Category Archives: Conflict Resolution

Wrestling Truth beyond Identity

Asking questions that elicit truthful answers, listening with skill, and allowing oneself to hear the truth of another person’s perspective … these are skills I studied, experimented with, and shared during my career in product planning at Altera Corporation. I documented many of the techniques that worked best in a book that’s due out in fall 2017 (“Align”, Dover Publishing).

Lately, I’ve been thinking about a phenomenon that runs counter to these techniques. It hinders both truth telling and truth hearing. While I encountered it a bit during my career, it seemed a minor factor in decision making. It never occurred to me to tackle it. But now, as I read the news, talk with friends and family, and track social media discussions, I see this impediment everywhere.

The culprit: IDENTITY

Identity becomes a handicap to truth seeking when we make the mistake of yoking our identities to our arguments. This primes us to dislike others who take up opposite positions as they seem to be attacking us personally. In defending our identity/position blockset, we’re quick to judge our opponent as a duped idiot.  It entrenches us in our views, and can even make us unwilling to re-evaluate our premises (backfire effect).

Essentially, I’m contending that the more we tie our identity to our initial position on an issue, the more we blind ourselves to seeing the full truth of that issue. We put on blinders, if you will.

What blinders? Oh these? They help me stay focused on the truth.
I can see the truth just fine! Stop attacking me!

Erin Meyer, in her thought-provoking book, The Culture Map, sheds light on what’s going on here. She opens a window into cultures that seem to separate identity from argument without effort or thought.

Consider the French

In her work, Ms. Meyers has encountered loud, contentious arguments among French people – both in private and public forums. These debates felt like dog piles of personal attacks. However, once the topic moved on, the formerly fired-up French became amiable. Indeed, they often complimented each other for making insightful arguments.

For them, vigorous debate was an obvious method for truth seeking. In fact, they practiced in school. Ms. Meyers notes that they’re explicitly taught to disagree openly and from multiple vantage points:

“French students are taught to reason via thesis, antithesis, synthesis, first building up one side of the argument, then the opposite side of the argument, before coming to a conclusion.” – The Culture map, p. 201

In other words, to find the essence of a matter, the French train themselves to inspect from many perspectives, and then compare. This makes intuitive sense, does it not?

We Are Our Arguments(?)

By tying our identities to our initial positions, we render the French debate technique impossible. We stop ourselves before we begin. We remain stuck, anchored to our original opinion. After all, in this paradigm, to abandon our viewpoint is to denounce our very selves. That’s a painful step to take.

On top of that, our natural propensity toward confirmation biases bolsters our intransigence. Furthermore, our tribes paint each other as evil, overreaching, idiotic, misguided monsters with hidden, oppressive agendas. Once adopted, that narrative neutralizes any and all arguments emanating from the other team.

Especially unsettling, to me at least, is that often our initial positions are seeded by the tribe we’ve chosen to identify with. The effect is that we hand over enormous power to the thought leaders of that tribe. For further reading down this rabbit hole, consider cracking open Dark Money by Jane Meyers. Strap in, while it’s written well, the revelations make for a rough ride.

If you’re American, I imagine you recognize what I’m talking about. I used to believe that a legislature full of conservatives and progressives was a good thing. It guaranteed a debate of enlightened “reasoning via thesis, antithesis, synthesis.” But it no longer seems the case. I suspect that much of the dysfunction has to do with the degree to which we Americans, and tie identity to opinions.

Don’t think your identity is tied to your beliefs or your political party? How’d you feel when I mentioned a positive example of French thinking? Did you give it extra credence because the French are champions of progressive politics? Or did you chafe slightly at the thought of looking to the commie socialist French for wisdom? Neither? Good for you. But can you think of someone you know who might react in one of these polar ways? They’ve likely tied their identity to a tribe that has expressed opinions about the French. In my view, this is an impediment.

What Can We Do?

I think the answer is to detach your identity from both political positions and tribes. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Adopt Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance
  • Cultivate Unlimited Positive Regard
  • Argue the Other View
I know not my gender, race, tribe, class, position in society, bank account balance, neighborhood, tribe, nor identity.
I AM NOT ME. TRUTH IS, I COULD BE ANYONE.

