We are often taught that an interdisciplinary approach is a good idea, but why is it a good idea and why is it sometimes so hard to do? In my graduate training I participated on various treatment teams that would include a combination of psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, nurses, vocational counselors and activities therapists. The obvious point of such a diverse team is that each discipline has value and brings something unique to the table. The belief is that a team of six people from six different disciplines will do a better job than a team of six from the same discipline.

Fear of the unknown

Sometimes people from different backgrounds clash, don’t understand each other, and get in each other’s way. They can fight over their different perspectives and values and the work can get bogged down with disagreements. But if there is true respect for the other person’s new and different take on things as well as a clear focus on the common goal, the opportunities for innovation and creativity are enhanced.

It’s easy to get stuck in thinking the same old way and interfacing with the same kinds of people. Of course, it’s comfortable, safe and familiar. But it does not necessarily challenge us to see, think or feel new things. And this lack of newness, well, can get a bit old.

This is not to say that we can’t learn more by delving more deeply into a relationship with one person, or viewing the same piece of art or listening to the same piece of music over and over. There are certainly profound and exciting things that can be discovered by peeling layers and exploring deeply. It is when we are neither expanding our horizons horizontally nor plumbing the depths vertically that our growth might be at a standstill.

The courage to learn

One of the neatest experiences is when someone from another discipline, another mindset or another culture enters your world and invites you—or maybe forces you—to look at and experience things differently. How special it is to hear someone say, “Wow, I never thought of it like that before.” We may have our position or opinion changed, or not, but at least we’ve been introduced to a new dimension and are better off as a result.

If you look up your favorite artist to see who his or her main influences were, you might be surprised by the diversity in that list. The late artist, Prince, has a list of musical influences too long and varied to describe. If you research the educational background or employment history of your favorite famous person, you might be interested to see a collection of experiences that may appear to have little in common with his or her claim to fame. Maybe there’s the pastry chef who used to be a chemist, the boxer turned dancer, or the fashion designer who trained as an engineer.

Give and take

If we want to give it a shot and exchange more across disciplines and styles, there are two basic ways to proceed. On the receptive end, we can try to expose ourselves more to ideas and experiences that are unfamiliar to us, and work on listening, accepting and appreciating the newness. On the expressive side, we can also reach out to other disciplines, trusting that we too bring a special light and perspective worth sharing.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

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