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MONTÉ ROBINSON So I’ve, man, I’ve been coaching for about 19 years. So I was the head football coach, so when it comes to like identifying common goals, especially as a coach, that’s critically important. So you want to win, right? So that’s, that’s one common goal. I think where it gets a little tricky is how you do that? And not even just in sports, where anything where you’re trying to convene different stakeholders and different folks from different walks of life.
There’s always an activity that we do. We pass around a note card and had a guys write down: What do you want to wish your individual goal for yourself and wish your team goal? And we have them shared out, you know, outside of just winning, what else do you want to accomplish with being a part of this team? And then get into the nuts and bolts of it. You know, how do we get there? What do we need to do every day? You know, how hard do we need to work, how much time we need to spend in the weight room? What do you have to do academically? The guys’ grades shot up, their behavior improved, things like that. And we started winning football games, which was good, too!
So we need to understand and identify where they’re at and try to work to get in the middle. We don’t have to all agree on everything, but getting back to that sheer vision that shared goal or common goals. I think that’s how you get to that.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH One thing the science of happiness has shown us over and over is that meaningful connections with others make us happier. But how do we form solid relationships with people who seem different than us, who have backgrounds or experiences unlike our own? Monté Robinson has been bridging these kinds of differences for years—as an educator, counselor and football coach.
I’m Allison Briscoe-Smith, a psychology professor at the Wright Institute and a senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center. I’m filling in for Dacher Keltner this week on The Science of Happiness .
Monté and I spoke in Chicago during a live recording at Upswell, an annual event thrown by Independent Sector to bring together organizations and leaders all focused on the common good.
Monté is the community schools coordinator for Pittsburgh public schools. We asked him to choose a research-backed practice to boost kindness and connection in his life, and he chose a bridge-building practice called Identifying Common Goals. This practice can be applied to all kinds of situations and challenges.
When we first spoke, I asked Monte what exactly he does as the community schools coordinator in Pittsburgh.
MONTÉ ROBINSON Our community schools work is really aligned with basically how I came up. So, you know, growing up, I essentially went to a community school was a high school. It really was tons of community involvement. And it really felt like a home away from home. So with the community schools model is something similar to that. So how do you create an environment in a culture that really the community is a big part of the decision making process at the school? Students are coming in not only getting educated, but they’re getting other needs met and also other family members, whether that be your mother, father, uncle, people can come to one of our schools, you know, and get their needs met.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH And what’s your role in particular in this work?
MONTÉ ROBINSON So my role with the district currently is to coordinate our community schools efforts across the district. And each community school has what we call a ‘community school site manager.] So meaning they coordinate the work within the school. My job is to make sure that they’re implementing community schools with fidelity, and supporting our staff on the ground, you know, build relationships with principals, vice principals, teachers, you know, the teachers union.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH You chose a particular practice that focuses on identifying common goals. Why were you compelled to pick Identifying Common Goals?
MONTÉ ROBINSON So in my line of work where you’re doing community building work, you definitely have to get a consensus. You have to build relationships and get folks who have different intentions, you know, different goals and how do we come to a common consensus on how we can move forward and get to the work. So that’s what really resonated with me, whether it be as a community school coordinator, counselor, coach or all always looking for some sort of common ground.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH So can you walk our listeners through the four steps of identifying common goals?
MONTÉ ROBINSON Yes. So, absolutely. So step one is really building trust. So getting yourself in a position to build trust with whoever you’re meeting with also is to, you know, recognize your assumptions and your experiences coming in and not let that be a barrier to engagement with that particular person or stakeholder.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH And how about the next step?MONTÉ ROBINSON So step two, ‘Identify Individual Goals.’ So really coming in with some goals you really want to really cover, you know, during that particular engagement or meeting or whatever convening that is. And then coming to some shared understanding or common goals that you can move forward with.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH And then the next step?
MONTÉ ROBINSON So step three is discussing and workshop those goals. So what are the next steps, how do you dig into the meat of the identified individual goals and share goals? And how do you get into the nuts and bolts of that? And so whether it be next steps and some deliverables from each person or from the group that you really want to accomplish moving forward. So step four really feeds in to just that, you know, really get into the nuances of those identify and share goals and and really moving forward. And how really identifying how you can be successful. Right. Was it really thinking with the end in mind? And how do you sort of reverse engineer that?
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH So I understand that you had an opportunity to practice this.
MONTÉ ROBINSON I did, yes.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH And so can you tell us a little bit about this opportunity that you had to practice?
MONTÉ ROBINSON So when I did talk to the producers of this podcast, I said, “OK, I have a meeting coming up with a principal who is a new principal of one of our community schools.” And so I said, “I’m going in to talk to him about community schools and make sure he has a healthy understanding.” So if you look at like step one is building trust and things like that. So we don’t have a relationship, I don’t really know him well. Well, also part of step one is like, you know, context, your experiences and trying to keep them at bay as you go into this situation. Because I have a rich sort of history and experience with the school I tried to not carry that in with me to, you know, not judge the principal any way because he’s new. Right. And so I said, well, let me not come in with all this rich history. And he’s like kind of feeling like drowning and all that. So I sort of checked that at the door and went in with just good intentions on making sure that he knew, you know, because I work at central office, the administrator’s office. So sometimes there can be a divide between folks at the admin office, in the school-based staff. So I wanted to eliminate that barrier and just come in with sort of a blank slate. To say, you know, and say, hey, let’s have a conversation around community schools.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH So that was the first step in terms of how you entered.
