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Experiencing Otherness with Commonality

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

By Diana Rollanson-Williams

Diana Rollanson-Williams is a qualified psychotherapist and life coach. She has been with Untapped AI for four years and brings with her 20 years of coaching experience and over a decade of counselling and psychotherapy delivery working with adults and young people going through change. She specialises in supporting people to move out of difficult situations into new ways of being, through creating therapeutic spaces for people to emerge into a life of vision and purpose, living fully and authentically in every area of their life.

Recently, I went to see a play which focused on the Jewish experience of discrimination and demonisation. As a black woman, I was struck by the commonalities with the black experience and the Jewish history and experience. Yet I felt so much sadness because there are still too many cases where black people are seen as ‘other’ by white Jews.

Having worked on understanding my own unconscious bias and running workshops on the topic, I know that this underlying otherness was based on the global perception of blackness but also because we tend to think our experiences are just our own.

We can overcome this thinking by sharing our difficulties and understanding others; attempting to find the commonality rather than the difference. My experience of the play helped me to feel closer to a Jewish colleague as we could now discuss our commonalities with greater connection.

As Shakespeare’s Shylock said, ‘do I not bleed’? We all have commonalities that bring us together, enabling us to see ‘the other’ as actually having a shared story and experiences. So how do we approach any ‘otherness’? Surely through empathy, humility, caring and trust.

But all of this involves work. If we are happy and comfortable to remain in the narrow space we might inhabit in our biased thinking and behaviour, we cannot grow and learn. Often it falls short because of simple laziness - on top of all the other things going on, why do I have to do this, I’m OK where I am and it’s just too much work, isn’t it?

Yes, that might be right, but if you care enough about something, you will try to do better. So ask yourself, do you care enough about the impact of your thinking and behaviour? People often say I am not biased but they still sit in their own comfortable place that benefits their personal situation while excluding those with difference. Can you think of occasions when you might do this?

Being scared of making a mistake should not stop any of us taking a step towards greater awareness. Fragility is no excuse and often we are stronger than we think when we take the time to learn. After all, mistakes are the best way to learn!

Acceptance of our own shortfalls enables us to approach life with humility, especially if we start with commonality and not difference. Leaders - whether in government, groups or an organisation - are often greater when humility is a foundational approach. And, of course, owning your expertise and ability to work hard is a must, but really accepting that you might not know it all or you need the contribution of others, enables a different perspective and leads to greater understanding.

Ask yourself: do you care enough to change a system which benefits you, can you apply humility to your actions, do you trust yourself to really become more self-aware about the pain your actions could be causing?

If you can see what you might have in common with another and empathise with their situation, it builds a whole new world that unifies through changes in behaviour.

So, after my night at the theatre, and the subsequent willingness to be more open to having difficult conversations around shared painful experiences, I have built a greater understanding of Jewishness. It has enlightened me, enriched me and humbled me. I am encouraged to make more effort to change my thoughts, feelings and behaviour to further enrich my life and those of ‘the other’.

Fear of otherness can blind you. It can make you turn away. Or, worse, rise in anger. What do you choose? I am choosing to first see commonality.

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