There’s an old saying that goes something like, “a problem shared is a problem halved”. The implication being that two people, in this case, can share the emotional burden of a difficult situation through conversation. This may be the glass-half-full version of what it means to connect. It might be more meaningful to say “a problem shared creates value”, which is why it’s good advice to never turn down an opportunity for a benign chat. You never know what might emerge from it and serendipity is a gift that can’t be preempted.
“Life becomes harder for us when we live for others, but it also becomes richer and happier.”Albert Schweitzer
Every time we choose to connect in the face of a problem or threat, our mind has already navigated an intricate maze of emotional processes to get us to that decision point. Our nervous system is programmed first and foremost to prepare us to fight, flee or freeze. To overcome this programmed reaction, and choose to connect, is a triumph of emotional literacy over basic instinct because our mind and body still essentially behave as if dealing with the environmental hazards from our early evolutionary development. For this reason, we have developed a relatively recent skillset in our ability to literally choose our mood by overriding this legacy behaviour.
Choosing Your Mood
It was much later in our evolutionary journey that we discovered the benefit of watching each others’ back, so to speak. The early formation of social structures was based on the realisation that collaboration (win-win) was preferred to dysfunctional social competition. This principle still serves as a template for the topology and nature of our social interactions today. We have become used to seeing the best and worst of humanity co-existing as if it was a natural inevitability but, in reality, we are constantly making choices.
We can choose how we see and how we feel about our day to day experience and how we express ourselves in the process. This choice is the basis of our wellbeing and that of the people we care for. It is also the essence of our ability to bring about change, firstly within ourself, but also in the places we inhabit or frequent. This dynamic is the key to designing 21st-century spaces where organisations can better connect with the people who rely on their services to deal with life’s stresses and strains.
Dignity by Design
Such spaces, in design terms, have had a tendency to label and categorise where they ought to respect and appreciate the competence and capability of people to make their own decisions. Autonomy and dignity must come before the labels and stereotypes that brands and organisations use to pigeon-hole people for their convenience. In the 21st century well-designed spaces whether physical or virtual are becoming “points of care” where the dignity, values and rights of the individuals are at the core of the design.
The mantra of recent decades was all about “being heard”. Latterly, new sensibilities point to a different understanding of the relationship between individuals’ rights and those of institutions and corporations who service their needs. These relationships had become seriously unbalanced in terms of issues like privacy, transparency, diversity and equality. This imbalance is difficult, nigh impossible, to redress if the design is flawed in the first place. Be it a school, shopping centre, place of work or medical facility, we have the right to expect a certain level of dignity in our experience of them.
“We need space for the fearless witnessing of each other’s lived experience”
The same is true of online spaces as it is for bricks and mortar and the benchmark for the required standard of care is twofold. Firstly, the quality of conversation experienced and secondly the ease with which a space can flex to accommodate the individual’s story. Being heard is therefore a function of balanced systems that facilitate an authentic experience for all the stakeholders. We need more systems that bring together the elements required for fearless witnessing of the lived experience, as opposed to mandating constraints and gatekeeping, or arbitrating what is or isn’t “allowed”.
We’re still just getting going in a new century and already professionalism and expertise have been supplanted by emotional literacy and empathy as the guide rails for new kinds of relationships. “One size fits all”, or “we don’t do it like that around here” is an abdication of our 21st-century duty to do better by our fellow-travellers; to connect first and foremost to each other’s humanity in order to discover those shared possibilities which are fast becoming the hallmarks of an exciting new era. Being heard is no longer enough – it’s a spent idea. We want, in no uncertain terms, for our story to be wholly and completely witnessed and acknowledged; for only then can true value be added.