MONTÉ ROBINSON Right, my mentality when I entered the meeting. Yes.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH So the practice asks to recognize that your assumptions about the others and their intentions can be shaped by our own experiences in our past. I have to say that I struggle with this idea of kind of assuming good intentions.
MONTÉ ROBINSON Right.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH And I wonder, how do you think about assuming good intentions as a way to step in?
MONTÉ ROBINSON In this particular situation, I did assume good intentions because I had some context on who this particular person was. But in general, I can see how people struggle. Me personally, you know, I try to come in assuming good intentions, but with a little hesitation. It’s not like I’m coming in blind. Because context matters. History matters. And so in this particular situation, I know he was a pretty good guy. So I can assume that, you know, that he had good intentions for the meeting.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH So I appreciate hearing about, like, you can come in with the history and still give it a chance.
MONTÉ ROBINSON Right. I just believe that, you know, given folks the opportunity, to give that leeway so they can demonstrate that they do have good intentions without coming and sort of close-minded and shut off.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH Great. So the next kind of step asks for the person or the group that you’re trying to bridge differences with, to actually write down the goals and to think about what your shared goals are before the meeting. Is that a thing that you got a chance to kind of do here or how do you think about that?
MONTÉ ROBINSON I didn’t get a chance to do that in this particular situation because it might have been a little odd, like, “Hey, I know we don’t know each other, but I need you to write down your shared goals.” So I came in with an agenda. You know, some things I wanted to cover, but I gave him the leeway to sort of, you know, just flat out ask him, like, you know, “Where do you want this meeting to go? What do you want to accomplish in this particular meeting?” I did ask him that question. And he was it was sort of like, you know, “Wherever you want to take it, I’m just sort of listening. I don’t have expectations right now. “
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH So you weren’t about to walk into a room with a person you didn’t know to be like, “Let’s write down your goal.” So you kind of change it up. So you modified the practice.
MONTÉ ROBINSON Yeah, I think it’s taken into consideration, context. Right, of whatever sort of circumstance you’re walking into. And so in that particular situation, I had to modify, given that the relationship that we had.
You try to sort of level set with them and start where they’re at, but also still stand firm within the framework which you’re trying to accomplish with an activity.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH Do you think that the principal was able to really hear the goals you’ve mentioned, the preparation and articulation. Do you think he was able to hear it?
MONTÉ ROBINSON Absolutely, because he was writing them down.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH The writing down does become important here. The next kind of part is that identifying common goals practice then instructs that when you go into the conversation to share your goals, to think about what your common goals are and then ask them to do the same. And this is a person that sounds like he was in the place of being kind of open and willing. Do you see that there are benefits that kind of checking in and talking about it benefits of that step?
MONTÉ ROBINSON Sure. Absolutely. Not in this particular context. I mean, because, you know, the meeting started where he was sort of open-minded and more so in listening mode. But I’ve been in, you know, different situations where check ins are absolutely critical because you want to make sure that you’re both moving in the right direction. So checking in like, “Hey, is this kind of what you expected? Is there anything we didn’t cover? Like, is this meet your expectations? But I think especially when you have multiple stakeholders, it’s definitely good to check in along the way to make sure that folks are OK. Right.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH A means of connecting and building those relationships all the way through.
MONTÉ ROBINSON Absolutely.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH And then that’s also the other piece is kind of going from the goals to moving to how to actualize. So you came up with some common places that you could do that?
MONTÉ ROBINSON Yeah, I think, for me, so where we landed was, because he’s on board with community schools. Right. And so the next step was to get his leadership team more informed. Right. And so that was really the initial common goal. We both agree that we need to get the rest of the leadership team informed and educated and really begin to be champions for community schools. So that was like, where we both were like, “That’s really what we need to do moving forward.” Right.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH How did you feel that that meeting went in general?
MONTÉ ROBINSON I thought the meeting well, you know, in my experience, sometimes when you meet with administrators in buildings, they don’t always go that well. Right. But I felt this meeting went well. I feel like, we both came in transparent, and we’re ready to move forward. So, yeah, I thought it will very well.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH Did it help to chart out your goals or potential shared goals before meeting with the principal?
MONTÉ ROBINSON Yeah, absolutely. Because there can be, you know, intention may be the wrong word, but there may be some assumptions when someone comes from the administrative office to meet with a principal, right? And so I think it was good for me to identify certain goals and not sort of step on any landmines. So there were some things that I definitely had to communicate to our session.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH What do you think the limits of this practice of identifying common goals are?
