In late December 2016 and early January 2017, I sent out New Year’s wishes with an “out of my bubble” invitation to many of my friend (yes, I know, cheeky, wishes with a “task” to do). Lots of things happened in between - 2017 began, Donald Trump became president, Roger Federer won the Australian Open, a pine marten who stopped the CERN particle accelerator was included in a museum, a baby donkey has been born at my neighbor’s and a few other things. Unfortunately, it seems to me that the topic of “bubbles” is even more topical now than in 2016.
Also, more than 40 people, from Seattle, through Calgary and Normandy and London, Berlin, Prague and other places and all the way to Sydney responded to my invitation. I also got lots of encouragement. Thanks very much for that (some of your encouraging comments are in the wordcloud).
Many people are curious to hear how it went. This blog is a summary, followed by four more detailed blogs on the different points. The intent is to share with all of you how it is going and to ask you for ideas and advice on how to go forward. It is also a “report” to the “shareholders” of this project, people who have invested energy and time into this. (And on the more material side, as promised, the bottles of wine go to Pavel, Melodie and Shana, and a bubble maker for everyone who participated or will participate.).
So, here we go: “first conclusions" from the “out of my bubble” challenge:
1. When it happens, it is eye-opening. When people do undertake “out of the bubble” conversations, they find it very interesting. Jean in Seattle talking to a Trump supporter, my Prague friend Marie talking to her uncle about Romas or me reading what another friend shares with me about Muslims and Europe - we find these conversations eye-opening, empowering, exciting. You can read more details in blog 1.
2. It is really hard to do ! Remember the ice bucket challenge in 2014, in which people poured a bucket of iced water over their heads to solicit donations for ALS? It was hard to do, but it took 30 seconds. It turns out that the “out of the bubble” challenge might be even harder than a bucket of cold water.
Why is it so hard? 1) First reason is that many of us find it difficult to find anybody from a different “bubble”. “I do not find a single person I know and can call a friend or a relative who is of the opposite view than mine. Talk about bubbles!!!” says my German friend Maja. 2) Second reason is that we just do not want to talk to the “other side”. One of my Czech friends wrote in capitals “I just DO NOT WANT to talk to them.” Many of you shared that your overall feeling about the “other side" runs pretty deep. 3) Third reason is that these conversations are highly emotional. My friend Malgosia in London drew my attention to the “frustration and despair” we might feel, as these conversations touch our identity, values and beliefs. You can read more stories why it is hard in blog 2.
3. The best motivation is … love! One of the most moving stories was shared by my Czech friend Pavel. Five years ago he met Vera, a wonderful woman in all respects, except her and her family’s views on Romas. Any discussion on that topic with them was a source of conflict - from Pavel’s side, their arguments were totally unacceptable and “reminded him of the Holocaust”. He even though about terminating the relationship because of that.
Pavel writes: “For me is is mainly about working on myself, to be aware of one’s own personal story, the unconscious sources that lead me to action. Once you see that, you see that the same happens for everybody - my partner, my family, friends, nations, Asad, Putin, Trump … It was all a trial and error process. “
You can read Pavel’s story in blog 3.
So what’s next?
What’s next? The promised “bubble” party will take place in Prague - Suchdol on Friday February 24th. I encourage you to continue sharing your experiences with me.
I have got a few ideas how to take this forward AND I would love to hear from you about your ideas. Mine range from just continuing the conversations (if you can), privately cultivating respect and intellectual humility, maybe transforming the project into “how to convince” or into a more collective meeting rather than one to one, why not digital, online or maybe just writing poems? And what are some of your ideas? More about all this in blog 4.
On a personal note, of course this initiative is taking time and energy. There are days when I think this whole project is useless and I should rather be doing something else. And then I get some nice email or phone call from one of you or read about organizations with similar goals and I get encouraged again. So we shall see where this will take us.
