Reconcilable Differences

Connecting in a Disconnected World

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A remarkable new way to move beyond biases and blind spots (especially if you don’t think you have any!) so you can communicate more effectively with a friend, lover, relative, or colleague

You know what it feels like to be “at odds” with someone. Sometimes it seems like you are speaking completely different languages. Cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Dawna Markova and communication expert Angie McArthur have spent years developing and implementing tools to help people find common ground. In Reconcilable Differences, they provide the strategies you need to bridge the gap at the heart of your differences with others.

Each of us possesses rational intelligence: the capacity to divide information into discrete categories, processes, and logical steps. But you may not realize that the secret to building bridges between people lies hidden in your relational intelligence: the way you communicate, understand, learn, and trust. Reconcilable Differences shows you how to map mind patterns (the secret to pinpointing communication pitfalls) and identify thinking talents (the catalysts for peak performance). You will gain insights into how you learn in order to turn doubt into trust and uncertainty into productive engagement.

Brimming with anecdotes and advice not only from the authors’ files but also from their own experiences as a mother- and daughter-in-law who are like night and day, Reconcilable Differences is your guidebook for making profoundly positive change with those you care about.

Advance praise for Reconcilable Differences

Reconcilable Differences offers an inspiring way to bridge differences with someone you care about. It will help you identify and improve your relational intelligence, and become a better communicator in the process.”—Deepak Chopra, co-author of You Are the Universe: Discovering Your Cosmic Self and Why It Matters

“Dawna Markova and Angie McArthur offer an extremely insightful road map to navigating the diverse ways each of us approaches making ourselves understood, as well as the way we tend to hear others. The insights and strategies herein are simple and elegant. The advice is as invaluable for success at work as it is for success in life.”—Peter Sims, founder and CEO, Parliament, Inc., and author of Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries

“True communication begins with understanding yourself and the way you are being understood. This book is a powerful guide to self-analysis and bridge-building.”—Suzy Amis Cameron, co-founder, the MUSE School

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Reconcilable Differences

Chapter 1

Hardwired to Connect

Only connect!

—E. M. Forster

In times of challenge, most animals turn to some place for safety—a burrow, a rocky cave, a hole in a tree. But humans are unique in their tendency and need to turn toward one another for safety and growth; each of us has multiple regions in our brains devoted to empathizing, understanding, and relating to other people. We are not only Homo sapiens; we are also Homo empathicus, hardwired to relate, to connect, and to reconcile with others until the day we die.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, claims that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become an expert at something. According to renowned neuropsychologist Matthew D. Lieberman, author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, our brains naturally put those hours (and more) into becoming experts in the social world by the time we’re ten. As Lieberman says, “Evolution has made a major bet on the value of our becoming social experts and in our being prepared at any moment to think and act socially.” In theory, then, humans should all be relational experts. But most are not. Instead, members of our species continue to relate to one another in the same way over and over while expecting new results. This results in seemingly endless rejection, resentment, and retribution. What is the problem? Why is relating still so difficult? What are humans practicing during these ten thousand hours, and why aren’t we experts yet?

In our experience, two significant factors interfere with inborn human relational capacity: lack of awareness of the power of attention, and the inability to relate to differences.

Reclaiming Your Attention

Our attention is the fuel that drives our lives. . . . No matter what people say about what they value, what matters is where they put their attention.

—Arianna Huffington

Buckminster Fuller, the renowned twentieth-century futurist and global thinker, described how making a small shift in the right place can have a huge impact on the effect we have and where we go. “Think of the Queen Mary,” he wrote. “The whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim-tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim-tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder [and the whole ship] around. Takes almost no effort at all.”

Attention is the brain’s trim-tab. It determines what you notice in the world, and how you notice it. If you don’t claim and aim your attention, it will drag behind the ship of your mind, which will then be captured by the strongest current that flows around you.

As children, one of the first things you were taught is the importance of “paying” attention. You weren’t given much choice about where your attention should be directed. Adults take charge of the trim-tab and say, “Pay attention. Look at me right now. Listen to me. You will be paying attention to geometry for the next forty-five minutes.” Once you grow up, authority figures are no longer in charge of where you direct your attention, but who is? External signals from our bosses, colleagues, friends, children, lovers, as well as our electronic devices, now control the trim-tab. Author Jon Kabat-Zinn calls this our collective attention-deficit disorder.

There are three ways to take charge of your own trim-tab that will facilitate connecting with others:

Redirecting your attention from

•the noun “relationship” to the verb “relate”

•certainties to discoveries

•differences as difficulties to differences as resources.

Relate, Not Relationship

Typically, people only stop to question how they are relating when they’re in trouble—and even then speak of it as a doomed and static thing, a noun. “Our relationship is on the rocks,” “We just don’t click anymore,” “Our relationship seems to have lost its fire.”

