The Art of Thinking with People Who Think Differently

The Art of Thinking with People Who Think Differently

Co-create your big dreams with a shift from a Marketshare to a Mindshare mindset

Illustration Credit: Murmuration 1 by Soraya Villarreal

In the vineyards where I (Dawna) used to live, just after harvest and just before sunset, the sky darkens and the air fills with the sound of thousands of glossy black starlings. I call it a startle of starlings, but it’s really called a murmuration. Above our heads, huge clouds of them would gather, wheel, turn, and swoop in unison, a perfectly coordinated Möbius ribbon held together by an invisible force. If any one bird turns and changes speed, so do all the others.

I wondered for years what makes this uncanny coordination possible. How do they remain so incredibly cohesive, never leaving a single bird isolated when under attack by a falcon? Here’s what I have learned: they gather at harvest time to keep warm at night, exchange information, and protect each other from raptors. Most of all, they follow a simple rule that explains how they remain so incredibly cohesive: each one keeps a fixed number of its neighbors—seven other starlings, irrespective of their distance—in its awareness. When a neighbor moves, so do you. It doesn’t matter how large the group is, or if two birds are on opposite sides of the vineyard. It’s as if every individual is connected to the same network. It is a system poised on the brink, capable of near-instantaneous transformation.

We too are poised on the brink, and capable of near-instantaneous transformation. We are at the brink because we have been educated for a time that no longer exists, and we are confronted with vastly different challenges on a much greater scale than the ones of our predecessors. It’s a crisis but it’s also an opportunity—a time for murmuration. We may not see the immense possibilities because we have been trained for what’s called a Marketshare economy, yet we are on the brink of a Mindshare world. The effect of making the shift can be startling. Let me explain.

In the Marketshare way of thinking, value is determined by shortage—I have it and you don’t. Objects are valued according to their scarcity, like diamonds. Marketshare mentality solves problems by asking our minds to think practically, analytically, and procedurally. We break down challenges into small pieces and arrange them neatly in sequential order, hoping the solution will make itself apparent. A question is asked and our brains shoot back an answer, but because we focus our individual and collective attention on deficits—cognitive, emotional, and financial—the results in today’s interconnected world are all to often Ready, Fire, Aim.

In our new Mindshare world, wealth is created and carried by ideas and relationships more than in transactions. We are no longer just dealing with analytic and procedural problems that require rational solutions. We’re being asked to think together in ways that are innovative and relational. People who have never met each other are being forced to come up with breakthrough solutions to complex problems. We must work and think across continents, cultures, time zones, and temperaments.

Think of it this way: When things carry value, if I have one and give it away, I lose something. But when ideas carry value, everything is turned upside down. When you have a good idea and I have a good idea, and we exchange them, you walk away with two ideas and I also have two ideas. The more we share, the more we have. Our capacity to generate, share, and enact ideas becomes most valuable.

A Great Awakening

Perhaps the greatest large-scale realization of Mindshare principles that I (Dawna) have witnessed was inspired during the Rodney King riots in 1992. On the news and in the papers, I kept encountering the phrases “random acts of violence” and “senseless brutality.” I felt as if I were being pelted by the belief that the world was a chaotic and hostile place. Deep in my bones, I yearned to find a different way of thinking so I could envision a bright future for my son and myself.

Around this time I heard Maya Angelou give a speech in which she quoted a woman named Anne Herbert, who wrote, “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” There it was—the opposite profound truth that could bring balance back to the wounded world. I began to ask people in the groups I was teaching to create thank-you cards to strangers who had performed a random kindness or senseless act of beauty that helped them believe that anything could be possible again. Those in my group told tales of a man who had stopped to help change their flat tire in the middle of the night, or of feeling one’s grief salved by listening to Mozart. I then asked them to tell each other stories of their own random acts of kindness, and the energy in the room became electric.

A few weeks later, while driving on a back road in Kaua‘i with MJ Ryan, publisher of Conari Press, we began talking about whether, as Einstein had posited, the universe could really be a friendly place. I mentioned the enlivening effect of the kindness practice I had been using in my groups, and by the time we reached our destination, we had decided to compile these inspiring stories from all over the country into a book called Random Acts of Kindness.

We sponsored parties across the country, asking people to share their stories, and within a few short months the publisher was inundated. A movement had begun. We decided to extend the movement to children, and Kids’ Random Acts of Kindness was published. Schools around the country, then around the world, began to host Random Acts of Kindness days. As I write this, there are participating groups in 18 countries extending from Canada to Singapore, New Zealand to Japan. The revenues from the original book went to support one of the first AIDS foundations, while the publicity surrounding it fostered a flood of further stories. Three more Kindness books followed, selling a total of nine million copies.

The Kindness movement began with one inspiring idea that pulled me forward toward what could be possible. It grew into a simple replicable model that required neither central leadership nor a cumbersome infrastructure to move others from thinking apart to thinking together. And it really began to get me to think about the fundamentals of Mindshare. It comes down to 10 basic changes that create Mindshare thinking (see box) united by three fundamental aspects of moving forward.

