the best outcome.  Ego is the enemy of good outcomes.”   No matter who you are, or how important you are, everyone needs to remember that “ego is the enemy." 

To practice this curiosity of wondering, particularly with people who fundamentally disagree with you, who fundamentally have what you might consider to be a TERRIBLY reprehensive worldview, why do they believe what they believe? Without judgement ask, "tell me more about why you think that’s the way it is." Because that is the foundation of a much better conversation. To wonder what it is that they are seeing or feeling. What shaped them? So ask," tell me more about why you see that that way. Why do you believe what you believe?"

Again [Heidi speaking here] this applies at the individual level too.  Most of us, in most contexts, want to be seen as being right. We don't want to open our minds to the possibility that we might be wrong. And we don't want to be ashamed by being proven wrong.  But if we want to make good decisions, we must be open to that possibility. We must be willing to learn and to change our minds.

Anne again:

The one thing that I’d love for you to remember from this is that curiosity will get you SO FAR. …Never underestimate the power of being curious and likeable!  It will get you so far in life and in business. And it’s massively, massively underestimated.

She went on to talk about focusing on the intersection between "things that matter" and "things that you can control," which she illustrated with a diagram like this:

It's easy to think that we have no control, she explained, that we have no ability to influence events. "But we all have agency" No matter who we are, where we are in the world, "we have agency to determine our own beliefs, our own values, the decisions, the behaviors we make." For instance, if you are working in a job that doesn't align with your own values, you can leave. You can find another job that does align with your values.

So work on getting clarity on what you believe. Look at what you can control. Look at your job, your voluntary associations—where can you make a difference on things that you can control? The worst outcome in this context is to think ”that is so big, so complex, so threatening, that we can’t do anything about it. That’s never the case. We can always align our behaviors and our decisions in ways that make sense to us individually and collectively.

She ended her talk by saying "the starting point is a belief that we can be better. But we have to believe and want to be better." (Heidi's thought: this sounds a lot like Ted Lasso. And in the United States, we all want to believe in Ted Lasso!) As she said this, the last slide Anne showed had a quote from Noam Chomsky:

Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, it’s unlikely you will step up and take responsibility for making it so. If you assume that there’s no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things. There's a chance you may contribute to making a better world. The choice is yours.

Heidi again: I hope this post gives you a flavor of the richness of Anne's talk. There was much more. She had great stories, and more core ideas that related to the conference context of responding to hybrid/gray zone warfare, but at the same time, relating to any complex or difficult problem faced by individuals, or public or private-sector organizations. The talk is only 30 minutes long. Guy thinks it is one of the best talks he's ever heard at a conference. I tend to agree; We hope you will watch it!


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About the MBI Newsletters

Once a week, or so, we the BI Directors share some thoughts, along with new posts from the Hyper-polarization Blog and and useful links from other sources.  We used to put this all together in one newsletter which went out once or twice a week, but we are now experimenting with breaking the Newsletter up into several separate sections. Each Newsletter will be posted on BI, and sent out by email through Substack to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy here and find the latest newsletter here on our Newsletter page. Past newsletters can be found in the Newsletter Archive. 

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