In our experience, it is far more effective to direct your attention to the verb. How are you relating to that person? What effect are you having? If you don’t judge yourself and instead stay curious, this wide and wondering state of attention will empower you to encounter the other person with a sense of discovery, in the same way Maya Angelou did as she studied The Boston Globe.

Consequently, we don’t use the noun “relationship” throughout this book. As soon as you frame the interactions between you and another that way, you make it into an object, a photograph instead of a movie you are directing. Without realizing it, you relinquish your capacity to influence and navigate how you are creating the film. Consider the difference between saying to yourself, “This relationship sucks,” and “The way I’m relating to this person sucks.” The former produces a shrug. Your choices are to fight, flee, or freeze. In the latter, you are free to discover what adjustments you might make and to learn what is the best route toward the other person given the present circumstances.

Discovery, Not Certainty

The second trim-tab of attention involves recognizing that relating to another person is an ongoing process of discovery, rather than following a memorized formula. If things were as simple as a formula, we would all have perfect marriages, children, and friendships. Instead, we need to reclaim wonder, which is no small thing. As Sherry Turkle points out in Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, wonder is a rapidly disappearing commodity in our time and “not knowing” is no longer valued.

As soon as you’ve formed a fixed opinion of someone else or yourself, you’ve essentially killed them in your heart. If you want your relational capacity to grow, you have to learn to open your attention, accept uncertainty, and get comfortable with the confusion and groundlessness of not knowing.

In doing research for this book, the two of us realized we had to be willing to unlearn everything we thought we knew about each other and frequently get lost in wonder together. When you are lost, you can’t just hold out your compass, find north, and then expect to continue in that direction forever. You may know someone well. You may think you know how to relate to them. But what if they go through a major health or personal crisis (or you do)? Perhaps you think you know how to relate to your children after eighteen years. When they go off to college, you discover that you have to start all over again, unless you want them to roll their eyes and sigh in exasperation when you try to speak to them in the way you’ve been doing for all those years. You will need to recalibrate by letting go of what you thought you knew about them, and start over in order to grow through that challenge.

Without this opening of your attention, no discovery is possible. Even if you have held them for your whole life, it still is necessary to unlearn, or suspend temporarily, the following certainties that keep your attention frozen and your mind closed:

•What you consider to be your own and the other person’s deficits and faults

•The ways you believe the other person needs to change or improve

•The stories you are telling yourself about why you are right and the other person is wrong.

A Zen teaching describes this process as opening “the hand of thought.” If you reflect for a moment on a time when you were disconnected from someone and not understanding them at all, you will most likely find that your mind was a lot like a fist. Recognizing this (without judging it) enables you to open your attention as you would open your clenched fingers. Voila! You are ready to reach and discover how connection can be possible.

Differences, Not Difficulty

The third trim-tab of attention involves noticing how cognitive differences between us can be resources rather than deficits. What makes reconciling with a person who thinks differently so difficult? Is it really just clashing chemistry, timing, or personality? In our experience, the mental habit that creates relational divides and fragmentation is composed of four biases that keep us from connecting with others who think differently:

1.There is one right way to communicate.

2.There is one right way to understand.

3.There is one right way to learn.

4.There is one right way to trust.

Because we are not aware of these biases, we see those who communicate, think, inquire, and understand differently as “difficult people,” adversaries, even enemies. In the past thirty years, there have been more than a hundred books published with titles like Dealing with Difficult People, Coping with Difficult People, Dealing with People You Can’t Stand, Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Difficult People. . . . The list goes on and on.

All of the books about “difficult” people reinforce your biases and shift your attention to how their differences are wrong. Consequently, most of what is currently called “relating” is really performing for others, maneuvering around them, categorizing, and trying to fix what’s different between the two of you.

The underlying assumption in these books is that you will be much more effective if you find people who think just like you do. We disagree. The beauty of the human mind lies in how infinitely varied we all are, in our capacity to influence one another and use one another as resources.

During Dawna’s experience in private practice as a psychotherapist, she observed these biases diminishing people’s relational capacities:

I sat hour after hour in my cozy office and listened to people struggling to reconcile with the differences between them and the significant others in their lives. They got caught in the habitual morass of trying to figure out who was to blame and who was the more difficult person. Without knowing it, they had been culturally directed to search for pathology, to ask, “Who is the crazy one here? What is wrong with my spouse? Why can’t my brother see things the way I do? Why can’t my kid pay attention to me?”

Most people were searching for someone who was just like them, assuming that connection and understanding would happen organically if they had a lot in common. A point would always seem to arise, however, when what they began to notice was the other person’s differences. “Why is this person so difficult?” I heard again and again. “He’s my brother and we had the same upbringing, so why can’t we get along better?” It became obvious to me that “difficult” meant “different,” and that “different” would come to mean “disrespected.” That underlying disrespect gave way to a refusal to see another person or oneself in a new way. Biases locked them in the prison cell of their own certainty.