MONTÉ ROBINSON There is no limits if you make it your own and you customize it to the particular context that you’re in. I think it’s limitless. But I think if you take this approach and you’re too rigid, that can turn people off. Like I used the example of when you reach out to someone you don’t have a relationship with and say, hey, write some goals down for me. I know we don’t know each other. So that meeting’s probably not going to go so well for you. Right. And so I think it’s limitless if you customize it to the context and the environment, in the culture you’re in. But it will have some barriers if you try to be too rigid.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH Have you ever had an experience where you couldn’t find common goals with someone?
MONTÉ ROBINSON Absolutely. And I think in those situations,you still try to plug away. But sometimes, you know, if I’m being honest, it just doesn’t work out, right? And we’ve seen, you know, when you convene community or different stakeholders that it doesn’t work. And I think that’s the reality of this work. Sometimes it doesn’t work. But that doesn’t mean that you stop, you know, it just means that you kind of dust yourself off and find another course of action and stick at it.
So we need to try to work to get in the middle. We don’t have to all agree on everything, but getting back to that sheer vision that shared goal or common goals, I think that’s how you get to that.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH Mm-hm. Thank you, Monté, for your wisdom and your work and how you shared it.
MONTÉ ROBINSON I appreciate it. Thank you.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH Why are shared goals so important to bridging differences?
LINDA TROPP At a really basic level, we kind of think about why having common goals matters: In part, it’s that the groups have a reason to like, be together.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH More on the science of identifying common goals, up next.
We often tend to mistrust or fear what we don’t know, or rather who we don’t know. But research shows that spending time with people from different social groups can actually reduce those feelings of mistrust—especially if we can identify shared goals.
LINDA TROPP And it’s something that actually requires members of the different groups to interact with each other.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH Linda Tropp is a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
LINDA TROPP Because you can imagine many social settings or circumstances where members of different groups might be in the same setting, but they’re just kind of sharing space. They’re not necessarily actively engaging or interacting with each other.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH Shared goals give members of different groups incentive to work together and rely on each other to realize those goals.
But if we really want to build community bridges, we can’t just come to the table once. We need to come together again and again.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH In fact, in one study, Linda and her team brought Latinx and white undergraduates together in a lab—all of them strangers—and had them try a series of “friendship building” exercises.
Some students were paired with a member of their own ethnic group, while others were paired with a member of an ethnic group different than their own.
LINDA TROPP And we, you know, asked them at the end of each friendship meeting how close they felt to their partner to see if there would be any difference, depending on who they were paired with. And after each interaction that they had with each other, we had them give saliva samples.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH The saliva samples were used to measure their levels of cortisol, an indicator of stress. The more cortisol you secrete, the more stressed out you tend to be.
LINDA TROPP And what we found is that those who were particularly concerned about being rejected on the basis of race or those who were particularly high in scoring on implicit racial or ethnic biases, that those were the folks who showed an increase in cortisol reactivity after that first friendship meeting, right? So it basically freaked him out. It stressed him out to be interacting with a member of another ethnic group as compared to those who were paired with a same group partner.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH But by the second and third ‘friendship meetings,’ those people that were initially more stressed out, calmed down.
LINDA TROPP So that their cortisol reactivity was more comparable to people who weren’t as concerned about cross-ethnic interactions and even comparable to those who were paired with the same race partner.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH Linda also reviewed over 500 studies from 38 countries that previously examined how members of different groups respond when they come into contact with each other, and the researchers consistently found the same outcome.
LINDA TROPP When members of different groups have more opportunities for contact with each other, when they have those opportunities to really get to know and interact with each other, we very consistently see that it’s associated with lower prejudice, that they develop more positive attitudes toward each other.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH Finding common goals is a way to create this sense that we’re all in this together and we need to come to the table as equals. But that’s sometimes easier said than done in part because we all come with a different and different relationships that may make it hard to even get access to that table in the first place.
LINDA TROPP In fact, when we’re talking about members of historically disadvantaged or disenfranchised groups, I think some of us would argue that there’s actually a healthy vigilance when you interact with members of the historically advantaged or the more dominant groups in society, right? Why should we necessarily trust those who have oppressed us? And we shouldn’t expect that that will go away with a single encounter, especially given our own experiences and those of others in our community. The hope is over a period of many such experiences, we can start to develop rapport. We can begin to trust across group plans or at the very least, question the prevailing assumptions and stereotypes and prejudices that we carried with us into that cross group interaction.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH The Identifying Common Goals practice is featured as part of the Greater Good Science Center’s Bridging Differences initiative. If you’d like to try it, or other practices to help you forge connections in challenging circumstances, visit our greater good in action website at ggia.berkeley.edu.
I’m Allison Briscoe-Smith, filling in for Dacher Keltner this week. Thanks for joining me on the Science of Happiness.
Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX. Our Senior Producer is Shuka Kalantari. Production assistance is from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our associate producer is Annie Berman, our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. Special thanks goes to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
You can learn more about the Science of Happiness and find related articles, videos, quizzes—all kinds of stuff—on our website, greatergood.berkeley.edu. And shoot us an email, tell us what you think about what you heard. Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.