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Now the Real Work Begins: Learning Together

two birds flying over the ocean at sunrise
Photo by Parker Amstutz on Unsplash

This country has been divided for so long that we need to re-learn how to work together. Our labels (right, left, black, white) have become a kind of shortcut to understanding different views. But now this shortcut is preventing understanding. And understanding is what we desperately need as we face the problems confronting us. These problems are so big and intertwined that the only way we’ll solve them is if we work together. And since we don’t yet have the answers, this means learning together.

We need everyone at the table: liberals and conservatives, black and white, immigrants and indigenous peoples. And we need to learn from each other — and with each other — to find the answers.

The Individual and The Group

This is not just about getting all these separated groups together and reconnecting the labels. Learning together is also about the interplay between the individual and the group.

We humans do not live or act alone. We are social creatures; we operate in groups. And yet we are also individual beings, each with our own perceptions and ways of doing things. Learning together entails meshing the two. It means working on our own skills and it means moving forward together as a group. We coalesce our individual perceptions into a richer and deeper understanding together, an understanding we’d never achieve on our own as individuals.

The individual and the group interact with each other in a kind of dance. If I, as an individual, change my behavior, my attitude or my perspective, the group changes too. If the group changes its atmosphere — making it harder or easier to learn — that changes how I participate. This interplay between the individual and the group is an essential element of consultation, a process of group decision making that seeks to fully understand an issue by gathering all the different viewpoints.

If I want to change the atmosphere of my group, the first thing I need to do is look in my own heart and examine how I’m behaving. My grandmother often told us a story about a really miserable day when her kids were young. The baby was fussy, the six-year-old was cranky and everybody was at odds. So Lydia (my grandmother) took the baby in and gave him a warm bath, thinking this would calm him down. It didn’t help. So she took the six-year-old in and gave him a warm bath. That didn’t help either. Finally, she gave up and went in and took a warm bath herself. Then everybody was happy.

Learning by Doing

Learning together also requires action. If I don’t apply what I’m learning, it doesn’t become part of me. But only individuals can take action. We are the ones with hands and feet. We are the ones with a mouth to speak, a mind to understand and a heart to connect.

I spoke with an Athabascan elder recently who told me that among her people, children learn at the knees of their grandparents. They learn by doing. They go out in the woods together and they learn about the First Foods. They learn that if they want to eat, they must steward the plants and animals that sustain them. By taking action, this learning becomes an essential part of who they are.

If we do not act, we do not learn. If we act alone, we can’t leverage what we’re learning. And that’s where groups come in.

The Nature of Groups

We need a space where we can share our learning and hear from others. A group doesn’t take action; it doesn’t have a physical form. The group can decide to take hold of a rope and pull, but it’s the individuals who do the pulling. The group is a construct, a connection, a collective will, a force that binds us together, a space we create together. A group is an agreement between individual hearts and minds. We all contribute to this agreement. We all influence it, and we are all influenced by it. That agreement becomes the atmosphere in which the individuals do the work. If there is no agreement, the group disintegrates and the individuals go their separate ways.

And so how do we nurture this agreement? How do we strengthen this connection, this force field that binds us together and makes it possible for us to achieve greater things than we can achieve alone?

If you were to paint the force field that binds your group together, what color would it be? Is it cool or warm? Is it rigid and hard or soft and strong? Is it sucking life from the individuals or feeding their souls?

And what of the individuals in your group? Do they all think alike or are they diverse in their perspectives? Do some dominate or does everyone have a chance to speak? Does everyone feel there is space for them? How can you tell? Do people feel they can go deep when it’s needed? Are they free to share what they’re learning, even if it contradicts the direction of the group?

Learning Together

To me, this is what learning together is all about. How do we strengthen the connection between us and how do we strengthen each individual one of us? Because the more we pull together, the greater is our strength and the more we can accomplish. And there is so much we desperately need to accomplish right now. So let’s get started… and learn how, together.

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