Michael O’Bryan is on a quest to transform the way organizations understand and support human development, interaction, and performance. An expert in the fields of community development, organizational culture, and human wellbeing, he’s spent more than a decade working directly with resilient yet underserved populations, including veterans, adults in recovery, returning citizens, and families experiencing homelessness.
Michael lives at the intersection of arts and the social sciences, speaking, teaching, and consulting nationwide in his quest to transform the way organizations understand and support human development, interaction, and performance.
This conversation explores the science of our humanity, and how understanding those mechanics gives us a chance to create systems that lift up all of us instead of just some of us. I hope it pushes you to think about creating truly humane systems wherever you go, as it did for me.
And if you have a moment, I’d love it if you could give me a little feedback via this SurveyMonkey link. (It only takes one minute.)
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Transcripts may contain some typos. With some episodes lasting ~2 hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
Andrew Skotzko 00:01:24 Mike, welcome to the show. How are we doing today?
Michael O’Bryan 00:01:30 Thank you so much for having me and I feel, I feel I’m supposed to, I feel good, but good. Isn’t technically a feeling, right? So I feel, I feel calm. I like it from a sense of calm, which is weird because it’s like the calm before the storm, like we were talking about,
Andrew Skotzko 00:01:47 For sure. And for the listener, just to timestamp this, we’re recording this on November 2nd day before the U S election officially happens. So if the world looks real different, by the time you hear this substance, I mean, in some way, like that’s, that’s why, so just for context, if we say something that doesn’t make any sense, the world has probably changed by the time you hear that. So that’s what Mike and I are referring to right now. I was trying to think about where to start this conversation. And I realized that there’s someone who I think is probably a pretty big influence that we share that I don’t think we’ve actually talked about yet. Um, and I know you and I are both total nerds and love books and papers that we’ve spent a lot of time already geeking out on that stuff. Listening to you. I have a feeling that Martin Seligman and his work, uh, on flourishing is, is a pretty big thing in your world, just like it is in mine. And I was curious if that’s true. And if so, if you tell me about how that came to be.
Michael O’Bryan 00:02:37 Yeah, that’s a great question. So yeah, the work of, uh, Seligman and a lot of his colleagues, um, uh, let me see if I can say his name right. Checks in me higher, I believe is how he says it.
Andrew Skotzko 00:02:50 Get me high chick sent me. Hi. Yeah, it looks so sad. It’s so different than it looks.
Michael O’Bryan 00:02:56 I remember I used to see them. I was like, I know, like I got to look up the phonetics, but like, I didn’t even try it. That was like the second time I saw it, I was like, okay, I’m going to read this word. Let me just Google this. So I am very influenced by their work. And I encountered it when I was studying trauma theory and the literature around trauma informed care through both a clinical mental health perspective and a public health perspective and was looking for literature that did not just center on pathology or spinner on healing through a lens that did not look at assets. And didn’t look at, um, the context of resilience and thriving. And I was also, you know, I’m a, uh, an artist, but the both nature and trade. And so I was very interested in the role that art making and the process of art making. And I work on narratives to some really interested in like the role that narrative sense-making for. So for groups and others, what role it could play in, in pushing you towards thriving, what role it played in the healing and mechanisms there in, or resilience and mechanisms, their internet. That’s really hard. I encountered his work.
Andrew Skotzko 00:04:22 It’s a lot of the conversation that I think we’re going to be exploring today is how do you bring some of those ideas into the world of organizations and business and, and commercial life out of just, you know, sort of applying those lessons of psychology to the rest of the world, to the point you made. I love his work because he did this really subtle, but profound changing of the frame, right? If you think about it, and this goes back to the David Dylan Thomas conversation that came out of recently and willing to do that in show notes about like the framing effect, this idea of going from less bad to more good, it’s like a really subtle frame shift. But if you think about it, that’s literally the frame shift that gave us the entire field of positive psychology, because all of the psychology up until that point, it was just about reducing pathology, not about increasing flourishing or increasing thriving.
Michael O’Bryan 00:05:11 What was also interesting in that space is the history of positive psychology really dates back to the twenties, right? Like it’s fascinating. I found articles and read these lit reviews that really trace this history back. And I mean, you really can document that by it was bore, but it was world war II particular. Um, but it was, that was the turning period of when you see this mass, um, departure from anyone looking at, you know, what we would now call positive psychology. All the tenants were there and emotional intelligence and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. People left that too, because pathology had dollars attached to it. Soldiers home from war. What we now know is post-traumatic stress disorder. It was profitable, you know, past, and this is just enough capital betrayed us.
Andrew Skotzko 00:06:08 There’s always this tension between the short-term urgent thing. And the long-term good where you think about the need to respond in the moment to some soldiers coming back from a war, all messed up and you’re like, Oh, okay. So we have to do something about that, but it’s so easy to not see the downstream effects of those decisions. And, and it’s just, I don’t know. I think it’s a fascinating thing. And especially when you think about decision-making and leadership and how do you, how do you make choices, uh, doing whatever you’re doing.
Michael O’Bryan 00:06:36 I might be pessimistic here, but I also think like, I agree with you, but I also think there are people who understand those things and don’t care, right? Like I wish I try to give benevolence out to everybody as like a thing. Um, but I think the most recent example of that for me and why I was like, well, you just need to stop doing that. And we will probably do better in public policy is actually the whole Purdue pharma, Sackler family, uh, opioid epidemic issue. But wow. I mean, that story is nuts. And then when you look at the history of the family’s involvement, um, there’s an article that recently came out that big. Now that there are these court documents, unsealed, their family has been doing this since like the forties, bro. I mean was a wow, but they knew this misleading propaganda based stuff.
Michael O’Bryan 00:07:30 And it might even be a little earlier than that. And just for the sake of being on your podcast and wanting to be factual, let’s say between the forties and sixties, just so there’s a wider range of accuracy, but it has a well over a 40 50 year period of these activities within that business structure on that family side being beyond questionable at a Dao and then an on public record being shady. Right. And so I think, you know, it just opens up for me this case of like, right it’s we are conditioned socially to give people the benefit of the doubt, but not that we shouldn’t give the benefit of the doubt, but I think we we’ve got a whole space for the fact that like folks will be out or making money.
