What Would Happen If We All Hit Pause?

Fostering community and connection in Washington during upending times

The aftershocks just keep coming. With so many tectonic shifts happening at the same time — Brexit, our new president and cabinet, the travel ban — it’s not hard to understand why people feel shaken up. With this level of instability, people are turning to their organizations to help them with sensemaking. The institutional pressure to make statements, sign petitions, and take positions has been weighing on many. We at IDEO are no exception. But instead of jumping into the fray, we chose to hit pause and take a moment to listen.

What we heard from our clients and collaborators in the U.S. was a deep yearning for ways to connect through dialogue. This is something we’ve been seeking for years, so we created a design tool to address it. Creative Tensions, a partnership between IDEO and the Sundance Institute Theatre Program, are group dialogues where participants are asked a this-or-that question and reveal where they stand on the issue by where they stand in the room.

It’s not unlike the Danish video that recently went viral in which a room full of people who appear to have little in common, are asked questions like “who is a stepparent?” and “who is lonely?” One by one, participants, young and old, of all different colors and backgrounds, step forward and join each other in new circles of inclusion. It’s a powerful reminder that there’s more that unites us than divides us.

But it’s hard to feel united right now, and that experience is contributing to record levels of stress and anxiety in our country. In 2015, 1/4 of adults reported they’d experienced an extreme amount of stress during the year and more than 1/3 of adults reported that their stress level increased over the past year. And that was before the upheaval of the election. It may be that the acute stress and anxiety we’re feeling in this moment is symptomatic of a more chronic stress and anxiety that led us to this moment.

This gets even more interesting when you consider that stress is a major symptom of social isolation. “Social isolation is increasing in prevalence in America,” says U.S. Surgeon General Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy. “Since the 1980’s, loneliness among adults increased from 20 percent to 40 percent. Loneliness is associated with increased risk of premature death. The effect of isolation on mortality is comparable to the impact of smoking or obesity.” When Murthy was first appointed, he thought he’d be focused on physical wellness, but after touring the country, he found that our imperiled emotional state was the root cause of many of our maladies, including chronic illness and opioid addiction.

What’s the solution to isolation, anxiety, and stress? Dr. Murthy prescribes a deeper sense of connection to improve your well-being. But you can’t get there by collecting friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter. It requires having actual conversations with actual people. Such interactions not only improve your health, they also impart deeper empathy for others and can lead to new collaborations. And we need that now. Urgently.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy (left) and Shankar Vedantam of NPR (right) at Creative Tensions in Washington D.C.

So earlier this month, we invited Surgeon General Murthy, and Shankar Vedantam, NPR’s Social Science Correspondent and Host of the Hidden Brain podcast to Washington D.C. to kick off a Creative Tensions event for a community in need of connection and collaboration. After a quick interview with the panelists, my co-host Christopher Hibma from Sundance Institute said goodbye to Dr. Murthy and Shankar before we turned to the crowd at NPR headquarters — a diverse set of 260 people from government agencies like the VA to members of the presidential transition team; from heads of the AARP to 18-year-old African-American activists from Howard University — and asked them to move to one side of the room or the other, or to some point on the spectrum in between, in response to our questions. People were wearing name tags, but those only stated their first name and a fill-in-the-blank question, “When I’m stressed, I ______”. That gave the audience permission to respond not as representatives of their organizations, but as individuals. When we reminded them of that, there was a palpable exhale in the room — you could literally see people shedding their institutional weight. Some of questions we asked included:

My suffering is
My Own — — — Shared”

My fate is linked with those who share
My Values — — — My Demographic”

The point of connection is
Solidarity — — — Safety”

Creative Tensions participants are asked to find their place in the room along spectrums that are projected on the wall.

They didn’t act immediately, but took a moment to pause, and then slowly started moving. The event was dense with people, and you couldn’t help but brush against one another as you traversed the room. From the feedback we heard afterward, the simple gesture of walking shoulder to shoulder with someone you didn’t know, or looking across the room at those who hold a different point of view, brought a feeling of togetherness. When we called upon a few individuals to explain why they’d made the move they did, other members of the audience were so influenced by their comments, they ended up changing their minds and heading to the other side.

The Surgeon General stressed the importance of taking such pauses to really listen and reflect. He used a physiological analogy that felt so true, it made me — and the audience — gasp: “There’s a lesson we can garner from our own heart,” Dr. Murthy said. Quick anatomy refresher course: The heart pumps in two phases. In the systole phase, it pumps oxygen-rich blood to the other organs — brain, kidneys, lungs, stomach. Then, in the diastole phase, the heart relaxes and fills with blood again. Systole gets most of the attention because it floods our bodies with vital nutrients, essentially keeping us alive. But it’s during the quieter diastole phase that the blood vessels refuel the heart itself. In other words, “pausing is what sustains the heart,” Dr. Murthy said.

It’s a lesson that we can carry over to our own lives. “A strong and healthy country is one that takes time to pause,” he said. “It’s one that takes time to connect, and it’s one where we also recognize that we are ultimately responsible for each other, that we have to look out for each other. Building social connection with the people around us, especially people we may not normally engage with or interact with, is one of the most patriotic things we can do.”

Turns out, healing our own minds and bodies through connection might help heal the body politic, too.

Creative Tensions participants listening and sharing their perspectives.

Behavioral science backs this up. Shankar Vedantam of NPR shared that we’re happier when we have conversations with strangers, but assume the opposite is true. He cited a study by Nicholas Epley, a behavioral scientist at the University of Chicago, who asked random passengers at a train station to start a conversation with others on their ride, while others would just do as they always did and sit by themselves. When asked in advance of the trip, respondents said they’d be happier sitting alone and not being bothered. But what Epley found was the reverse — that those who talked to strangers on the train invariably ended up happier afterwards. For some reason, it’s hard for us to believe this. When asked, the conversation-starters said they just happened to sit by an unusually interesting person.

Like Dr. Murthy, Vedantam also sees “deep listening” as key to breaking down isolation, building empathy, and improving emotional well-being. He cited Arlie Hochschild’s book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right in which Hochschild (a Berkeley sociologist living in a liberal enclave) moved to Louisiana (a conservative enclave) over a period of five years to get to know, and capture the stories of Tea Party supporters. (Listen to his full report on the book here.) “When you elicit someone’s deep story, and you truly listen to it, you don’t have to agree with it,” said Vedantam. “You can say I disagree with you, but it’s really hard to say I dislike you, it’s really hard to say I despise you, because you feel like you’ve connected.”

Creative Tensions audience members connecting with each other following the event.

And that was exactly what happened on this evening in Washington — a shift from stress and anxiety to relief and connection. It was an opportunity to get out of our heads and into our hearts — to feel closer to others in the public sector who are living and working at the center of our country’s current moment of upheaval, and who are in desperate need of new tools. “I always say ‘empathy’ is one of the top three leadership skills needed for effectiveness” one attendee said. And even if you can’t quite get to empathy, you can at least get to creative tension.

For more on Creative Tensions and to learn about upcoming events near you, watch this space.

Artwork by Njoki Gitahi