During my career, I have found myself in some incredibly fragmented environments. Afghanistan, Somalia, the Congo and Myanmar were all very different, but shared a bewildering degree of complexity. My experience of navigating these situations has taught me many things that still inform my leadership style today.  

Whether trying to convince tribal leaders in the Congo that we were not illegal coltan miners, or trying to negotiate agreements between oil companies and village heads in Somalia, there are three rules that have served me well.

Firstly, keep talking to everyone, all the time. And when you are talking, be honest. Deliberately laying out your position and concerns honestly will almost always elicit an honest response in return: people respond to how you treat them. An honest appraisal of everyone’s different positions forms the basis of any consensus. Consensus is the only way forward in highly fragmented environments.

Secondly, keep asking questions when you find differences that you cannot understand the reasons for. You have to get to the root of the difference to understand why the other party holds that point of view. Once you have done this, you can bring together groups that hold radically different views, but radically different views that you can explain the basis of.

Lastly, listen. You will know that you understand when you can explain someone else’s position with their own logic in an entirely logically consistent way without resorting to essentialising commentary, that is, saying that they hold those views because they are a member of that tribe, that organization, or that department. People construct worldviews that are internally consistent: your job is to understand their perspective, and what makes it consistent for them. It is out of this understanding that consensus can grow.