Andrew Skotzko 00:08:18 That’s true. So I want to start to explore shift and kind of explore the, what I understand to be a lot of the heart of your work. And, you know, I had the hardest time writing your bio. If I understand correctly, you have this background coming from the jazz world and the art world. Uh, and then from there, you’ve really had this interesting evolution into community healing and trauma work and racial justice, and really just kind of expanding all these conversations and like living in the overlaps between them. There’s something you said to me on a conversation we had a few weeks ago that was all about developing a framework to try to understand both formal and informal systems as a way of bringing out the sort of shared humanity. And I was hoping you could talk a bit about that.
Michael O’Bryan 00:08:56 Yeah. Yeah. So I got to give some love to my theater world that birth me into the professional artist space, just because, you know, your listeners can’t hear me, but I’m smiling just because like I was such a fog experience of memory with that space. Um, you know, being a young man and learning how to work with narrative in a, in a formalized setting, um, was so fascinating and then going to college for jazz, um, was also fascinating and culture, you know, the way I think about formal and informal policy, because the way I think about culture that is before more and informal sort of things, we cautify, whether it’s in an artifact, whether it’s in policy, whether it’s in legislation and an artifact can be anything, a document music, a piece of art, um, a process, right. Hmm. Disease, but they’re codified, right. They’re specifically captured in a way that is either permanently possible to steal language from copyright law or is, um, you know, easily identifiable and replicable in an organized way that people can like directly point at.
Michael O’Bryan 00:10:10 And there’s there’s agreement. And it’s like officially adopted as a thing. That’s the formal side, right? The informal side be a culture of policy, are those things that we don’t speak, but we do and they’re regularly practice, right? So the example I like to give on that side it’s women and unequal pay, right? Like, no, one’s got a written down in their HR manual that we will not pay women equally, but it’s so widely practiced across so many sectors that it’s actually fueled decades of research that is still valid. And even more nuanced is when you start to look at intersecting identities with the specific identity of being a woman. So being a Mexican migrant woman, right. Being a black, you know, single mom, right, as an example of a huge economic data point in a lot of cities that people have to contend with right.
Michael O’Bryan 00:11:11 Types of jobs and roles there. And so for me, it’s important to look at all of those things. And, you know, I take a very indigenous perspective, which is if you can’t name it, you probably can’t work with it. And English is a very, um, interesting language cause we have, you have words of course, but sometimes English is not as complicated as it needs to be the mash, the complexities of our humanity. And I find that, you know, other, their cultures much more intricate use of language, including tonality that allows for you to really get into specifics about what you mean and exactly what you’re saying and the connotation that you’re bringing to a matter. And so, you know, working within the English construct, I find that we need to iterate language and frames, um, that allow us to think in terms and in the dimensionality of the complexities of the mechanics of our humanity, um, and things that help onboard people quickly into that space so that they don’t have to spend so much time reading all the things that you and I read, uh, because they, they might not have the index of time for that right.
Michael O’Bryan 00:12:35 Time economy is for sure. Could you give me an example of how that shows up, like with the language specificity? Sure. Like even the language around that I’ve just used like the mechanics of our humanity, right? Like okay. Breaking down what that means to people, um, and allowing them to make connections between things that are typically seen, um, in a disparate or siloed fashion. So stitching together for people, the relationship between the imaginative faculties of the brain, the bias mechanism and our social nature and the nuances of our social nature that are automatically going to create others. So yeah, the linking those things together and giving people ways to think about not just a relationship to one another, but how their ad, how certain things get activated. So how does the bias mechanism get activated? And what does it do imagination has to do with that?
Michael O’Bryan 00:13:45 Why should you even care about imagination? Right. Those imagination right now is stuck in the box of queer activity. Um, and that’s, to me that’s foolish, right? As opposed to thinking about it as the mechanics of your humanity, being human is a complex yeah. Endeavor and we have over simplified, and this is kind of like, wow, our humanity is so much more complex, right. But the average person doesn’t understand the complexity of all the mechanisms interacting in a given moment to facilitate the experience that you’re having and the experiences that other people are having. And the intersection of those things, because that’s what a system is partially all about. And the nature of a system is that you actually experienced the system all at one time. Right? All these things are happening at one time, consciously or unconsciously. You’re experiencing lots of things at one time.
Michael O’Bryan 00:14:39 And so for me, that’s what I mean by like the mechanics of our humanity. When you are imagining into the future, thinking about what you’re going to eat for dinner is an activity as much as thinking about a hundred years from now is as much as thinking about your career is right. Right. All of these things are undergirded by the imaginative faculty. How often are we talking about imagination in those contexts? How often are we talking about the fact that when you see me with a hoodie that is your imaginative faculty run a muck that has, you seen a 60 black on a hoodie and automatically thinking about danger. Now we get to talk about the imagination in relationship to the bias mechanism and the way those things are happening simultaneously and concurrently to inform you of a moment or a thing that might be happening and are completely compounding and impacting the experience or influencing the experience that you’re having in this given moment.
Michael O’Bryan 00:15:35 Right? Another way to think about this comes from a book I read called the neuroscience of emotions, fascinating book, and the writers, the researchers talk about the fact that, you know, research with emotions is so tricky because so much of it’s done with animals and you can’t, there’s one major thing you can’t do with animals, get context. All you can do is observe circuitry and physiology and molecular stuff, and look at behavior, but you cannot get context and meaning, right? And meaning making is a huge dimensionality for the human experience. And so they talk about emotions and the way that we colloquially talk about emotions needing to be processed through something I think is brilliant. And they call it the emotional experience, which is three things happening simultaneously, physiologically what’s happening in your body. Uh, behaviorly what’s happening? What are you doing? And then three, the meaning that you’re making out of the experience that you’re having in that moment.
Michael O’Bryan 00:16:28 And that those three things combined create what they call an emotional experience, which is what most of us are referring to generically. When we’re talking about emotions or at least two out of those three dimensions. I just add a fourth category in there, or like 3.5 or three, there’s their third one around meaning three a is the meaning you’re having in the experience. I add three, be the meaning that you bring to the experience because humans, we are the accumulation of our experiences. Right. Literally. So we’re all walking around with a certain context. Yeah. And you bring that to the moment too. So that was my long answer.
