Similarities: The Glue that Holds Us Together

A house divided against itself cannot stand.

Abraham Lincoln borrowed this quote from the New Testament when he was describing the division in the United States. It is a powerful quote to consider no matter what divisions you are struggling with in your life. Your “house” can apply to your government, your company or work group, your community and your family.

When we focus on our differences, we cannot come together.

Healthy relationships are critical to success. A team or partnership can eke out results whether the participants get along or not but the group cannot create amazing results without a solid connection among the members.

When people say, “We don’t have to like each other to get work done,” I question the quality of the work. I believe we have to know each other, trust each other, and hold a healthy respect for each other to achieve excellent results. If I respect you, I like you on some level. These feelings are the glue that holds us together.

In a recent article in The New York Times about Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, the relationship between her and the executives at Facebook is based on Sandberg’s keen ability to listen and connect. Although her background, her look and her focus for the company is very different from the people she works with at Facebook, she has a keen understanding of how they see the world and can slip into their “bandwidth” with ease. “She’s legit,” says Christopher Cox, the company’s vice president for product. “She’s not like a robot M.B.A.”

Most of us want people to know what special gift or talent we bring to the table. We want to be acknowledged for how we stand out. Although knowing the special strengths, gifts and talents that a person contributes is important later on, the foundation of the group must first be built on similarities. Focusing on differences even if they are strengths stresses the division more than the possibility of working together.

Therefore, relationships should first focus on similarities before you explore differences. Leaders need to create the space so that people who work together can—and are encouraged to—take the time to really see and learn from each other. The more you know someone as a human with needs, dreams and concerns, the more likely you are to care about the quality of your connection with them when you work together.

BRAIN TIP: We listen for similarities by sharing stories that reveal our wishes, needs, disappointments, hopes and dreams. When we first listen for how we are similar, we connect on points in common. This connection breeds collaboration.

I was writing a chapter for my book, Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction on a plane to Dallas, Texas, while sitting next to a thirty-something woman who was traveling with her five young children dispersed in the three rows around me. In a rare moment when she wasn’t yelling at her children, she looked over my shoulder and asked me what I was writing. I reluctantly told her, assuming she was not my target audience. Shame on me for making this assumption. She launched into a diatribe about the struggles she is having with the business she owns and how no adult seems to understand her even though she knows the risks she takes are right. She said, “Oh, I’m a Wander Woman all right. And so is my sister. Do you really think this is a sort of tribe, or is it a sign of the future for women where we finally get to express who we are?”

When I heard her story, I saw myself. When we listen to each other’s stories, we often see the similarities in our experiences, our struggles and our desires.

When I coach teams, I often ask each person to describe their perfect day one year from now, from the time they wake up until the time they go to sleep. When they share their dreams for both work and their home lives, the members are always amazed at how similar they are. A special rapport develops which helps them come together when they shift to tackling their work problems and actions.

In addition to connecting through our dreams, we also connect through our shared struggles. When your partner(s) is describing a problem, ask:

  1. What is most important to you that you hope will happen or you worry will not happen?
  2. What led you to make a specific decision or what factors are you considering that are making it hard for you to make this decision?
  3. Why do you think this problem exists at this time, really?

Often, when we hear someone describe the story behind an issue we feel, “I am not alone, I am not crazy after all, other people have the same issues and fears as I do.” This familiarity brings us together.Knowing we are similar can give us the courage to move on. In the least, knowing we are going through similar pain can help us feel human and heal. When we connect through familiarity, we open the space to ask each other, “So what’s next?” Instead of feeling as if we are alone, we feel we are in the fight together, making it easier to explore what is in our control and what is possible for our future.

Brain Tip reader Elizabeth Conty reminded me that children are experts at instantly seeing similarities even when differences are obvious. As long as they sense that the other child is safe, their curiosity to learn something about the other child kicks in. Then once similarities emerge, the fun begins.

It’s time to bring the curiosity of children into our relationships. Wonder what brings each person into your life in this moment in time. What dreams are they holding? What are they worrying about that will stand in the way of their dreams? If we know each other’s stories, we can connect. From here, our work together will be amazing.

Next Up—How to Honor Differences without Losing our Connection. Can’t wait? Contact me to talk about how your organization can build collaboration today.

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