3 Aspects of Mindshare

Attention, intention, and imagination form the connective tissue of the human mind. Attention connects you the present moment, where you have the power to act. Intention identifies what really matters to you. Imagination explores how you can realize future possibilities. When these three aspects work together, they create an unstoppable force. Without attention, you lack vitality and focus. Without intention, you lack passion. Without imagination, your vision lacks direction and influence. Together, these three create the Mindshare mindset.

Aiming Your Attention

Researchers in the field of neuroscience are just beginning to understand the significant way that attention itself changes the brain. When you aim your attention by consistently directing it toward one thing, you can in fact rewire your brain. Habitually, your brain is chaotic and noisy, like an orchestra warming up. When you give something your full attention, however, it’s like giving a downbeat and having the orchestra begin to play. Professor Robert Desimone from MIT calls this “neural synchrony.” This is no small feat in the digital age. How often have you attempted to share an idea or experience with someone who is texting while you are talking?

To aim your Attention, you don’t have to learn anything new; in reality, it’s more like unlearning —stepping out of the engine of your thoughts and checking in with what is real and where you want to go. What you have to do is simply redirect your attention to what you are actually experiencing in the moment and aim it toward a goal. It’s important to learn to recognize when your attention is fading and develop strategies to help you re-aim it. Doing this is much like sailing a boat, where you must practice a constant recalibration of sail and tiller to stay on course.

Consider Aline, a senior executive of a global ad agency, mother of three, and an avid runner who felt caught in a cycle of too much to do and not enough attention to go around. Layering tasks became her norm: leading conference calls while watching Little League, sending emails while preparing lunches. Then her seven-year-old son drew a picture of Aline holding her BlackBerry and looking away, and her husband and best friend both asked her why she seemed so stressed. She realized something had to change.

So I, (Angie) helped her to experiment with the “sail” of her attention. Through the process she discovered that she was most present with her son when she looked directly at him while touching him, asking questions, and listening to him. In meetings, she could be much more present with her team when she projected her talking points on the wall, used pictures, and stood while speaking. Having a common visual focus enabled her to move around and not be flooded with all that she heard.

I then suggested that Aline look at her calendar each day and circle the meetings or family commitments where it was most important for her attention to be fully present, and we strategized about how she could create the conditions to make this happen. Aline now had a way to distribute her attention so she wouldn’t miss precious moments with her son, or be less than all she could be with her team.

Now recall a situation when you felt stressed and discouraged.

  • Consider what interfered most with your attention being fully present: People talking? Visual clutter? Being physically uncomfortable?
  • What is your internal signal that you’re not present? What do you need to do to align your attention through your senses? For example, if you have been listening for a long time, you may need to change position or look at something visual. If you have been talking nonstop, you may need to pause and take a couple of breaths. If you have been staring at a spreadsheet, you may need to let your eyes wander.
  • Like trimming a sail to adjust for the wind, becoming present means noticing your shifts in attention and exploring what adjustments are needed.

Aiming Your Intention

Your intention drives your actions, but it can either take you away from or direct you toward what you want to make happen. In the first case, you imagine what could go wrong, such as, “If I don’t work harder, my colleague will get promoted before me.” Your energy is wasted against obstacles and interferences. On the other hand, if you aim your intention toward what’s important to you, your undivided energy and knowledge will be directed forward.

When you direct your attention toward your purposeful intent, you find yourself serving what you love, and what you love serves you. A client of Angie’s, Susan, didn’t know what her Intention was five years ago, but what has always magnetized her was reading and writing stories about inspirational thought leaders. Together they uncovered that Susan’s intention was to help people tell their story as a way to inspire others. Following that pull forward, she interviewed hundreds of leaders around the world who were making a difference. Then she crafted their stories into inspirational narratives that would reach thousands of global professionals through newsletters and videos.

Now bring to your mind a situation when you feel stressed and discouraged.

  • What is the most predominant motivation for you right now in this situation? Is it moving you away from what you are afraid of, or moving you toward what you want?
  • When in the past have you purposely aimed your intention toward what you want? What were the conditions that made this possible?
  • Who are the people who inspire you? Who are the people in your world who are most supportive of you realizing your intention?
  • If all of your intentions were voices in a choir singing one song, what would it be?

Aiming Your Imagination

Your imagination is where possibilities are created and explored. Aiming your imagination involves freeing yourself to envision what you want to achieve and then aligning that vision with your intention. Of course, one of the greatest challenges of life is figuring out how to enact our lofty Intentions within everyday constraints. In other words, the challenge is not to “survive” within our constraints or interferences, but to design a passionate and creative output within them. Keep in mind that a painter does not see the size of the canvas as a constraint. And each time Elton John sits down to play the piano, he works with hands that were considered too small for a classical pianist.