Andrew Skotzko 00:17:02 You know, you said a minute ago, your average, Joe, isn’t walking around thinking about or deconstructing these systems in this way. Right. They’re just experiencing the systems all at once. Like you’re saying, if they’re experienced the impact of multiple systems simultaneously at all times, listeners of this show tend to be people who give a shit, right. They want to make things better. Everyone listening to the show in some way, wherever they are, they want to have that impact. So I guess my question is how much do they need to understand this? And what do they do with this understanding
Michael O’Bryan 00:17:29 How much depends on how much impact they want to have, right. Intentionality matters. Right. Um, and even more, so your impact matters. So in this context, how much do you need to know? Well, what are you trying to accomplish? That’s what I asked. Um, okay. These systems that we live in, right? Let’s, let’s get explicit, uh, name some of them, okay. Racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism. These are specific. They’re insidious. They have centuries behind them, of policy and precedent and informal and formalized culture. I don’t understand how we dismantle them without being intentional. You gotta, we have to learn how those systems work and tie it to the mechanics of our humanity, because it’s the mechanics of our humanity that make those systems in transit that make them reticent to change. Right. That makes things feel like cultural norms, but it’s not that they’re, they aren’t cultural norms.
Michael O’Bryan 00:18:37 But that doesn’t mean they’re okay. Right. Normative does not mean, or the other term or the way I phrase it typically for people is homeostasis does not mean the health, right? Those are not, they’re not synonymous. And just because it’s the status quo doesn’t mean it’s a good one. Boom. Right? So like, that’s the thing here. So I can’t tell someone how much, if you asked me how much I’m like the government needs to pay for everybody to get this, this human sciences re-education for three years post, whatever the hell they did somewhere else. And I’m surely will join the team to help build that out with a great collection of diverse minds from around the globe. Um, but that that’s, that’s my extreme answer, but how much depends on what you are hoping to accomplish, who you hope to be in the world. We are in an unprecedented time where what we need right now are systems of transition to get us to this next space.
Michael O’Bryan 00:19:31 Um, so that that’s wholly on the other person. But what we can’t do is act as if not being aware is a hundred percent acceptable or not knowing is a hundred percent acceptable. I will say that the tools might not be there for people to learn the way that is most appropriate for them, but that’s not everybody. So, you know, like there’s some nuance there. What do you do with that stuff? We’re talking about equity, diversity and inclusion, racial equity. We’re talking about things, belongingness. We’re talking about things that we’ve never actually tried to do. We’ve never tried to solve for racism in America.
Michael O’Bryan 00:20:14 It’s so interesting. We’re like, here’s our vision for an equitable future. And that’s what we lead with. And I’ll ask them, are you aware of how exclusion has actually taken place? Can you name specifics? Because I’m interested in how you’re going to measure that. If you have no idea how the hell it operationalized itself, right. And people are looking at me with big eyes and I go, yeah, yeah, no, it’s cool. Not to know, but let’s get some, let’s get some, anybody that works with me as a consultant knows, I have a phrase, we gotta put corners on this puzzle. We gotta put on the puzzle and make sure that we are all looking at the same outline. At least we can collectively figure out how to fill it in. Sure. But we got to at least know that we’re looking at the same generic frame of reference and picture that we have some shared constructs cognitively here, like otherwise this is just going to be messy.
Michael O’Bryan 00:21:07 And it’s not that humans can’t be messy because binary being human is messy. So what you do with all this information is designed better systems. What you do, and all this information is dig into the nuances around what fuels conflict and conflict is human you’re. We’re always going to have conflict. That’s a thing, right? It’s a given part of being in a healthy relationship is sometimes I’m in conflict. The trick here is how do you address and deal with the conflict, right? And that’s where we have the choice to be humane or not. Right? Conflict is a part of the human experience, how you deal with it is where you get the choice and whether you’re going to be humane and civilized about it, or be nasty.
Andrew Skotzko 00:21:47 That is a really useful distinction. I’m so glad you said that. I love the direction we’re exploring here. Let’s let’s keep going with it. Right. We’re talking about designing better systems. We’re talking about impacting ideally large swaths of human behavior and human systems, which, which means we’re talking about behavior change, which means we’re talking about changing worldviews and narratives and mental models, mental models. And that’s sort of like the chain of logic. My mind just starts hopping through. Let’s talk about that. Going back to David Dylan, Thomas, like this was the tagline or one of the taglines from that episode was, you know, whoever you are, whatever you’re working on, you’re a designer, you’re designing something, you’re designing some kind of system, some kind of human experience, some kind of interaction, whether that’s a meeting or a policy or an event or whatever. So talk to me about this. How do we, if we’re someone who has this intention and we want to give life to it, right. And, and have helped that become real in the world, how does someone listening to this? Who has that intention? How do they start to use the tools of system design and narrative to affect behavior change? You know, just to drop a light one on it. This is simple stuff. Simple stuff. No big deal. I saw this yesterday. You’ve got like a five step thing for this, right? Yeah.
Michael O’Bryan 00:23:00 Okay, good. The first one is don’t vote. No, I’m just kidding.
Andrew Skotzko 00:23:06 Oh God. I feel bad for my bad.
Michael O’Bryan 00:23:12 Oh, okay. So a couple of things here, right? We have all been reared in what I call dehumanization as a cultural norm. And what that means is that we’ve all been raised to not intrinsically honor a shared definition of humanity that has us all literally seeing each other as equal and worthy. Lots of names for how that’s taken place. White supremacy is one that comes to mind, right? Patriarchy is another one that comes to mind. Nationalism. There are all kinds of ways that that has been reinforced for all of us. And it’s. And again, when you marry it with the mechanics of our humanity, looking at things like the imagination bias told us about the stress mechanism in a moment of trauma, um, the way memory works like a memory is not just one system. It in itself is this complex thing. We’re still figuring out when we look at all of that and have to reason through it, it’s easy to see how as a black person, I can be raised in white supremacy and actually have internalized feelings against other black people.
Michael O’Bryan 00:24:33 What women can practice elements of sexism against other women, right? You can identify with a group and practice things that still dehumanized that group and yourself, or dehumanize others that are in that group while still not necessarily fully dehumanizing yourself in the way you dehumanize others. It is wholly possible and happens all the time that we practice internalize phenomenon of oppression. Internalized oppression is a real thing. Having to navigate all that. It’s so hard. And so it starts with that recognition that you’ve not been raised to be sensitized to the humanity of others in a way that matches how you should be in, are often taught to be sensitized to your own humanity. And in some ways we will sensitize ourselves to other’s humanity and sacrifice ourselves because we were taught that we weren’t worth much, much. These people are the ideal, got to get their acceptance, all kinds of stuff.
