How I responded: What I did, and what I should have done
Earlier this month I participated in a management and leadership conference entitled, “…on microaggressions, bias and next steps.” The group was comprised of CEO’s, owners, and other decision-makers who are responsible for the culture and overall functionality of small to medium size firms.
We were discussing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) issues from a management and implementation perspective. The participants were highly successful, embraced DEI and were eager to find optimal methodologies for implementation, as we all recognize the value of open, diverse, and inclusive organizations and cultures.
We worked to define what a microaggression was, if they change over time, and how an organization can hold people to a common standard of mutual respect.
Being the founder of The Alternative Response Method and author of the book The Art of Quality Decision-Making, I offered a story of how I chose to respond to a situation.
The Phone Call
About 8 years ago I was on a call with a good work friend. He owned a small firm and while we weren’t friends outside of a work context, we were close otherwise. I knew of his daughters (he has two, I have three), and we would talk often of the challenges, and blessings, associated with them.
One day he was telling me about a project when he said, “He tried to Jew me down” in describing someone trying to get my friend to lower his fee. I explained to the group that I smiled to myself, thinking how horrified he would be if he realized what he had just said, knowing that I was Jewish.
I chose not to mention it as the phrase simply didn’t bother me. I knew he was a person of good character, not racist, bigoted, or antisemitic.
I explained to the group that one of the fundamental concepts within The Alternative Response Method, is that we get to choose how we respond to challenges.
Later that week he realized what he said, and called and apologized profusely. He was mortified and terribly embarrassed.
When I shared my story with the group, I was surprised when I was called out by a number of individuals, some exceptionally harshly, who said how I responded was wrong.
Surprising responses to what I considered a kind act
Here is one such response:
“I would challenge you to reflect on why your instinct in the scenario you described was to save him from embarrassment instead of calling it out? Would you ask employees with target identities to laugh off or assume good intent the next time this person uses a turn of phrase that (willful or not) demeans part of their identity? If not, what can you do to make calling this type of behavior out part of your normal, day-to-day communication?”
My response was twofold and simple: First, in asking why I didn’t call him out, I said, “I simply chose to be kind. It was true, I didn’t want to embarrass him. But it was also equally true that I was simply not offended.”* Second, I pointed out that I was not asking or suggesting that anyone “laugh off” anything. I was simply sharing a true story of how one can choose to respond if one wishes to.
However, in a variety of follow-up conversations, and when sharing this story with others, I realized that I had, in fact, missed the mark – but not in the way you might think.
I should have mentioned it to my friend, in the moment, as a kindness and service to him. I knew he had not meant it, but I should have mentioned it so that he would be conscious about removing the phrase from his vocabulary
A simple comment such as, “John, I know you meant no harm, but do you realize what you just said?” would have done the trick.
My response would have minimized his embarrassment, and, more importantly, helped him to be more intentional about removing the phrase from his vocabulary, which I know he would have appreciated.
Which brings me to the concept I call:
A Preponderance of Kindness
We all know what kindness means, and preponderance has a very subtle definition. A typical definition is “superiority in weight or significance,” and a typical sentence might read, “the preponderance of evidence indicates that global warming is true.”
However, I like the word broken down:
Ponderance comes from the word ponder, or to think. And pre, simply means, before.
So, a Preponderance of Kindness simply means that the first instinct, the first response to a situation, the first inclination, thought, tendency and action, should be towards one of kindness.
Instead, however, I have found that in many instances, our world is filled with a preponderance of anger, judgement, accusation, and mistrust, which is how many people responded to my well-intended act of kindness of not bringing it up to John.
There are those who “admonished” me in a supportive and patient manner, and some more harshly. I was appreciative of both and not offended by either.
Is our goal to “scold” or “mold” when correcting someone?
I remain, however, steadfast in my belief that the world would be a better place if our first inclination was to respond with a Preponderance of Kindness. If someone cuts you off while driving, instead of becoming enraged think, perhaps, that they are on the way to the hospital or just received some terrible news.
I recall a quote from Ruth Bader Ginsberg: “Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade. Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
What fear, risk or harm is there to us to think, first and foremost, of being kind? What has happened to giving people the benefit of the doubt? To embolden ourselves so that we are not so easily damaged by the mistakes and of well-intended people.
Have we come to a place where nerves are so raw, backbones so weak, and hearts so bruised that we are so easily injured by the misspoken word of others? Particularly when those others are well-intended and ignorant of what they have said?
These are not rhetorical questions. I really want to know.
At the fundamental core of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is the power of discussion. I encourage you to bring this, and other, topics up with friends, family and work-folk, and I would like to hear your thoughts.
Some conversation starters:
- Does intent matter in these instances?
- What determines how and when we speak up?
- When we do speak up, is our intent to “scold” someone for what they’ve said, or, per the Ginsberg quote above, try and “mold” them and their behavior? Perhaps educate and enlighten?
- Another quote (I love me my quotes!) comes to mind from Nelson Mandela: “I believe that in the end it is kindness and generous accommodation that are the catalysts for real change.”
- Does Preponderance of Kindness matter when responding? If so, when, and when not?
- Is there any value to making ourselves more resilient and less easily offended?
Let’s make this a dialogue so we can work together to make the world just a little bit better one decision at a time. These blogs are 100% for your benefit. Please shoot me an email or share your thoughts below.
Stay tuned for next-week’s fourth part of our five-part series on How We Do Hard:
*THE POWER OF HANLON’S RAZOR: Many people have asked, some have aggressively challenged, as to how I could possibly have not gotten upset with the phrase “Jew me down.” When I developed The Alternative Response Method, I recognized that in order for people to be able to make optimal decisions, particularly in challenging, stress-filled situations, they must learn to remain calm. No matter what. Hanlon’s Razor is one of the tools on my “being calm” flipchart and goes like this: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by ignorance.” The real quote uses “stupidity” which I’ve replaced with “ignorance,” which, in my mind, is a kinder interpretation of the Razor. I hope you’ll join me next week as we further explore this decision-making power tool. (PS – For more on flip charting, download this free sample chapter from my book, The Art of Quality Decision-Making.)