I recently discussed this topic of identity with my high school classmate, Paul Mariz. He suggested looking into philosopher John Rawls, and Rawls’s concept of a ‘Veil of Ignorance.’  Essentially, Rawls suggests that the goal of policy makers is to craft competent and fair policies. To accomplish this, he suggests they start at an ‘original position’ behind a ‘Veil of Ignorance.’ In this initial state…

“No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.”

In other words, forget who you are. Imagine that, before entering society, you role the dice. Your gender, race, class, connections, and bank account balances could come up as anything. At that point, it’s easy to imagine any identity.

The other technique is to stop seeing tribes and start seeing people. Adam Savage, of Myth Busters fame recommends adopting the mindset of a psychiatrist. When they work with patients, they adopt “an unlimited amount of positive regard for the other person.” (t=9:50 on the ‘With Friends Like These’ podcast “If you’re worried about the future, look at the past”.)  While the ‘veil of ignorance’ removes your identity, cultivating positive regard for your opponent removes their identity from the debate.

Withe identities removed, it’s possible to focus on the veracity of premises, and the validity of viewpoints.

Time To Find the Truth

Lately I’ve had a hard time talking with many members of my family. While I get their viewpoints to a degree, I see their affiliation with a tribe, and imagine that they are, how’d I put it before? Oh yeah, “evil, overreaching, idiotic, misguided monsters with a hidden, oppressive agenda.”  Okay, that’s obviously not how I regard my family.

So I’m going to put my hypothesis to the test. I’ll skype with a family member who has opposing viewpoints to mine on some issue. I’ll let them choose the issue, but they have to agree to adopting the veil of ignorance and commit to cultivating unlimited positive regard for me. That should be easy for them!  After agreeing to a set of premises, we’ll argue each other’s sides. I’ll check back with my results.

What do you think?

Do you agree that tying identity to political positions impedes us? Are we joining tribes? Does membership put blinders on us?

What about the techniques I describe for removing identity from political discussions? Do you have any other suggestions?

Do you want to test this experiment with a person who holds opposing political views too? If so, please report back and tell how’d it go? What discoveries did you make?

US Foreign Policy

A common belief among Americans is that our safety lies in building military strength, and projecting our will in the world. The thing is, we’ve been doing that for over 60 years, and, in my opinion, it’s made our world more dangerous, not safer.

There’s a word for the predominant theme of American foreign policy since World War II. It’s jingoism.

Jingoism is patriotism in the form of aggressive foreign policy. Jingoism also refers to a country’s advocacy for the use of threats or actual force, as opposed to peaceful relations, in efforts to safeguard what it perceives as its national interests. Colloquially, it refers to excessive bias in judging one’s own country as superior to others—an extreme type of nationalism. – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jingoism

Since I retired from my full time job in 2014 (I’m an ardent capitalist, living off of savings), I’ve had time to study post WW2 US foreign policy. What I’ve learned makes me sad. We’ve behaved very badly. We’ve imagined enemies who didn’t exist, and meddled where we had no right. We turned away from dialogue, and embraced covert action. Many of our misguided and vigorous activities destabilized regions that still suffer today. And it was all due to jingoist attitudes, and a hasty disregard for examining the facts. I’ll share some examples later. For now, let’s recall the definition of jingoism, while we read what each lead candidate has to say about their foreign policies:

Ted Cruz (from https://www.tedcruz.org/issues/defend-our-nation) :

The United States of America is the exceptional nation, the nation other countries aspire to be like. … (W)e need to judge each challenge through the simple test of what is best for America. Because what is best for America is best for the world.

Hillary Clinton (https://www.hillaryclinton.com/issues/national-security):

I believe the future holds far more opportunities than threats if we exercise creative and confident leadership that enables us to shape global events rather than be shaped by them. – hillaryclinton.com

We came, we saw, he died. 

Mrs. Clinton repeatedly speaks of wanting to be “caught trying.” In other words, she would rather be criticized for what she has done than for having done nothing at all. –NY Times Article, “The Libya Gamble”

Marco Rubio (marcorubio.com) :

(Obama) has demonstrated a disregard for our moral purpose that at times flirts with disdain. From his reset with Russia, to his open hand to Iran, to his unreciprocated opening to Cuba, he has embraced regimes that systematically oppose every principle our nation has long championed. This deterioration of our physical and ideological strength has led to a world far more dangerous than when President Obama entered office.