Michael O’Bryan 00:25:29 Right? So there’s this tricky and crazy stuff that we have got to work through in name. Cause it shows up in the workplace, it shows up when we’re trying to get hired, it shows up when policy makers have to imagine. Cause that’s the thing about policy policy is you are imagining on behalf of the wellbeing of others. That’s a beautiful definition. And thank you, you know, there’s this misconception that like, Oh, I gotta be the only one saying a thing. And I’m like, those are the people that get burned at the stake. So, and then later on, after they’re dead, we’re all like, Ooh, whoops, that was the first. It was a murder. Oops. Well, I’m not trying to be that guy. So I think it’s exciting when there are natural spaces of convergence where you like to do your reading and work and practice, you found a thing, it resonates.
Michael O’Bryan 00:26:18 And then you find an article that backs that up. Like that’s to me, that’s dope. And it was for that policy thing matters. This is the hard part, right? Our egos get involved so heavily. Nobody wants to be, nobody wants to readily go. Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I was raised with dehumanizing lenses and yeah, my policy iterates out of that space, absolutely like, no one’s going to say that, but we know that’s true. Listen, you cannot tell me that at 70 being white and growing up in America, that you were taught that black people were worth as much as you are. You can’t tell me that being a 75 year old white man in this country that you honestly we’re taught to value women as your equal. And even if you were taught that the practice of culture for the first 30 plus years of your life, just watch Madmen practice of culture, but 30 years plus of your life never wants to back that up. That is not behavior does not change that quickly because you will it to be because you see a desirable thing that you want to go. Yeah. That’s my vision for myself. That’s a Mirage of Yourself let’s be clear.
Michael O’Bryan 00:27:34 Right? I, myself included, right? So much of this work is deep and personal and you got to interrogate it and dig through it and they can make you feel like you’re not a good person, but that’s a trick. That’s a mind trick to loop you around to do the easiest thing, which is sometimes just to be silent. And I was, I was encouraged people, interrogate, silence. Silence does not mean that they get it right? So these mantras, cause none of us want to feel bad, right? The human experience is not built around feeling bad. It’s actually built around feeling good and positive reward. You don’t actually chase and pursue bad emotional, effective experiences like that run away from it. Right? I hope this has given you an answer. It’s a little global, but this is where like it’s, it’s difficult because you’ve got to investigate the ways that powerlessness, helplessness, a lack of control operationalizes itself in people’s lives and the context of policy, both formal and informal decisions that are actually available to them.
Michael O’Bryan 00:28:39 Right. Versus this idea that everybody has freedom of choice. Sometimes people are literally only given the choice of like, do you want to die by an ax, a gun? Or do you want to drink bleach and ammonia mixed? And you’re like, I kinda just want water and a nap. That’s not a choice here, again, ax, gun or bleach and ammonia. Right. And you’re just kinda like I’m hooked, but I don’t mind any of it. Right. And we think that everybody has this range of choice. That’s just not fully available. And when, when you can not have a full expression of range of choice or split, particularly around things that are life affirming that does do something psychologically and effectively to the body. So what’s it like when that happens in the workspace? What’s it like when that’s happening in an election season? What’s that like for you when it’s happening in a family dynamic, right? Like, because the body is the body, the mechanics of our humanity are the mechanics of our humanity. No matter what environment we’re in, it’s not shifting for us. Right. It’s not like I got one body over here. And then when I go to school, I got this other body I put on. Like, that’s not, that’s not how this works.
Andrew Skotzko 00:29:48 You know, I’m so glad we’re talking about this stuff, but I have to tell you where I’m at, I’m sitting here and I’m trying to process this in real time. I’m emotionally bought into everything. You’re saying, what do I do with this tomorrow? I’m trying to figure out how to operationalize what we’re talking about.
Michael O’Bryan 00:30:02 This has to do with your level of positionality, right? Can you, do you control a system to change it? If you don’t. Well, then you can’t go for systems change, which is part of what we’re talking about, right? The workplace culture, this culture that I blah, blah, blah, or the family dynamic, the parents sets that dynamic, right? If it’s the classroom, it’s the teacher’s setting that dynamics. So if you’re not any place of power, then there isn’t that much that you can do in the context of systems change. Now, there are ways for those who don’t traditionally have power to impact systems, we call that work organizing. So I just want to like put some guard rails up for like, what can I do right now? Part of it depends on you doing a dive into the level of privileges that are available to you at this given moment. Now I might be a black man. Um, you know, um, identify as gay or queer whatever. And so I got some things, but I grew up poor. I got some things built against me. However, I’m on the board for two different philanthropic institutions. I do national level consulting. I got different clients around, you know, in, in Philly, I’m doing, I have privilege. I earned it. I worked really hard, but some of it was also just given to me because of those shitty way that society works
Andrew Skotzko 00:31:17 To get an inventory of like, what do you got to work with right now?
Michael O’Bryan 00:31:20 What are your assets that you have to work with? What are the liberties? How can you show up in relationship with other people? Right? So people want these, like, how can I do this way? Now part of this work is you need to do the work on yourself. Dehumanization is not the fact that someone else isn’t human, it’s that the lens that you have, it’s the gazers problem. The lens that you have by what you are there for receiving stimuli. And then also perceiving the world. That lens is where the dehumanization is happening. So you got to do that, work on yourself. That’s not a, how do I check the button? This is, I’m not trying to sound funny with this, but this is where a lot of white privileged folks don’t like to call themselves privileged. They don’t want to shift that lens. One of the core definitions of privilege is immunity. Everybody. When, when you hear the term privilege, people get lost in like, Oh, we worked really hard. And it’s like, yes, no one saying you didn’t, let’s go to the definition in the dictionary and look at the second input. This is immunity. Have you thought about all the things that you have never had to think about? Of course not. That’s how implicit bias works.
Andrew Skotzko 00:32:31 It’s a privilege that you didn’t have to think about it.
