Mending Division in Your Leadership World


Read if there is division in your world.  If not, skip it.

Two stories. 4 points of view. Please see if you can withhold judgment.

Story 1.

A dear mentee and friend.  He’d spent more than a handful of years in prison for a crime he committed as a teen.  He’s an inspiration to me.  He was pulled over a few weeks ago.  He’s nearly a foot taller than me.  Black.  Police officer asked for his license and insurance.  They checked out and he returned them. Did not explain why he’d pulled my friend over.  My friend said, “Thank you, officer. Be safe out there.” The office said back quickly, “What did you say?”  My friend replied, “I said, ‘Be safe out there.'”

My friend said he perceived that the police officer thought it was a veiled threat. “Dan,” he said, “One thing I learned in prison is that law enforcement officers have a dangerous job. That’s all I was saying, ‘Be safe!‘”  Fortunately, the incident ended there.

One story. Agreed upon words. Different perspectives. Wildly different presumed intent.  Also, different power relationship.

Story 2.

On Tuesday President Trump called the widow of a soldier who was killed on duty in Niger. The deceased soldier’s aunt who raised him felt disrespected by the President’s words and tone. The President rejected this interpretation. The words in question were surrounding what the deceased soldier “signed up for,” words that General Kelly later in the week said were customary, respectful, the words his son’s commanding officer had used while informing General Kelly of his son’s death.

One story. Agreed upon words. Different perspectives. Wildly different presumed intent.  Also, different power relationship.

Brief Interpretations and Relevance.

  1. There is no one reality to our important stories (even if we could play back theses videotapes, as we’ve seen with the dashcams, we could readily disagree both about what was happening and what the participants were perceiving). There are perceptions. One speaks with whatever intent. The other listens, based on their experiences in the past.  The listener INFERS some meaning and intent.  This is often not what the speaker IMPLIED.  If you don’t mind my saying so, you are probably doing that now with me:  For example, some will infer that I’m denying the reality of the cop’s actions and intent.  Others may infer that my friend really was being threatening to the officer and/or they may infer that I am naively protecting him. Some will infer that I am in denial about the President’s (they might say: narcissistic) intent. And others will infer that I have used one word or another that implies that the President really meant to insult the family.
  2. How SHOULD we listen to each other when we come with views – and views that we are convinced are grounded in clearer realities than others hold?  Maybe see a few things:
    1. None of us reading this piece was there in either of my stories. Admit our ignorance.
    2. Acknowledge that people can feel hurt — all 4 people, even this President — when people say things that feel threatening to them.  All 4 people in these stories felt threatened (and yes, this is my perception, based on my experience).
    3. Acknowledge that when I (or “my people”) feel hurt it does not mean that the other intended that hurt. What I infer may not be what they intended or had any desire to imply.
    4. ALSO acknowledge that our words and actions can be felt as hurtful.  Our denial of intent does not deny the fact that the other genuinely felt hurt.  For instance, the officer who pulled over my friend and gave him no reason as to why he did so, could reasonably be expected to know that such a stop would likely be intimidating and confusing to an African American. He would have done well simply to acknowledge it.
    5. Finally, see that when we have power – as boss, principal, police officer, teacher, etc. – our actions have a multiplicative power.  If I unwitting say something – which I likely do on a weekly basis – that offends my African American students or my Republican students – I should not wash my hands because I am acting in good faith, with no intent, seemingly implying nothing.  If someone is hurt, whether I intended it or not, I am truly sorry, and I am in the best place to own my offenses.

If we are going to bring our offices, communities of worship, cities, COUNTRY together we need to sharpen some disciplines of listening – minding our minds and respecting others hearts and minds – to

lead with our best selves.