Issue Date: January 17, 2010
7 ways to come together
America's top leadership expert shares his plan for easing differences.
By Stephen Covey
"We can find solutions, if we work together."
A year ago this week, the nation watched, spellbound, as about a million revelers carpeted the Washington Mall to celebrate the inauguration of a new president.
What a difference a year makes -- or not. The euphoria has worn off. In its place? Well, you know: anger, division, frustration, polarization. Been there, done that.
Clearly, we could use some help working out our differences. And who better to turn to for ideas than leadership expert and USA WEEKEND Contributing Editor Stephen Covey, author of the mega-selling "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People?" We asked Covey for his advice on how we all can get along better this year. Here, he offers seven new ways that each of us can bridge the gulf that separates us from our neighbors:
1 Open your "inbox." That means staying open to receive all incoming messages, even from those with whom you may not agree. Don't install a mental spam filter. Instead, take in what someone has to say and really try to understand different points of view.
One of my favorite (and most decidedly low-tech) tools is the Indian talking stick. In discussion sessions, participants must take the stick and fully present the point of view just expressed by someone else -- even if it opposes their own -- before stating their own. Several years ago, I took part in a world leadership forum where I presented the talking stick to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Arab and Jewish leaders from the Middle East. It worked wonders. President Obama's speech last summer at Cairo University, in which he made references to the Bible and the Koran, reflected the strategies that we agreed upon during that forum.
2 Find a third solution. Opposing parties usually come to the table with two contrasting solutions. The gap between them could be immense. So I've always counseled parties to come up with a third solution that's better than those already proposed -- one that can help both sides achieve at least a piece of what they want.
I once worked with a hospital corporation that struggled internally over the outsourcing of work that on-staff physicians usually handled. The physicians didn't want any outsourcing. But the administration wanted a lot of outsourcing, to cut costs. I helped them reach a third alternative, somewhere in between. The doctors concluded that some patient-care services needed to be outsourced because they didn't have the resources to handle them in-house. And the administration realized that excessive outsourcing would only damage the customers' need for physician continuity. In the end, both sides abandoned their personal agendas and worked together for the good of the patients. The hospital became a much more efficient and profitable place.
3 Model yourself after others. Many people are inspired by others who have served as great role models -- whether it's a parent, a boss, a teacher or a president. The key for you is first to recognize which of their achievements you're seeking for yourself. Then examine the compelling strengths these people possessed in order to achieve those accomplishments. Combine those strong qualities to create a working blueprint for your own life.
Take our presidents, for example. No one's perfect, of course. But you could do worse than to combine the charm/intellect of John F. Kennedy with the optimism of Ronald Reagan, the vision of Thomas Jefferson with the courage of Abraham Lincoln and the humanity of Jimmy Carter with the persuasive skills of Lyndon Johnson.
For me, Nelson Mandela fills this role. When he was imprisoned after leading the movement against apartheid in South Africa, he was able to build bridges with his jailers by using his knowledge as a lawyer to give them legal advice. His first cabinet even included people who had been responsible for his imprisonment for 27 years. These are the kinds of qualities that helped Mandela achieve his ultimate vision -- to put an end to legal segregation in South Africa.
4 Avoid "identity theft." I'm not talking about someone stealing your credit cards or swiping your personal data. I'm talking about losing your soul. The more your focus is on personal gains, whether it's possessions or "keeping score" with respect to rivalries, the greater the risk of losing your identity.
Let's examine the case of Millard Fuller. He co-launched a marketing firm in law school and became a self-made millionaire before age 30. Shortly after, his marriage declined. So he and his wife, Linda, sold their possessions, gave the proceeds away and found a new purpose in life. They founded Habitat for Humanity International, an effort that has resulted in more than 350,000 homes built or renovated for 1.75 million poor people throughout the world.
5 Try something new. If you don't do something that you've never done before, your worldview will be too limited to inspire real change. So attend a church service of a different faith. Go to a NASCAR race or a rap concert. Take a Thai cooking class. Learn how to make an authentic African art basket or how to skeet shoot. In other words, keep learning so your view of the world will continue to deepen.
6 Know your audience. You may be passionate about your beliefs, but that alone won't convince people to agree with you. You need to understand the "what's in it for me?" details. Does what you're attempting to sell serve their interests? The green movement, for example, took off when it convinced businesses that going green could save them money. You must understand your audience -- specifically, knowing what motivates them -- before you can connect.
To do that, ask yourself whether you really know your audience. Where did they grow up? How many kids do they have, and what are their names? President Bill Clinton is a genius at this. "He can go back to a place that he's been three years before and call people by their first names," a friend of his once recalled. He's as comfortable in a corporate boardroom as he is in a housing project. That's because he knows the people in every room he's in, and they appreciate and respond to his interest.
7 Laugh at least once a day. If we can't laugh at least once a day, what does that say about our lives? Shared laughter is the best way to bring disparate parties together. Laughing helps us live longer and feel healthier and better about ourselves. Reagan was able to bring many Democrats to his side because he presented his views in an engaging, humorous way. Is there a better way to break the ice and build a bridge?
Contributing editor and best-selling author Stephen Covey's new book, "Great Work, Great Career" (with co-author Jennifer Colosimo) is out in stores.
Cover photograph and cover story photo illustrations by C.J. Burton for USA WEEKEND
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How good are you at getting along?
By Stephen Covey
Take this self-quiz and find out:
Answer each question with a score of 1 to 5, with 1 meaning never, 3 sometimes and 5 always.
1. When I hear a point of view that opposes mine, I keep an open mind, listen with empathy, ask the person to elaborate and try to understand his point of view.
2. When I hear an opposing viewpoint, I can express it so well that the person tells me he thinks I understand, even if I don't agree.
3. I value and appreciate the chance to work with people who have different perspectives and backgrounds.
4. I am open to learning new knowledge and skills from others, and I actively seek out diverse opinions.
5. I accept that two people can disagree and they both can be right -- and that they still can get along with each other.
6. People I live and work with will say I respectfully share my opinions without being offensive.
7. When disagreements or tension arise in a relationship, I do my best to try to find a solution that will be beneficial to both of us.
8. I look for role models who can best help me to learn respect and admiration for others.
9. I am open to new experiences and am willing to try new things (such as new food, music, cultural activities, etc.).
10. I try to be good-humored, even in difficult situations.
So how well do you get along with others?
45-50 Excellent. You should be commended. You have a significant respect for and appreciation of the differences in others.
40-44 Very good. Although you show a healthy amount of respect for others and their point of view, you could work to improve your skills to be even better.
30-39 Fair to good. You generally keep an open mind, but you still have trouble in some instances.
10-29: Poor. You tend to be closed to the differences in others. You need to work on having an open mind.
To learn more about your score and how you can improve, go to stephencovey.com.