Amplifying Sameness & Damping Difference

Something that triggers me quite a lot is when people unconsciously (and sometimes intentionally) amplify sameness. It’s one of those harmless-seeming but insidious, nearly invisible, unconsciously destructive dynamics that’s way too prevalent in certain flavors of change-making cultures.

What do I mean by ‘Amplifying Sameness’?

For example: One person says something like “I think xxx is just so important” and then there’s a flood of follow-up along the lines of:

  • “you said xxx – I think xxx is important because, blah, blah, blah xxx, blah xxx, blah.”
  • “I’ve studied xxx and so & so [xxx thought-leader or similar] feels it’s crucial in this way and that way.”
  • “And another angle on why xxx matters is. . .”,
  • “Oh, that was wonderful – XXX!.. . You were so insightful and wise to comment on xxx. . .”
People are so addicted to agreement (or avoiding conflict, dissension, gaps, silence) that the context and the purpose of the gathering can easily become nearly irrelevant and different perspectives are made to disappear. Disproportionate amounts of time are given to piling on sameness, agreement, amplifying what’s already been said, and affirmation of commonality.

BUT:

  • You can be certain that in any given group not everyone is in alignment with the first (or even second) opinion expressed, not everyone feels the same way about everything as everyone else.
  • Some people will want to take xxx deeper than blanket approval and want to discuss what’s missing or dangerous about xxx, or look at it with more discernment & distinction.
  • Others will have a direct resistance to xxx

I know, for the breathless xxx proponents, that can be hard to believe, but that’s the whole point of diversity, we don’t all think alike. Not everyone will fit into the shared-appreciation, mutual-admiration echo-chamber. And people who don’t fit the mold will consequently end up with little to no air-time and made invisible.

How does it work?

The more sameness gets piled on, the less room there is for difference:
  • In terms of time
    • most of the minutes get consumed by cozy, satisfying, non-threatening sameness.
    • less time is available to calmly & carefully explore differences
  • In terms of safety
    • the longer the sameness goes on, the harder it is to disagree. The less energy given to re-directing the sameness, the clearer it is that the norm is not to differ. To differ becomes unsafe.
    • intimacy and openness become less and less possible.
  • In terms of cognition
    • the more sameness is expressed, the harder it is to remember one’s own clarity around difference – collective attention is pulled toward sameness & difference gets written over – leaving those who differ with a vague discomfort instead of a clear distinction that can be articulated.
  • In terms of tension
    • the longer sameness goes on and differences are repressed, the more tension builds up inside those who differ, making it harder for them to express themselves gracefully, calmly, compassionately. Those who differ often end up choosing not to speak at all from fear of blowing up, coming across too strongly, and offending others.
    • to share difference w/o being invited to differ takes a certain amount of energy.
      • Whether that energy becomes explosive or simply consumes one in silence, it usually becomes toxic instead of creating the possibility inherent in gaps.
Amplifying sameness often dominates others and destroys potential through creating echo-chambers, blocking new thinking, and creating resistance, alienation, and disengagement.
 

What about common-ground, coherence & alignment?

Of course, to function, we need some degree of alignment. And to connect we need some amount of common ground. But we rarely achieve those goals spontaneously – and never through dominance.

In Deep Democracy, one of the main things a facilitator does is surface the difference and surface the resistance, and then make space for it. When that doesn’t happen, you have endless subtle (or overt) power struggles, and energetic blockages. Deep Democracy has a whole wise process around dealing with tensions productively, and I yearn for more communities to develop that skill set.

We don’t get to common ground by one perspective proclaiming it to be so. Common ground is created together by exploring what each perspective is bringing, exploring the gaps, discovering new possibilities together. Amplifying sameness is an attempt to bypass that process and impose one’s own reality as a common truth. It may seem successful on the surface, but it never actually works.

 

Why does it matter? Why invite conflict?

Transformation and creativity come out of difference. Absolute sameness is death.

“The gaps are the place where pure possibility sits” ~Nora Bateson

Dominating-sameness blots out gaps – creating little to zero possibility.

And yet, while rigid uniformity is not the goal, neither is chaos. There needs to be something like a balance. That means portioning out our sameness, order, stability vs difference, tension, conflict in ratios we can manage generatively, right-sized to the context, fit for purpose. But our dominant culture is pathologically conflict-averse and so addicted to sameness that generative tension is far outside of most comfort zones & gets interpreted as very threatening. Thus balance in this culture generally requires more invitation, exploration, and tolerance of greater difference.

Politically, we’ve become extremely polarized so it may seem odd to say we’re conflict averse – but what is the shadow of conflict-aversion? Combativeness, right? I contend that our inability to hold tension actually contributes to extreme resistance, to polarization.

We need to be far more intentional about damping excessive sameness and amplifying the differences that make a difference.

We need to get good at digging into difference and finding the magic it holds. Or at least, we can discover the differences that are irreconcilable, quit trying to avoid them, and decide what to do with the fact that they’re irreconcilable.

How this lives in me

In general

I can seem like a chronically conflictual person. Always combating someone or something. I’m familiar with that assessment, and there’s some truth to that interpretation.