Thanks for reading a have a lovely day (my neighbor’s baby donkey photo as a bonus for reading all the way to here).
A conversation has begun (and it changed me a tiny bit)
Let me start with a story - I met Shana in a singing workshop last year in Prague and we stayed in touch. To the “bubble” invitation, she wrote back: “This is lovely. With your permission, I want to participate and share.” And few days later, she shared a story of her friend, a musician and songwriter called Jean.
Jean participated in the Women's March on January 21st and was playing a concert that night with her pink hat (sign of the participants of the march) on. After the concert, a woman in her 60's came up to her to ask "I heard about the thousands of people marching today and I am curious. Why are you frightened about a Trump presidency?" Jean started explaining some of her concerns about Trump's character and attitudes to her. The lady repeated that she is just trying to understand and that she is genuinely curious ... and she shared that she was also frightened when Obama was elected. They both agreed that Trump's tweeting habit is not a great thing. Jean thanked the lady for genuinely asking and listening and somehow at the end they were holding hands. Jean writes about her "first direct encounter with a Trump supporter": "I walked away empowered and felt that a conversation had begun."
What really worked in this story is the genuine openness and curiosity of the Trump supporter lady - she kept repeating “I am just trying to understand”. The “out of the bubble conversations” can be highly emotional (especially on the day after Trump’s inauguration), so openness is crucial.
And of course, there are no fireworks at the end, no falling in each other’s arms, not agreeing on much (except maybe the tweets). But the “conversation had begun” and by holding hands, we acknowledge each other as a human being and not as the “enemy”.
In the same spirit, my Indian friend Subir opened a discussion with a colleague of his - US, white male, Republican - anti immigration, anti Obamacare, anti doles, for guns etc. He writes: “Initially he was hesitant to share his views openly, but soon he realized that I am not judging, but listening to him and his thoughts - he opened up. I did realize how Trump won.. many people believed in Trump's ideas and views, but never openly shared. That is the reason that not many predicted well.”
My friend Melodie actually shared her experience on the website forum. To the question: “Do you think mankind will like doing this? Will it change the world?”, she says beautifully:
"Maybe a tiny tiny tiny tiny bit. Maybe because it changed me."
New facts and ladder of inference
Another benefit of out of the bubble conversations was shared with by my friend Marie in Prague. She talked to her uncle about a topic they disagree on - attitudes to Romas. Instead of the usual “I am right, your are wrong”, this time Marie aimed to understand where do her uncle’s attitudes (“racist” from her point of view) come from. She discovered that when he was in secondary school in a small Czech town, he had frequent encounters and difficult experiences with the Roma minority in that town. As for herself, she admitted that her pro-Roma views were based on principles and second hand reports from other people only. That does not mean that her views are wrong, but the new piece of information made Marie more understanding and willing to have further discussions with her uncle.
Using the terminology of organizational psychologist Chris Argyris, you could say that Marie started exploring her uncle’s “ladder of inference”. The ladder describes the way in which we all select data, interpret them and create assumptions and beliefs. Once we have these beliefs, we select data based on them (this is called the confirmation bias). That might explain why we sometimes feel we are living in a different world than our uncles … I am planning to write a blog later about how understanding other’s and our own ladders can be useful - stay tuned!
As a result of my New Year’s email, a friend in Prague on started to send me some of the articles and blogs he follows. As we are in different “bubbles” as far as our attitudes to islam and refugees to, sometimes I have a very emotional reaction when reading some of the material. And on the whole, it has been much more interesting and eye-opening for me to read the articles he sends rather than ressassing the articles “on my side”.
So as a mini-conclusion - out of the bubble conversations enable us to stay in touch with our uncles or strangers during a concert. And they enable us to learn new things. Now I need to run - I am off to continue the discussion with my own uncle about the European Union. He wants to abolish it and I think we should still give it a chance.
