Are You Doing This To People?

I had my first virtual reality experience at MIT recently. The program was called The Enemy and the point was to introduce us to three pairs of enemies, get up close and personal, and hear them talk about their beliefs and experiences. The three conflicts were in Israel/Palestine, the Congo, and El Salvador.

As I expected, all six wanted peace and better lives for their children. And all six grew up in circumstances, mostly desperate, that defined the enemy and, seemingly, limited their options. Across the board, their actions were violent, heartfelt, and contextually defensible, if misguided. I walked out as I walked in, wishing for a better world and wondering how you get people to step out of their circumstances long enough to find common ground and peaceful alternatives that lift all people. My wishes extend to all three of these conflicts, as well as to today’s USA and beyond. Imagine a world governed by civil, rational, collaborative problem-solving!

We could have left feeling pensive, I believe, but that didn’t happen. Instead, the MIT crew ushering us through this experience tainted the experience by breaking one of my cardinal rules:

If you try to do something to someone, you will likely fail. If you try to do something with someone, you have a far greater chance of succeeding.

The crew on hand, as well as the final question of the program, seemed to believe we were now suddenly profoundly changed. “Who have you become?” they repeated.

This is a perfect example of “doing something to someone.” They assumed introducing us to these enemies would leave us fundamentally changed and were eagerly awaiting our confessions. They wanted to hear that our eyes were now open. That we had learned that there were two sides to every conflict. That we had walked in with prejudice and were now cured. That this had been a truly profound experience. That we had become someone else!

The irony is that while we were supposed to change because of our meeting the enemies, the crew never met us. They were operating on a strange set of assumptions, insulting assumptions no less. That our eyes were not open. That we didn’t realize that there are two sides to every conflict. That we didn’t believe these enemies could have shared values and hopes. That we arrived with unjustifiable prejudice about these conflicts. My husband, in particular, was quite miffed. He was quite sure he was still himself!

This is the reason “doing to” is a recipe for failure. When you make assumptions about people, you are going to be wrong and those assumptions are going to make people angry, defensive, and/or dismissive.

Now had they been “doing with” instead, they would not have asked what we had become. They would have asked us what we thought of the six enemies, whether we thought their actions were justifiable, whether we had learned anything that shifted our perspectives, and whether we thought the experience had the power to change minds and hearts. Questions like that. Questions that might have led both parties to learn something new and think more deeply about conflict and beliefs.

If you try to do something to someone, you will likely fail. If you try to do something with someone, you have a far greater chance of succeeding. The former involves arrogance and preconceived notions. The latter involves collaborative thinking and respect. I encourage you to think about the difference between these two approaches in all your interactions with others.

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