A Brave and Startling Truth

Happy New Year to all! This post focuses on an excerpt from the stunning poem by Maya Angelou called “A Brave and Startling Truth.” If you haven’t seen my card, you might want to look at it now……

I am always moved to tears when I read this poem or hear it read. I chose it this year because of its magnitude and profundity.

Over time, it has seemed to me that acts of hate arise from fear. We are fearful of people and practices and beliefs that are unfamiliar. Differences pose a threat to our accustomed way of life; differences challenge us to examine our beliefs and values and/or cause us to question ourselves or our upbringing.

Our world is so huge and so complex. And as we get more and more connected through technology we realize how we humans, across geography, economies, cultures, religions and beliefs, have concerns that are similar across the human condition as well as ones that are vastly different.

This poem (read the whole poem if you can; it is beautiful) speaks to this complexity. We are capable of heinous acts; and we are capable of truly amazing innovations and creations and deep love, care and community.

Angelou says (paraphrased): When we come to it, we will realize that we are the possible, we have the power to create a world of peace and compassion, we are the true wonder of the world.

What does “when we come to it” mean? To me, it means that we have not yet taken up our responsibility individually or as a world community to act with respect and grace to others who may have different beliefs from ours. This year, the post-election environment has been fraught with disrespect, even violence. It requires courage to disagree respectfully, to argue and still maintain relationship, to sustain a dialogue instead of shouting, leaving a conversation or resorting to violence. We humans are strong and resilient but we are also fragile and vulnerable. Violence results in trauma for everyone involved and/or everyone who witnesses, directly or indirectly. Continued violence and trauma produce a vicious cycle that wounds and cripples our collective human community.

So what does all this mean for leaders of organizations? Leaders have the opportunity to create an environment, in the organizations they lead, that promotes compassion and respect and steers away from violence. In this age of technology when so much interaction is remote and digital, organizations are one of the few places where people come together to interact in person. We bring to our interactions our experiences, our fears, our traumas. If we can have civil dialogue about the issues that matter to us, we can begin to heal divides and create understanding. Why do it? Well, aside from the belief that I hold, which is that it is the right thing to do, there are several business reasons:

  1. People will accomplish more and achieve greater goals if they are in an environment where they are respected and valued for who they are, what they believe and their unique strengths and talents.
  2. Workers doing their best work ensures a better product, whether in private industry or in a human services not-for-profit.
  3. In times characterized by so many different technological, economic and social changes, innovation is needed from all levels of an organization. It is a benefit to a business as a whole to have everyone’s best thinking in the mix. And, back to number 1 in this list: people do their best thinking when they are treated with compassion and respect. (Another resource to check out is “Introduction to the Thinking Environment”, by Nancy Kline.)

What are some ways to do this?

  1. Acknowledge that there are inevitably differences among the people in your workplace and make it clear that your workplace encourages different beliefs, strengths and values.
  2. Be a model for listening intently in order to really understand what others care about; ask appreciative questions about the wish under the feeling. What are people yearning for?
  3. Actively promote, teach and train respect and compassion: what does it look like? How do other cultures interpret the words? How should people of different cultures talk to one another? We all need training to help us enter into dialogue with people who are different from us. We are not taught how to do this as children.
  4. Set up dialogue sessions related to the work at hand. I am not suggesting that workplaces become devoted to teaching across cultures per se; I am suggesting, however, that different views and perspectives arise in all sorts of situations. Starting with the tasks at hand in the work gives everyone a common place to begin.

As I said this fall to some of you in an email, I may be completely naïve, but I do believe that for the most part, we all overwhelmingly want others to understand us, respect us and treat us fairly; and that given the right circumstances, we will happily drop contention in favor of coming together … when we come to it. Hopefully, very soon.


Martha Lask’s Blog

Occasional musings about books, articles or tools that might be of interest; I welcome your comments.

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