Kare Anderson has been a leader in communication in virtually every medium there is for over 30 years. She is an Emmy-winning former Wall Street Journal and NBC reporter, the author of a number of books about conflict resolution and collaboration in business, and publishes the online newsletters Moving from Me to We and Say it Better.
Kare’s most powerful communications though, come through in her coaching. She has led issue teams for the Obama 2008 campaign, advised CEOs, professional athletes, and cause advocates. All seek to have their story heard in highly competitive environments.
When we met recently, I immediately knew I’d like to interview Kare about how she uses narrative in her practice. In our few minutes on the phone last week, she offered concise wisdom and specific strategies for using collaborative techniques to achieve preferred outcomes—no small feat in a complex, noisy world.
AZ: How does storytelling and narrative play a role in your coaching?
KA: For me one of the most difficult things is that people instinctively talk about themselves. When they’re standing on the stage talking to their employees, they talk about their company; they don’t talk about what’s in it for the employees. Many times when people are trying to tell their story they miss the biggest part, which is to construct it so it’s a purposeful narrative–so that the listener can see a role for themselves, want to jump in, retell it and play a role in it. When I think about storytelling, it is to understand what a person most stands for, what they want to get across and how they can authentically discuss it with someone elsewhere that person wants to jump in. The instinct is for people to ask a question and revert it back to themselves. Even when they want something from someone else.
AZ: Do you think this instinct to talk about ourselves is uniquely American, or Western? Or do you see it as cross-cultural, global, human?
KA:Let me say that I believe it’s instinctively human. I also believe our culture is more about the maverick, the individual winning, who’s number one. There’s a book coming out this month called Situations Matter and it characterizes a rather famous study where people from Western cultures looked at an aquarium and were asked to describe it, and they described how all of the fish appeared to be swimming one way, except for one. Whereas if you ask people from Japan or other Asian countries, they tend to describe the whole scene. ‘I see there are plants over there, I see there is a device over there that they feed at, and I see there are these fish.” So they look at everything as a whole. We tend to look at a certain part and then extrapolate from there.
AZ: Why do you think it is so hard for individuals to turn away from the instinct to talk about themselves?
KA: It’s instinctive. People want to be known and appreciated. It’s innate. We’re wired that way. We notice it more when that doesn’t happen for us than we do when we’re not doing it for others. That’s compounded by a more fractured life for more people, not working in a common area where they are physically around and touch and see people every day. So there’s a more scattered pattern. There’s an increase in depression, as you know, and in isolation and physical touch and being outdoors. I have the feeling that those trends compound what is already an innately human desire.
AZ: Your website and blog, “Moving from Me to We” is dedicated to the apparently simple idea that leaders—having been taught how to go it alone, to lead, manage and influence others—would now benefit from learning to collaborate.
KA: That’s so right. For example, consider three elements when attempting to get things done better — with others: First, find others with a shared sweet spot of mutual benefit and complementary talents for the desired goal. Second, what method of collaboration is best to accomplish our goals. Some are, for example, self-organized team, co-creation, crowdsourcing or min charettes. Third, agree on rules of engagement — how you will work together. We relied on those three elements when I launched the special issues teams during the first Obama campaign.
I believe that if one needs two, intertwined traits to be a good collaborator. First, continually hone a core strength. Second, have a capacity to collaborate with people extremely unlike you. People who have these traits are called T-Shaped People according to Morten Hansen in Collaboration. The vertical part of the “T” is your core talent and the horizontal line reflects your interest in involving diverse partners. Then you can use your talent to follow your passion, stepping outside yourself and into others’ shoes, then stick to that common ground, that sweet spot, as your work together. From that perspective you can talk through disagreements because you keep the shared interest at the center of the conversation.
AZ: What kinds of strategies do you provide people to create spaces in their narratives so a listener can enter?
KA: Concretely, the goal is to do “you, me us.” Address the other person, first refer to their interest, then yours and then how your interests coincide. This approach enables diverse people to gain traction sooner towards that common goal.
I think it is profoundly important to collaborate in this connected, complex world because it is the only way to stay cutting edge and sought-after. Plus, by productively collaborating you are more likely to have greater adventures with others, get more done without working more and build unexpected friendships and a ring of support in which opportunities get introduced to you that you would not otherwise have seen. That can make life more meaningful and memorable.
AZ: In a recent blog about the mysteries of synchronistic events—events that seem fortuitous, but out of our control–you asked the question: “What if you were a character in the story of your life, but not the only author?” Could you elaborate on what you mean by this?
KA: As you probably well know, most of us instinctively have a story that we tell that we believe is our life story and we tend to repeat it. If there’s a hot button or something I don’t like in other people, I will tend to re-engage and have repeated experiences around that hot button because we’re driven by our blind spots and our desires. So to change your life you can alter the character role you want to play. Rita Carter wrote a book called Multiplicity . Among many other authors, she shows how we all have different facets of ourselves. And if we practice expressing our latent or atrophied assets or facets of our character, we bring out things in other people. Which part of us we want to cultivate is like a character. What scenes do we want to engage in, what new scripts?
