As we find ourselves variously in new ways of working, or a rush back to previous ways, I’m struck by the power of an old-fashioned notion of courtesy.
When we are rushing, trying to be efficient, courtesy seems such a quaint notion. In times of uncertainty and discontinuous change however, I think it is increasingly important. Courtesy sets the container in which our conversations take place.
I was sat in a well-known coffee shop, people watching. People rushing in to meet, a perfunctory “Hi” before logging on to the free Wi-Fi and talking to each other with the laptops or phones seemingly acting as some sort of digital intermediary. Straight to business, as quickly and efficiently as possible. Other meetings to go to, other calls to make.
I compared it with the nature of the common greeting ritual of the Zulu; The most common greeting in the Zulu tribe is “Sawubona”. It literally means “I see you, you are important to me and I value you”. It’s a way to make the other person visible and to accept them as they are with their virtues, nuances, and flaws. In response to this greeting, people usually respond with “Shiboka”, which means “I exist for you”. Altogether meatier than “Hi.”
When we run our regular weekly conversations at Originize we will often have a check in, either at the beginning (it is a regular group, and we know each other well) or at some point during it when we sense we need to. It’s not as elegant perhaps as the Sawubona / Shiboka ritual, although it serves the same purpose. Being present with another, exchanging via head, heart, and hands. Intellect, emotion, intuition, sensing. Full bandwidth conversation.
I was in the coffee shop in order to reflect on a book I read at the weekend – Adam Kahane’s Power and Love. In it he makes an observation that inspired me as much as it made me feel slightly dense. For the last two years I have been working with people with different default worldviews – scientific and spiritual – exploring how we harness both when it comes to conversation and found myself looking for “a language of the middle”. Kahane makes the point that it is not the middle we need to be, but in exchange between the polarities. He uses the examples of power (the drive to self-realisation) and love (the drive to unity.) He compares it to breathing in and breathing out more than being in the middle. It struck me powerfully that trying to be in the middle of breathing in and breathing out probably won’t end well. Exchange rather than compromise.
It requires a whole different set of disciplines, courage, confidence and humility, but aspiration is perhaps like that. First amongst those disciplines is courtesy – a willingness to see and be seen, to be heard and to listen.