Reflection 92: Election Reflection

I have learned a lot in my years as a couple’s counselor – and as a husband. Among the most important lessons: When is comes to making things better, the most constructive choices are the ones that tend to your partner.

This is not the norm. Instead, in the typical couples fight, he listens but in a special way, alert to every inaccuracy or unwarranted attack, waiting impatiently for her lips to stop moving so he can renew his attack, augmented of course by the additional ammunition she’s just provided. And, needles to say, she is does the same in reverse. And round and round it goes. And the years go by.

The alternative? Avoid this defend/counter-attack approach and, instead listen; affirm your partner’s feelings; and, then, notice and build on areas of agreement. Doing so, we take leadership in facilitating a return to a calmer, more progressed state where in can sort through our differences in a reasoned way, attending as best we can to the emotional and practical needs of each.

Why I am spelling this out in a Reflection that discusses a different, hopefully more effective approach in politics? Because this perspective is so strikingly absent – and so desperately needed – in this area as well.

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Without regard to who we supported, the recent Presidential election deeply unsettled so many of us, like none other in recent memory. And this points to a breakdown in our public conversation – decades in the making – that goes far beyond the personalities and figural issues of this election.

If the goal is to nurture a more constructive politics, one that more effectively moves us toward a more humane, just and equitable world, Radical Decency offers an orienting perspective on what ails us and, in addition, a pathway forward that while not exclusive is, I believe, foundationally important.

That is the subject of this Reflection.

Thinking about Donald and Hillary from a Radical Decency perspective, here’s where I come out.

Donald gets high marks on the 4 values that predominate in the mainstream culture: Compete and win, dominate and control. When is comes to decency’s 7 values, however, the situation is different. He gets a passing grade on “understanding,” given his native shrewdness, and, perhaps, on “fairness” and “justice” in the limited area that encompasses the white, working class constituency he purports to represent. However, he shows virtually no inclination to embrace decency’s other 4 values: Respect, empathy, acceptance, and appreciation.

When is comes to Hillary, things are more complicated. Smart and an enormously hard worker, I give her high grades on understanding. And she has, in many of her activities, demonstrated a sincere interest/inclination toward decency’s other 6 values. But, like Donald, she has also shown a steady, indeed passionate commitment to the culture’s mainstream, compete and win values; a commitment manifest in her zealous pursuit of private wealth and political advancement.

Thus, the crucial question about Hillary is this: What is her priority, decency or conventional success? For me, a fair reading of her history suggests that the mainstream’s compete and win values take precedence. Thus, for example, her:

  • Close association with her husband’s politically motivated dismantling of the welfare system and repeal of Glass-Steagall’s financial regulatory protections;
  • “Smart politics” vote for the invasion of Iraq; and,
  • Failure to take on Wall Street in the recent campaign.

For all of us, Presidential candidates included, the real test of decency comes in those “rubber hits the road” moments when decency’s values conflict with our mainstream ambitions. And by that measure Hillary, in my opinion, falls short.

You may or may not find this analysis persuasive. But the more basic and crucial point is this: This sort of sustained values-based discussion of our candidates is strikingly absent from the dominant political conversation. To the contrary, Donald and Hillary – reflecting a conventional wisdom that has dominated our electoral politics for decades – focused the great majority of their resources on tearing each other down: Lying, bought and sold Hillary vs. an incompetent, corrupt, temperamentally unfit misogynist.

To my mind, fully coming to grips with the striking absence of “values” as a category used to evaluate our potential leaders – and a strategy to correct that – is vitally important if we hope to create a more decent world. Moving the needle toward greater decency, especially at a societal level, is an immensely complicated challenge. We will never make meaningful progress toward that goal if, accepting the invitation of our mainstream politicians, we never even talk about.

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Needless to say, a values oriented political conversation would require an enormous shift in our “business as usual” politics. For that reason, the change we seek is unlikely to come from the top since, by the time someone runs for high elective

office, their investment in the mainstream’s compete/win ways is far too high. Thus, the likelihood that, once elected, they will dramatically reorient their priorities, becoming leaders in creating this shift in outlook is surpassingly small.

But below the confusion and fear that our current system so masterfully creates and exploits is this hopeful reality: Most people are fundamentally decent, wanting to love their families and friends and to live in peace. For this reason, the more sensible approach is to focus on the grass roots. Indeed, since most of our elected politicians are not leaders but are, instead, simply polltakers and panderers, a growing public insistence on decency would increasingly be reflected in their behavior as well.

What we need to recognize, however, is that this grass roots approach thoroughly implicates all of us. The “problem,” simply put, is not with some other person or group. We are all very much a part of it.

Why do I say this? Because we all – with the rarest of exceptions – are significantly infected with the culture’s dominant, compete and win mindset. It shows up in our drive for grades and money, in the win-obsessed mindset we bring to the games we watch and play and, as noted earlier, even in the ways that we treat our most intimate partner in life. So, it is not at all surprising that it shows up in the mindset we bring to our political engagements as well.

In that regard, as a Hillary supporter, ask yourself this: Was the great bulk of your emotional energy consumed by your animus toward Donald and, with it, an impatient “paper over the flaws” defense of Hillary? And, if you were a Donald supporter, ask yourself the same question in reverse. Though there are always exceptions, I suspect the great majority of us – me included – would agree that this defend/attack mentality dominated our thoughts and actions. And, viewed from this perspective, the deeper truth about the candidates is that they were simply reflecting – and to their shame as would-be leaders – magnifying a disease that infects most all of us.

So what needs to happen? We need to fundamentally re-think how we engage politically beginning, very fundamentally, with how to talk with one another.

And it is here that the lessons I have learned in my work with couples come to the fore.

In our political engagements as well, we need to wean ourselves from our reflexive defend/counter-attack approach, cultivating instead a more generous mindset in which we see those on the “other side” as people who, like us, are trying to do the right thing in an incredibly complicated world. And, importantly, we need to remember that neither side “owns” decency’s 7 values. Except for the most rabid ideologues (with whom dialogue is not possible in any event), we all, in our way, want to be respectful, empathic, fair, just, and so on.

Steadily cultivating this perspective – and abandoning it only as a last reluctant option – we will then be primed:

  • To far more fully listen to the “other” side’s very different perspective, and to share our perspective in a way that, diverging from strident defense, acknowledges our doubts, confusions, and uncertainties as well;
  • To notice, affirm and expand areas of agreement including, very importantly, the ways in which decency’s values show up for each of us though often in very different ways; and
  • To develop a more nuanced and respectful understanding of differences.

This approach has been thoroughly explored in the work of many fine thinkers including, for example, Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, Philip Lichtenberg’s Encountering Bigotry, and Miki Kashtan’s groundbreaking work with Convergent Facilitation. And, see, Reflections 75 and 76, Toward a More Civil Political Conversation, Parts 1 and 2.

Our job is give these ideas the attention they so desperately deserve. And while the work is hard and uncertain, persistence is the key. We need to resist the temptation, when the other person fails to respond in kind, to see him as a jerk; reverting, in that moment, to our old, dismissive, partisan ways. In Gandhi’s words, we need to be the change we hope to create.

Note, finally, this important contextual caveat: Without in any way diminishing the foundational importance of this work, we need to remember that it is not meant to, nor should it, supplant other types of political initiatives. They are many people in the public sphere who are what I call permanently stuck in their indecency. These people can be dangerous and need to be aggressively countered. But if that is all that we do – if we fail to make this values based substrata an explicit, visible, ongoing priority – our efforts to create a better world will, I fear, never sustain themselves or gain lasting momentum.

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In closing, I offer an example of the different kind of dialogue that will become with time – it is my hope – our new norm.

The day after the election I had an unexpected conversation with a man in my office waiting room, named Steve. Knowing I was a Hillary supporter, he told me how relieved his was that that “liar” wasn’t going to be President. In response I told him that, while I didn’t agree with the liar label, I did think that his discomfort pointed to something real; that she was calculating, controlled and, at times, slippery with her words.

Steve’s next words were equally partisan: “When Hillary was in office, she sold the government to enrich herself.” Here, too, I disagreed but worked to avoid an impatient dismissive response and/or a pivot to how awful his guy was.

I began instead by saying that, as I saw it, instances of quid quo pros were few or nonexistent. But I then offered this thought: People with power and wealth constantly interact with one another and fully understand that they need each other to get ahead. As a result, people like Hillary (and, implicitly, Donald as well) take care of one another’s needs without every being asked; that for smart, successful players like them no quid quo pros are necessary.

At that point, Steve – in unchartered territory – paused, seeming to digest my unexpected responses. Then, after a brief interlude, he sought me out, saying, “you know, when I comes to guns I, like you, think we need to control who gets them.” My final words, drawn out of me by our surprising sense of connection: “You know, if we had the time, I bet we could come up with a good solution to that problem!”

This was, needless to say, just one small conversation. And other, similar attempts I’ve made with people in the “other” side have quickly deteriorated into the partisan point/counterpoint to which I, too, am so susceptible. But these are the kinds of initiatives we all – Trump and Clinton supporters alike – can and need to take.

Indeed, my most hopeful conversation since the election was with Maureen, a woman I know well, who understands and embodies decency in her in life – and who voted for Trump. She and I agreed that we both hope her greater optimism about Donald’s decency proves to be correct, that we both intend to use decency’s values to measure his Presidency – and that we both look forward to continuing our conversation about our shared political future.

Reflection 91: A Call to Action, Part 3 — An Expanded Collaborative Vision, Applied

This is the last of three Reflections dealing with how to create mechanisms to better bring together the many reform-minded people, currently doing largely unconnected, issues-specific work; magnifying the efforts of each; creating, in this way, a more inclusive and effective movement for change.

My answer: Expanded and invigorated communal engagements and collaborative commitments, driven by a far more explicit recognition of the deeper, values-based unity of purpose that the best of these issues-specific initiatives share.