A book just came out called Out of Character Read it to better understand why CEOS, politicians, others with conspicuous power do really horrible and/or stupid things. We act offended yet we’re largely unaware of the underlying traits that cause them to act this way. We are also largely unaware of our own hot buttons and blind spots — the specific behaviors that we dislike. Instead we make general conclusions about the people who evoke our ire. We might say, for example “He’s rude,” or “She’s selfish.” Once we know the two to three specific behaviors that most bother us we are better able to do “defensive driving” — that is see several “cars” ahead when that kind of behavior appears to be on the verge of happening, and we can plan, in advance, ways to choose how we will act if it does rather than reacting. In so doing we have more options and less chance of making a bad situation worse. In short, don’t let somebody else determine your behavior.
AZ: Many of the people that I encounter in my own work are deeply concerned with the role of the United States in the world in the 21st Century. There is a tendency in much of the foreign policy community to believe that the United States was not only a character, but also the key author of the last half of the 20th century. Now it isn’t so clear what we are. As a follow on to the last question, would you like to say more about your ideas about authorship and narrative control at the national or international level?
KA:I do believe that countries and companies have multi-faceted personalities just as individuals do.
As you can see in our country, certain trends are moving up. As a group becomes increasingly close knit, it gets stronger, but ironically, in a close-knit group such as the Tea Party, or the Occupy Wall Street protesters, people tend to take extreme stands at the edge of their group to secure their place in it. And that has the effect of making the group more extreme. You can learn more about that effect in two books, Going to Extremes and The Big Sort. As technology enables people to become increasingly connected, it is easier for self-organized groups to form and to network.
I believe that a national narrative is less controllable by a few leaders or covered by a few large media outlets.. I believe that the interconnections in different parts of the world means bad and good will happen and come from more places, and collaboration will be happening along the way.
AZ: I hope so.
KA: Beware of what you hope for. That means bad and good. As Nicholas Kristof noted, for example, there are more women in slavery now than there were blacks at the height of slavery. Countries and companies haven’t caught up with the illicit trades, whether it’s gun running or slave trafficking. As Moises Naim wrote in Illicit, that means black markets have become more nimble and can innovate and scale faster unfortunately. We are becoming a project-oriented, self-organizing and collaborative world, for good and for bad, Decentralized, self-organized groups that loosely affiliate are learning a lot from each other about how to launder money, how to move bodies, how to build drones.
It’s a Pandora’s box. Fareed Zakaria and Tom Friedman are both partly right. It’s not necessarily that the U.S. will fall, but that other countries and entities are on the rise in more ways than we are. Yet, many Americans are honing the traits about which I’ve spoken, many with people in other parts of the world so there is plenty of reason to be hopeful for our collective future.
Plus, those who see and characterize the most tempting option to collaborate are most likely to attract the resources they need to succeed. That leads to the third talent to hone. Quotability. Whoever most vividly characterizes a situation is most likely to influence how other see and act on that situation. For business, they can even re-shape markets as they aggregate new alliances, consequently becoming able to to make the best offer in a “market.” That approach will hold true in the public and non-profit sectors as well. Notice already how the most compelling idea is the one that spreads, sells, sways options and more.
AZ: In smaller and smaller, perhaps leaderless groups.
KA: New causes, products and other options can pop up faster and from more places. TJust as product innovation cycles are much shorter and competition is different, the same thing will happen with parties. It’s an odd sort of tribalism, that we are becoming more global and more tribal. These are the things that have been on my mind a lot, this connectivity and what it means. We now know that our behavior is imitated by our friends’ friends friends – spreading to the third degree, as described in Connected: the Surprising Power of Social Networks. That means, among other things that our quotability, and combined traits of top talent and collaboration can, in this technology-enabled world, allow us to have a greater impact than at any other time in our human history. Again that is good and bad news. What people will become most adept using these three talents? You and people you admire, one hopes.
AZ: One of the themes that runs through your work is joy and celebration. How do these play a part in the serious issues—and serious stories—that leaders must confront and narrate on a daily basis?
KA: Despite all of the books that have come out about happiness, which is the way that Americans look at it, I feel closer to the ideas of Martin Seligman, which are about well-being. When people have a sense of well-being and recognize that they have options then they can have faith that some of work and life is within their control. They can, along with the fates, become co-authors of the next chapter of the adventure story they really want to live. Thank you for being so generous with your time in interviewing me, working as you are, in such a vital sector related to the possibility of peace.
As we end this interview let me share a truth that popped into my mind, whole cloth when I was walking down the steps after interviewing one of the few people who has been release from Guantanamo:
In a civilization when love is gone
we turn to justice and when justice is gone
we turn to power and when power
is gone we turn to violence.
My greatest aspiration is that I can join with others in co-creating specific ways we can work and life together that enables us to becoming higher performing and happier — together.