Remember the ice bucket challenge in 2014, in which people poured a bucket of iced water over their heads to solicit donations for ALS? It was hard to do, but it took 30 seconds. It turns out that the “out of the bubble” challenge might be even harder than a bucket of cold water.
Why is it so hard? This is the most difficult part to sum up - it seems to me there are three main reasons.
First reason - I do not know anyone out of my bubble (because we are all tribal)
My friend Kate from London writes: “I’m increasingly aware that I live in a bubble - just thinking about your invitation makes me realize how often I'm talking to people who agree with me!”. My German friend Maja says: “I do not find a single person I know and can call a friend or a relative who is of the opposite view than mine. Talk about bubbles!!!” My Czech friend Katka: “I accepted your challenge but realized that I first have to get out of my bubble in order to even meet anyone with different points of view”.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in “The Righteous Mind” (a book I highly recommend or at least watch his TED talk) argues convincingly why bubbles are natural - because we are fundamentally tribal creatures. “It would be nice to believe that we humans were designed to love everyone unconditionally. Nice, but rather unlikely from an evolutionary perspective. (…) We evolved to live in groups. Our minds were designed not only to help us win the competition within our groups, but also to help us unite with those in our group to win competitions across groups”.
Being part of a tribe, an ideological bubble, has all kinds of psychological benefits - mainly a sense of belonging and not being alone.The disadvantage of long term stay inside the bubble is the development of intellectual habits such as black and white thinking and exaggerating negative stereotypes about the “other side”.
Second reason - I just want to escape to the kitchen
Talking about Trump, Brexit or gypsies is very emotional, as it is linked to our values and identity. Conversation about a topic that I care about with somebody I care about is by definition a “difficult conversation” . So our amygdala gets switched on … and with it the fight or flight response.
My friend Johanna from Sydney writes: "I am not having these bubble bursting discussion with others and I am thinking this avoidance is created rather unconsciously and very quickly to avoid conflict. Thanks for raising this topic and for committing to exploring this so comprehensively and passionately! I will endeavor to have at least one conversation and share it on your website”.
Miriam from Calgary says: "I’ve read your Bubble Project and love the idea. I have a close friend who is a religious Christian and fiercely anti-abortion/pro-life. She also believes that debate should not be stifled. She'd be a great person for me to start with even though the thought gives me palpitations!!! "
My Czech friend Zuzana was surprised how difficult it is for her to communicate with someone with a different view of hers. “I just want to go away and do not want to hear anything”! My friend Julie from Prague says that when her brother argued with her father about refugees on Christmas Day, she escaped to the kitchen. “So when I imagine that I should talk about it with either of them … well, I’d just rather not!”.
My Canadian friend Susan has a specific story on the double duty of an important topic/keeping the friendship: "I was at my good friend's the other night and she continues to disparage her husband because he keeps an open mind about Trump. The rest of us (me included, but privately) 'judge' his opinion. It is definitely 'us' and 'them'. I was thinking how I could open this topic with my friend without jeopardizing the friendship."
A friend from Prague writes in capital letters : “I catch myself just NOT WANTING to talk with people from the other bubble. And then I criticize myself for it.”
Third reason - the feelings run pretty deep
Several American friends shared their very strong feelings after the election of Donald Trump. They had difficulties in imagining having a conversation with a Trump supporter who would be “gloating at their candidate’s win”. They admit to seeing their side as “good” and the other as “bad” , and that feeling runs pretty deep.
Erich from Prague watched videos of Trump supporters on You Tube and “does not feel that these are people who would like to have a dialogue: “The message I find there is: you have ignored us, we are hurt (!), but now that we won, we will do whatever we want. So I see the rise of isolationism, protectionism, intolerance, bigotry.”
With my London based friend Malgosia we discussed the important topic of how emotionally charged these issues are: “I will give you an example: I am talking to a Brexitier and that person is explaining why they voted that way and there is no single argument or reason that makes sense and its very clear that person did not vote Brexit but voted against Cameron. I then experience frustration, despair and very strong depression.This impacts on my body and my mind because I then come home and cannot sleep."
