A reader, T., wrote in to explain that she had recently suffered through a situation which resulted in her leaving the practice of a health professional. As in, “Thank you very much, your services will no longer be required.” She asked,
“To make a long story short, would you consider a post on the topic of ‘how to deliver an unpleasant ethical message?'”
Unethical behavior, if not confronted, behaves like a dead elephant. Some of us line up in front smiling, others cross their arms, uncomfortable, in distress.
How to speak up about the elephant? How do High WASPs do it? It’s not our strong point, frankly. Crimes against humanity, the behemoths of bad ethics, we approach like any other culture. Sometimes courageous, sometimes fearful, sometimes guilty as charged. We try to do good. We sometimes fail.
Smaller ethical mistakes, made unknowingly, we try to forgive. We sometimes fail.
It’s the middle ground where the High WASP culture lets us down. We are far more easily shamed than most. So overturned, in fact, by social gaffes that I cannot offer advice in this situation, cannot deconstruct as usual, without matrices. Diagrams, we hope, can fight off shame.
Feel free to snort with laughter.
If you’ve finished laughing, we can discuss. Not finished? I’ll wait.
Right then. 3 of the quadrants in the matrix pose no ‘How To’ dilemmas.
- Heroic Resistance. When we need to be heroes, whether we are up to the task or not, we know what it would take.
- Sociopath. Those who feel nothing at horrors of humanity must be sociopaths. I don’t think sociopaths think about ‘how to.’
- Zen. When other people’s small mistakes annoy us a just little bit, we have learned to breathe deeply and move on.
But when we have strong feelings about what we believe is unethical but non-criminal behavior, that’s tougher. It’s difficult to balance the discomfort of embarrassment against the righteous pleasure of calling out mid-level bad behavior. At least for us. If you are freer I salute you.
So. You notice that you are angry and concerned about someone’s unethical behavior. What now?
The [Reformed] High WASP Guide To Difficult Conversations
- Examine the offending behavior. Make sure you have the facts. No point using up righteousness points over inaccuracies.
- Stand still. Take a breath. Examine your own feelings. Are you purely righteous? Or is your distress motivated more by your own emotional needs?
- Realize that you’re human. Nobody, except perhaps the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, or Thich Nhat Hanh, feels distress over pure right and wrong alone. Our internal landscape engages. Welcome to humanity.
- Review your feelings. Even after you understand your own emotional engagement, do you still feel the person’s behavior is unethical? That wrong has in fact been done? You are ready to speak. You will feel quite strong and calm.
- Put your feelings aside. They will be there when you come back.
- Do not send an email, text, or Twitter message. The usual rules of courtesy apply. Call the offender, or even better, make an appointment to see them in person.
- Preview your message. “So-and-so, I need to speak with you about a difficult subject.” Your politeness here prevents the kinds of thrashing common when people feel blindsided.
- Deliver your message. Carefully, simply, articulately, and as briefly as possible.
- Wait. Listen. Repeat. You are not here to argue.
- If you hear new facts that indicate you were wrong, apologize sincerely. You haven’t done anything that can’t be repaired. You had bad information. It happens.
- If you hear no new facts, listen, tell the offender you have heard what they say, and repeat your message. At a certain point you will know if they are going to admit their wrongdoing or not.
- Before you are done, you will need to decide what reparations will satisfy you. Those who have done wrong must make it right, one way or another. Do you require only that they acknowledge? Apologize? Offer compensation? Submit to punishment? In this too, clarity is your friend. Your good friend.
- Go home. The world is probably now a little bit better place.
This is all more easily said than done, you might reply. You would be right. One has to be willing to step back and look at oneself. This is not easy. Hence the entire cadre of therapists. But it’s not impossible, especially as one ages.
Sometimes you notice unethical behavior in a person who has power over you, an employer, an official, a parent. The problem of power imbalance is more tenacious. Backing down from fear is much different than backing down from embarrassment. Far easier to forgive.
The photo above is from T.’s family archives. She grew up in British Colonial Africa. The picture was taken in Kenya. Colonialism is the epitome of ethical issues, complete with a terrible power imbalance. I can only imagine how I would have felt as a child in that environment, although I would not want to assume anything about T. The elephant as metaphor.
I’m talking to myself here. Diagramming for myself what I haven’t always done well. Using abstract constructs to repair felt flaws. While mild shame has probably improved my taste in clothing, its more bitter cousin has left other, longer, traces.
High WASPs have historically believed that what remains unsaid means more than what gets said. This should have changed, in 2010. I don’t know if all the talking that goes on night and day now, across the electronic universe, is helping with shame, and the resultant ignoring of bad guys. I hope so.