That impression also comes from the simple fact that I am naturally a difference-seeker, a gap-lover, a tension-surfacer, a blind-spot sniffer. I say what I sense hiding in the shadows, I call out the elephants in the room, I have a deep need to bust up the delusion of sameness. This can feel combative to people who prefer a smooth surface, and to keep disruption at bay. If one can’t tell the difference between what I’m actually trying to do and disruption & combat – I can seem conflictual.

But it’s also about norms. My tendency to call out tensions is noticeable because its abnormal. Where lots of people are as prone to seeking out the differences and surfacing the tensions is a norm, I seem normal. My behavior does not strike anyone as conflictual in contexts that amplify difference. I’m seen more clearly for what I am – – yearning for magic. I do occasionally come across contexts where people are better with gaps, tensions, surfacing what’s generally hidden, and in those contexts, no-one accuses me of being problematic and I feel right at home.

In our Social System Mapping Community of Practice

I get bored by sameness really quickly. It produces warm fuzzies for a few, but irritation for me.

I don’t want to nurture echo chambers, so I want to shut them down quickly.

I don’t want my work to be associated with echo chambers, so I don’t want others to experience them in this context – even if no-one else is consciously bothered by them.

I don’t want to be part of a context where people espouse values that they are simultaneously unconsciously violating. And espousing difference while dominating with sameness is an especially pernicious offense in my mind. I’d prefer to hang out with people who acknowledge and own their dominating tendencies than hang out with those who are innocently dominating with what they consider sweetness.

I have a deep commitment to learning to work generatively with differences and it disturbs me when opportunities to practice that intention get over-ridden by other people’s conflict avoidance.

I want to participate in a community that learns how to think and act together from a different set of principles, and amplifying sameness violates those principles.

I hate getting trapped circling around hidden tensions that never get looked at directly. It’s a waste of everyone’s time and energy and goodwill. It creates an acidic sensation in my belly and a tightness in my chest.

Amplified sameness, paired with dampened difference in contexts meant to be co-creative can trigger strong contempt and cynicism in me. Which adds one more challenging dynamic that I have to manage in myself, along with all the other tensions I experience when amplifying sameness is going on.

As ‘a leader’

In contexts where I can be perceived as having ‘the most power’ or ‘power over’ (i.e. often in our CoP), and where I don’t share in the sameness being amplified (which is fairly often) this dynamic complicates things for me dramatically.

All the ways listed above about how ‘amplifying sameness’ works become exacerbated for me personally when I’m facilitating, or in the spotlight, and my purpose for convening and holding the space is being papered-over with sameness. I know that if I do anything to shift away from sameness, I will easily be interpreted as being dominating – especially if I’m triggered because being triggered makes it harder to intervene carefully. I surrender to letting my own motivation and purpose be eclipsed by whatever sameness happens to show up, out of concern for everyone’s sense of safety.

But then I start to feel like I’m expected to be a vessel for everyone else’s comfort in a way that requires me to be increasingly invisible. I’ve been doing a lot of that in this CoP for too long now. I’ve become resentful and bitter, and I find it very triggering. It creates a dangerous situation for everyone present – especially me, because I have more to lose and there is more focus on me.

How this impacts the field of Social System Mapping:

If amplifying sameness is a mapper’s unconscious norm, that’s what they’ll bring to a mapping project. And yet mapping from sameness is exactly a norm SSM is trying to reverse. A map made from a strong unconscious bias for sameness will inevitably become a map of extraction & dominance.

I don’t want to have created more tools for dominance. I can’t stop people from doing what they’re inclined to do. But I can strongly articulate and promote another kind of mapping practice and work to inspire others to try it.

What can we do about it?

Of course, we need to explore and develop together a shared praxis around DE-amplifying sameness.

But my thoughts to help prime the pump are:

Anyone who suspects they might be prone to amplifying sameness could simply practice saying less and watching their own mind and impulses to see how frequently they feel compelled to concur, agree, amplify, and elaborate over-abundantly and dis-proportionately.

Once they notice how often that happens, they could begin to inquire into what’s going on that triggers that impulse to amplify sameness. In certain contexts they could even report out briefly about their practice & their findings. Both to re-inforce their learning for themselves, as well as to model to the community that we don’t have a norm of amplifying sameness and we can use our gatherings as an opportunity to practice exploring that impulse.

Anyone who understands this challenge & wants to help shift the sameness norm can practice paying attention to how everyone’s comments are aligning up. When there have been 2 or no more than 3 expressions on the same side of a topic – three general agreements (preferably 2) – they could simply step in and say ‘Does anyone feel differently?’ – direct the conversation to the difference & let that enter in.

Of course, once that happens, you’re asking for a conflict to surface, and that requires some skill to work with. But it’s a start. And what happens next will teach us a lot about what more we need to learn to process constructively.
 
Thanks to Glenda Eoyang and the Human Systems Dynamics Institute for the Damping/Amplifying concept embedded in the Designing Exchanges model
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Amy Carroll Moritz
11 months ago

Thanks for this article. Love the tips at the end. I also recommend the practice of mutual invitation from Eric H. F. Law. One by one, everyone is invited to respond to the topic at hand. When invited to respond, you can respond or pass. But, you must always invite the next person (randomly and not around the circle).