As a therapist, she listens to people sharing their worries in her practice.
“I have just had another example of 2 people very upset by Brexit. I would not call it frustration. I would call it despair and fury. I do not think you should underestimate the depth of emotions that this issue touches in people. Its about survival, jobs, security, rights, unfairness, being uprooted. People go depressed and tearful and disoriented (at least those I talk to). So just to suggest that they should talk to the other side is slightly far fetched. It's not an intellectual exercise. It's a very emotionally charged issue for which people need to be prepared.”
My friend Melodie living in Normandy actually tried a difficult conversation and openly shared how painful it was.
“I proposed a difficult topic. I handled the difficult response. I managed what felt to me like insults. I persisted to speak what I believed, while acknowledging my counterpart. It was a choice between the "out of my bubble" conversation and status quo, which was even less desirable. It was difficult. It was painful. It shed some light on a blind spot. Next time I think I will (the conversation will continue) think of ways in which I can show more appreciation for my counterpart.”
(Thanks, Melodie and I will get you that promised bottle of wine as soon as we meet.)
One of the most moving stories I received was from Pavel. He is an IT professional and lives in a smallish Czech town of Rokycany. Five years ago he met Vera, a wonderful woman in all respects. Except her and her family’s and friend’s views on Romas/gypsies. Any discussion on that topic with those nice and educated people was a source of conflict - from Pavel’s side, their arguments were totally unacceptable and reminded him of the Holocaust. He even though about terminating the relationship because of that.
Being very motivated (Love! Love! Love!), he persevered and with Vera, who is now his wife, they are able to be aware of their bubbles and to respect them.
How did he do it? Pavel writes: “For me is is mainly about working on myself, to be aware of one’s own personal story, the unconscious sources that lead me to action. Once you see that, you see that the same happens for everybody - my partner, my family, friends, nations, Asad, Putin, Trump … It was all a trial and error process. At the beginning, my behavior was purely reactive - as soon as somebody came up with their anti-gypsy opinions, I felt the need to correct his “wrong” view. Over the years, I have learned that it is better to listen, listen, listen … I have been through myriads of these discussions during my trips to Přerov (the smallish Moravian town his wife comes from). I came to realize that their opinions are formed over a long time, based on their own experiences and what they have heard from others. Because of their life stories, they are in their bubble and are unable to see the “other side” (unless, like my wife, they move out or they have someone to talk to). To me this is the archetype of a bubble - different life stories, lack of awareness of them (from both sides) and therefore an impossibility to get out of them and see things more clearly.”
These days, the situation is different. My wife sees her bubble (she lives in Pilsen, only goes to Přerov sometimes), and she also sees the different opinion (my bubble) that I am consistently presenting. I became aware of my bubble and I also learned to respect here life story and her bubble. We are looking for ways, how to let the bubbles burst even in this area. Where there is no middle to the bubble (the story), there is no container for it.
I still very much believe that it is worth it to have a dialogue with “them. It is worth it for us, for “them” (whoever they are), for society. I also still believe that most people on the “other side” are “not dumb”or evil, that most people in the world are very much like us and want the same things in life.
However, the “out of my bubble conversations”, although very useful, have proven very difficult to do, for a variety of reasons.
So what’s next?
1) If you can, please continue the “out of my bubble” conversations (and share them with me). And based on your reactions, I would add a few pointers about mental state and timing.
If you are in the height of despair and frustration about the recent election or policy change, maybe it is not a good time for you.
I believe that both disruption and dialogue are necessary and possible, even at the same time - protesting against a politician during the day, while having a meaningful dialogue with his/her voter (as Jean did in Seattle).
But depending who we are, how we feel in general and how strongly we feel about certain topics, maybe this is too difficult at this point. As one American friend put it, maybe for some of us, it is now the time for “fighting, protesting, boycotting and organizing” , for disruption rather than dialogue.
