Finding a Path Forward to Social Justice

I have had occasion recently to speak with several senior executives who care deeply about the issue of social justice but who are struggling to find the best way for themselves and their organizations to serve as positive instruments of change. Many of them voice fear about wading into the issue, given how emotionally charged the environment is and the lack of clarity or consensus about the right thing to do. Those who have ventured into it have in some instances seen things spin horribly out of control resulting in more divisiveness, less harmony.

I make no claim to being an expert in this area. I understand that as a white male my lived experience is different from women and minorities in ways I cannot fully comprehend, but that does not mean that I don’t care. Nor does it let me off the hook for doing my part to help bring about justice and healing.

In the past few weeks I have begun to shape a point of view about what seems to be holding us back and some thoughts on finding a path forward. My observations are drawn from my work as an executive coach. Much of the work of coaching is grounded in a few simple yet powerful principles which are keys to effective relationships, organizations and teams:

  • Presume good intent on the part of others with whom we disagree;
  • Seek first to understand what lies beneath our differences rather than presuming the absence of good intent;
  • Close the gap between behaviors and perceived intentions:
    • Rob others of the stories they might make up about your intentions; don’t leave it to them to interpret your intentions but be explicit in sharing what is in your heart
    • Pause before making up a story about others’ intentions based on your interpretation of their behavior; invite them to go deeper and share what is in their heart.

The theme reflected in these principles is the critical need and importance of dialogue in which people can safely express their point of view, and what lies beneath their differences, without fear of being judged by others as indifferent or hostile to the issue at hand. In the current environment there seems to be little patience or interest in that kind of dialogue.

Instead, we choose to make up our own story about the values and intentions of others based on our interpretation of their words and actions, and vilify them when those words and actions don’t line up with our point of view. We stake out the moral high ground and label others in the vilest of terms, driving deeper divisions among us and hardening hearts toward one another.

One need only look as far as the response to use of the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”  Without dialogue, that simple phrase can be and is interpreted in ways that are unintentionally but deeply divisive. There is nothing in that phrase that equates to being hostile to police. There is nothing in that phrase to suggest that a heightened sensitivity to the unique challenges and circumstances of people of color means that other lives matter less. Yet those interpretations are widely shared and provoke on both sides a powerful emotional response of resentment, anger, judgement and division.

So, too, with the words “White Privilege” and “Defund the Police.”  Within a deeper exploration of each of those phrases there is ample ground for dialogue and for alignment in support of the cause, even if differences of opinion remain as to the best way to advance the cause.

My worry is that unless we become more skillful in how we confront these deep and complex issues, the divide will continue to widen and people will step back from engaging at precisely the time we need more people to step forward into action.

I would like to offer a few suggestions on a personal and organizational strategy that may offer a more effective path to engage in efforts to work toward social justice:

  1. Pause. Take a moment to step back before lashing out in anger to judge, label or vilify.
  2. Examine your mindset. Ask yourself this question: Is it plausible that someone who cares just as deeply about this issue as I do can, in good faith, have a different view about the best way to advance our shared cause?
  3. Resist symbolic words and actions without opportunity for deeper dialogue. Don’t leave it to others to interpret the intentions behind those words and actions.
  4. Become skillful in creating and maintaining a safe environment for dialogue. Become personally skillful in facilitating these delicate conversations, recognizing when the dynamic shifts from a search for understanding to a platform for anger and judgement.
  5. Redefine expectations around the ultimate goal. Stay firmly rooted in commitment to the ultimate goal, to create a just and compassionate organization/community/world. But recognize that in the pursuit of that ultimate goal it is not reasonable to expect broad agreement on the right path forward.

My sense is that we need to become comfortable with accepting that amid our shared passion for the goal there will be good-faith disagreement about how to get there. There is no manual on how to do this. But if we can give each other the grace of accepting our differences while sustaining belief in one another’s intentions, we can dial back the anger and stay in dialogue as we try, and fail, and try again to figure out the way to social justice.

We will not be afraid to engage in dialogue. We will have the capacity to endure for what is sure to be a long and arduous journey. We will carry on, inspired as much by those with whom we disagree as we are by those who share our point of view.

I certainly can’t guarantee this path will work. But it seems clear that the path we are on is taking us further from the goal.

Robert Porter
About the author

Robert (Bob) Porter is an accomplished organizational leader with over 30 years’ experience in health system leadership.

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