Michael O’Bryan 00:32:32 And so you’re immune to things that you don’t even realize you’re immune to in society. That’s why white people can call the cops and never have to think about it. And then the BI community, when something happens, that is absolutely terrifying and scary. We were, Oh, what are we? I can’t call the cops. Right? That’s just one simple level of immunity. That’s not so simple, but I’ll, I’ll shift it because that’s, that’s a little political when you’re at work and something happens, then it’s completely egregious. But as a black person, you already know. If I say something, I’m going to be the angry black person on me, the loud black person, I’ll be out there, all these tropes and stereotypes that I got to fight through and they’re going to gas, light me, blah, blah, blah. And by the time you’ve worked through the mental exhaustion of that after a couple of hours, you’re just like, fuck it, excuse my language.
Michael O’Bryan 00:33:26 I don’t even care. Then it started starting. And then what happens when two weeks later, I think you should have talked about has now metastasized. Now it’s bigger and who ends up hurting is typically you, it might hurt the company a bit, but typically it’s going to hurt you even more than the company. So, you know, there are all kinds of ways that people are having to navigate, not having certain kinds of immunity that are invisible to other people. And what I’m also talking about, our sources of stress that have a physiological and psychological impact on people. And it also attributes to cognitive drain because you got one brain that’s solving problems and me trying to solve problems for my job and solve the problem of racism on my job and solve the problem with sexism. If I’m a woman on my job who happens to be of color, like good grief, your brain can only do but so much at a time. So I think the first thing for your listeners is they need to investigate and interrogate those spaces for themselves. They need to learn about these things. They need to study.
Andrew Skotzko 00:34:29 I’m going to do a terrible thing and ask you to pick one resource that you would direct people to as a first stop, obviously depends on who they are, where they are. But if you had to pick one, what would you say?
Michael O’Bryan 00:34:38 That’s the thing like let’s put our money where our mouth is. There’s a great book called moral tribes. If you don’t read it, get it on audio book. Like here’s the thing for those, the kind of people that are probably listening to this, I keep it a beam with you, right? The people listen to, this are people that could do this work more than likely, right? So let’s give them some resources to work with, to do the work or don’t complain. That’s my thing. It’s like, no, God, people like to be honest. I’m like, yeah, sometimes they’re lost other times that’s a scapegoat. Right? And we’ve got to be able to assess through that. So I’m happy to provide plenty of resources. I’ll put you together. Five videos, five articles, five books.
Andrew Skotzko 00:35:18 Cool. And we’ll put that right into the show notes. Thank you so much. Let’s bring this in specifically more on the workplace. We’ve touched around it a little bit. This idea of the future of work, right? It we’ve talked about. There’s such impacts on people’s experience through these systems. You had said to me before that the future of work really is centered around humanity. And like, these are some of the mechanisms we need to, to create a humane future of work. And so I’d love to have you just talk about that a little bit more. So first off, I’ll give you a couple of just prompts to, to run with here. When you say the future of work, what you mean.
Michael O’Bryan 00:35:48 I mean, everything from 15 minutes into the future to 20 years into the future to a hundred years into the future, I mean, where is work going? What is its purpose? Does it need to look the way that it looks right now? What faulty premises is the current construct of work built on that? Won’t hold up in the future. We got to interrogate that borrowing from the indigenous world because I love the bond from the indigenous world. The future is seated in this moment that we’re in right now. They’re not disconnected from one another Western thinking is so baffling to me because it is so specifically disentangled what do you mean by that? Well, back to systems theory, you experienced it all at one time. If you get a PhD, what are you really taught to do? You’re taught to go deep. You’re not taught to look wide and most cases, right?
Michael O’Bryan 00:36:49 It’s about a slice of a moment, a deep slice of a specific moment in time. But every researcher knows the most food for research as longitudinal, but that’s not, that’s not the framing that we get, not even just in academia, but just in the world, right? Because expedience is this thing, right? And this was what I mean by the West. Did some things that we need to unpack. And as art is this good for the mechanics of our humanity, is this good for us? As we move forward to try to create systems that actually support human, thriving and human flourishing, but how do you support human thriving and human furnished flourishing. If you don’t even understand the mechanics of our humanity, how do you understand the ways that humanity has suffered and specific groups of people have really suffered? If you don’t have a framework of understanding, not just the mechanics of our humanity, but the inputs for development.
Michael O’Bryan 00:37:40 What are inputs for development? Developmental science talks about human beings developing in four dimensions. Um, the physical or biological, the psychological, sometimes I say emotional, but I’ve started shifting that a bit based on our conversation about emotional experiences, the social or relational is another word that you could probably put in there. And then the fourth dimension being the meaning-making dimension, which they term as spiritual, not religious, but meaning making. And there’s no bigger meaning that we have to deal with then that of life and death. And the fact that it’s out of our control, we might be able to influence it, but it’s actually out of our control. And there’s so many other things in life, out of our control that we still have to make sense of. Right? And so you don’t have a choice about whether or not you’re going to make meaning.
Michael O’Bryan 00:38:25 And it actually is a part of the way that human beings make sense of the world and are able to maneuver it and build mental models, worldviews manage expectations, the whole nine, you all four of those dimensions are co-occurring and pretty much subsumed within one another. You’re not there. There is no such thing as only being impacted in one area and not another, right? Like that’s just not real. Even if you’re not consciously aware of it, whether it’s a system or you as an individual are not consciously aware of it, those elements of, or dimensions of development, they’re at play and they’re interacting with one of their dynamic, they influence one another. These dimensions of input for human well-being to me are based on those four developmental dimensions. Right? So now we can talk about, well, what physical or biological inputs, what psychological inputs were, social relational inputs, what spiritual or meaning-making identity-based inputs are there, right?