Reflection #89 offered a framework for expanding and deepening our communal commitments. Reflection #90 contrasted our current collaborative mindsets with the far more expansive framework that Radical Decency’s values dictate.

In this Reflection, I offer a vision for how these collaborative ideas might look in practice, using as an illustrative example the “ethics” – that is, the values – that inform the activities of our mainstream professions.

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In my 40 plus years as a professional – attorney and social worker – most all of my “ethics” courses have worked to locate the point at which our normal ways of doing business cross an ethical line – and, then, how to stay on the “right side” of that line. But if you stop and think about, this approach makes no sense.

It is no different, really, than an attorney who asks his law partners to identify the minimum amount he needs to do to stay on the “right side” of the profitability line. Needless to say, the response of that attorney’s partners’ would be stunned disbelief:

“When it comes to profitability, you shouldn’t be looking for the minimal acceptable bar. To the contrary, your job, each and every day, is to find ways to expand your profitability in new and creative ways.”

So why are these two activities – profitability and ethics – viewed so differently? Because profitability fully aligns with the culture’s compete and win values while a fulsome embrace of ethics would inhibit them. And so, our ethical explorations are straightjacketed by these (unawares, but deeply engrained) assumptions, each designed to allow our mainstream values to operate without serious challenge:

  • “Of course,” we should strive to make more and more money, limited by ethics only when these restraints are unavoidable; and
  • “Of course,” self-protection should take precedence above everything else (except, possibly, profitability).

Limited in this way, our ethical explorations focus on the small-bore choices that survive in this narrow context.

  1. As “ethical” attorneys, are our fee arrangements and potential conflicts fully disclosed? And not: How can we eliminate the conflicts inherent in our standard cost-plus hourly billing rates?
  2. As “ethical” social workers, have we avoided dual relationships – attendance at a client’s family funeral, $20 so he can eat dinner, a hug? And not: Is this the decent thing to do? Is it a manageable risk that might help our client and, potentially, strengthen the therapeutic relationship?

Notice, importantly, how this limited view of ethics keeps us consigned within our separate areas of expertise. The intricacies of the disclosures in an attorney’s engagement letter – to make a lucrative new client’s “knowing waiver” of conflicts with an existing client possible – will be of no interest to a psychotherapist. And conversely, an attorney will have no interest in a detailed discussion about how a psychotherapist can artfully deflect a client’s question about his personal life.

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However, when Radical Decency’s 7 values – respect, understanding and empathy, acceptance and appreciation, fairness and justice – are the focus of our ethical aspirations, and are pursued with the same expansive zeal with which we now pursue profitability and safety, everything is different.

Our professionals will now be focused on the wisdom-stretching task of being decent to others and the world, even as they seek to create and maintain a profitable economic entity (decency to self). The result? They will be impelled to grapple with issues that, in contrast to the small bore issues described above, go to heart of what it truly means to be a values-based professional:

  • Do my services and products speak to my clients’ interests, broadly defined. Am I offering a quality product that, at the same time, does not compromise their broader economic, emotional, physical, and aspirational life interests?
  • Are my pricing policies fair and transparent – and, to the extent reasonably possible, aligned with my clients’ economic interests?
  • Do my sales/marketing strategies honestly represent my capabilities?
  • Does the institution of which I am a part avoid the ever-present temptation to over compensate those at the top, unreasonably compromising in this way the wages and benefits offered to lower level employees?
  • Is our institution’s work environment reasonably accommodating to the larger life goals of employees at every level (ownership included)?
  • Have we created – and are we maintaining – an institutional culture in which decency’s 7 values are the taken for granted norm, informing our interactions not just with co-workers, but also with clients, vendors, competitors, and the public at large?
  • Are we contributing to the communities of which they are a part in ways that, given our financial capability and technical skills, make us responsible partners in the larger effort to create a more decent and humane world?

Note, moreover, that one of the key lessons of Radical Decency is that seeking to segregate and compartmentalize our work and personal lives is a failed strategy. Who we are at work deeply bleeds into and affects who we are at home (and vice versa). For this reason, a priority focus on Radical Decency will deeply inform the choices our hypothetical professionals will make in their private lives as well:

  • Am I interacting with family, friends and others in ways that reflect decency’s 7 values?
  • Am I investing an appropriate amount of personal time, expertise, and money in the communities of which I am a part?
  • Am I finding adequate time to be with those I love, and for rest, play, and the pursuit of my private passions?

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With this shift in perspective – from compete and win to decency – what, then, of our instinct to collaborate with one another?

Here, too, every thing would be different.

Needless to say, the values-based issues, listed above, are not the specialized concern of lawyers and social workers. To the contrary, when Radical Decency supplants compete and win as our motivating mindset, these same (or entirely analogous) issues will also be the pre-occupying focus of academics, journalists, people with religious vocations, reform-minded workers and business people and, indeed, anyone else intent on making decency their priority pursuit

Moreover, operationalizing Radical Decency’s complex and, at times, seemingly inconsistent goals – e.g. how to be decent to others and the world, even as I maintain decency to self – will continually perplex and challenge their wisdom. For this reason, they will feel impelled to reach out to people with knowledge and experience in areas where theirs falls short. Indeed, the need to make these choices with increasing focus and persistent, will become self-evidently necessary – if, that is, they we hope to make the many creative, “outside the mainstream” choices that their vocation of decency demands.

Business people will reach out and thoroughly involve themselves in the initiatives of mission driven activists knowing that, with their years of thought and practice, these people are their indispensible teachers when is come to translating communal responsibilities into action. And, on their side, mission-driven people will be eager students of the many decency-minded business people who know so much about raising capital, generating income, and organizing large numbers of people in pursuit of a common goal; vitally important skills if they hope to bring their mission driven initiatives up to a scale that can truly make a difference.

Think also about the wide variety of people offering creative ways of inhabiting our minds, bodies, and hearts, and interacting with one another. Some of these people are healers, coaches, and consultants. Others are spiritual people, both traditional and nontraditional. Still others are artists and performers.

Values-based people with these vocations have a lot to teach us about being more decent to ourselves, others, and the world including, importantly, in the visual, energetic and kinesthetic areas that exist beyond the logical/verbal modalities so dominant in the mainstream culture. Our commitment to across-the-board decency will impel us to more fully understand and incorporate the wisdom and life changing possibilities, offered by these people, into our more mainstream ways of operating – even as our more mainstream interests and skills inform theirs.

And, the areas of extended collaboration will go far beyond these examples. Indeed, with decency is our informing motive, the list of now, self-evidently important initiatives, involving other, equally committed people with diverse interests and skills, would be endless:

  • Fully committed to dealing with quality of life issues, business owners and operators would heavily involve ministers, psychotherapists, and health and fitness experts in their priority setting and day-by-day choices;
  • Radically decent organizational leaders from every sector would seek out those special people who, without regard to their area of activity, have developed – and sustained, over time – more decent and nourishing organizational environments;
  • Recognizing the dismal state of their profession, decency-committed mainstream media people would work closely with the many people – academics, therapists, and so on – who have spent years understanding and teaching communication techniques that foster respect, authenticity and mutuality;
  • Accountants and financial people with a decency priority would be indispensible allies in crafting fair, transparent and equitable wage and product pricing strategies – as well as new standard metrics that, instead of measuring profitability and nothing more, contextualize bottom line concerns within broader decency-measuring metrics;
  • And so, on and on . . . .

Still another aspect of this expanded collaborative vision would be an end to the unspoken assumption that the values/ethics that inform our work lives are to be determined only by people within our profession or specialized area of activity; thus, the complete absence from every ethics course I have ever taken, as a lawyer or social worker, of clients or members of the general public.

We would no longer huddle up as lawyers, accountants, business people, academics, and so on, assuming that we know what is best when it comes to our professional ethics. To the contrary, seeking to do justice to the endless challenges inherent being decent to self, others, and the world, our deliberations would thoroughly involve representatives from every sector of the public, materially impacted by our activities.

Finally – and crucially – we need to remember that a re-invigorated network of communities, more fully aligned with decency’s 7 values, is an essential building block in our efforts to create a more decent world. See Reflection #89, A Call to Action, Part 1: Community. For this reason, our expanded collaborative vision needs to go beyond our individual choices and be translated, as well, into initiatives that bring our diverse communities into this ever-deepening web of collaborative connections.

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Like so many other decency-driven scenarios that I have spun out in the Reflections, there is a natural tendency to step back and ask this question: What is the likelihood that this can really happen? And I have to concede that, here too, it is hard to imagine how we get from here to there, given the state of the world in which we live.

But we need to remember, always, that every pathway to meaningful change is a long shot. And, the value-based approach I promote does have a compelling logic that speaks to its potential effectiveness:

Radical Decency is not just the right thing to do. Without regard to ultimate outcomes in the larger world, it is also a far more vital and plausible pathway toward a nourishing, spirit-affirming life than any that is offered by our heedless pursuit of compete and win, dominate and control.

So, remembering that the future is inherently uncertain – for better or for worse – what better way to spend our days?

Reflection 90: A Call to Action, Part 2 — An Expanded Collaborative Vision

This is the second of three Reflections that deal with this key question:

Living in a world, structured to funnel reform-minded people into largely unconnected, issues-specific work – climate change or personal growth; health and nutrition or business ethics – are there mechanisms that can bring us together; magnifying the efforts of each; creating, in this way, a more inclusive and effective movement for change?

My answer: A movement, built upon expanded and invigorated communal engagements and collaborative commitments, that is, in turn, driven by a far more explicit recognition of a deeper unity of purpose that the best of these issues-specific initiatives share around decency’s 7 values.

Elaborating on this thesis:

  • Reflection #89 (the first in the series) offered a framework for expanding and deepening our communal commitments.
  • This Reflection #90 contrasts our current collaborative mindsets with the far more expansive framework that Radical Decency’s values dictate.
  • The final Reflection, #91, will offer a vision for how these collaborative ideas might look in practice.

