Why understanding your WEIRD is vital to being a changemaker

about stories art of hosting learning edge story as process partner Sep 11, 2021

I met some weirdness on a walk in a State Park yesterday. This video introduces you to my new weird friend and it is intended to help you open your mind to the idea of weirdness. An open mind is the prerequisite to accepting weirdness, and especially your own. You may never know what gift you are holding if you are not open to something that looks a little different. I for one have never seen such a creature before and if you read all the way to end I'll reveal what this creature will become.

I'm writing this on September 11, an historic date marking the 20th anniversary of an event that changed the world. Since that moment, many of us around the planet have been telling ourselves a profoundly different story about what the world is like, and about our fellow humans.

One of the things that changed in the aftermath of 9/11 is travel. I remember back to a time when I was representing an international student organisation and turned up at JFK Airport in New York with 20 boxes of brochures in tow. My colleague and I spent a very engaging 30 minutes talking with other passengers and convincing them to take a box each as part of their luggage. That's how we got them all across the Atlantic to the headquarters in Brussels. We depended on our charming weirdness. We told them our story and wove them into it.

Now we've all been through an extended time of weirdness and for some, tempers are fraying and differences of opinion and experience are taking us down a fractious road. Many of us seek others who believe like we do in order to feel safe. Have a look at Bill Bailey's book The Big Sort to find out why this is not the best idea. Resilience is a matter of connectedness and diversity.  

We seem programmed to pounce on weirdness and call it out, but especially when we are frightened. The "tall poppy syndrome" in English speaking countries and Jante Law in Scandinavia are examples of these forces at work. Jante is a fictional town in Norway created by Danish/Norwegian author Axel Sandmose to reflect how society works to keep people in line. The place may be fictional, but the impact is real!

 And yet.... if anything is to change, we need your weirdness

Last night I gave a presentation at the Australasian Change Days called "Why understanding your WEIRD is vital to being a changemaker". I talked about three ways we could look at the importance of weird. The first is the etymology of the word itself, which is derived from the importance of the otherwordly or the fates. So you could say your weirdness is your destiny.

Secondly there is the work of Heine, Norenzayan and Henrich, well captured in the Ethan Watters article "We Aren't the World", which demonstrates how profoundly our cultural view of the world impacts how we see it and fundamentally shaking up the WEIRD (Western -- and I wonder if 'white" applies here--, educated, industrialised, rich democratic) of operating in it. So much of what the Western world takes a normal for a human being is a perception based on a small cross section of the entire human population, which may even be outliers. Each of us have our own unconscious biases. It is truly time to get out of the box and meet the rest of the world! Curiosity is the first practice to cultivate.

And finally, there's the PWI -- the Received Weirdness Index created by Jonno Hanafin. It states that in order to make change you need to find that sweet spot between being too much like the prevailing culture -- in which case you get sucked in -- and perceived as so weird that you get ejected.

There is a continuum between forces that want to keep the culture and ways of behaving the same and the "burning platform" that makes change an acceptable alternative, even desperately necessary.

The challenge is that the sweet spot keeps changing. It is dependant on both the situation and the person. And it s influenced by your perceived credibility/competency and the field of trust. If you want to work at the upper limits of the PWI is it an ongoing balancing act. You will have high job satisfaction, but low job comfort. This is truly a test of courage and character.

No matter where or with whom you are working, the weird will show up. It is part of the way groupwork unfolds. If you look at the Breath Pattern, as it is called in the Art of Hosting community, you can see that EMERGENCE is another name for weirdness showing up. It is where we do what I call "falling off the edge of the known universe". Things certainly start to go weird and we can easily lose the trust in each other.

We no longer see clearly. We lose sight of the shore. We feel stranded in the fog or stuck in the bog, downright uncomfortable. Most of us want the discomfort to end AS SOON AS POSSIBLE and we try anything to make it stop, rather that trying to stay in the discomfort and lean into the new that has not yet formed.

That's where knowing story geography can help. The Breath Pattern -- and all group work -- unfolds like a story. Each phase has a beginning, a middle and an end. We human beings love a messy middle in a story -- we just don't like living through it ourselves! But this is exactly where transformation happens.

The Breath Pattern continually repeats itself. And face it -- continuing to breath is a vital part of being human! Staying well in the messy middle demands both fortitude and curiosity to weather the storm. What are your practices for staying curious?

Over my 25+ years working with groups, I've come to see that most conflict comes from two places. Either we believe people are in the same place in the story as we are, and they are not. Or we believe they are in the same story as we are, and they are not. We forget that each of us applies our own unique lens to every situation. We each hold a unique story about what's happening and often, sharing these perspectives can help us see something significant and move past the roadblocks together.

Sharing stories is one of the fastest ways to make connection and build understanding between people.  Storywork is an excellent process partner in building the connectivity and trust needed to step into the weird together. You can use it at every part of the Breath Pattern, helping people stay together to navigate the storm.

We all need our unique weirdness to help us navigate in life. And if we learn to embrace it, new things can happen. Transformation is possible. Learning to make change together is the key.

Sometimes your weird is a small thing. In the 30 years I lived in New Zealand I know my accent charmed people enough that they followed me places they never thought they would go. By the end they were surprized how much weirdness they could actually find fun and productive for change.

What's your weird?


Contact me if you'd like a copy of my two page handout on trio storysharing, a simple, but profoundly impactful way to use story.


That reminds me I promised to share with you what my weird new friend will become...

Meet the Hickory Tussock Moth. What a surprize!

Isn't it time to have a brilliant ally on your side?

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