I am sure you will agree, we are living in emotionally charged times. That in itself isn’t surprising, we are an emotional species, it defines us; but the measure of emotion today is more a public display of irrationality than a coveted intimate moment. We are displaying our fears with shot-gun accuracy across most social spaces. The net effect is a retreat back into the tribe where we are looking for safe arenas with people who look and speak like us. It’s as primal as we can get. We stop talking with each other, and babble and blast at each other. We avoid all the difficult tensions between us and choose walls rather than doors.
Tough conversations about our differences are always difficult to have, but they are more important than ever. We avoid them because we are worried that they will degenerate into an irrational fight where we will lose, or need to raise our voices or burst into floods of tears. It’s just messy, and so we don’t go there. These conversations are tough enough between individuals, sitting face to face and sorting out there stuff. It becomes even more difficult in groups, and then add social media and a wide range of anonymous channels and those engagements are no longer conversations, they become a war of irrational, word bombs.
Even harder is conducting conversations at community and country level. In effect, the issues that impact us all the most across society can be the hardest to talk about. We end up letting proxies speak on our behalf, and often submit our will and expectations to a group of power sourcing politicians. That is not very appealing, but sometimes it feels like all we can do.
I do however observe a solution to this. I believe we need to make the societal conversations a person to person engagement. Chunk it down to one on one. Not via the media, or social networks, but face to face, warm body to warm body, heart to heart and head to head. The best current example is demonstrated through a particularly tough public debate in South Africa right now which centres around land reform (let me state up front I am a supporter of a redistribution of land in both a legal and humane framework that builds our nation – and I believe that is possible).
Initially the storyline was aggressive and threatening. All sides seemed to pick a position of win-lose, and the redress narrative became more about revenge and defend, and less about stabilising an ownership footprint that could accelerate the potential for wealth creation and dignity for all. Fear rose unabated; the forces in the fray drove each other to a consistent battle of words, and even threatened war itself. It was mostly irrational with little accurate, fact based argument (or facts were distorted to suit the agenda of either side). What else did we expect? It’s an emotional issue, the majority were dispossessed of their land and have suffered for centuries. Land hearings became ping-pong exchanges of fears and desires, demands and threats. I became despondent and history looked likely to repeat itself.
Thankfully, from behind closed doors, people at the heart of the matter began talking to each other. They leaned into the tough conversation and made one, poignant choice – to de-escalate the emotion and find common ground. They began sharing solutions and commitment to ideas that could elevate all South Africans. Those early exchanges must have been challenging, and each stakeholder would have reflected deeply on the responsibility they had on their shoulders. And in a sign of true leadership, they not only walked towards their anxiety, but they chose to note the incitement of fear as an event, and the pursuit of rational solutions as the journey.
Farmers and political decision makers have paused to consider the greater good and displayed signs of a mature character. To me, that is true leadership, and we can choose it each and every day. What choice have you made?