I was reminded of the importance of a sense of belonging last week when I attended a professional development workshop, Psyche and Dialogue, presented by Professor Andrew Samuels, one of whose passions is the connection between therapy and politics. His latest book – for those who are interested – is Politics on the Couch: Citizenship and the Internal World. I recommend it.
A colleague shared how over the years, as he had worked with groups of dysfunctional teenagers, he had found that if he could hold the group together long enough for these troubled youngsters to feel that they belonged somewhere, then many of them, through making friends and finding personal support from within the group, were able with minimal assistance to resolve the issues that has previously disrupted their lives.
As I reflected on the power of a sense of belonging, I also recalled many conversations at the opposite end of the spectrum, with people who felt marginal in a variety of ways, never quite belonging anywhere. Typical of these would be people like myself who were born in one country – in my case, Scotland – who have settled in another, and who have spent most of their working lives in a number of different countries.
While these people are usually very self-confident and flexible, their sense of belonging tends to be tenuous.
Many of us derive our sense of belonging from our families. But in these days of far-flung family groupings, where face-to-face meetings are a rarity, the family can seem more of a fiction than a fact.
Another important source of a sense of belonging is the workplace. After all, we do spend the majority of our waking lives at work. But with the increase in part-time, casual, contract work, redundancy, mergers and downsizing, work can serve to remind us that the future may be unsettling and uncertain. We may end up feeling that life inevitably has to be ‘every man for himself’.
And yet, work is a collaborative effort. The workplace involves teams of people working together to achieve common goals, even though they may not feel personally involved in any way with these goals. This often leads to stress and conflict – conflict that may not even be acknowledged, because it is taken for granted as a ‘fact of life’ at work.
Professor Samuels recalled his experience of being invited to work in Israel with Israeli and Palestinian post-graduate students, students with totally opposite and deeply conflicting viewpoints. Professor Samuels was interested to find that when he abandoned traditional approaches to conflict resolution, and tried a different approach that focused on the ‘style’ in which he observed the students dealing with conflict, he found ways that made it easier for the students to talk to and understand the other person’s point of view. While this didn’t resolve their conflicts, it did provide a path to a deeper appreciation of the other side’s story.
This reminded me of the power of relationship intelligence in the form of the Strength Deployment Inventory (SDI).
The SDI is a simple yet powerful instrument that enables people to understand both their own and other people’s motivational values – and consequently – preferred relating styles.
It is widely used in the workplace to assist teams to function more effectively and productively. As with any such personality assessment tool, it is a map and not the territory. People are vastly more complex and interesting than any personality assessment instrument can show. Nevertheless, the SDI has several very useful features that the people who use it find of enormous benefit in helping them to understand where their co-workers are coming from and to avoid unwarranted conflict. The SDI enables people to acknowledge, respect and honour differences; it gives people a language in which to talk about these differences in an objective, non-judgmental way; and following from this, it provides helpful strategies to prevent and resolve conflict in the workplace.
How it works is that the ‘score’ reflects back to a person both how they are motivated in ‘normal’ situations when things are going well, and how they are motivated in situations of conflict when things are not going well. In some people, there is a vast difference and this can be quite a revelation.
So what are the possibilities? We know that different people can do the same thing for very different reasons and this is one of the keys to a better understanding of oneself and others and hence an increased ability to have a sense of belonging and recognition of common purpose.
The primary motivations are a desire to achieve and get things done, a desire to understand and be fair, and a desire to help and communicate. Part of acknowledging our own and others uniqueness and individual differences is to understand that we are each motivated by a different combination and degree of these factors.