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When it comes to our change oriented activities, everybody can’t do everything. Some reform-minded people will elaborate their Radical Decency ideals in the context of their ethnic communities, others within their church or mosque, still others where they work or in less traditional communities. And, of course, a large number of people will continue to pursue these values in their unique, go it alone way – a very sizable group, given our engrained individualistic habits of living.

Given this reality, the deeper communal engagements, described in Reflection #89, while vitally important, are not enough. We also need to create an environment in which reform-minded people, now far more typically engaged in uncoordinated initiatives, can be brought into more fruitful connection with one another, both at an individual level and, importantly, through deeper, more persistent communal alignments.

In other words, we need to re-think what it means to be collaborative.

Unfortunately, endemic confusion about the values-based disease that ails us has deeply inhibited meaningful movement in that direction. And it has done so through structures that are so embedded within our predominant “compete and win” culture as to be virtually invisible – and, for that reason, breathtakingly effective.

It begins with a stunning dichotomy in our culturally sanctioned, mainstream view of what ails us.

While our points of emphasis differ, depending on our political orientation, our endemic indecency is widely recognized and commented upon. By contrast, the fact that these many, varied and deepening manifestations of indecency are rooted in the culture’s wildly out of control compete and win mindset – that that is the underlying cause of so much of what is wrong – is seldom recognized or discussed.

The result: Reflecting the obscurity that shrouds this fundamental values issue, would-be reformers are channeled in vocations and organizational structures that allow them to challenge particular manifestations of indecency – poverty, tyranny, wars of aggression, racism, and so on – but not the underlying values system from which these indecencies arise.

This phenomenon is massively effective – if the goal is to marginalize reform energy. It allows the status quo system to maintain and extend its power by creating the current perplexing, and deeply discouraging, reform landscape in which:

  1. There are so many creative and admirable reform efforts that, nevertheless,
  2. Never seem to cohere into an initiative with the ability to bend our culture toward a more decent trajectory.

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Because it is so deeply engrained, most all of us, instead of challenging this do your own thing mindset, seek to do our best within in. And when is comes to our prospects for more meaningful collaboration, the effect is dramatic – and deeply consequential.

Everywhere we look there is indecency: At work; in politics; in the world of commerce; in our day-by-day interactions with others; in the ways in which we push and judge our selves. Seeing indecency in so many seemingly unconnected acts and ways of operating, a feasible strategy – that addresses the larger, overarching “how we live” issue – feels like a giant, futile game of whack-a-mole in which progress might be made on one issue, only to see new, even more disturbing manifestations of indecency pop up in multiple, new areas.

The result? Even those of us who don’t give up the fight altogether, tend to walk down this well-worn path:

  1. We focus on a particular issue we feel passionate about, usually reflecting our own life experience.

Then, further limiting the scope of our vision:

  1. We become specialists – academics, political activists, reform-minded workers and businessmen, service workers, therapist/healers – telling ourselves that, in other areas, we need to defer to the experts.

And then, finally, cementing our isolation from one another:

  1. Our interactions with people beyond our area of interest and expertise become passive and intermittent (at best).

With each of these factors reinforcing one another, the possibility for meaningful, ongoing collaboration across areas of interest and expertise is, at best, pushed to margins. Intent doing their (often entirely noble) thing, reformers see no compelling programmatic link with people whose focus is elsewhere. And there is, as a result, no reason – other than curiosity and a generalized sense of good will – to use their precious time and energy to seek out and collaborate, in an active and sustained way, with people whose initiatives are outside their area of activity.

And what, then, of the all-important values issue?

Our implicit, unarticulated hope is that, somehow, these disparate initiatives will magically and spontaneously knit together into a coherent whole that, as this process gathers momentum, will lead to a more decent world.

Unfortunately, when wishful thinking replaces strategizing and the hard work of organizing, we have, in my view, effectively conceded the issue.

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In seeking to find our way to a more robust and meaningful form of collaboration, Radical Decency’s values-based approach can, potentially, play a formative and transformational role. Fully realized, it will bring, to each of our now, seemingly disparate reform initiatives, a shared vision of what it means to work toward a more decent and humane world; a vision with the power to knit these initiatives together into a unified, energized, and far more effective force for change.

Here’s how.

While Radical Decency does not seek to supplant and replace the vitally important, issue-specific work that is our current focus, it does seek to crucially expand the context in which it takes place – to include the vitally important values issues that is the underlying cause of so much of the indecency and injustice with which we are confronted.

A premise, fundamental to Radical Decency, is that – hoping to create a different and better world – we all, all of us, need to integrate into our issues-specific orientations and, equally, our day by day, on the ground tactics a decisive shift:

— Away from the culture’s compete and win, dominate and control values; and

— Toward decency’s 7 values.

Fully taking account of the utterly symbiotic relationship between personal growth and social change work, discussed in last week’s Reflection, Radical Decency also emphasizes the need to practice these values in every area of our lives – if, that is, we hope to create meaningful, sustained momentum in the direction of decency to self, others, and the world.

When it comes to collaboration, these premises dictate – and, for that reason will, hopefully, impel us toward – an expanded and far more inclusive collaborative approach. Seeking out people who share our commitment to change but have different interests and capabilities – instead of being an interesting add-on to our “real” work – will become a compelling necessity.

The reason? Since the success of change in one area of living is entirely bound up with change efforts in every other area, a hunkered down, narrow engagement with others – one, for example, that ignores strategies for individual change (if you are a social reformer) or efforts to route out social and economic injustice (if your mission is personal growth) – no makes sense. To the contrary, that approach is, by any reasonable reckoning, a pathway toward change that is partial, episodic, and evanescent; a lesson sadly confirmed by the fate of most every recent, reform movement.

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In the final Reflection in this series, I discuss how this expanded view of collaboration would work in practice, using as an illustrative example the “ethics” – that is, the values – that inform the activities of our mainstream professions. In that Reflection, I will explain how:

  1. The culture’s predominant compete and win values have thoroughly infiltrated our professions’ ethical outlook, dictating ways of operating that, in line with the mainstream ways of operating, discussed above, are narrow and uncollaborative;

And, by way of contrast:

  1. The greatly expanded vision of collaboration that a fulsome embrace of Radical Decency’s 7 values dictates; a vision that, in its breadth and depth, is strikingly different from our taken-for-granted mainstream ways.

Reflection 89: A Call to Action, Part 1– Community

One of the wonderful byproducts, wholly unexpected when I started the weekly Reflections series 6 years ago, has been the wide variety of remarkable people with whom I come in contact each, in their own way, seeking to contribute to the creation of better lives and a better world. But this experience, so positive in so many ways, also regularly highlights the extent to which these people operate independently of one another. And this, in turn, is a troubling reminder of the extent to which the mainstream culture’s individualistic orientation permeates even the work of the most creative and dynamic among us.

Our world is structured to support single bore, issues specific initiatives rather than inclusive approaches:

  • Climate change – or anxiety and depression;
  • Health and nutrition – or poverty;
  • Spiritual growth – or business ethics.

The result? With so much energy poured into (the monumental task of) maximizing the effectiveness of these efforts, too little attention is paid to the larger, vitally important question that begs to be asked:

How can this diverse array of people, each devoted in his or her own way to creating a more decent and humane world, work together, reinforcing and magnifying the efforts of each; becoming, in this way, more effective agents for change?

In this Reflection, and the two that will follow, I offer a vision how a shared, across-the-board commitment to decency’s values can expand and invigorate our communal engagements and collaborative efforts becoming, in this way, the key building blocks in creating a unified and, hence, far more effective change movement.

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What we know is heavily influenced by where we have been in life. And, in truth, I have created a life built largely on the culture’s individualistic model. As a lawyer and, then, a psychotherapist much of my work has been in one-on-one situations in which my advice and counsel, while supported by the expertise of others, has largely been the result of my individual efforts. And while I have, over the years, been involved in a series of communal and collaborative initiatives, they have never been my central focus.

For this reason, my writing focuses is on how to re-direct our individual choices in ways that allow us to create more decent lives and meaningfully contribute to a better world. That is what I know best

But the message, in this Reflection and the two that follow, is this: While Radical Decency requires a fundamental re-orientation in the ways in which we create our individual lives, that is not enough. We also need to align and merge our efforts with those of other like-minded people.

The reason: These two initiatives – personal growth and societal change – are symbiotic.

On the societal change side, this symbiosis is driven by the fact that, absent sustained work at an individual level, we are far too vulnerable to the endless cues, incentives, and sanctions – many surpassingly subtle – that pull us back toward the culture’s fundamentally indecent, compete and win norms. For this reason, skipping over our personal growth work – jumping directly into the “more important” work of changing the world – is unrealistic. Taking this path, the culture’s mainstream ways will, in all but the rarest of cases, infect our outlook and day-by-day choices; progressively blurring, compromising, and diminishing our larger vision of a more decent world.

Equally, however, the context in which we exist massively and fundamentally shapes who we are and what we do. So if we are doing our personal work solely with family and friends, failing to actively affiliate with broader efforts to re-shape the culture, our mainstream compete and win ways of being – the very water in which we swim – will bring us, inch by imperceptible inch, back toward its indecent ways, deeply compromising our individual decency aspirations.

Sustained attention to decency to the world is integral to Radical Decency’s approach to living – and is the right thing to do. But fully understanding this personal/political symbiosis, the ideas presented in this series of Reflections become (I hope and believe) far more real, immediate and personal.

In this “call to action,” I am suggesting that is each of us translate our personal decency commitment into choices that, as they accumulate, hold the promise of:

  1. A re-invigorated network of communities, more fully aligned with decency’s 7 values (this Reflection #89); and
  2. Collaborative activities, far more expansive and mutually supportive than is the current norm (Reflections #90 and #91).

