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The difference between staying on islands and building bridges

The work I do involves designing and facilitating group processes. At a recent conference, I was asked to share my best and worst facilitation experiences, using metaphors.

As Singapore becomes more diverse, its capacity to grow and move forward together as a country and community will depend on its people building bridges with others, says the author. TODAY file photo

As Singapore becomes more diverse, its capacity to grow and move forward together as a country and community will depend on its people building bridges with others, says the author. TODAY file photo

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The work I do involves designing and facilitating group processes. At a recent conference, I was asked to share my best and worst facilitation experiences, using metaphors.

Some years ago, I worked with a group of leaders to chart future directions for their organisation. After an initial round of conversations, I realised that this was going to be difficult. In short, one group wanted to go east, and another wanted to go west.

The process would be demanding under any circumstance. But it was made worse because I was given just one day to work with the group.

And because there were other issues on their agenda, those encroached into the time we had set aside, and the one day became half a day, and then a mere two hours.

In the end, each side barely had time to explain their positions, let alone explore options to move forward. We made little progress. It was one of the most unsatisfactory meetings I had ever been a part of.

The metaphor this experience brought to mind was a group of islands. When you are standing on your island and looking over at another person’s island, all you can see is its shoreline.

The view is limited – you can’t see the island’s back, topography, or interior. So your perspective, and the conclusions you draw from it, will be incomplete and flawed.

This view leads to the worst conversations, where we confirm what we see on the basis of what we think we already know, without any attempt made to cross the waters and explore what’s behind the coast. Sometimes, we even project on the unseen interior our own fantasies and aspirations, our own fears and nightmares.

A few years later, another organisation I worked with convened a meeting on a controversial issue. It involved people from the public sector, businesses, NGOs and members of the public who had personal experience with the issue.

The purpose of the meeting was not to come to a decision on the issue, but to explore, deliberate and lay out options. Still, I was nervous.

As with the earlier example, views on this issue ranged from east to west. What if emotions ran high and arguments arose? What if the meeting served only to harden positions rather than build understanding?

As the meeting proceeded, it seemed as though my fears were coming to pass. Sparks flew.

One person even stood up and called another person names. I remember thinking that I couldn’t wait for the day to end.

Imagine my surprise when at the end, various people called it one of the best meetings they had experienced.

One person felt invigorated because it had been an opportunity to interact with people who they knew of, but had never been in the same room with.

Another said that they could now see the issue from other perspectives and understood why any decision would be difficult.

The metaphor that came to mind this time was of a bridge. When two islands are connected by a bridge, many things become possible.

Simply standing on the bridge means you can see the other island more clearly. The length of the bridge carries the promise of new discovery.

Every step forward you take brings the other island closer, more visible, less mysterious. When you reach the other end, you have the choice to venture further inland. And, if at any point you don’t like what you see, you always have the option of turning back.

We all need island time – to rest, to reflect, to root in what we believe and value.

But as Singapore becomes more diverse, our capacity to grow and move forward together as a country and community will depend on the bridges – their number, their strength, the frequency of their use.

How do we build and walk bridges?

I think there are two basic conditions. First, a bridge must lead to a destination we are curious about. There is no sense in building a bridge to a place no one is interested to go to. So we need to cultivate an explorer’s mind – to notice the islands beyond ours, to observe and ask questions about them, to recognise that the ideas we are forming are hypotheses and not conclusions.

Second, a bridge must be safe enough to walk across. So we try to be clear what the rules are for the bridge-builders: What qualities do they need to have in order to be trusted? What is the carrying capacity of the bridge? How will the bridge be maintained?

And we try to agree on rules for the bridge-walkers too: Anyone may cross. Some may cross quickly and others slowly. Some may be going in the opposite direction.

Yet others may change their minds and turn back. Make room, say hello, walk with them a little.

As Singapore turns 52, my hope is to see new generations of bridges, bridge-builders and bridge-walkers.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dawn Yip is a director at Soulbreath Consulting, and previously spent 13 years in the Administrative Service. She was also consultant and facilitator for Our Singapore Conversation. This first appeared in The Birthday Book 2017, a collection of 52 essays that examines challenges and opportunities for Singapore with the theme “What Should We Never Forget?”

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