Co-authored by Alice Evans and Michelle Zucker
Have you ever found yourself thinking… why didn’t those people just talk with those other people? Have you found yourself knowing that if they had spoken with each other, the eventual outcome would have been much, much better? It’s so simple when you’re on the outside looking in, but when you’re in it, it can seem insurmountable.
We see examples of this at every single scale. Sometimes it’s two friends or family members that feel like they have an unbridgeable chasm between them following an argument. Because we have both perspectives, we know they believe similar things, which, if only they would meet in the middle, they would see.
Other times it’s in our workplaces — why on earth didn’t the project team connect with the IT or legal department before starting… they could have saved time, money and created something much better.
We see it in our governments, where somehow each department works in its own silo and we end up with policies built by a health department with no connection to the social services department and most certainly no connection to the people that are most impacted. Or if we zoom out to the global scale, we know agreement on global actions is extremely important — think Paris Agreement, Sustainable Development Goals, or International Convention for Human Rights. But standing up the difficult processes, methods, and infrastructure required to have these implemented is… well, frankly, yet to be seen.
Interestingly, as humans working or living in any given environment (or system) we can often clearly see points where connection is needed, and even more interestingly, we can see the trajectory of what will happen if that connection fails to happen. It feels obvious. Our experience shows us that, whilst intuitively and in theory very obvious, the type of deep connection and collaboration required for real change is extremely difficult and messy to do in practice. Especially when we consider it needs to happen at all scales, across scales, and often all at once.
We call this space the messy middle.
The messy middle is the in-between space — the place where people with fundamentally different views, experiences or roles need to meet in the middle to find a way forward. It’s so simple in our heads or in conversations, yet is so excruciatingly difficult to do in our everyday lives.
We know the messy middle is difficult from our own experience. Even in trying to write this blog, we tried to conform to the ideal of how a blog is written, rather than how we work best. The first drafts were dry, intellectual and had very little to do with genuine connection or sitting in the messy middle. It was only when we reconnected back to working in dialogue with each other, and exploring the difficulty of it feeling messy and uncomfortable, that we could write this.
So why is it so difficult?
We think it’s difficult because it is the space where shit gets real. It requires us as individuals, organisations, governments and sectors to give up a bit of ourselves to become part of a whole. We’re not talking about lowest common denominator decision-making here, we’re talking about the convergence of differences so that something truly transformative emerges.
It’s difficult because often the challenges are bigger than we, as humans, are evolutionarily designed to comprehend. Made harder because it’s not the way people in the Western world are schooled to understand. For example, whilst we know about climate change, poverty, systemic racism, and many other topics, we are often paralysed by the enormity of what needs to be done and have no real idea how to make our effort add up to the transformational change needed.
We, and many others, often find ourselves lost taking whatever steps we can, with no idea how we “can just talk to those other people over there” and have it connect together. This is the messy middle. And when we find ourselves on the precipice of the messy middle, we retreat to “our tribe” and tell ourselves stories about them over there.
What does change in the messy middle feel like when it works?
Creating change in the messy middle is metaphorically like sitting around a campfire creating a song from many different genres. It’s a group of people from all walks of life, often unknown to each other, who have been drawn together by a spirit of discovery about themselves and their environment.
People are sitting in nature, which is beautiful and inspiring, leading to a feeling of relaxation and openness. It can also create a background sense of apprehension. Is it really safe to be here out in the wilderness? Am I really sure that there are no wild animals lurking nearby?
Around a campfire, awareness is heightened and small things that are so often tuned out are now front and centre, like the sounds of the trees and the fire. Most importantly, there is human connection and creation often through songs, singing together, food and conversation.
We know transformative change can happen around a campfire (or any other culturally appropriate metaphor). But is it possible to create the same notion of a campfire for the largest, trickiest and most complex challenges we must face together as a global community? Working across all different scales, all at once? If we were to do this, it would become a complete reimagination of where and how change happens.
Is it possible to do this? Or is it just too difficult?
It feels like it would require a lot for us to make this shift. But perhaps this is the best silver lining — we have so many parts of the puzzle. But crucially, these pieces are spread and distributed throughout the different groups of ‘us and them’. Putting it all together will require us to collect and share methods and approaches that can build the metaphorical campfire.
This leads us to the question that we will be exploring over the coming months in conversation with others:
How do you create an environment that enables this to happen?
We want to share our experience through highlighting the work we have done in connection with others, with the aim of offering multiple practical perspectives that anyone is free to use, build from or start a conversation about. So each month or so, we will curate and publish highlights and learnings from the work we are doing, featuring people and initiatives from across the world. We don’t have all the answers, we’re still learning and our view is coloured by our experience and knowledge.
Are you in this space? Or know you need to be? We want to hear from, connect to and create with you.
A little about us…
We know we are not the first people to think about or describe this space. What we hope to bring to the conversation is a perspective built by practitioners that work with practitioners. We have spent decades working alongside others in the messy middle, experimenting, researching, testing and connecting. Over this time, we have built the real-life experience of what it takes to “try stuff out with others“ in the space from which most people retreat.
There are many others who are working in this space, so if you want to see more we suggest checking out these and many others — Csaba Manyai at the Community Arts Network www.community-arts.net, Gorka Espiau with work at the Agirre Lehendakaria Center (and much more) https://www.agirrecenter.eus/en/, Charles Leadbeater and Jennie Winhall at the Rockwool Foundation, including their recently published green paper, Giulio Quaggiotto at the Regional Innovation Centre UNDP with an interesting blog post here, or for a methodology to deal with differences of opinion see the Lewis Method of Deep Democracy https://lewisdd.com.