If you see merit in these ideas, my hope is that you will make concrete choices that make these ways of operating a growing reality in your life.

The Vital Importance of Community

More and more, I am struck by this thought: We humans are fiercely tribal.

Think, for example, about the many people so deeply wedded to their alma mater, favorite sports team, religious movement, or political party or faction. Here in Philadelphia, the level of psychic pain I observe when the Eagles lose is truly remarkable. And when was the last time you, as a Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, were able to convince someone on the other side that you were right (or vice versa)?

In Moral Tribes: Emotions, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them (2013), Joshua Greene describes a study that sought to understand how climate change deniers were affected by increased scientific knowledge. The expectation: With more facts, their views would moderate.

The actual result, however, was very different. While there was no meaningful change in outlook, the arguments they brought to their side of the issue became far more sophisticated.

When we think in terms of our fierce tribalism, this outcome makes complete sense. Becoming a voice for climate change would alienate these budding experts from their political tribe, a major emotional loss. So the more sensible move, in psychological terms, was to do exactly what they did – and what the empirical evidence documented.

A key takeaway? Precisely because we aspire to be more effective change agents, we cannot ignore this pivotal reality. For our efforts to be effective, they need to find a vital voice in and through our “tribes”; that is, the communities of which we are a part.

Here’s why.

Change programs, like Radical Decency, knowingly seek to upset the status quo. And as the many examples discussed in the Reflection series demonstrate, most every institution or movement of any size and duration is deeply infected by the very mainstream values we are seeking to supplant and supersede.

As a result, many reform-minded people – predictably and inevitably – feel some level of alienation from their “home base” church, political party, ethnic group, or other communal organization (unions, veterans organizations, professional associations such as the Chamber of Commerce, AMA, or ABA, and so on). Then, what frequently happens next is this: Reflexively motivated by the individualistic outlook the mainstream culture so incessantly promotes, they dial back, or entirely abandon, their communal engagements.

This outcome is very unfortunate. When the reform-minded among us lessen and abandon their communal involvements, the status quo-oriented people in these movements are, by default, empowered to consolidate and expand their influence and control; a process that repeats itself, over and over, with depressing predictability:

  • The American Jewish community’s massive retreat from its social justice roots;
  • The domestication of mainstream labor unions;
  • The rapid erosion of the egalitarian governing visions of Gandhi in India, and Mandela South Africa;
  • The transformation of Jesus’ insurgent vision into church-based bureaucratic entities, in the service of those with entrenched power.

With this in mind, a key part of the work for many of us – who want to more meaningfully contribute to a more decent world – is to re-orient away from our individualistic, go-it-alone instincts and toward a renewed commitment to community; work that will, depending on the individual, proceed in one or more of the contexts described below.

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First, those of us with the inclination to do so need to reclaim leadership in our traditional ethnic, religious, political, worker, and professional communities, remembering always that our decency agenda, far from being alien to their traditions, represent the best within them.

The importance of these involvements bears special emphasis. These communities are deeply resonant for so many and, in many cases, have been for centuries. For millions and millions of people, they are at the core of their identity.

For this reason, our goals are badly served if we ignore them, thinking we can simply start new movements and communities. We should work, instead, to unleash their enormous power in service of our decency values.

Toward that goal, we need to renew our involvement with the Sunday services and church socials, union meetings, and neighborhood 4th of July celebrations that are the binding rituals of our traditional communities. In addition, we need to fully participate in the many tasks, large and small, which allow them to survive and thrive. Then, as active and empowered members, we will be far better able to advocate for the change we seek – not separate and apart from, but from within, these movements.

Reconnecting with our traditional communal roots, in a radically decent way, will challenge us to interact, far more deeply with different-thinking people; that is, the many people within these communities that reflect the culture’s compete and win mindset. But operating out of our radically decent mindset, we will do so: (1) With curiosity – that is, with understanding and empathy, and (2) with acceptance and appreciation – for their humanness apart from their attitudes and beliefs.

In other words, we will be weaning our selves away from any tendency we might have to dismiss these people, and the community itself, as ignorant, intolerant, and/or corrupt. And, more deeply, a heartening upside, inherent in this process, is this: Far from being an uncomfortable, unwanted chore, our renewed involvements, infused with this radically decent outlook, promises to revitalize our sense of shared community even as we become more effective advocates for policies and programs that reflect the best in these traditions.

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As important as this process of reclaiming and re-vitalizing our traditional communities is, our communal initiatives need to operate at a second level as well. Understanding the extraordinary power of our tribal loyalties and the strong centrifugal pull of the culture’s mainstream values within these traditional communities, we also need to nurture wholly new communities that reflect our values-based objectives.

The Essential Experience Workshop Community, here in Philadelphia, is a good example. An active participant for 23 years, “EE” has offered me irreplaceable support in my personal journey; an emotional home that has given me the courage to diverge from a mainstream life that, until then, seemed to be my inescapable fate.

Another, better known example is Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization that has provided essential communal support to countless individuals seeking to re-orient their lives in a more values-based ways. What is so interesting about the AA model is that, with its de-centralized structure, it seems to have retained its vitality and sense of mission throughout its 80-year history.

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Finally, there are our places of business.

While not commonly viewed in this way, our workplaces are in fact communities to which, like it or not, we are powerfully bound since we depend upon them for our livelihood. Indeed, for so many of us, this community consumes far more time and psychic energy than any other community of which we are a part.

If we ignore this reality – and continue to see work as “merely” the place where we make our money – the business sector will continue to be a force for the perpetuation of our status quo ways.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Radical Decency and profitability are not inconsistent concepts. To the contrary, steadily applied over time, its values-based approach will, more predictably, enhance profitability by attracting extraordinarily capable employees and loyal customers even as it improves the day-to-day lives of everyone involved, to and including senior management.

My hope, therefore, is that an increasing number of business owners and empowered executives – understanding this hopeful reality and, with it, their enormous potential as change agents – will offer the leadership needed to create a very different culture and way of operating, within their entities, allowing them to become key communal building blocks in the larger struggle to create a more decent and humane world.

Reflection 87: Economic Inequality, Part 1 — How We Got Here

From time to time, I am exposed to a thinker who reminds me, once again, that ideas matter – at lot. A recent example: Robert Reich whose latest book, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few (Alfred A. Knopf 2015), is the subject of this Reflection and the inspiration for the one I’ll be sharing next week.

Saving Capitalism begins with an anecdote.

Reich, a well-known economics professor and former Secretary of Labor, regularly speaks to a wide variety of audiences about economic inequality, the book’s subject. To his great frustration, the first question with which he must deal, almost invariably, is this: Do you favor the free market or greater governmental regulation?

Since this question has, for decades, framed our left/right, conservative/liberal political debate, why (you might ask) does Reich find it so frustrating? Because, in his view – far from being THE key issue of our times – it is, instead, a chillingly effective distraction from a far more pertinent debate about the policy choices that so deeply affect our economic future.

Transfixed by this issue, people on the right passionately argue that the free market’s competitive efficiencies allow everyone to prosper and that, conversely, most all governmental intervention inhibits this process. Those on the left argue, with equal fervor, that the free market produces far too many distortions, resulting in unacceptable levels of suffering and that, as a result, governmental intervention is essential.

Reich, however, stands entirely apart from this standard liberal/conservative debate, premising all that follows on these essential points:

  • There is no such thing as a “free market;” that is, a mechanism that un-interfered with can – for better (the conservative view) – or worse (the liberal view) – be relied upon to regulate our economic activities.

To the contrary,

  • All that exists is an intricate, ever evolving web of rules that determine how we interact with one another as economic entities; rules that, always and inevitably, are created, enforced and, as circumstances change, modified and further elaborated by public/governmental institutions – legislators, public executives, courts, and agencies.

In other words, “the market” and “government” are thoroughly and completely symbiotic – and always have been. The market, as it exists at any point in time, is the result of an accumulated set of choices, made over time, by our governing institutions.

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When it comes to defining the challenges we face, and crafting strategies to deal with them, Reich’s perspective dictates a dramatic shift in focus. Instead of arguing for more government or less, Reich begins his analysis with a detailed discussion of the policy choices, made over the last 40 years, that have had the greatest effect on the economy’s operative rules.

His conclusion: The dominant economic theme, in this period of our history, is the effectiveness with which people at the top have been able to change these rules in ways that have dramatically increased their ability to add to their wealth. And, he is at pains to point out, most of these changes have had very little to do with rewarding productivity. To the contrary, they reflect instead the ever-increasing ability of the extremely wealthy to use their power to “fix” key aspects of the game in ways that allow them expand their wealth even further.

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Reich’s narrative is far-reaching and filled with examples that give vital specificity to this overarching narrative. One particularly stunning example is the massive shift in CEO and senior management compensation, in the last 15 years, from salary to stock options and, with it, an equally massive increase in stock buy backs.

If income maximization is a CEO’s goal, using these two strategies in tandem is an obvious move. The reason: The increase in the company’s stock price that a buy back predictably provokes will – if timed to coincide with the cash-in date for CEO’s option – result in a far more lucrative payday. So, you might ask, why did massive adoption of this strategy only occur in the last 15 years? The answer – fully in line with Reich’s thesis – is that before it could be effectively implemented key rule changes, sought by big business, had to be put in place.

And that is exactly what happened.

In 1982, the SEC (1) removed all limitations on the size and timing of stock buy backs, even as it (2) ensured CEO anonymity by keeping in place (anemic) disclosure rules that require public announcement of a buy back, but not of the date on which it occurs or the date on which the CEO and other executives cash in their stock options.

Then, in 1993, the Clinton administration dramatically incentivized these transactions by allowing, for the first time, tax deductions by companies for executive pay in excess of $1 million – so long as it was linked to corporate performance; in other words, if it came in the form of stock options and awards that, in theory, are linked to performance.

