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Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve experienced several independent events that, on their own, are innocuous and inconsequential.

I found myself plucking them out of the other myriad of conversations, activities, and interactions that I’ve had over the last couple of weeks and pondering them together.  I began adding into the mix some accounts of recent world events.  I started sensing a connection, but it was just a perplexing collage without a coherent story.

I woke up Saturday morning with clarity.

It’s not a story, but a lesson; a lesson for me that is being reinforced; one I learned a while back; actually one of the most profound lessons I’ve ever learned.

The lesson surfaced out of these variations —

  • If you do this, then I will do this.
  • If you stop doing that, then I’ll stop doing that.
  • We didn’t start doing X; they did.  So until they stop, we will continue to do Y …

These are all examples of one party specifying conditions for their future behavior.  Additionally, the conditions that are set are for others; in other words, meeting those conditions is the responsibility of other people.

When I make my behavior conditional on your behavior, I give away my power to act according to my values and character.  I am no longer responsible, because I’ve abandoned my free will.  I am now dependent on you; my behavior depends on your behavior.

You don’t behave very well, sometimes.  This is my judgment, of course; which moves me to set the conditions for my behavior in response (which of course requires you to change your behavior) … and you not meeting my conditions gives me a free pass (apparently) to behave … not well either.

To respond “in kind.”

Because I can easily justify my behavior by citing yours.  Problem is, so can you …

This dynamic afflicts individuals, teams, groups, countries; and it’s not good.  Certainly not effective.

But that’s arguably not the worst of it.

Remember the aha moment for Zusya?  (This will only be a 30 second jump, I assure you.  It’s worth it.)

How can you be you — and me be me — if we’re always making our behavior conditional on each other?

I imagine this conversation in my judgment hour:

     “John, why were you mean to your friend when she did such-and-such?

     “Because she was mean-spirited to me!”

     “Yes; but why were you?”

I abhor this conversation; even as a hypothetical!  It is unthinkable!

It is also preventable.

The path starts with believing there is actually a pretty powerful place in between what you do and say and how I respond … and in that space there are four very powerful tools that all of us have to keep us authentic and right-spirited …

  1. Self-awareness.  I need to slow down long enough — seconds, really, but even if longer, it’s worth it — to realize that the behavior I’m plotting in my head is inconsistent with who I am, what I am, and why I am.
  2. Imagination.  We have the ability to imagine.  We have options; we can imagine alternative behaviors! I could do X, but instead I could do Y, or Z …
  3. Conscience.  Which of those options are wrong?  Which are right?
  4. Free Will.  We can choose.

My reflection on those apparently disconnected and diverse events has reminded me that there is only one condition necessary for me to preempt slipping into automatically responding “in kind” (not to mention preempting that chilling judgment hour question).

If I use those four tools, I will be okay.

You can behave how you will.

Because while it is undeniable that you influence my behavior, you don’t determine it.

You don’t have that power.

Unless I give it to you.

Nope; truth is, my behavior is not and should never be conditional on a certain behavior from you.

I do not have to respond in kind.

Now, admittedly, this is way easier said than done … Hence, the reminders are helpful!

This post draws on concepts related in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  Thank you, once again, Stephen Covey!