Rubio Doctrine:

• Undo the damage caused by sequestration by returning to Secretary Gates’ fiscal year 2012 budget baseline.
• Modernize our forces to remain on the cutting edge of the land, sea, air, cyberspace, and outer space domains.
• Empower our intelligence community by permanently extending Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

Bernie Sanders (https://berniesanders.com/issues/war-and-peace/):

America must defend freedom at home and abroad, but we must seek diplomatic solutions before resorting to military action. While force must always be an option, war must be a last resort, not the first option.

Donald Drumpf. I can’t find a stated foreign policy doctrine on his website… so I’m using quotes from http://www.ontheissues.org/2016/Donald_Trump_Foreign_Policy.htm.

If we’re going to make America number one again, we’ve got to have a president who knows how to get tough with China, how to out-negotiate the Chinese, and how to keep them from screwing us at every turn.

Few respect weakness. Ultimately we have to deal with hostile nations in the only language they know: unshrinking conviction and the military power to back it up if need be. There and in that order are America’s two greatest assets in foreign affairs.

Do you notice a theme here? Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Donald Drumpf think America is an exceptional nation, better than all others. That leads to an unwillingness to be open to learning what works in other nations. It leads to a projection of power and will. It can quickly lead to approving hasty covert action.

Hillary, while perhaps not using as much jingoistic language, leans toward military action when the path is unclear. That scares me.

Bernie Sanders seems the most reasonable here. In my opinion, he’s been on the right side of most foreign policy issues since opposing our intervention in Nicaragua.

Does that make me sound like a commie sympathiser?  Well, if you’ve gotten your news from major media sources for the past five decades, I can see why you might think that.

Since the fifties, our government has often planted fabricated stories in order to shape public perceptions and manufacture consent.

  • Operation Mockingbird (“Operation Mockingbird had major influence over 25 newspapers and wire agencies. The usual methodology was placing reports developed from intelligence provided by the CIA to witting or unwitting reporters. Those reports would then be repeated or cited by the preceding reporters which in turn would then be cited throughout the media wire services.”)
  • The CIA bought the rights to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and produced a movie that changed the ending to cast the pigs as communists and the other animals as righteous Americans. This was not the intention of Orwell.
  • Vietnam Propaganda (“In 1954, Col. Edward Lansdale, chief of covert action in the U.S. Saigon Military Mission, was assigned to oversee the early U.S. propaganda effort in Vietnam. Initially, he began the “Passage to Freedom” … his “psy war” team used gimmicks to swell the ranks of the refugees. South Vietnamese soldiers dressed in civilian clothes were sent North to spread unfavorable rumors such as two Chinese divisions allowed by Viet Minh had circulated throughout North Vietnam and Washington intended to launch an offensive to liberate the North after the last anti-communist Vietnamese had moved southThousands of fliers advertising that “The Virgin Mary Has Gone to the South” were distributed by Lansdale’s men throughout North Vietnam. In addition, large numbers of posters were pasted in Hanoi and Haiphong depicting communists closing a cathedral and forcing people to pray under a picture of Ho Chi Minh  – See more at: http://thevietnamwar.info/u-s-propaganda-vietnam-war/#sthash.3Xqs8rH7.dpuf”)
  • The Terror Network (“According to Melvin Goodman, the Head of Office of Soviet Affairs at the CIA from 1976-1987, the claims of a terror network were in fact black propaganda created by the CIA”)

Since the days when Edward Bernays started working with Washington, CIA leadership seems to have had no qualms about lying to the American public.  So, whatever fast and hard cold war beliefs you have – I ask that you investigate to what degree they’re due to CIA sponsored propaganda.

The smoking gun lies not in our propaganda, but in our verified and documented history of hastily meddling with sovereign nations when we had no right, and very little justification. We had all that power, and we abused it. We were prone to seeing enemies where there were none, and we acted badly. I’ve mostly been reading about Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan, but it seems every president has at times blithely used the CIA’s secret powers. Before Truman, the predecessor to the CIA was limited to gathering intelligence. Under Truman, the National Security Act expanded their powers to include processing and evaluating that intelligence. It included a clause that could be interpreted to mean that the CIA could undertake covert actions. Truman resisted that power, but Eisenhower, weary of overt war, embraced it.

