I’ve been thinking recently about ‘the benefit of the doubt.’ Is it just me, or is it not given as commonly as it used to be? I don’t know if it’s the accelerating pace of work, the pressing urgency of the issues we focus on at Junxion, or the creeping impact of a social media-driven, sound-bite society, but I’m convinced it’s a growing problem.
I’ve witnessed argumentative conflict flare up when one person decided to vilify another, never mind that there might have been a broader context to the triggering statement. I’ve seen experts’ opinions dismissed out of hand, never mind that they simply misspoke, failing to choose their words as carefully as they might. And I’ve seen people roundly criticized in public forums, never mind that it could so easily have been a ‘coachable moment,’ from which everyone present might have learned.
It’s a trend that’s problematic at a human level, because people are getting hurt. It’s problematic at an organizational level, because it’s distracting groups from important work and progress. And it’s important at a societal level, because it’s reinforcing rifts between communities that the participants of these arguments are themselves trying to resolve.
This trend saddens me most when those who are vilified, dismissed, or criticized hold the best of intentions. They mean well, which makes it feel so unfair to see them being punished.
It’s understandable that important issues stir our passions.
At the same time, these flare-ups are understandable. Issues of deep personal or societal importance stir our passions. In social change circles, where these kinds of arguments seem to me to be more common, those committed to an agenda of change are trained and dedicated to act on their convictions, not to stand by and let things sort themselves out. But might the commitment to change—or activation, or activism—too easily escalate issues that could be resolved in other ways?
Don’t get me wrong: there’s real value in activism, which at its best gets our attention and focuses our energy on progress. But each of us can slip into a reactive mode, making assumptions about others’ motivations, and acting before we understand the whole picture.
How can we each take responsibility for healthy engagement?
You can feel angry, but still not act angry.
Perhaps it’s useful to distinguish between feeling angry and acting out of anger. Cliché as it may seem, it’s a useful reminder to ‘seek first to understand.’ This is a two-way street: each of us should seek first to understand those we’re tempted to criticize, in case we’re misunderstanding their words, their actions, or their intent. And likewise, each of us should seek to understand the responses of those that are prone to criticize.
What was said that ‘pushed my buttons’ or triggered my emotional response? What was it I said that triggered such a response in you? How might each of us choose to respond? What might each of us choose to do differently in future? Finding the energy and space to reflect on these questions in the moment can be seen as a personal practice.
It can also be a group practice: It’s common, for example, to encourage workshop and meeting attendees to speak openly and honestly, but power dynamics, pre-existing relationships, and previous, negative experiences of conflict lead many people to feel that it’s dangerous to be fully honest. So, while we encourage honesty in group dialogues we convene at Junxion and with our clients, we also suggest that attendees strive to ‘assume positive intent.’
Most people find it much easier to tell a hard truth when they know it will be heard by ‘generous ears.’ By listening for the intention behind the words, we’re better able to hear an honestly presented challenge, a valid concern, or even a strident criticism.
A word on unintended consequences….
It’s important to be clear that no matter our best intentions, there can still be unintended consequences to our actions. Sometimes those aren’t positive; words can hurt as much as actions can—especially when those words are giving voice to our ‘blind spots,’ gaps of knowledge or awareness on issues that are deeply important to others. And yet, it’s imperative our friends and allies do speak up—that they “say the thing” that needs to be said, as one of our clients puts it.
Perhaps there’s a courageous conversation you need to start. Maybe there’s a controversial decision on which you need to express an opinion. Or maybe you’ve realized you said something that triggered someone else, and need to rectify that situation.
Right intention precedes right action.
Whatever the case, whatever the issue, right intention is more often a prerequisite to right action. And right actions are the building blocks of right relationships.
The challenge, of course, is that good intentions are necessary but not sufficient to bring about a positive outcome. And this is the crux of the thing…. We have to act well, too….
In the issues you’re working on, what else must accompany right intention to cultivate right outcomes?
Wouldn’t you be wise to have that conversation first?