Michael O’Bryan 00:39:24 So you can talk about those things in varying constructs. You can talk about it in terms of health, all four categories, risk and harm in all four categories. How often do we get to talk about racism in the context of social health or social risk, social harm? How often do we talk about racism in the category of spiritual harm? We know there’s financial harm or these things, but there are other categories that are directly linked to RQ. Manity directly linked to development. And we don’t have the language to talk about those systems, their impacts and their outcomes and output, but we can, right. The tools are there to do that. We just got to start linking back together because we can measure harm. We already know we can do that, but it doesn’t match. The complexity of our humanity is the question
Andrew Skotzko 00:40:15 As a quick sidebar doing this work. I think I want to just call out a fallacy that, you know, Oh, I’m going to just go read these books and suddenly, bam, I’m going to have the answer. Right. I don’t think it works that way. I think it’s like that, you know, going back to your idea of the lens, right? These, these books, this work is like to work on the lens so I can see more clearly how to move all of the systems I impact from less bad to more good. I’m just notating that’s for myself. The promise I make to you as the listener is that this is a learning journey, a shared learning journey. Not that every episode is going to just hand you the crystal ball of answers or whatever. It’s like, no, like we’re doing this one step at a time and this is, this is the step right now. Um, so I’m just wanting to notate that for both, for myself and for, for whoever’s
Michael O’Bryan 00:40:58 No, I love the thinking about harms. How do you know the way something has impacted someone except to be in relationship with them and talk to them, right? So like you can learn things, but then you also have to be an experience and relationship with other people to get context around it. So some of this is to help you develop the right questions. Maybe some of it’s also to help you shut up and learn to listen and be a better active listener. Right? One of the things that I present to people is, you know, here’s a thing you can do, right? You want to do. Now we can do now in the context of changing our framework on empathy. So empathy does not have a standard definition. Uh, it really depends on the researcher and the construct and the tools they’re using to validate the construct and definition.
Michael O’Bryan 00:41:45 So there are some that say that empathy is about like emotional resonance, which means like you can feel or experienced the same emotional effect as another person. There are some people that say, that’s not empathy. It’s not fully empathy until there is an activity or behavior produced that is altruistic in nature or in service of another person. Right. Who’s right. Who’s wrong. Doesn’t matter. It’s based on the researcher. Right. And there are all kinds of other nuances that people have added. So we don’t fully understand what we mean when we say empathy, right? So when any, anytime I hear someone quote an empathy study, I said, how did they define empathy? And what were the constructs they’re in? And what were the tools used to validate that? Because that’s going to tell me the working mental model of what we’re talking about for any results and anything you’re telling me, that’s moving the needle because in one definition, it’s, you can feel everything you want, but that doesn’t mean systems are going to change. You know what I mean? So that’s why I think it’s important to interrogate that stuff.
Andrew Skotzko 00:42:45 I’m doing a lot of reading right now around the ideas around empathy and compassion. One of the things I thought was interesting was they were, they were drawing a distinction between the emotional experience that naturally arises when you connect with, in that relational sense, suffering of another person. And then how there can, like there can be out of that emotional experience. There’s a natural urge to act. Point is like, there’s the feeling, but then there’s the action. And they’re not the same thing. And they like, there’s that extra step. And sometimes I think maybe the dehumanization is the lens that blocks that extra step or blocks us from seeing and then feeling in the first place. Like it just cuts off the chain. It just cuts off that relational chain. Yeah.
Michael O’Bryan 00:43:23 That’s powerful. I like that. Please send that over to Brad. You can give a coast away. It’d be my nerdy buddy. If we lived.
Andrew Skotzko 00:43:29 Yeah, we’re in the same city. We’re going to have some serious nerd out sessions over coffee, but I’ll tell you, I’ll give you two books on it though. That I’m, that I’m in the middle of right now. Uh, one is the boundless heart by I think Christina Feldman and the other one is the, I think it’s called the fearless heart. And they’re both about, uh, what in Buddhist practice is called the Brahma Viharas uh, means the sort of divine abidings. There are these four qualities of the heart that are considered to be a measurable. You can never have enough of them. And those four are loving kindness, compassion, equanimity. What am I missing here? And joy. Yeah, those are the four in Buddhist philosophy. These, these four kind of balance each other out, like when one becomes unbalanced, the next one in the chain kind of comes into balance out the imbalance of the one before it, like, for example, when, when compassion gets overwhelming, right.
Andrew Skotzko 00:44:20 When you have, I don’t know if the is empathy, fatigue or compassion. Fatigue. Yeah. Look, when you have compassion, fatigue, the idea of sympathetic joy comes into to fill you back up the, that like when you, when you feel the fatigue of compassion, you just feel drained from it. The idea of sympathetic joy, which is the idea of being joyful at someone else’s good, fortune or joy can come in to refill you again. Or when that becomes, when, when joy or compassion becomes too much out of balance, equanimity can come in to have you regain balance. I thought it was very interesting because sort of circular system. So yeah, those two books were recommended to me by a teacher I practice with, uh, and I’ve been diving in there.
Michael O’Bryan 00:45:00 I love that idea. I’m going to explore that. So what’s fascinating to me as the world has been trying to explain the same stuff forever, right? Like humans have been trying to explain the human endeavor and human experience forever. We’ve been trying to build society around this understanding or the lack thereof forever. Right. So, you know, I, I’ve just found a way to use science because the world is just insidious with the dehumanization practices. And because capitalism has become a science in itself and it’s predicated on political economy, right. To like really flourish and policy and science have this, you know, hand in hand relationship. This was the way I chose to fight systems of intransigence, right? Like racism and sexism and blah, blah, blah. Yeah. The thing with empathy that I think your folks can practice right away and the do now perspective, no building on what I just talked about.
Michael O’Bryan 00:45:57 I had to, I did a lot of reading and research in this area and from digging into the neuro-biological and like molecular ideas around how empathy probably works for across a lot of these contracts, what would probably work best is for people to be selfish first, but selfish in a tricky way because humans are pretty egoistic in general. And we’re pretty selfish when we don’t even mean to be. And we just don’t call it that. But think about taking a shower every day is selfish, but it’s a good kind of selfish, right? Taking care of yourself is selfish, but it’s a good kind of selfish. Um, so when people practice empathy, a lot of the default is to center yourself and the other person’s story and we tend to vocalize it, but we tend to do it in ways that diminish or minimize the other person and equate their experience to your imagination or your imaginative activities.
Michael O’Bryan 00:46:53 So if I’ve never had cancer, when someone is talking to me about the experience, I’m like, Oh my God, I know exactly what you feel. No, you know? No, not really. You have no idea what it’s like to feel exactly what I’m feeling in this moment. You don’t know that you don’t know what it’s like. I don’t know what it’s like to be a white male. You don’t know what it’s like to be a black. We don’t, we will never know that experience to assume that I know what you feel directly like. That is again, it’s minimizing, it’s diminishing and in the moment of relationship building, right. And thinking about social health, the psychological health there, and then even meaning making those moments can just pull people back into themselves to try to find that space of safety again, because there are costing them in that moment.