Here are some examples of us abusing that power. Imagine the higher ups at the CIA, and State department as misinformed, opinionated, gossipy beehived busy-bodies. Because, apart from the hair-do, that’s what they were:

  • 1953, CIA operatives overthrow the prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh. MI6 essentially duped the CIA into ousting him by claiming that he was an agent of Moscow. It was not true. Mossadegh had led a protest against the development plan negotiated by Allan Dulles on behalf of Overseas Consultants. Mossadegh was also western educated, and largely a fan of US democracy. But his opposition to the OCI deal made him Allan Dulles’s enemy, and as CIA director he used his power to oust Mossadegh … even though his Iranian agents all opposed that action. That brought in the Shah, who Iranians hated, and led to revolution in 1979. I fully understand why Iranians shouted Death to America. it wasn’t because they abstractly ‘hated our freedom’, it was because we killed their president in 1953, and installed a murderous dictator in his place.
  • 1954, Operation Fortune ousted democratically elected Guatemalan president Arbenz, mainly because he was nationalizing unused land, taking it back from the Dulles brother’s clients, United Fruit company. The CIA used all manner of propaganda, hiring Edward Bernays to orchestrate a breathtaking operation of misinformation in the American media. Arbenz was overthrown, and in his place, Castillo Armas, the CIA’s chosen ‘liberator’ was installed. He immediately suspended the constitution, banned illiterates from voting, and dissolved Congress.
  • In 1954, the Dulles brothers considered overthrowing democratically elected Costa Rican President Figueres, but decided against it because Figueres had abolished the army, and so the CIA had “no instrument through which to carry out a coup.” (The Brothers: JFD and AD, page 158). I find it ironic that the thing that saved Costa Rica from the CIA’s meddling, was *not* having an army.
  • The mid fifties opposition to Ho Chi Minh was all snubs and undermining. The CIA assumed that Ho Chi Minh was an agent of Moscow, and so sought to overthrow him. Their unwillingness to investigate reality, engage in dialogue with embassador Zhoe Enliai, ultimately led to the Vietnam war. It was a pointless war that took upwards of a million Vietnamese lives. 58,000 Americans lost their lives too, including my Uncle Bob Arvin, who I never got to meet.
  • 1955, the Eisenhower administration regarded any countries that embraced neutralism as being enemies. They assumed ‘neutralist’ countries were in fact agents of Moscow. That led them, tragically, to not attending the Asian African summit in Bandung Indonesia, led by president Sukarno of Indonesia. By not talking to these countries, we assumed the worst, and kept up a policy of meddling. If we had attended, we would have possibly understood that most of these countries did not wish to be swept up into the cold war, and wished to simply be left alone. Nope. A reporter for the Economist wrote, “China’s Zhou behaved very humbly and put the six hundred million people of China on the same level, say, as Ceylon or Laos. … Bandung has been compared to the Magna Carta, and the Gettysburg address.” And we didn’t attend because we regarded the conference as a “communist road show.” (as Time magazine called it).
  • 1955, the CIA worked with Belgium to remove Congo’s president Lumumba from power. Mr. Lumumba, an idealist, and somewhat naive of the force of the cold war, wound up dead, dissolved in acid. The Belgians killed him, but the Americans conspired with them. Like Mossedegh of Iran, Lumumba was western educated and a fan of US democracy. But the CIA decided he was too sympathetic with Russia, and that was enough to assassinate him.
  • 1955. President Sukarno of Indonesia, after visiting the US, had the audacity to visit China and USSR, and then later, accepted a development loan from the USSR. He allowed a small representation of communists in his congress. That made him a marked man. Despite the US ambassador’s protestations, the CIA mounted a campaign against Sukarno called “Archipelago”. But the operation failed, as the CIA found it hard to convince Indonesians to kill other Indonesians. In desperation, the CIA financed a pornographic film, called Happy Days, but Sukarno didn’t care. In the end, the CIA failed to oust Sukarno. But never fear, he was eventually ousted in a coup in 1970, CIA sponsored.
  • 1957, the CIA rigged the Lebanon election so that Camille Chamoun would win.
  • 1960 – Fidel Castro takes Cuba. What I find most interesting is that his top advisor, Che Guevara, largely developed his hateful attitudes toward the US by observing CIA activities such as the ouster of Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954. He saw that the CIA capitalized on the free press – they used it to project anti-Arbenz propaganda. So he advise Castro to kill all open freedoms, because, to him, those were the very things that the CIA could use against them. The CIA’s willingness to lie to the free press, indirectly influenced Castro’s heavy handed governing philosophy. Incredible.
  • 1968, Henry Kissinger scuttles the Paris peace process in Vietnam for political reasons – to get Nixon nominated for repub candidate. It worked.
  • 1973, CIA pays Army leaders to oust Chile’s democratically elected Allende, and the brutal Pinochet comes to power.
  • 1975, Henry Kissinger sponsors the invasion of East Timor.
  • 2003 – invasion of Iraq – I don’t think I need to explain this one.
  • There’s so much more – But that’s enough for now.