With these changes in place, the stage was set for a massive money grab by some of the richest among us – and, with dismal predictability, CEOs have done exactly that.

Indeed, the figures are just stunning. Between 2001 and 2013, stock buy-backs accounted for $3.6 TRILLION in outlays by companies in the Standard and Poor’s 500 index – and, in 2013 alone, for $500 million in outlays by those companies; fully a third of their cash flow – money that could otherwise have been spent on research and development, price reductions, new jobs, additional pay for workers, or other more productive activities.

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Unfortunately, but predictably, Reich has many other stories to tell – stories that persuasively support his thesis – including the following:

  • The enormous economic benefit, bestowed on the very rich, when the recent rise in the estate tax exemption (from $2 to $10 million), is combined with the little known fact that – in contrast, say, to the taxes paid by middle class folks who sell their houses at a profit – people who inherit stocks, bonds and other capital assets do not pay any capital gains tax at all on the increase in asset value that occurred during the decedent’s life.
  • The fact that each Princeton student (by way of illustrative example) effectively receives a public subsidy of $54,000 – as compared to just $6,000 for the average public university student – a result explained by fact that: (1) A third of every dollar donated to nonprofit universities, such as Princeton, comes from the government, in the form of donor tax deductions; and (2) the massive amounts of money, earned by these university’s endowments, that are exempt from taxation.
  • Bankruptcy code revisions that: (1) allow companies in Chapter 11 to the re-write union contracts and, with bankruptcy court approval, to impose them unions; and, by way of stark contrast, (2) exempt student loans from bankruptcy relief (even as colleges – the direct beneficiaries of these loans – enjoy the enormous hidden subsidies described in the last bullet point).
  • The massive increase in mandatory arbitration clauses, that severely limit consumer companies’ liability and require the use of biased arbitrators; a movement made possible by Supreme Court decisions that make escape or, even appeal from, these tribunals a practical impossibility.

A final example, too important to omit, is in the area of patents and intellectual property. In the last few years, in response to pressure from pharmaceutical companies:

  1. Patent rights have been expanded to include processes used to manufacture vaccines and other products from nature; an expansion that allowed Pfizer (for example), as the sole manufacturer of the now-patentable Prevnar 13 vaccine, to earn nearly $4 billion in 2013, alone.
  1. Patents are now being renewed on the basis of insignificant product changes; a shift that allowed Forest Laboratories, by substituting Namenda XR (extended release) for Namenda, to maintain monopoly control over this widely used Alzheimer drug for an additional 14 years.

To the same point is the repeated expansion, in recent years, of intellectual property rights (11 times since 1960 vs. 2 times in the preceding 160 years). Not coincidentally, this dramatic expansion has occurred precisely at a time when our exploding digital economy has made these rights exponentially more valuable.

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Reich’s analysis is remarkable in this breadth and specificity – and vitally important. If we don’t understand what’s going on, our chances of changing it will be very small indeed.

In the end, however, the really important question is this: What do we do about it? And in this area Reich makes an important, analytic contribution as well.

Most attempts to deal with this “what to do about it” issue are, unfortunately, hamstrung by a (typically unawares) mindset – a by-product of the free market/ government dichotomy – that goes like this:

When it comes to making things better, the free market will, inevitably, do its own thing. Thus, the events described by Reich must, however reluctantly, be accepted as “free market” maneuvers by “private parties;” unavoidable by-products of our otherwise treasured, and highly functional, free market system.

Given this reality, our only viable reform option is to move in, after the fact, with governmental programs that, funded by our tax dollars, patch up, as best they can, the many and varied economic wounds that are caused by the inevitable excesses of the free market.

Locked into this perspective, the hard truth about our reform efforts is this: They will never work. Despite the governments’ best efforts, the current system will create more and more inequality – which will require more and more tax dollars – to fund more and more, after the fact, “patch up the wounds” governmental programs.

But because inequality is growing at an ever-accelerating rate, these programs will inevitably fall further and further behind, failing ultimately in their purposes. And this, in turn, will lend further credence to the belief that “government is the problem and not the solution” – the mindset that perversely, ironically, is the precise political cover the current system needs, and uses so effectively, to defeat reform efforts!!

Recognizing this, Reich offers an expanded, and far more helpful, frame of reference within which to understand how the economy operates and where we need to intervene – if we hope to effectively deal with our growing inequality.

In his view, most all of the processes he describes – the shifts in CEO compensation strategies, the tax avoiding maneuvers of the rich, the patent and copyright extending moves of pharmaceutical and internet companies – are all manifestations of a phenomenon he calls “upward pre-distributions.”

As Reich explains it, upward pre-distributions are processes that, preceding any governmental activity, shifts wealth “upward” to the rich. In his view, these “pre” distributions stand side by side with the “post” distributions that governments make when they use tax money, after the fact, to re-allocate wealth downward (social security disability and retirement payments, unemployment insurance, etc.).

Needless to say, Reich advocates a shift in emphasis away from our (deeply flawed) efforts to relieve inequality through “post” distributions and toward efforts to curb and reverse upward pre-distributions. We vitally need laws and regulations that, instead of enabling these maneuvers – the current norm – discourage and prevent them.

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The subtle and varied changes to our economic/political the system that Reich describes – so instrumental in the massive shift in wealth to the rich – are also a suggestive and useful summary of the laws and regulations we need change if we hope to undo the effects of the last 40 years.

But how to we get from “here” to “there”?

Addressing this issue, Reich brings us back to the concept of “countervailing power,” described by John Kenneth Galbraith in the 1950s. This is the process through which institutions such as unions, farms cooperatives, local and regional banks, and local (small business oriented) chambers of commerce pushed against Wall Street, big business and the wealthy, limiting in this way their ability to fix the game.

In that era, as Galbraith describes it, people with diverse economic interests – operating, crucially, through entities with the organizational and political muscle to promote their interests – balanced each other out, producing a more equitable economic system in the process.

The last 50 years have witnessed a dramatic decline in the power of the countervailing institutions that Galbraith described. Reich, while acknowledging this, argues nevertheless that “the only way back toward a democracy and economy that work for the majority is for the majority to become politically active once again, establishing a new countervailing power.” Saving Capitalism, at 182.

I am sympathetic with Reich’s argument. Millions of good-hearted people, acting alone, will never magically coalesce into a movement for meaningful change. What we need instead are robust institutions and communities who, through their cumulative choices, create a larger movement that leads the way in creating the change we seek. And, a 21st century version of the kinds of countervailing institutions that existed on the 1950s may well be among the most viable communal building blocks from which such a movement could emerge.

But, for me, a deeper question remains unanswered: Where will the motive force to create these countervailing institutions come from? As I see it, the answer to this question points directly to the underlying values issues that Radical Decency seeks to highlight and address. That will be the subject of next week’s Reflection. I hope you find it interesting and helpful.

Reflection 86: Having Confidence You’re Average

The author of this Reflection is my son, Jeremy Garson. Jeremy is an associate with the Washington, D.C. law firm, Woodley & McGillivary LLP, a union side labor law firm, currently on assignment with the International Association of Fire Fighters. He is an occasional contributor to the Reflection series. See, also, Reflection 71, Dad As An Exception, and Reflection 83, Listening to the “Bad” Guys.

You can direct comments and reactions to Jeremy at jeremy. garson@gmail.com.

Being “average” has very negative connotations in our society. It is, at worst, synonymous with failure and, at best, viewed as a safety net of sorts that allows us to be complacent about our abilities. Google confirms these connotations by offering, primarily, links on how to either (1) rise above averageness or (2) not put so much pressure on your self. A short time ago, I realized that I have a different, hopefully more helpful, perspective on averageness, which I describe in this Reflection.

My experience in attempting to pass my drivers license test, as a 16 year old, offers a context for my definition of averageness. In Pennsylvania, you can take the test three times in a row but, then, you have to wait six months to take it again. Thus, the pressure to pass increases greatly if you fail.

And fail I did. The first time I took the test, I ran a red light. More specifically, I was making a left turn and waited until the cars coming from the other direction were gone before I went. Unfortunately, those cars had an extended green; something I didn’t realize until the test was over.

Damn! Suddenly I only had two more opportunities to pass – or else be stuck taking the bus for the rest of the school year. I had to pass the next time.

Getting ready for test 2, I injected myself with confidence using this simple idea: I’m probably at least average and, therefore, can pass. Put differently, I thought about the millions of U.S. citizens who have taken the driver’s test and passed. These citizens included people of all ability levels, including many who are not very good drivers. If those people could pass the test, surely I could as well. I must be as good as at least a decent chunk of those people, so this is a hurdle I can overcome.

This same bit of self-talk has helped me to overcome many other challenges in the years since. Whether it’s finishing a major paper, preparing for an interview, or taking the bar exam, I make myself remember the millions that have done it before me and the millions that will do it after me. If they did it, so can I!

What I have come to realize is that this way of thinking replaces the mainstream culture’s negative connotation around “average” with one that is positive, empowering and, actually, far more realistic. Because we humans are so extraordinary as a species, being average can mean achieving our goals without overwhelming pressure. We are highly intelligent creatures who can plan out our paths and figure out what we need to do to get where we want to go. Most of the obstacles along these paths are ones that have been met and overcome by countless people before us. They may vary in the details but, for the most part, our struggles are not unique.

To give another example, when I decided I wanted to be a lawyer, I knew that I had to do well on the LSAT, apply to different law schools, take classes, pass various tests, and pass the bar exam. Since almost every lawyer in the U.S. has taken on these same obstacles and gotten past them, I knew I could as well. Some of my friends had extra obstacles (like finances which are, obviously, a huge obstacle). But the same overarching message applied to them as well. Others did it, so they could as well.

As I write this Reflection I realize that I risk falling into a major trap of our society: the idea that, since success is reasonably within our grasp, there is no excuse for falling short and that, if we do, we have “failed.” In the capitalist society in which we live, we are either “winners” in the rat race – or “losers” to be looked down upon. This is decidedly indecent.

