SHOW NOTES: Dr. Alan Briskin co-wrote The Power of Collective Wisdom: And the Trap of Collective Folly with Sheryl Erickson, John Ott, and Tom Callanan. Together, the authors seek to answer the key question, “How does magic happen in groups?” With the encouragement and support of The Fetzer Institute, they combine their own research, theory, and practice with that of hundreds of others, as noted in the Acknowledgments. In short, they teach how to maximize the best in us. “Collective wisdom,”” says Briskin, is about how we come to make sound judgments with others, touched by what is common and decent in all of us.”
But leveraging this wisdom, or finding a new joint perspective, requires deep connection with others and our surroundings. Briskin’s multiple examples of both positive and negative group participation illustrate the urgent need for “large-scale change efforts in business, health care, education, mental health, criminal justice, conflict resolution, and global initiatives.”
To increase the likelihood of collective wisdom emerging, Briskin proposes six “stances” or attitudes. The first is “Deep Listening.” To illustrate, Briskin introduces us to Paula Underwood, a Turtle clan mother of the Iroquois nation. Taught by her father to listen to people’s hearts and to read between the lines, she learned both emotional and cognitive empathy. As a tribal leader, she uses these skills while anticipating life seven generations into the future. Such foresight or concern for the future, which Briskin calls “the DNA of wisdom,” can be adopted by any culture. In fact, today we see it often in environmental groups.
A similar stance is “Seeing whole systems/Seeking diverse perspectives.” This attitude is what we hope will frame robust political debates, which have long been part of our nation’s history. For example, in Benjamin Franklin’s final speech at the Constitutional Convention, he champions individuals who engage in vigorous discourse with the express purpose of moving group goals forward.
Humility is another key component to collective wisdom. Cesar Chavez, the leader of the United Farm Workers, openly admitted he did not have all the solutions to organize his little band of grape harvesters. And, by publicly confessing he lacked answers, the group helped him find a way to unite and galvanize others.
Without building deep relationships, we can fall into “the trap of collective folly,” Briskin warns. This folly may begin as mere separation and fragmentation. However, if we don’t take precautions against polarizing, accusing, blaming, and talking past each other, then collective folly can lead to dysfunction and even evil. For example, the “not me” or “not us” attitude can devolve into “confirmation bias,” with members welcoming only data confirming what they already believe or know. Another form of collective folly is false agreement and the (outward) appearance of unity. To illustrate, Briskin shares the true story of the disastrous, deadly failure of the Challenger Space Shuttle mission. In the end, the book can help immunize us against such dangerous folly.
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