Here’s the thing, the recurring theme is hasty adoption of ‘us vs them’ thinking coupled with a willingness to act with an utter lack of integrity. That’s exactly the kind of behavior we don’t need. We need open honest engagement, not covert assassinations and propaganda campaigns. If we truly believe, as I do, that a capitalistic democracy is the best form of government, then let the results speak for themselves. Don’t stoop to propaganda. Don’t stoop to meddling in the affairs of foreign nations.

I wonder what the world would look like today, if we’d sent 50 delegates to Bandung in 1955, or never attempted ousting Arbenz, Mossadegh, Lumumba, Sukarno, Allende. I think it’d look a whole lot different.

What if another nation did that to us? What if they planted propaganda, paid a handful of military generals to stage a coup, assassinated our democratically elected leaders and brought in a brutal dictatorship? Would you hate that country? Would it be for some abstract reason, like, “we hate their freedoms?” Or would you hate them because they meddled in your affairs, and killed your leaders? Would you hate them, because they’re the incarnation of a beehived bully of a busy-body, armed with assault weapons and cash, willing to lie as needed to achieve whatever misguided goals they capriciously imagined were important?

I invite you to study any and all of the above-listed events. Our CIA regularly sacked the ambassadors and CIA agents in the regions who knew the most about the countries they were in, because those knowledgable people advised against overthrows. Our leaders willingly disregarded reality, imagined boogie men, and fatally meddled in the affairs of sovereign nations. I want LESS of this behavior, not MORE.

So please, read the foreign policy pages of each of the candidates for president. Ask yourself, which one will give us more of the same, and which will act like adults of integrity, and consider the facts before acting?

Personally, I don’t want a commander in chief with a “moral purpose” to meddle in the affairs of other countries, and snub them at global summits. I don’t want leaders who think “what’s best for the US is best for the world.” I don’t want a leader who, when the path is unclear, simply chooses action.  No, we are not better than everyone else. We are hurling through space on a rock with 7 billion other people. It’s time we started regarding them as equals, and respecting their rights.

So, I ask you, do you still believe that our safety lies in building military strength and projecting our will in the world? Now that you know how quick we are to compromise our own integrity by toppling democratically elected leaders, and make up media stories to dupe whole populations?

I love my country, and I stand for freedom. We have a history to be proud of, from our formation through harrowing internal struggles. Like so many of my countrymen, I reject communism, and am skeptical of big government. But I think we can let other countries who choose that path see what results they get, free from our meddling.

I expect better from our leaders. We need someone who breaks this cold war thinking. We need someone who rejects covert action, and embraces a free press, even when reporters write things our leaders don’t want to hear, or want us to know. I can only think of one candidate who even comes close to qualifying for president of the US. It isn’t any of the Republicans.

Edit: Some light bedtime reading material: The Church Report. I <3 The Freedom of Information Act.

School of Peace – Improvements

Today I met with people from REPUSM.  They’ve been tracking the money for the School of Peace and are handling the application to establish an NGO with the express purpose of funding the School of Peace.

They’ll send me all details related to the NGO: name, sponsors, mission declaration, etc. Pretty much the contents of the application she submitted to the Malaysian government.