Fully understood, the approach to averageness I am describing differs dramatically from this winner/loser, succeed or fail mindset. Indeed, from this perspective, experiencing a setback is fine! In fact, it may be for the best since it may lead to an even better outcome than the one we originally aimed for. (I can easily think of several situations in which I came up short of my original goal, only to experience a better outcome in the end). It is all part of the average human experience.

At this point, I want to discuss the fear of failure. This fear is a large impediment that stops many of us in our tracks. If I attempt to accomplish a goal where many others have succeeded, but I fail, what does that say about me? Something very negative, correct?

This is the flipside of my tool. Because so many people have succeeded, we are afraid of failure; a fear that can bring debilitating, even paralyzing anxiety in its wake.

People who struggle with this fear – me included – need to keep two things in mind. First, since we live in a world of probabilities, setbacks are inevitable. As my Father likes to say, the best baseball players in history fail 2/3rds of the time. To expand on this idea, the best free throw shooters in NBA history make 90% their shots. So when they go to the foul line, all they need to do is repeat a motion that they have done countless times before. Even so, they miss 10% of the time – at a task that is literally the same every single time.

Second, and more importantly, setbacks do not occur in a vacuum. As mentioned above, a setback can result in a better outcome down the road.

And even if a “better outcome” is not achieved, the setback will itself have its positives. As average human beings, we learn from our experiences, good and bad. When things go badly for us, we have – as highly evolved creatures – the ability to reflect on what happened and what we might do differently in the future. This amazing ability equips us to improve our future outcomes, and those future outcomes equip us to improve upon outcomes in the even more distant future. It’s all part of the average human experience.

Thus, viewed from my perspective on “averageness,” equating setbacks with failure is a false construct.

In closing, I offer this final thought: Success is very normal in your life. You have succeeded at learning to read, to drive a car, to navigate an email system, etc. We don’t tend to think of these achievements as successes because most everyone accomplishes them, but that’s precisely my point. Most people succeed at most of the things they do. And because you are like most people, you are likely to succeed at your next challenge, whether you realize it is a challenge or not.

The key is to bring this mindset to life’s more intimidating challenges, and to use it as a confidence booster. If you can do that, you are more likely to overcome the fear of failure (which many people have done) and to overcome the challenges presented by the task in front of you (which many people have also done).

These successes are very average — and that is pretty great.

Reflection 85: I Am Loved

Fully realized, Radical Decency brings with it a decisive divergence from the “compete and win, dominate and control” mindset that permeates our culture, systemically replacing it with an alternative set of values. The fundamental reason for making this shift is positive and forward-looking: Radical Decency is a vital and workable pathway toward a more meaningful and nourishing life. See Reflection #13, Radical Decency is its Own Reward.

Equally compelling, however, is the argument against complicity with the values of the mainstream culture. A compete and win way of operating fails to support us in being decent to our self – or to others – or to the world. In other words, it has created, by any fair reckoning, a failed culture. See Reflection #27, The Case for Radical Decency.

Its practical effects, moreover, prove the point. With “winning” as the default setting to which we unthinkingly aspire, someone is always doing better. Indeed, even our “wins” are a temporary phenomenon followed, almost inevitably, by future “losses.” The result: A pandemic of lives in which anxiety, self-judgment, and chronic dissatisfaction are our intimate companions.

At a deeper and, ultimately, more consequential level, however, we need to understand how “compete and win” obscures what is most important in life beginning with this all important, life sustaining fact:

Because I am human, I am loved.

In this Reflection, I discuss the consequences that result when this perspective is lost – and the life altering possibilities that emerge when we are able to fully embrace it.

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From a Radical Decency perspective, “I am loved” is not some Kumbaya rallying cry of the tree hugging set. To the contrary, it results from a hardheaded assessment of the realities of our existence and the implications that flow from it.

Here’s how.

A grim reality envelops our lives and everything we do.

  • We exist, and don’t know why. We’re here through no choice of our own.
  • We (and everyone we love) will leave at time not of our choosing. Our physical decline and death is a certainty.
  • Despite the pronouncements of an endless stream of prophets and gurus, throughout history, we don’t understand why we’re here or what we’re supposed to do, while we are.

And crucially, we humans, unlike any other species we know of, understand all this.

Whether consciously or not, these existential realities are with us every day of our lives and fundamentally mold our relationships with one another. Because these realities will always prevail, we are like soldiers sharing a foxhole in a never-ending, unwinnable war. And our natural, instinctual reaction – when it isn’t subverted by the cultural processes described below – is no different than the reaction that most soldiers, returning from the front line trenches, report: An intense solidarity with, and love for, our comrades in arms.

We are, in truth, literally surrounded by beings, instinctually ready – out of the shared communion that our desperate, unalterable reality creates – to love and support us. And we don’t have to do anything to be its beneficiary. It is our birthright as a human.

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One of life’s unchanging necessities is to somehow, in some way, come to grips with these existential realities. And our predominant win/lose culture does offer a way out: Pay lip service to them but, in your day by day outlook and choices, act as though they (like everything else) can be confronted and defeated.

“Yes I will die, of course. . . . . But given a positive and determined spirit and the right diet, exercise, and spiritual practice, it will always be out there in the future; never a current reality. And even when my final illness arrives, I – steeped in the culture’s “compete and win” worldview – will “beat” my cancer, heart disease, or dementia.”

Rejecting this approach is essential, not because of its irrationality but, instead, because, engaging in this reality denying shell game, we lose sight of the love and solidarity that is our birthright.

Here is how the process works.

Implicitly making myself an exception to life’s unalterable rules, I will necessarily separate myself from the great majority of other humans. After all, we can’t all be exceptions. I will, instead, seek out the handful of others who, in my (mistaken) view, share my exceptional path – and turn away from the solidarity, mutual understanding, and love that I could otherwise so easily and naturally share with the multitude of others, who aren’t exceptional.

Sadly, however, since the relationships I build with the few I chose will be based on this ultimately unsustainable myth of exceptionalism they will, in all likelihood, fail me in my times of greatest need. They will instinctually distance themselves from this searing reminder of their own vulnerability. And in any event – through a life-time of denial and avoidance – they will lack the ability to effectively be with me.

In other words, embracing the mainstream culture’s dance of denial, my access to the nourishment and love of others will be deeply diminished.

Another important consequence of our “compete and win” way of living is the deficit mentality it fosters when it comes to our relationships. How sadly commonplace is it to hear someone complain that his grown children don’t call often enough – or that his spouse paid more attention to a dinner companion than to him – or that a co-worker got more credit for the success of the project?

In each case, the person’s win/lose mindset has eclipsed the fact that he is a dearly loved parent and spouse, and valued employee. With perceived losses as his obsessive focus, he has forfeited the comfort that would otherwise flow from the love and respect that is the larger, overarching reality in each of these relationships; the love that is his birthright.

Note, importantly, that weaning yourself from these mainstream mindsets does not mean that everyone will love you – or vice versa. You will, of course, continue to run in to many people who are uninterested in, or react badly, to you – and vice versa. However, knowing how strong our affiliative instincts are, you can interact with others certain in knowledge that you are inherently lovable and that, as a result, there is an excess of appreciation and love, out there for you, if not from this particular person, then, from many others.

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Avoiding the outcomes, described above, requires a decisive shift away from our mainstream ways. And Radical Decency provides a vital pathway toward that goal. As your decency practice deepens, your focus will necessarily shift from “compete and win ” to a habit of mind that I call “possibility and process”: An increasing pre-occupation with (1) an unfolding vision of the “decent” life you seek to live, and (2) the choices you will need to make, to make that vision an increasing day by day, moment by moment reality.

With this shift, good outcomes will no longer be your central pre-occupation. They will, instead, be seen more and more as a by-product of your intention (possibility) and choices (process); something to notice and learn from, certainly, but not to get overly invested in.

And as your need to win – and, with it, to dominate and control – diminishes, so too will your compulsion to push life’s existential realities to the margins of your awareness. You will be empowered to fully accept your fate and that of your fellow humans with increasing empathy and equanimity.

The end result?

With nothing to distract you from your birthright, there will be a natural and deepening reconnection with the love that can so naturally flow between you and others by the very fact of your humanity. And if my experience is a reliable guide, the gratitude you feel for the depth of love that is yours will grow and grow.

The simple fact that “I am loved” will, increasingly, become a settled reality in your life.

Reflection 84: Loving Intimacy — The 4 Voices

A husband and wife are lying in bed. She says, with some tension in her voice:

“You work too much. You’re always busy and pre-occupied. I want you to spend more time with me.”

His reply, laced with barely suppressed annoyance and impatience:

“That’s just the kind of business I’m in. There’s nothing I can do about it. Give me a break”

What happens next? They retreat into a silence that leaves both of them bruised and disconnected. Or, a fight ensues in which the partners, with increasing shrillness, reiterate their positions – with an equally unsatisfactory ending.

In this, and so many other moments like it, each partner longs for intimacy: To be seen, heard, valued, and met. But, sadly, the goal seems hopelessly out of reach. These unsatisfactory incidents continue to accumulate. The years slip by.

In this Reflection, I offer a model for transforming these moments and, with it, our intimate romantic relationships.

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The man and woman in our example think that they are 2 adults, engaging in a fight. But that is almost never the case.

The reason? Romantic love is not, at bottom, about finding a good companion: Someone who, like you, loves tennis, Mexican food, and travel to exotic places.

To the contrary, it is nature’s plan for bringing you together with a person who has the blueprint for (1) healing your childhood wounds, and (2) growing you into the emotionally masterful adult you are capable of becoming.

Here’s how it works.

When our couple met, the woman was irresistibly drawn to this man, not because was the smartest or best looking, but instead because she instinctually associated him with the people who raised her. And with that association came the unconscious fantasy of a relationship that would recreate the formative wounding scenarios from her childhood and, crucially, offer the possibility of a different ending.