Uncovering Your Own Bias

To begin the process of reconciling the differences between you and someone with whom you’re having trouble, you need to start with the consideration of what, exactly, might be making it difficult for you to relate to them.

Bring to mind a friend, a family member, or a colleague with whom you struggle. Think about what makes it difficult for you to connect with this person. Is she too loud? Unresponsive? Does she complain about everything? By becoming aware specifically of what it is that you take issue with about this person, you’ll increase the possibility of moving beyond your own biases.

The following is a simple inventory of twenty-five characteristics that commonly annoy people about one another. Being as truthful as possible with yourself, note which of the statements apply to your “difficult” person:

1.They are spaced out and appear distracted.

2.They don’t speak up enough.

3.You are confused by what they say.

4.You can’t get a word in edgewise.

5.They sound wishy-washy.

6.They are difficult to communicate with.

7.They are impatient.

8.They are stuck in the past.

9.They are unrealistic.

10.They exaggerate.

11.They complain about fairness.

12.They are preachy.

13.They are always looking to fix you.

14.They don’t support your vitality.

15.They point to what is wrong, criticizing and naming how it should be fixed.

16.They cross-examine, are skeptical, and want facts and data to justify things.

17.They ask questions that are scattered, unrelated, and indecisive.

18.They prompt questions with an emotion: “Don’t you feel angry when . . . ?”

19.They do not recognize what’s important to you.

20.They are very concerned with how they appear to others.

21.They see effort as fruitless: “Why bother?”

22.They don’t ask for help and if help is offered they refuse it.

23.They need to be right and frequently blame others.

24.They do not support growth.

25.They can’t seem to let go of opinions.

Even though you chose characteristics about the other person that you feel make it difficult for you to relate to them, what you selected also reveals your own biases that are limiting your connection: about the right way to communicate, the right way to understand, the right way to learn or ask questions, and the right way to grow trust. Indeed, if you feel that statements 1–6 describe your “difficult person,” this reveals your bias about the right way to communicate. Statements 7–14 point to your bias around the right way to understand. Statements 15–20 point out your bias about the right way to learn. And statements 21–25 reveal your bias about the right way to grow trust. You may discover that you have one strong bias or several. There is no right or wrong; if you have more biases then there is only more for you to discover.

Think of these four biases as quadrants on a wheel.

We have divided this book into four corresponding sections. If you’re able to identify which quadrant is most relevant for you, you may want to start with that section of this book. But working through all the biases will transform them into discoveries that enable reconciliation of differences.

The Voyage of Discovery

Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.

—José Ortega y Gasset

There are several definitions of the word “reconcile” in the dictionary, and if we asked ten people, we’d surely get even more interpretations, so let’s be clear about which of these the two of us are choosing: When you are reconciling with a person, you are recognizing the value of each of their cognitive differences. You are adjusting the way you think about a situation or an idea that is opposed to the way the other person is thinking about it. The two perspectives can exist together. And as long as we are defining things, when we say “recognize,” we are referring to the Latin derivation of the word, which means “knowing again, as if for the first time.” Thus as you move through the four discoveries of this book, you will be traveling through familiar landscapes, but seeing them with new eyes. You will be coming to know yourself and the other person in a whole new way.

When your mind is in this state of discovery with another, there is a vital relational energy that fills the space between you, enabling you to find possibilities that were previously overlooked. Lest you think this is ethereal, Angie had a practical experience in a drawing workshop that should make it more concrete:

- About the author -

Dawna Markova, Ph.D., is the CEO emeritus of Professional Thinking Partners, an organization that teaches collaborative thinking to CEOs and senior executives around the world. Internationally known for her research in the fields of learning and perception, she is a former senior affiliate of the Society for Organizational Learning, originated at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and the co-author of the international bestseller Random Acts of Kindness. She lives in Hawaii.

More from Dawna Markova

Angie McArthur is the CEO of Professional Thinking Partners and co-founder of SmartWired and the Smart Parenting Revolution, organizations dedicated to helping youths and the adults who support them. As an expert in communication and learning styles, she has developed strategies for authors, corporations, CEOs, and the ongoing Executive Champions’ Workshop. She also spearheaded the Worldwide Women’s Web, a 2001 research initiative to support developing and retaining women in corporate leadership roles. She lives in Park City, Utah.

Angie McArthur is available for select readings and lectures. To inquire about a possible appearance, please contact Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau at or visit

More from Angie McArthur

Reconcilable Differences

Connecting in a Disconnected World


Reconcilable Differences

— Published by Random House —