Michael O’Bryan 00:47:40 So the selfish part comes in by being an active listener, to identify the emotional experience that that person is speaking to, and then locate that emotional experience on the inside. Because what you don’t know is the identity-based factor or the social factor that that person is experiencing, but humans have a very comparable index of emotional experiences. And so if you can locate the emotional experience on the inside, wow, that sounds like a powerlessness moment. That sounds like you were terrified. That sounds like you felt walked over and unheard and silenced. Right. If you can find those experiences on the inside first identify and go. Yeah. I know exactly what that emotional thing feels like. And then to recognize that, because I don’t understand the social factor or the identity factor that is bringing on that emotional experience. I recognize that though, we have some resonance there.
Michael O’Bryan 00:48:34 I still don’t understand how it’s operationalized or coming to life in your world. And it’s possible that what I even can recognize and feeling is magnified five, 10, 20 times in your world. So while it’s not an accurate emotional experience to what you’re going through, it is a much better starting place to me going like, Oh, I can figure out what it’s like to be black. And I know what it’s like to be a woman. And what, I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman. I am a CIS man. I do not know. I don’t know the trans experience. I don’t know. And it’s okay to not know if you start with the emotional experience, recognize that it’s still limited in its ability to you, for you to really understand that person’s experience. But as a better starting place, you can ask them new questions.
Michael O’Bryan 00:49:16 How can I be a better ally? How can I be an accomplished or a Conrad if that’s what they need. Right. So for men, how do I underscore women in a meeting when they’re getting run over? Right? Because I know what it’s like as a black man to not feel heard, but I’m also a man. And so there is some privilege I’ve got that I can exercise. So how can I show up for women in the workplace in a particular kind of way, how can I show up and ask what people need in a given moment? How can I be a tune? And this gets back into this idea of dehumanization and why empathy in this construct that I’m framing out for you. I think matters. Part of the thing with dehumanization is you also don’t fully consider somebody’s needs because you don’t see them as fully human.
Michael O’Bryan 00:50:00 So they’re not going to have a range of index of needs that match yours. Or you’re just not even going to think about them as being important out or as important as yours or people who are in your in-group. Even if you don’t have a defined in group by default, you got one because that’s how the mechanics of our humanity work. So going back to those four developmental inputs are those dimensions, the biological, the psychological social, spiritual, or meaning-making dimensions. We can start to think other people’s needs in those areas and ask like, what might they need to feel safe in those areas to feel like their wellbeing is being attended to in those areas, what am I blind to in terms of their needs in those areas? Right? So I just find that having a different frame around empathy, like the one I just framed for you just opens up new possibilities for the subtle ways that in really micro relationships can start to shift bits of culture in the workplace.
Andrew Skotzko 00:50:58 I want to ask you one more question, going back to that fourth dimension, the spiritual dimension, the meaning making that’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about. And when I think about the things that are meaningful and significant, you know, all those ideas, mattering, meaning significance, they’re all gateways into the same underlying thing of needing to belong to and serve something greater than ourselves. That’s how I conceptualize it. And I’m curious how you conceptualize that when you talk with people about meaning making, like, what does it mean for something to mean something, you know, as meta of a question, is that it? Yeah,
Michael O’Bryan 00:51:27 I actually don’t think doesn’t matter at all. I’m trying to get a PhD, looking at the intersections of epistemic, ecology, and policy and impact on things like economic policy, workplace culture, et cetera. What is knowledge who gets to say what’s data? Who gets to say what data matters, who gets to throw out data sets just because they don’t conform to what you’re looking for. Like, I think all of this is wrapped in your question and to be honest, how do you know what matters the problem is? We’ve got to spend time digging that question apart as society and as individuals. And we’ve got to give people space for that and give them the language and tools to assess for that and give them the permission to assess for that. Because what we’ve been handed is pre-packaged meaning now that’s a part of culture, right? We go back a hundred thousand years, ion systems are handing us down.
Michael O’Bryan 00:52:15 Pre-practice meaning they, how do I know they wrote it on caves for us? Right? That’s in the wall. You know what I mean? We find artifacts that we know that people were handing down pre-packaged meetings. That’s a part of our journey. So there’s nothing wrong with handing out pre-packaged meaning there’s something wrong with the insidious crazy pre-packaged meaning that we’ve all been handed down over the last four or 500 years, maybe even longer for certain places in the world. Right? So I can’t tell you what matters to you. Just like you can’t tell me what matters to me. Ironically reminds me of the definition around trauma, right? A trauma involves a perceived or literal threat to one’s physical or emotional wellbeing. I think we could extend that out to like social wellbeing, spiritual wellbeing, but that threat perceived a literal is going to bring out feelings of terror, helplessness, or lack of control powerlessness in your life, right?
Michael O’Bryan 00:53:15 That’s the American psychiatric association definition of trauma with some adaptation going all the way back to 2009. And it’s grown over time because of what we understand about the body and relationships, people and blah, blah, blah. But the key term is perceived or literal. I can’t tell you what’s traumatic, right? I can listen to your story and bear witness to your suffering. And here in there, are you describing experiences that were in escapable that made you feel powerless, terrified, helpless, lack of control. I have to be a good listener to identify the trauma in your life, right? And so I think with meaning and what matters, I think there’s some cues there that we need to learn to listen to each other and begin to really bear witness to one, another suffering, joys, interests, passions, et cetera. And we start to see what matters now what’s clear is when we take that kind of perspective on society, family matters across the board because even if you hate them, they matter because we had a backdoor on you and you wished it was different and blah, blah, blah, for whatever reason, family and relationships matter, being seen and validated in the context of who you are just based solely on having breath and occupying space matters.