In her instinctual brain, this man held the “promise” of recreating the painful dance with her distant, preoccupied father and, with it, the hope that her father (emotionally embodied in her new partner) would grow into the loving, attentive father she longed for.

This is the “bam” that she – and the rest of us – feel when we fall in love.

And, of course, in their coming together, the man is doing the same thing in reverse, instinctually enlisting her in his formative, childhood wound: An overly involved mother who implicitly demanded perfection and regularly crossed his boundaries.

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Formative childhood wounds come on line when we are very young and, by their nature, are more than our still developing emotional and cognitive systems can handle. For this reason, they are encoded in the fight or flight part of our brain.

Understanding this fact – and its implications – is crucial if we hope to fundamentally alter the course of our hypothetical couple’s bedtime conversation.

Because fight/flight is our survival brain, it has a number of unique qualities.

  1. Since we need it – RIGHT NOW, WHEN DANGER POPS UP – it is fast, very fast, 10 times faster than our thinking brain; and
  2. It is more powerful than our thinking brain, only going off line when IT decides that the danger has past; a reality we all experience when try, in vain, “just stop” being anxious or angry; and
  3. It is highly infectious, almost invariably provoking a fight/flight response from the person to whom it is directed.

Finally, our fight/flight brain experiences time in a very different way. Designed to ensure survival, it never forgets, reacting quickly and decisively a crouching tiger just as we did 5, 15 or 30 years earlier. For it time, stands still (hence the reaction of PTSD sufferers).

So when our couple interacts in a tense moment there are, unbeknownst to them, 4 voices jostling for airtime:

  1. Her progressed, rational, adult voice;
  2. The fight or flight voice of her childhood wound, ever ready to be activated when this most important – and therefore potentially highly dangerous – person, she is in bed with, triggers her into the traumatic pattern that was her painful reality with her distant, pre-occupied father;
  3. His progressed voice; and
  4. The fight or flight voice of his childhood wound.

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Lying in bed, here is what’s happening.

When she says, “you’re preoccupied and overly focused on work, I want more of your time” she thinks she is making a rational, emotionally unexceptional request. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact her child has co-opted her “adult’” voice. Behind her quiet, measured tone is a wounded child screaming for daddy’s attention.

And because we are so instinctually attuned to each other’s emotions he, sensing the “fight or flight” urgency behind her words, is (infectiously) triggered into his own childhood wound, reacting with annoyance and impatience, hallmarks of a “fight” reaction. This, in turn, triggers an escalated fight or flight reaction in her, followed by his further escalated response, and so on, until they each retreat into their stalemated and painful neutral corners.

If our couple fully understood the 4 voices, however, think how different their bedtime talk might be.

Step 1 (Her):Understanding the emotional link between her father and husband, she might lead, not with a demand for different behavior, but instead with an acknowledgment of the pain she feels when disconnected from her husband: “When you get busy and pre-occupied at work, I feel sad and alone.”

Step 2 (Him): Equally aware of her childhood wound – and his – he might: (1) Enlist his progressed self to manage and soothe his wounded child’s instinctual reaction – triggered by the emotionally embedded memory of his over bearing, demanding mother; and, then, able to stay in his progressed, adult brain, (2) forego the need to defend and counterattack – simply acknowledging her pain instead.

Step 3 (Her): With her childhood brain soothed and quieted by his acknowledgment of its pain (and very existence), she would then be able to reach for a response that, like his, comes not from her wounded child but from her progressed, adult brain: “Your understanding how emotionally loaded this subject is for me means a lot. I imagine its tough for you as well.”

Step 4 (Both): With their childhood wounds acknowledged and under control, they would both be able to problem-solve as progressed adults – tending, always, to their core emotional wounds as well as to the important practical issues that need to be dealt with.

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In seeking to deal with the 4 voices, a key point to remember is this: In the course of any discussion, there are many moments in which one partner or the other can veer away from the old pattern.

So, for example, if our hypothetical husband reacted to his wife’s initial comment with unvarnished reactivity, she could still take the lead at that later point in the conversation, foregoing her instinct to push harder for an acknowledgment of her demand, moving instead to a place of sensitivity toward his childhood wound: “I know the pressure you’re under. Thanks for listening.”

This last point is especially important. The work involved in acknowledging and accommodating the 4 voices is difficult. It requires sustained clarity and persistence since we need to both (1) wean our selves from our culturally engrained ways of interacting and, at the same time, (2) work to rein in the daunting, biologically wired power of our fight/flight brain. For this reason, we need to be forgiving when our partner (or we) falls short, and be ever ready to be the one who takes the lead.

Finally, we need to remember – always – that while the work is hard, the potential pay-off for you and your partner, in doing the work, is truly life altering.

Reflection 83: Listening to the “Bad” Guys

The author of this Reflection is my son, Jeremy Garson, a Millennial born in 1987. Jeremy is an associate with the Washington, D.C. law firm, Woodley & McGillivary LLP, a union side labor law firm, currently on assignment with the International Association of Fire Fighters. He is an occasional contributor to the Reflection series. See, also, Reflection 71, Dad As An Exception, and Reflection 86, Having Confidence You’re Average.

You can direct comments and reactions to Jeremy at jeremy.garson@gmail.com.

Listening to the “Bad” Guys

I am a Millennial, and like many Millennials, I spend a decent amount of time on YouTube. I rarely record videos. Instead, I like following certain “channels” that are funny, interesting, etc. One of the channels I have followed for awhile now belongs to a young man who calls himself Captain Sparklez.

Captain Sparklez is in his early 20’s and has made a name by recording himself playing online games. It may seem like a weird idea to watch other people playing games (though I have enjoyed doing this since I was young), but that’s a discussion for another day. What’s important is that most of these games are adversarial. Sparklez is playing against other people and trying to defeat them.

Last night, I watched Sparklez play in the championship game of a “Team Fortress” tournament. Team Fortress is basically a five-on-five cartoonish war game where each player is a soldier character and the two teams try to destroy each other. In this particular tournament, the first team to win seven games won the match.

As a fan of Sparklez, I was naturally rooting for his team to win. The other team was named “7-0” (implying that they wouldn’t lose a single game), and I took that as a sign of arrogance. I watched from Sparklez’ perspective as they slowly, but methodically, pulled out a 7-5 victory. Sparklez and his teammates would comment on the other team’s strategies and try to counteract them. The other team seemed calculating to me. I made up during the course of the match that they had a specific game plan in mind for each round, and that Team Sparklez was the underdog trying to find weaknesses. In the end, the good guys won and all was well.

Out of curiosity, however, I looked at the description under the video and saw that Captain Sparklez had posted a link to “the other team’s perspective.” I had just watched the entire match, so I already knew the outcome. But I was interested to see how it played out for the “other team.” So I clicked.

It turned out that the “other team” hadn’t actually intended for their name to be “7-0.” Additionally, one of their players was having trouble with the controls. They talked about strategy somewhat, but not much. In fact, most of their discussion was focused on Team Sparklez’ strategy.

What was most interesting to me, though, was my visceral reaction to the video. While I wasn’t rooting for them to win (I already knew the outcome and still like Sparklez), I did sympathize with them when things went bad, and I enjoyed watching them keep things competitive. In other words, the perspective switch led to a very real emotional switch as well. They were no longer “the bad guys” but, simply, another team of 20-somethings trying to win a video game.

This type of perspective switch is – in theory – relatively easy to achieve in the modern world, including in the political arena. Turn on the TV and you can watch Fox News or MSNBC. Go to a newspaper stand and you will have the choice of the Washington Post or Washington Times. Go on the Internet and you will have an almost unlimited selection of perspectives on all topics.

However, it seems like people rarely take advantage. Either they only pay attention to their preferred provider, or they selectively listen to the other side’s most “offensive” comments.

This latter strategy is especially ineffective for achieving a true perspective switch. Most people are reasonable most of the time. However, if you put a camera and mike on a person every day, they will eventually say something stupid. It doesn’t mean they don’t hold that opinion, but it’s not their entire story. Unfortunately, my Facebook newsfeed is often filled with liberal and conservative friends posting articles about some stupid thing that a conservative or liberal commentator said recently (and not just a Millennial!).

Those articles make the “other side” seem stupid, ignorant, full of bad intention, and [insert other negative adjective]. While certain commentators do seem to be actual morons, most are likely decent people who just happen to have different opinions on a few select topics.

The problem: Understanding people takes time, especially when you disagree with them on issues that are important to you (unlike computer games). While the information age has made the other perspective available to us easily and quickly, we still only have 24 hours in a day.

As any adult knows (and as I’m learning very quickly), time is a precious commodity. Therefore, when given the chance to listen to somebody with whom you vehemently disagree or do something that is either necessary or gives you pleasure, the logical thing to do is not to listen. It makes perfect sense. Why waste your time on some jackass who is going to give you heartburn when there is no immediate payoff?

So how do we solve this dilemma? We know it has to be solved – at least to some extent – because the problems we face in this world are too large to confront without cooperation, and cooperation requires understanding. A large part of the solution lies within the confines of Radical Decency and specifically relates to the need to treat others decently.

As my father has said, understanding and decency goes hand-in-hand. If you refuse to listen to me, that is being indecent. You don’t have to agree with what I’m saying, but I expect you to hear me out. Unfortunately, for the reasons outlined above, it’s very easy to pay lip service to this mandate. It’s not listening if you are preparing your counter-points while I’m still talking. It’s also not listening to take a single thing I said out of context and blast me for it.

Instead, listening is to see the world from another’s point of view. When I watched Team Sibby (Captain Sparklez’ opponent), I heard their thought process in each battle and I watched the battle take place from their perspective. While I still don’t know Sibby very well, I took 20 minutes to view him as he chose to be viewed – and without responding.