Miscellaneous facts:

-50 kids are enrolled at the school
-Their families live throughout the nearby neighborhood.  They found accommodations on their own.  Some live four families to a house.  They are expected to pay RM50 per enrolled student per month.
-Most arrived 2-3 years ago, but some as many as 6 years ago.
-There’s no formal curriculum or goals being followed
-Exams are being held next week, but they are not standardized Malaysian exams, but rather assessments developed by the 2 paid teachers – because “the kids are not at the level they need to be for the regular exams.”
– Currently the account has about RM30 ($8) in it.
-Approximately 30 volunteers have come and gone over the past few years.
– They’ve operated the school on RM5400 per month or RM65k over the past year. That’s ~$1500 per month or ~$18k USD.  Using only private donations from friends and family I can see why the budget is so tight.  It’s amazing what they’re accomplishing with so little funding.  But I imagine so much more could be achieved with more funding.  
-Full time teachers are paid RM1000 per month (that’s about $280 USD), but are given a few hundred extra on months when there is money in the account. So, RM1k- RM1300.

Doing a little research, I see that in Malaysia, teachers make between RM800 for very low paid entry level teachers to RM4000 per month for senior teachers with experience. Penang skews to the high end of the pay ranges.

Teacher Level Low Mid High / Penang
Senior RM2200 3000 4000
Mid RM1500 2100 2800
Entry RM800 1337 1800

IMO, teachers should be paid at least RM2100 per month.  Definitely more than RM1000.  That’s for sure.

So what improvements?  Well, I’m thinking 2 qualified full time teachers, Perhaps one part time teacher + volunteers.  Offer extended hours for children who wish to get on track for university.  Come up with a standard curriculum.  Offer after school activities such as football and badminton.  Compete with other schools academically and athletically.  Provide supplies, books, white boards, etc. Bring in education advisers.  Make the school 100% free for refugee children.

This monthly budget would get us started:

RM

2000  rent
2000  supplies, furniture, repairs,
2000  teacher #1
2000  teacher #2
1000  part time teacher #3
1000  activity fund & uniforms & transportation
——————————
RM10,000  == $2,777USD per month

That’s an annual budget of RM120,000 == $33,333.

This is where I’d like to start.  Once we get another full time qualified teacher, and extend the schoolday, we can develop the curriculum and bring in more volunteers for spot lessons like woodworking or unicycling or football or extra English.

 

 

Bullies

Has a kid ever asked you how to deal with a bully? Did you have an answer ready? No? I think that’s typical. I doubt many parents are certain of what to advise. “Stand up for yourself” is not specific and “walk away” was likely already considered. Least helpful: “you need to fight this battle yourself.”

Last week, I read a story about adults who offered this last line of advice. In the end, a 12 year old boy drank pesticide after his pleas for help were ignored. This story upset me. Emotional, I whatapp’ed the parents of my son’s class. Along with the URL of the news article, I wrote a hasty note. As I hit send I realized it was rambling. I re-read it:

“We need to teach our kids to deal with conflict … esp when bystanders to bullying. Parents avoid stepping in for fear of making the situation worse. I suspect in reality many don’t know what advice to give. Well I do. I have specific actionable advice and the target actors are the bystanders. I’m not sure how to go about it. Whatapp me if you want to come up with a plan.”

Despite the longwinded text, I assumed the parents would be as moved as I was. I expected some replies, but instead heard crickets … chirping. The next morning … chirp. All day I thought about the tragic fact that no adults in that boy’s life knew how to help. After dinner, my phone jingled. Bless her heart. Shamani responded.

“Laura, we must meet one day 2 talk about your strategies 4 kids who witness bullying. U r rite it’s crucial we teach our kids how 2 act. Mine unfortunately is the target so he does interfere when he sees it happen and ends up being a target 🙁 but he still perseveres.”

The next day, another mother asked to join. And the next day another. On Saturday we will hatch a plan.

I may not have all the answers, but I have a start. For, in running the Customer Advisory Board I learned a lot about uncovering. When I enrolled my son at a parent participation school, I discovered my uncovering skills overlapped with the school’s #1 priority: to teach kids conflict resolution. I was made to take classes and read books. I took the job of teaching 4th and 5th graders conflict resolution. I used tips from the CAB program to teach bystanders how to deal with bullies, and gathered other tips in the process.