2) On your own - cultivate respect for others and intellectual humility in oneself. If conversation is too hard for some of us now, I would “just” invite you, when thinking and talking about the “other side” to treat them with respect. As Pavel describes in his story , “it is mainly about working on myself, to be aware of one’s own personal story”. In a discussion with Zuzana in Prague, she touched upon an important point - working on one’s own mental state, happiness and gratitude for what we have is a necessary condition for any thoughts about others. I am currently translating into Czech the TED talk of psychologist Robb Willer, where he talks a lot about respect for the “others” - respect is defined as “due regard for the feelings, wishes, or rights of others”. I also came to like the term “intellectual humility” as an aspiration for myself - in my private thoughts as well as conversations. One path towards intellectual humility is to become aware of one’s own “illusion of explanatory depth” - the illusion that my view is based on deep understanding of the public policy (it usually is not). And on the emotional side, being careful to avoid feeling contempt for others has become crucial for myself too. This Danish emotional video is a good way to remind us about what unites us rather than divides us. Last weekend, I attended a process work workshop and what resonated with me was the idea that there is a quality in our “enemies” that could be very useful to us (thanks to Slávek for facilitating this experience for me!).
3) What if I helped you convince others? One of the obstacles “out of the bubble conversations” is that while the conversation is difficult to do, the rewards are valuable, but not very “spectacular” (slow mending of a relationship, “tiny” change in myself" a sense of empowerment, new information etc.). Maybe framing the project as “let me help you convince the other side” might make it more attractive? Would you rather read an article on “3 ways how to be more persuasive when talking politics” or “3 ways on how to have a political dialogue”?
Many of the same principles still apply - listen, listen, listen, understand their needs, work with emotions, not just facts and adjust your message to your audience and to their moral values. By the way, these are pretty similar to principles of “how to make a convincing presentation at work” or “how to convince a hostage taker”.
4) Shall we get together for this? Maybe a more collective event (rather than one to one conversations) would be more motivating and more fun. My Czech friend Lubor has an idea: “I would much prefer to meet with someone I do not know. Maybe then I could listen to arguments that I do not know and that would make me think. We could make the process easier by defining the topics beforehand, i.e. “would it be better for Czechia to stay or leave the EU” “is it better to be an ally of Russia or of USA?”, etc. Each one of us would declare his position and wait for somebody with an opposing position to talk to him”.
Well, why not get together? Maybe we could start something like Living room conversations or Dinner at the square or Asteroid’s club? Or something similar to Human Libraries? Or something completely new? Ideas welcome …
Or maybe, as Jirka from Prague and others suggested, it is time to take the car and go talk to the “others” in some other part of the country (as students did during the “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia in 1989). Or even better - go and listen to them …
5) What about online/digital? While technology certainly contributes to the bubbles, can it also help us burst them? Some clever people are already studying this. What about some digital storytelling? Like the global collaboration on Sherlock Holmes and the Internet of Things I participated in last year? Or an app that would pair you up with someone from the other bubble? My personal experience with the Talkabout, an online platform for small group video discussions was not very satisfying, as the two of us who showed up for the dialogue shared lots of similar views. But the platform was fine … Or what training app for the conversations, something fun like my Life coach Karen?
6) Or something more poetic? Maybe we need to move on a different level, different aspect of human experience. Brainpickings quotes American writer and poet James Baldwin on Shakespeare: “Shakespeare found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people. He could have done this only through love — by knowing, which is not the same thing as understanding, that whatever was happening to anyone was happening to him. It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it.” Some of Václav Havel’s plays show what was happening in communism in a way that essays never can. Well, maybe we are not Shakespeare or Havel, but a short story? A haiku to capture the intricacies of our times?
7) Anything else? Your ideas are more than welcome! In the comments here, by email, phone, telepathy ...