I do the same thing when I listen to my conservative friends talk politics (or at least I try to). I get a feel for their value system and I ask them questions to translate their perspective into something that I can comprehend. I often get upset, but I try my damndest to find the bedrock principles that form the foundation of their philosophy, because I usually have a shared value system to some significant extent.

When a friend tells me that welfare makes people lazy (I have had these conversations), I don’t accuse them of hating poor people. Instead, I ask them what they mean and what they would propose doing differently. I find out that they want a system that incentivizes people to contribute to society, which I think most people would agree is a great goal. I may not agree with the approach they would take, but that isn’t the point. The point is understanding – which can lead to cooperation.

As I wind my way through this Reflection, I realize that the best solution has nothing to do with listening to the Rachel Maddows or Bill O’Reillys of the world. Those people are on the air as personalities to sell and market, which isn’t a bad thing (it is their job). Instead, engage with your friends and/or family members that you disagree with. Find out what makes them tick without trying to convert them. Pretend that, like me, you are watching them on a YouTube channel. Try to see the world as they see it. Ask them where they got their information so that you can look at it yourself.

I promise you this will be difficult. If you are like me, you will begin to have a visceral reaction if you truly disagree with the person and you will want to respond. But don’t. Let the person explain where their head is and only ask questions to clarify what they mean.

If you do this, not only will you be able to strengthen your point of view (because you will learn the other side’s arguments and values), but – and MUCH more importantly – your relationship with the person will be strengthened. It is a compliment to hear somebody and respect them enough to take the time, effort, and patience to understand them. And once you do, they may be more willing to listen to and understand you, which, as mentioned before, can lead to cooperation.

This, then, is the overarching message of this piece: Cooperation STARTS WITH YOU. Don’t expect people to come to you because your side is more logical. First, listen. Second, understand. Third, show them you understand. Only at that point can cooperation begin. Otherwise, you are just watching your own YouTube channel, and that’s going to get repetitive very quickly.

Reflection 82: Intimacy — Not Changing the Subject

Make no mistake about it. The mainstream culture’s way out of balance emphasis on the values I call “compete and win, dominate and control” thoroughly infiltrates our most intimate relationships.

At one level, this reality is reasonably well acknowledged, with most of us recognizing its manifestation in patriarchal patterns or in highly conflictual, “War of the Roses” type relationships. But the infiltration of compete and win values into our intimate relationships, go far deeper than is commonly recognized.

This Reflection provides a key example, examining:

  • Our culturally reinforced habit of reflexively changing the subject, even in our intimate conversations;
  • The price we pay as a result; and
  • The powerful positive effects that result when we commit ourselves to breaking this unfortunate habit.

Despite years of work with couples – and on my own marriage – this congenital “change the subject” reality never occurred to me until recently. The reason, I think, is because of our deep, culture-wide confusion about what intimate relationship is all about; a confusion that, not surprisingly, has slowed my own growth since, as one of my formative teachers, Vikki Reynolds, once memorably said, “we are all in the dirty bathtub.”

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Intimate relationships are different – very different – from the more “strategic” relationships that are the norm “out there, in the real world.” See Reflection #44, Intimate vs. Strategic Relationships.

In a typical strategic interaction, a department head convenes a staff meeting at 1 pm and a vigorous exchange ensues. Now, at 2:59, the department head ends the discussion, makes her decision, and the rest of the staff is expected to fall in line.

In an intimate interaction, by contrast, a husband and wife sit down at 1 p.m. to discuss where to send their son to school. Now, at 2:59, with no meeting of the minds, what happens? The decision is deferred. The couple keeps talking.

The difference? The priority, in the first scenario, is on achieving a goal – getting something done. And the relationship is authoritarian: What the boss says goes. For these reasons, it is fully in tune with the culture’s predominant compete and win values.

The second scenario, however, is very different. Here, the highest priority is on the relationship itself, on creating and maintaining an empathic, loving relationship. And there is no boss, no subordinate, no winners, no losers. In other words, done right, an intimate relationship is antithetical to and, ultiumately, deeply subversive of the culture’s predominant values.

Unfortunately, high schools and colleges don’t teach us how to conduct the intimate relationships around which most all of us organize our lives, focusing instead on what they (presumably) see as the more important stuff. And so, expected to “just know” how to do it, we seldom reflect on how different our intimate relationships are from our other, “out there, in the real world” relationships – or on the implications of those differences.

The result? We muddle through. And muddling through, we import into our interactions with our loved ones the compete and win values in which, living in our culture, we are so deeply immersed.

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One very pertinent example of this phenomenon is our tendency, even in our most intimate relationships, to change the subject, quickly and repeatedly; a habit of mind that, because it is so engrained in our taken for granted ways of being, more typically operates entirely outside our awareness.

To illustrate, consider the following hypothetical keeping in mind that, while I am dealing with a married couple, the principles I describe are applicable in any intimate relationship.

A woman comes home after a busy day at work and, noticing the dirty breakfast dishes, still in the sink, says to her partner in an irritated voice: “Why can’t you clean the dishes?”

Here are some of the typical responses that have been reported, over and over again, by women in my practice (and, regrettably, have come out of my own mouth as well):

  • “Those aren’t my dishes. I cleaned mine”; or
  • “Its no big deal. Why do you have to criticize me?”; or
  • “You’re one to talk, how many times have I had to clean up your messes”; or
  • With body language that reeks of annoyance, silent attendance to the chore.

And, needless to say, similar scenarios regularly unfold in reverse as well, with the woman in the reactive role.

With a moment’s reflection, most of us will realize that these responses are unlikely to promote loving interactions as the evening proceeds. But few of us understand the fundamental trap that we have fallen into: We have unwittingly replicated the culture’s compete and win values in this, their most intimate relationship.

Here’s how.

The woman’s irritation brings with it an implicit assertion of domination and control. And he, rising to this provocation, seeks to turn back her perceived bid for control by:

  • Avoiding responsibility (responses 1 and 2);
  • Invalidating her right to feel the way she does (response 3); or
  • Signaling a refusal to submit with reluctant compliance (response 4).

In an intimate relationship, the ultimate goal is not to dominate, control, or win. It is, instead, to create nourishing and mutually supportive intimacy; that is, to fully see your partner and to be fully seen; to have all that you are, lovingly held by your partner (and vice versa).

In furtherance of this goal, your initial, highest priority as you talk with your partner should be on taking in all that he or she is saying – that is, on listening. And this understanding leads directly to this simple, but vital guideline:

When he or she speaks, never change the subject.

Instead, stick to the issue your partner raises – in our example, getting the morning dishes cleaned. Listen fully. And, importantly, let your partner know that he or she has been fully heard. Then, and only then, think about adding a thought of your own (and then, perhaps, if the issue is a sensitive one, only after you have asked if a change of subject is ok).

So, while a mea culpa (“I’m sorry”) or the offer of corrective action (“I’ll to get them right away”) would certainly be constructive, the essence of the “never change the subject” is this simple statement: “You’re right, I didn’t get to them.”

Note, moreover, that this directive needs to be applied especially when your partner’s words are somewhat provocative, as in our example. Doing so offers the prospect of a meaningful healing moment for your partner since, underneath her annoyance, is almost always a deeper emotional wound – fear of not being appreciated, seen, or heard by you, a panicky sense that with so many things to do she’s losing control, etc.

What is so cool about this “don’t change the subject” guideline is that, as the listener, you don’t have to analyze or, even, understand your partner’s deeper emotions. All you have to do is give yourself over, fully and warmly, to the issue your partner has raised trusting that, in making that choice, you are likely to be soothing his or her deeper needs and longings.

On the flip side, notice how the more typical compete and win reactions, outlined in our example, are the very opposite of our “never change the topic” injunction. Instead of discussing the issue she has raised, the partner in our example shifts to another topic entirely, by either:

  • Talking about what he did that morning (response 1):
  • Critiquing her current behavior (responses 2 and 3): or
  • Trumping her subject of choice by raising (nonverbally) a topic of his own, namely his annoyance with her (response 4).

So, the good news about “never change the subject” is that it does double duty:

  1. Firmly redirecting us toward a more intimate way of relating to our partner; and, at the same time,
  2. Pulling us decisively away from problematic behaviors that our mainstream habits of mind can so easily evoke.

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In closing, here are a few caveats to keep in mind as you apply this guideline.

First, “never change the subject” works best when it isn’t deployed in a tit for tat way; that is, where your willingness to persist is not dependent on your partner doing so in return. On the other hand, intimate relationships thrive on mutuality. So if your partner in intimacy persists in this (and, possibly, other) behaviors that are destructive of intimacy, you may need to rethink, not the wisdom of the injunction but, rather, the wisdom of pursuing deeper levels of intimacy with this person.

Remember, also, that “never change the subject” is not a magic cure for all that ails our intimate relationships. To the contrary, it needs to be appropriately applied in a complex context that includes many other important considerations.

This qualifier is especially true when it comes to the choices women make in their relationships with men. While we have made important strides when it comes to patriarchy, these patterns – themselves an important manifestation of our culture’s compete and win mindset – remain deeply imbedded in our relationships.

For this reason, if a man’s commitment to “never change the subject” is tepid or non-existent, a woman’s unilateral persistence may simply enable his patriarchal ways. At that point, others strategies or, even, a re-evaluation of the relationship may be called for. For a more general discussion of this vitally important topic, see Reflection #61 Woman, Boundaries, and Sex; and Reflection #69, Moving Beyond Patriarchy.

More broadly, intimacy works best when what I call the four pillars of a successful relationship are in place: (1) trust, (2) shared values, (3) a priority commitment to your self and your partner, and (4) an ability and willingness to work on the relationship. Reflection #33 Couples Work – What It Is, Why It’s Important. Limitations in one or more of these areas will, in turn, qualify the ability of a couple to follow through on this “never change the subject” guideline or, if they do, to reap its rewards.