In his book, Stein On Writing, Sol Stein (an author, playwright, editor and publisher) tells about an experience he had with the Playwrights Group of the Actors Studio in New York. In an improvisation exercise, Sol was given the part of the headmaster of a private school in New York for the privileged young. Another playwright was given the part of the mother of a boy who had been expelled by the headmaster.
Without anyone else knowing, Sol was also told that the mother of the boy was coming to see him, and he was not to let the boy back into school under any circumstances. Again, in private, the other player was told the headmaster of the school was prejudiced against her son and she should not leave until he agreed to take the boy back.
Within minutes of the scene beginning, both participants were quarreling, their voices raised. They got red in the face and even reached the point of yelling at each other. The source of the conflict was simply that each had been given a different script.
That’s what happens in life. The complex combination of temperament, experience, current circumstances, biases and agendas create unique scripts that each of us are acting out. Often the conflict we experience is not based on anything more than misunderstanding the scene we are in.
We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are. Anais Nin
We tend to view the people around us and their actions through the lens of what we would be thinking, feeling or meaning if we were acting the same way.
When Spanish conquistadors encountered the Hopi as they searched for Cíbola (the city of gold) the Hopi chiefs came out to greet them. The Hopi had been waiting for the return of their Pahana, the “Lost White Brother.” In one account, the leader of the Bear Clan extended his hand, palm up, to the Spaniard leader. If he was indeed the true Pahana, the Hopis knew he would extend his own hand, palm down, and clasp the Bear Clan leader’s hand to form the nakwach, the ancient symbol of brotherhood. Instead, he curtly commanded one of his men to drop a gift into the Bear chief’s hand, believing that the Indian wanted a present of some kind. Instantly all the Hopi chiefs knew that Pahana had forgotten the ancient agreement made between their peoples at the time of their separation.
Not the same script.
I can hear you saying, “but they were from different countries, had different languages and couldn’t really communicate.” Well, I think that may be more true of our community than we think. Just because we use the same words does not mean we intend the same things. Functionally, each of us are playing out our lives from a unique script and then getting shocked (and often upset) when others are not able to play along. However, in a community where people value and respect each other the possibility exists to share our script with one another.
The Benefit of the Doubt
This term derives from courts of law. When the evidence was not clear it was the intent of the court that the accused benefit from the doubt, not the accuser. In other words, if you couldn’t prove the person was guilty, you should acquit them. The use for us is exactly the same. If the only evidence we have to interpret someone else’s words or behavior is our own bias, we should be willing to “acquit” the person. Another way to put this is to assume the best about people’s intentions, not the worst.
Clarify, Verify, Qualify
Often we can clear up confusion and avoid hurt feelings and conflict by asking clarifying questions. Maybe if the Spaniards had asked, “Hey man, you wanna shake or are you looking for a gift?” the outcome would have been different. Verifying works best when we are firmly planted in the “benefit of the doubt” area. Asking someone, “what do you mean by that?” in a snarky tone is not going to help. A better way to qualify what was said is to repeat what you heard in your own words. “John, if I am understanding you, you were hoping for a hand shake today.”
Give What You Want to Get
Ultimately, we are all going to make mistakes, and at times even intentionally hurt someone else. Often, we are just reflecting how we are feeling back out to others. Hurting people, hurt people. When we do, we want others to overlook and forgive. The grace we would ask of someone else is no less than the grace we should be willing to give. My grandmother used to tell us, “It takes two people to fight.” What she was helping us learn was that if one person could let go and walk away, much conflict would disappear.
Kimray is a place where we respect and care for one another. It is not a place full of perfect people. We are going to misunderstand each other and at times even intentionally hurt each other. The question isn’t, “is it going to happen?” the question is, “what are we going to do when it does?” In a community marked by empathy and respect we should do what we can to clear up the accidental misunderstandings and forgive the intentional ones. That’s the best script of all. That’s the Kimray Way.