We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Two hundred forty-four years ago this declaration was made and our country was launched. This was not a statement describing the way things were at the time, but a declaration of a future state that we have been striving (imperfectly) to live up to ever since.
The killing of George Floyd has brought the issue of racial inequality to the forefront yet again… but this time in such graphic, horrifying images that it has evoked a variety of very strong emotional reactions; rage, fear, shame and defensiveness among them. We cannot just sweep it under the rug this time and go on with our lives. This time feels different.
In our last article on this subject, we asserted that the vast majority of our population is not overtly, consciously racist, but that we have unconscious biases, and that we are not consciously aware of how other people are treated by some today.
When Barack Obama brought the subject of racism to the forefront, frankly, I (Brad) dismissed it. Even today, many are dismissing the killing of George Floyd as an isolated instance… But recently, I have listened to stories from friends and clients that I am shocked and appalled by. Stories that I previously was not listening for… A black CEO of a nationally renowned engineering firm who is actively afraid when he sees a police officer in his rearview mirror. A CFO who as a kid in the 80’s was called the “N” word by three of his teachers. A CEO of a large non-profit who told her kids not to drive through certain suburbs of Detroit, the ones that I lived in. And she told me “I have just accepted that’s just the way it is.” A friend just told me, “I just accept that things are run by white people, and I have nothing to say about it.”
People are now talking more openly about these instances than ever before, with members of the “other race.” But… how many people are listening? I mean listening with the intention of really understanding the experience of the speaker, instead of listening with the (usually unconscious) intent of disputing the other.
Human Beings suck at listening. Much of our work with Organizational leaders boils down to teaching them to “first seek to understand”, rather than argue, disengage, gossip, create divisive personal alliances; all the things humans do when our beliefs are threatened. This simple mechanism is the root cause of the current polarization in our society. The issue of race is but the latest, and maybe most destructive, example of polarizing subjects: politics, immigration, health care, covid… the list goes on and on.
The media and social media gets blamed for this polarization, and certainly they exacerbate the situation, but they are merely good at making a living by appealing to the human need to be RIGHT and to judge others who disagree with us as WRONG. Dismissing those WRONG opinions and the people who espouse them leaves us unable to learn, unable to become conscious of anything we don’t already know.
Peter Senge, in The Preface to “Bohm on Dialogue”, states:
Our habits are so strong to defend our view, to agree with views that correspond with our own and to disagree with those that differ, that simply allowing diverse views to stand can be almost impossibly difficult. ‘The thing that mostly gets in the way of dialogue,’ he says, ‘is holding to assumptions and opinions and defending them.’ This instinct to judge and defend, embedded in the self-defense mechanisms of our biological heritage, is the source of incoherence.”
This instinct is, not the source, but the guardian of our unconscious bias in all its forms. It is also the source of personal obsolescence (a subject for another day), polarization and violence, which we resort to when words fail us, because we don’t listen.
Unless we learn to set aside our unconscious drive to be right, we will never learn to listen and never reveal our unconscious racial biases, or any other unconscious bias or perception. I saw a great quote, on social media, ironically:
“You are not responsible for the programming you picked up in the “download years” of your childhood, but you are 100% responsible for installing the upgrades.”
We have a simple, but not easy, choice. We can either defend our “programming” or we can learn to be open to understanding the upgrades and choosing which ones to install. Our whole business is helping leaders generate and install upgrades. Not just intellectual understandings, that can be had from any book, podcast, etc., but the ability and propensity to put the upgrades into action… to “install them” in their emotional mind and thus reprogram themselves. In order to be effective at this, we always have to generate a breakthrough in their ability to really listen… if we generate this breakthrough, we are always successful, if not, the entire project fails.
Returning to the issue of race; in the conversations with black friends and clients I referred to above, I became aware that I am afraid of black people. I’ve not been consciously aware of this fear up till now, but I see that this fear has kept me from really engaging with black people, especially black men. It is clear to me where this fear came from: The experiences I had as a 12-year-old returning from summer camp to Detroit, in the midst of the ’67 riots, hearing and seeing press reports of snipers shooting and fires burning.
So, I have a choice; I can defend my programming with that story, or I can realize that it is not 1967, I am not 12, and that although that fear may have served me then (I laid down on the bus seat to avoid the possibility of flying bullets), generalizing that fear to all black people and holding on to it in 2020 is completely illogical, divisive and in conflict with my values.
I believe we now have an opportunity to create the next major breakthrough in race relations. Whether we have that breakthrough, or this gets added to the already too long list of polarizing, issues that divide and weaken us as a people, will depend on whether we are willing to learn to listen.
If we do, we will take a huge step toward creating a more perfect union.
Webinar | Courageous Conversations: Talking about Race
People are now talking more openly about race. And many of us are doing so with members of the “other race” more so than ever before. But… how many people are listening with the intention of really understanding the experience of the speaker?
The bad news is that humans tend to listen with the intent of either 1) finding ideas that agree with our own or 2) listening just long enough so we can dispute what the other person says.
Human nature contains a need to be RIGHT and to judge others who disagree with us as WRONG. Dismissing those WRONG opinions and the people who espouse them leaves both parties frustrated, defensive and angry. So, we avoid the conversations.
The good news is that this behavior is mostly unconscious. There is a better way. In this webinar, we will explore:
Methods to facilitate courageous conversations in your workplace.
Specific approaches to help people learn to listen and create mutual understanding.