Why the human touch is key to unlocking systems change

In a high-school gym flooded with people evacuated from the devastating Katrina, there was a middle age man sitting alone at the corner. For days, he did not talk to anyone, refused to eat anything, just sat there by himself. As the days passed by, various people tried talking to him, telling him he must eat to survive and advised him he need to let go to move on. He said not a word to anyone. People got frustrated, felt powerless and did not know what to do. He was the sole survivor in his family; he lost his wife and two young children in the horrendous hurricane.

One afternoon, a priest came and learned about the situation. He walked towards the man and sat quietly by his side. Each second passed by without a word, only silence between the two human beings. After two hours of silence, at one moment, the man turned to the priest, looked him in the eyes, and said: “thank you. Thank you for sitting with me. I am ready to eat.”

This is a story told by my mentor and colleague Peter Senge when I studied system dynamics and systems change at MIT. Though a simple story, it left me a critical insight on systems change. Too often we see change is needed out there in the system. We identify stakeholders needed to be changed and develop the best strategies to get “buy-in.” Yet, the harder we push, the harder the system pushes back. The harder we change people, the more resistance we get despite our best intentions. As a result, we get frustrated, either push harder, blame the enemies, or give up all together.

Change is hard. Systems change with multi-stakeholder groups in a complex system is very hard. People get stuck in their respective positions and entrenched interests, refusing to be told they are the ones need to change. One simple phenomenon about change – we like to change others, but none of us like to be changed.  Just think about the ones closest to us – our spouses, children, parents – how often are we truly successful in changing others?

In my year volunteering at a Buddhist monastery and charity organization, I learned I cannot change people. What I can do is to cultivate my curiosity to see a person for who she is and the compassion to love her as much as I can. Seeing a person for who she is the first act of love. When I am being seen for whom I am without judgment, it opens up a space for me to see myself authentically and give me the self awareness and choice to be my best Self.

Similarily, through our work on systems change at the Academy for Systemic Change, Presencing Institute and SecondMuse, we found the highest leverage is not out there but in here. “What is most systemic is most personal,” is a quote I love from Peter. How can we co-create a space for us to be human, to see each other for who we are as human beings, and to inspire one another to our best possible Selves? Only when we see each other and feel being seen can we begin to inquire the possibility of a shared vision that connects us as human.

Tools such as participatory systems mapping where stakeholders map causal connections among their actions and their theories of change together in a room, a learning journey where people co-sense the system they are embedded in, a dialogue walk where people listen to each other’s deepest aspirations and fears, a case clinic where one’s leadership challenge is co-held through peer-coaching, and visioning and scenario planning where people envision possible futures... are tools designed to create a space for multi-stakeholder groups to show up as human beings, let go our entrenched interests and let come our best possible selves.

No matter how sophisticated the tools are, they are only as effective as the human touch it enables. Seeing one another authentically is the fundamental human touch. It is at that deeper human touch, self-catalyzing systemic change becomes a shared possibility.


Written by Joe Hsueh, Partner at SecondMuse and Academy for Systemic Change.

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