Your constraints may include such things as: dismissing your intention’s importance, ignoring it, or convincing yourself that you won’t be able to enact it by thinking about past failures. Here are some basic practices that can help:

  • Interference: You don’t know the conditions your mind needs to create successful imagery.
  • Solution: Create the conditions that facilitate using your imagination—like driving a car, doodling, taking a shower. Allow time for your mind to wander like a kite in the wind.
  • Interference: Your thinking is focused only on problems, challenges, or interferences.
  • Solution: Make your intention visible with a meaningful picture, an object, or a quote placed where you will see it regularly. Each time you notice it, imagine you’re already realizing it.

Mindshare In Real Time

At nine p.m. I (Angie) checked into a well-guarded hotel in downtown Bogotá, Colombia. I’d been traveling for a week delivering workshops to teachers, volunteers, and students to help them recognize the talent and capacity in every child by using a game we developed. I was utterly exhausted, but I took five minutes before bed to catch up on emails and read the next day’s schedule, which had just been sent: Pickup at seven a.m.; an hour-long bus ride; and work with 50 to 60 kids at a school for the deaf. I reread this last line over and over, trying to wrap my head around it. Fifty to 60 kids was a very large group, and no one had mentioned deaf students. I called the local coordinator, and she confirmed it was a school for orphaned deaf children. She reassured me that everything would be fine. I didn’t believe her for a second.

I looked at my well-crafted and much rehearsed workshop agenda. I was confident with my timing, visuals, sequence, and content—all the cornerstones I needed to facilitate a successful workshop. I calculated in my head the extra time needed for translation, and for working with such a large group. But then I tried to imagine how the content could be translated into signing, and I started to panic: Would there even be a sign to describe their talents? How would I know if they understood? How would I understand their questions? All I could imagine was falling flat on my face. I was so anxious I couldn’t sleep.

The bus trip ride took an hour and a half longer than expected, due to flooding and bad roads. As I got more anxious, I tried to focus on my notes, but the bus was too noisy. Finally one teacher’s laughter was so contagious that it drew me out of my thoughts. Why was I imagining my workshop was going to fail? Then another teacher leaned over and told me in a thick Spanish accent how nervous she was her first time working with deaf children. She wondered how she could possibly teach when she couldn’t communicate. She told me, “Teach with your heart and it will all work out.” She reminded me of my true intention—to help people of all ages recognize their thinking differences, and use these differences to enable one another to do more than they ever believed possible. It finally struck me that these kids could be a gift.

With that intention pulling me forward, I realized I needed to focus my imagination on things going well—that what I had to offer would be useful, even if we didn’t cover everything on the program. I stared at the passing scenery, but in my mind’s eye I saw a movie of those children uncovering their own unique gifts and talents. I imagined what all these kids, as a result of today, might be able to do better tomorrow, and then five years from now. I wondered what I would be able to do better tomorrow as a result of learning with them today. I began to feel more alive and focused.

When we arrived at the campus it was lush with green fields and consisted of a series of low, whitewashed buildings that formed a perfect square. It looked more like a quaint farm than a school. Kids in blue uniforms were running around, but the silence was inescapable. I took a slow walk, which helped me focus my attention. I connected with myself in the present moment by looking at the children around me and asking myself questions that helped me imagine how I could realize my intention.

The day unfolded like an awkward but beautiful dance. Translating every word was a two-step/two-interpreter process: from English to Spanish, and then from Spanish to Spanish Sign. Comments or questions went from Spanish Sign to Spanish, then from Spanish to English; and back again. It was dizzying, but somehow we made it work.

On a break I kicked around a soccer ball with the kids. One tall, gangly student walked over to me grinning through crooked teeth. Eyes shining, he made a fist and used it to pound his heart. He then wrapped his other hand tightly around the fist and pushed the fist up as the constraining fingers slowly opened until each was fully extended in a reach. The gesture captured me totally, and his smile said everything. Two translators came over and told me he was expressing his thanks for helping him grow today. To express his feelings, he had showed a seed breaking open. I signed the same gesture back to him. Shifting my mindset had made this moment possible.

10 Steps to Create a Global Murmuration from Marketshare to Mindshare

1. Use power over others to win.1. Use influence with others to connect.
2. Lead as a hero. 2. Lead as a host.
3. Perceive differences as a deficit. 3. Dignify differences as a resource.
4. “I have it and you don’t.”4. “The more we share, the more we have!”
5. “How smart am I?” 5. “How are we smart?”
6. Value analytic and procedural thinking the most.6. Value analytic, procedural, innovative, and relational equally.
7. Ask, “Who is right and who is wrong?” 7. Ask, “What can be possible?”
8. Believe value is created by things. 8. Believe value is created by the exchange of ideas and connections.
9. Ask, “What will others think of me?”9. Ask, “How can this expand my capacity?”
10. Value independence. 10. Value interdependence.

Dawna Markova, PhD, is a psychologist and cofounder of Professional Thinking Partners, a consulting agency known for talent and leadership development.

Angie McArthur is the CEO of Professional Thinking Partners and one of the creators of the Worldwide Women’s Web, an organization that works to retain women in corporate leadership roles. This article is adapted from their new book, Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking with People Who Think Differently, which was published by Spiegel & Grau in August.

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