Long story short: bullies derive power from silent bystanders. So, I gave the bystanders tips and language to use in-the-moment when witnessing bullying. We role-played and brainstormed alternatives to violence. It went well.

With all of this experience under my belt, why then, why-oh-why then, did I not stand up to a bully two days ago at our dinner party?

Bob just opened a taco restaurant. It’s the only Mexican restaurant on Penang Island and Bob serves muncherific yummy food. We eat there so often it’s embarrassing. We’ve recommended Bob’s restaurant to many, including our neighbors, Mike and Diane (not their real names). Unfortunately, about a week ago, the pair contracted food poisoning. After three days of belly-achin’, they determined Bob’s restaurant was to blame.

Fast forward to last Saturday: I’d ordered nacho’s from Bob and he personally delivered the platter to our party. He came up for a beer and mingled. By six, though, he walked over to Diane and me and announced he had to get back to the restaurant.

“Bob, before you go, I have something to tell you,” Diane said. She explained the food poisoning and that she was certain it’d come from his restaurant. After stating the dishes they’d eaten, I assumed she was done and thanked Bob for coming. Diane started up again. This time, she really laid into him. “I don’t know what kind of an operation you have going on in that kitchen of yours but I imagine it is dirty. You hire these people, you know, these locals, and you can’t trust them. They’re filthy and I’m sure they’re not handling the food properly.”

Bob defended himself. “I do all the cooking and I invite you to come into my kitchen it is spotless. And my staff..”

Diane railed on, “I’m not interested in stepping foot ever again into your restaurant. I certainly won’t go into your kitchen. I don’t know where you buy your meat but it is bad and we will never return to eat there.”

Bob apologized. “Well, okay, but I must say I am not sure what happened. I keep a clean kitchen.”

“I’ll tell you what happened,” Diane barked, “your filthy staff prepared food that made us sick. Sick for three days. We were in bed and running to the bathroom for three days! And it was all because of your food.”

I wanted Donna to stop. I thought she was being unfair and shockingly racist, but I said nothing.

She continued. “I will never go there again and I’m telling everyone I know to never go there.”

“Oh please don’t do that,” Bob said. “I understand if you don’t want to come back but you don’t need to tell people to stay away. That’s unfair.”

“Oh no, I’m going to tell everyone I know to not come.” She went on and on and I sat there, incredulous.

Bob looked at me as if he’d been sucker punched. Then he said, “Well, okay then. I’m sorry you got sick. Laura, thank you for the party.” He left.

Now, the next day, I wonder, why didn’t I said anything? Why didn’t I stop her? It was not okay for her to berate my friend like that. Reporting what had happened was fine, but conjecturing about the state of his kitchen, making racist comments about the staff, and threatening to slow his success, well, that was all unacceptable. She’d acted like a bully. And how did I act? I acted like a bystander, witnessing abuse in silence. Even later that night when she vented to me about it, I bit my tongue.

Now I wonder, “why was I so silent, especially when I know better?”

Well for one, I kept thinking she was done. I tried a few times to move on but she brought the conversation back. Secondly I was in shock. Also, I’m not one to call someone out on their behavior. I figure ‘let them make their bed and lie in it’. Lastly, it was a party. I wanted to avoid conflict, not address it.

And here I am today, feeling very small. All this time I’ve been preaching to bystanders, smugly thinking I could solve the bully problem by getting them to speak up. Teaching those 4th and 5th graders, I was certain they just needed the tools. I thought, “they just need the words.” But the other day I had the tools and the words. Clearly they’re not enough. So, what was I missing? Courage? ‘guess so.

Luckily, when aligning with customers, the environment is usually friendly and gentle. Arguments might happen but they are rooted in co-discovery; they are attempts at answering, “how do we achieve this?” But bullies? They can really throw a person off guard. Their abuse is like a wide-range taser, shocking people all around into silence. It makes me think of the time I tried to coach a bully-of-an-executive and boy did he tear me a new one. I think I stood up for myself quite well then. But last night I failed to stand up for Bob. Why is that? Yep. I’m feeling small.