The face of the other

The face of the other

What moves you? What turns you on or off? How do you get your needs met? And how far will you go to get what you want?

I saw a FaceBook clip the other day, of a social experiment with hidden cameras. An ice-cream van was parked on a hot day, and a ‘homeless' person sat nearby, begging for money. As children asked their parents for money to buy an ice-cream, the cameras filmed what happened. Many of the children actually gave their money to the ‘homeless' person; and some hesitated, bought an ice-cream, and then ran over to him to make a gift of their ice-cream. And some children turned away and ate their ice-cream. My attention went to one child who licked his ice-cream as he walked away, but looked so troubled by the situation… Sometimes we damage ourselves by getting what we want, and sometimes we damage - or at least, don’t help - others. So how do we get our needs met more effectively? I think the implications of this for leadership development are immense.

There are tremendous issues of power and control in how we go about answering these questions of how we get what we want. They are philosophical questions, of course - questions of ethics - but if we dodge them as coaches and consultants, we are short-changing our work with leaders. They show up in the most practical of our everyday dilemmas - 'how am I going to get my vision and mission across’, 'how will I drive this change programme forwards', 'how am I going to deal with the inevitable resistance that will come up', and - because envy and sabotage are so often connected to success, power and privilege, 'how do I keep myself safe, in my connection with others?’ I think we have to swim against the tide of individualism and encourage leaders to take in a bigger picture - a picture of what the situation requires. This might be different at different times.

A friend and I were talking last week, over a glass of wine, about ethics - not as a set of abstract rules, or a rigid list of dos and don'ts, but ethics as a practice of embodiment. In part, this involves us in looking into the face of the other and taking in the other’s plea that we do them no harm, while still holding the importance of our own needs and agenda. our own agenda. So how can we create contexts and possibilities that are about more than one or the other? How we balance the needs of self and others in times of scarcity, when there may not be enough to go around, does not require that we surrender ourselves in the service of others, nor demand more of others, nor withdraw into self-sufficiency…

I think it requires real dialogue. The purpose of dialogue is not to promote relational harmony (although that is often a welcome consequence). Rather, dialogue is about opening to the experience of where the other is really coming from, no matter how deeply uncomfortable that might be. It’s about seeing another’s reality so that there can be a better quality of decision-making, and so that - together - people can be moved to take more relationally-grounded and response-able action. I also think it requires a fidelity to our truth - to a felt need in our hearts and bones to respond to a situation in a way that is aligned with both our own values as well as with the situation calls for. This is not about holding to any rigid set of prescribed values, but of being present with our loving-kindness in responding to the impossibly conflicting demands of each situation with what Winnicott described as ‘healthy ruthlessness’. I see this as the process of dialogue...

Although we might feel some passive despair that any sort of community could arise that would look after us as individuals, the answer (if there is one!) - in our organisations and the communities they are a part of - has something to do with children and ice-cream.

(For anyone interested in understanding more about relational and situational ethics, I’d recommend reading Emmanuel Levinas and Alain Badiou).

Posted in Leadership Coaching ethics Dialogue on Sunday, Mar 27th, 2016

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