…RESPONSE-ABILITY at work and at home.
adapted from Fred Kofman, PhD. April 2013
“Sorry I’m late.
Traffic was awful!”
How many of your meetings start with this lame excuse? You know it’s a cop-out, yet an irrepressible urge makes you take the easy way out over, and over, and over again. It is not your fault, I know. It’s the irrepressible urge that makes you do it.
In Control versus Out of Control There are two types of causes: those within and those beyond your control. You have a choice about where to focus. The latter makes you look innocent. You are not to blame. The former makes you powerful. It is your “response-ability.” Being “response-able” means focusing on what you can do to respond to a challenge. It’s about taking ownership, rather than assigning blame and playing the innocent victim. As I wrote here, the price of innocence is impotence.
You can explain any result as the balance between these two causes: the challenge versus your ability to respond. When your ability is higher than the challenge, you succeed; when it is lower, you fail. Think of it as weight lifting. If your strength is bigger than the weight, you lift it; if it isn’t, you don’t. There is a funny asymmetry, though. When you lift, you call yourself “strong.” When you don’t, you call the weight “heavy.”
Has anyone ever told you that he was not capable enough to do the job? Yet how many times have you heard, “the job is too difficult!” The missing terms at the end of the sentence, the most important ones to avoid the victim mindset are “for me,” as in, “the job is too difficult for me.
Both explanations are (partially) true. The victim story gets you stuck in resignation and resentment. Someone is harming you and there’s nothing you can do. Life is not fair! The responsibility story empowers you. The ball is in your court. How are you going to play it?
Why are they stuck? My colleague Andrés found himself under the gun. While he waited for his garage door to open in Buenos Aires, two armed thieves assaulted him. “Get out of the car!” they threatened. He did. “Open the door of your house or we’ll shoot you!” they barked next. Andrés teaches people how to be response-able. Shaking, he calmly said, “My wife and daughter are in the house. I will give you my car, my money, anything you want. But I will not open the door.” The thieves took his car, his money, his watch, his phone and his laptop, but they didn´t take his life. I asked Andrés what he thought at that crucial moment. “If these guys were going to shoot me for not opening the door, God knows what they would have done to my wife and daughter inside. If they shot me in the street, they would have had to run. I could have died, but I would have protected my loved ones.”
The ability to respond does not mean the ability to succeed. Response-ability does not guarantee that you win, or even survive. It only reminds you that you can choose how you play and how you live.
Asleep with the Enemy We all want to be liked, as Dave Kerpen writes. The problem is that rather than following Dave’s counsel, many of us attempt to be liked through Idiot Compassion. We collude with the person stuck in the victim mindset. We blame, we moan and we groan.
“I can´t believe they did that to you!” “They shouldn’t have!” “You deserve better than that.” “They should fix it right now!”
These comments are soothing – like a drug – and equally deadly. They calm you down with sweet protection and rev you up with righteous indignation. But they don’t give you a way to address the situation. You may think the person making them is on your side, but your drug dealer is not your friend.
Fight Back! I am always tempted to collude with my clients. They are in pain and I want to be compassionate. However, I want to offer them wise compassion. For example, a call center manager whom I coached had a bad case of victimhood. His automatic response when his boss asked him about poor customer satisfaction was to blame his employees for poor manners, the finance department for small budgets, and the training department for lack of skills. I listened to his story, feeling for him. I expressed my sorrow and then asked him if he wanted my help.
When he agreed, I challenged him with these questions:
What is the challenge you are facing? (Instead of “What did they do to you?”)
How have you responded? (Instead of “What should they have done?”)
How has that worked out for you? (Instead of “How are they wrong?”)
What could you do now? (Instead of “What should they do now?”)
If you need help, whom could you ask? (Instead of “Who should fix it?”)
What can you learn from this? (Instead of “How should they be punished?”)
The pattern is simple: turn “they” and “should” into “I” and “could.” Stop blaming them, but don’t blame yourself either. Ability to respond does not mean guilt. It doesn’t matter who is responsible for the situation. What matters is that you see yourself as able to respond, improve and learn when confronting the situation.
What my client found is less important than what your colleagues can find when you ask them these questions with intelligent kindness.
A final word of caution: Remember that to earn the right to challenge someone out of victimhood, you must first listen, acknowledge his or her pain and ask permission to help. I have seen too many relationships broken by eager friends and spouses who interrupt with, “Oh c’mon! Quit being a victim and start thinking of what you can do to solve this problem!
“The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior
is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge,
while an ordinary man takes everything as a blessing or a curse.”
— Don Juan, Mexican shaman (quoted by Carlos Castaneda)
Question for readers: What is your favorite victim explanation?
Fred Kofman, PhD. Economics, is Professor of Leadership and Coaching at the Conscious Business Center of the University Francisco Marroquín and a faculty member of Lean In. He is the author of Conscious Business, How to Build Value Through Values.