This afternoon Caitlin and I were in a delightful conversation with new colleagues that ranged across the landscape of the work we are all trying to do in the world, supporting leadership, supporting quality and addressing the ineffable aspects of human experience that pervade our work on leadership.
And in the conversation we found our way to the idea of friendship.
In our Art of Hosting Beyond the Basics offering we are exploring friendship as a key strategic pillar to transforming the nature of engagement, organizational life and community development. And today as we were discussing friendship as the highest form of accountability, I was reminded of my work 15 years ago in the BC Treaty Process.
Back then I was employed as a public consultation advisor for the federal government. It was my job to talk to non-indigenous people about the treaties that governments were negotiating with First Nations. Most of the non-indigenous stakeholders I had to meet with were hostile to the treaty process, to put it mildly. Some of them were just downright furious, driven by the white hot heat of completely irrational racism, uncertainty and disruption to their lives. At their worst, hey shouted at us, threatened us with violence and tried to have us removed from our jobs. these were not folks that I would ordinarily try to meet with, let alone befriend. But I found I had no choice. No amount of rational discourse about rights, law, policy and economics could persuade these people that treaty making was a good idea.
And the truth is that I didn’t have to have them think it was a good idea. But I did need them to understand what was happening and I did need to offer them many many ways to engage with what we were doing, even if they were 100% opposed to it. It was my professional obligation as a person responsible for the mundane daily workings of a democratic government, and it was my moral obligation as a human being who saw a group of people in danger of being dismissed by their government for their opinions, no matter how odious those opinions were to the government of the day, or how opposed those opinions were to government policy.
I realized that the only way we were going to create lasting agreements that gave First Nations the best possible future was to treat the noin-indigenous stakeholders as human beings. And that meant that I quickly abandoned my professional guise of talking to them as experts in their field and instead I adopted a stance of friendship. Instead of asking them questions I was interested in answering, I asked questions about what they were interested in: logging, ranching, fishing, making a living, what they did in their spare time, what was important to their families.
In due course I found myself hanging out with these folks. Having dinner, going on long drives through the British Columbia wilderness to visit clear cuts and mining sites. Joining them on board their fish boats and in their pastures, hanging out in local hockey arenas watching junior teams from Quesnel and Prince George and Powell River ply their trades. I ended up playing music with people, drinking a lot of beer and whisky and meeting up with folks when they were in Vancouver. It became social. We developed friendships.
And in the end I believe it helped to transform the atmosphere in BC from an angry and bitterly divisive climate to one where folks were at least tacitly okay with treaty making, if not outright supportive. My seven colleagues and I and our counterparts in the provincial government worked hard at developing these relationships.
Friendship is not something that we set out to create. It is an emergent property of good relationships and good collaboration. When you do a few things together that end up being – well – fun, then you begin to experience friendship. And in the end when times turn a bit hard, that friendship will see you through, helping to sustain the work you have done.
It is not perfect by any means, but those three years spent in the late 1990s befriending folks all over BC proved to me that no one is above friendship, and that the results of dedeicated and personal relationship building are essential to a humane society.
What passes for “engagement” these days is so professionalized and sterile that I think it threatens the very fabric of the kind of society that we live in. Society by definition is an enterprise that connects everyone together. “Public engagement” that does not also include the capacity for personal connection is a psychotic and sociopathic response to the need to care and be cared for. And when we get into hard places – think Ferguson, Burnaby Mountain and even Ukraine – it is friendships, tenuous and strained, but nevertheless intact, that offer us the way out.