Michael O’Bryan 00:54:32 Yeah. Right. Like I think we could say do big literacy across the board, no matter what language you speak, your religious belief that matters. There are. So we could probably identify some more of those, but that list maybe only goes for so long. I don’t know. Right. I think it’s worth interrogating at a point, but it is going to get to a point where there’s going to start to be some differentiation. And here’s the experience of growing up in this country as a black man is the only people that I mattered are white people. Policy has backed up white posterity. Yeah. It has not backed up the posterity of any other group, but white people in mass, we’ve all been begging for it fighting for and dying for it, bleeding for it. But it was just, well, white people took land and took it and then made sure that precedent and policymaking lined up they’re in, right? So by default and America, white people matter. And the things that mostly concern, wealthy white people are the only things that matter. And the rest of us are generically trying to conform to it and, or trying to also build space for what we want to matter to matter. I just don’t even know that I can say that all the things that matter for me, hadn’t been infected by that because I think it has, because that is growing up in the West, you know? So like, I think that’s the other premise. So
Andrew Skotzko 00:55:50 Yeah. Really interesting set of questions to explore. Well, all right, Michael, so this has been super fun. I want to ask you a really quick couple of rapid fire questions and then we’ll close it out here. So the first one is what is a quote that’s important to you? And what about it speaks to you?
Michael O’Bryan 00:56:06 There are two, two chiefs can exist in the same space. At the same time, I learned that as a facilitator and it was a great quote. Aristotle talks about, um, intelligence or education. Both of them being like city between the tension of ideas and wrestling, where they blah, blah, blah. I love that. And then the other one is I heard this at a trauma conference from a woman of color as a black woman that I can’t name. I can’t remember who I think she was just attending. She wasn’t a presenter, but she said, you know, trauma and grief schedule itself. And it’s our job to schedule joy and celebration and meaningful interaction. And I have never forgotten that and it, because it, and like, I don’t even, it doesn’t even need to explain it because it’s so clear.
Andrew Skotzko 00:56:51 We’ve talked about a lot in this conversation. We’ve covered a lot of territory. What question or set of questions would you have the listener start asking themselves on a regular basis?
Michael O’Bryan 00:57:01 Do you allow others to drink of the fountain of humanity, the way that you drink of the fountain of humanity or desire to drink a fountain of humanity? How often are you practicing compassionate inquiry and curiosity with other people? Um, do you seek to be understood or do you seek to understand, are you willing to admit when you’re wrong or admit when you don’t know things, are you willing to step outside of your comfort zone as a regular practice? Because safe space is a bit of a misnomer, right? You only get to safety once you’ve built trust and you can’t build trust without actually building relationship
Andrew Skotzko 00:57:44 And taking a risk and being vulnerable. So
Michael O’Bryan 00:57:47 You’re willing to do those things, otherwise this idea around system, then what can I do right now? Like none of it matters. So those are the questions I think I got.
Andrew Skotzko 00:57:56 Yeah. Thank you. And then what’s the thing, you know, best.
Michael O’Bryan 00:57:59 Ooh, that’s a really such an interesting question. I challenged because of everything I talked about with the piston biology, like I’m challenging what I know all the time and wisdom and expertise. I’m like, well, do I know that? How do I know? What do I know best? I know I’m just going to say, I know love best. I’m not a master at romantic relationships. I want to clarify what I mean, but I know love best, and I’m not a Christian, but I am going to use a Judeo Christian quote because I do think it’s clear. Love is patient love is kind right. There’s a whole verse that talks about these things that love what love is about what love is. And what I know about love is that it should be equally extended to all people without qualifiers. Trust should require some qualifiers, but love doesn’t need a qualifier.
Michael O’Bryan 00:58:56 And the way that I love you should show up in the context of the relationship that we have, it should be based on your needs and my needs. Right. Um, and that’s where the work is, right? So I know what love is. I think I know love best, but I gotta, I’m working out the commitment of the work to love. Like, cause that’s hard because people don’t do things that always make you want to love them. And I don’t always do things that make people want to me, but I do think what I know best is love. And, um, you can never know too much and I don’t know enough about love, but it is what I know best.
Andrew Skotzko 00:59:31 I love that. Thank you. This is a quote that might go with you going forward. When you said that it reminded me of a quote from a book I’ve yet to read, but it was on my reading list. And I just remember seeing this and I just pulled it up. So I’m just gonna read you this little passage really quick, please. This is from the book all about love, new visions by bell hooks. And so I’m going to quote, I’m just directly quoting here. The book says I spent years searching for a meaningful definition of the word love and was deeply relieved. When I found one in psychiatrist, M Scott Peck, classic self-help book, the road less traveled first published in 1978. Fantastic book, phenomenal book, for sure. So back to the quote, echoing the work of Eric from, he defines love as quote the will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth and explaining further he continues. Love is as love does love is an active will. Namely it’s both an intention and an action will implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love since the choice must be made to nurture growth. This definition counters, the more widely accepted assumption that we love instinctually.
Michael O’Bryan 01:00:35 Yes, yes, absolutely. I love it.
Andrew Skotzko 01:00:39 That feels right. That feels like what you’re talking about.
Michael O’Bryan 01:00:41 That is what I’m talking about. Good call. Well, there we go.
Andrew Skotzko 01:00:46 All right. Well, Mike, it has been such a pleasure hanging out with you today. Thank you. Thank you for the conversation for the work you’re doing for all of it. So just in closing out, where can people reach out to you and what would you love to leave the listener with
Michael O’Bryan 01:00:59 The name of my firms, the strategic design firm aptly called human nature for all the things that we’re talking about, Hey, there we go with the one end. So our website is human nature. H U M a N a T U R e.works. Human nature works. I’m Mike, a human nature.works, but w what do I want to leave you with that? Um, you know, exploring the science of our humanity is actually so fun and engaging. And I think if you just gave it a shot, you would be so thrilled to learn things that are going to help you work better. You understand yourself better? I used to have people tell me all the time that like kids aren’t gonna want to learn about neuroscience, older people. Aren’t gonna want to learn about brain science. I have never met a person through a workshop I’ve done that has not been ignited by this information.
Michael O’Bryan 01:01:51 And it’s not because of me. It’s because people are seeing themselves in the content. Now they might not like some of my opinions about what it applies with our systems, but they actually appreciate learning about the mechanics and their own humanity that I don’t get pushed back on. So I invite you into it, and I hope we get you better tools so that it doesn’t have to be such an academic pursuit. It’s not always an academic pursuit, right? There are some good materials out there, but, you know, I hope I, I hope we get smarter about how we educate a hundred percent.