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Integrity: What’s Up With That?

Like trust, integrity is something we all talk about, meaning many different things, but always assuming that everyone else means just what we do.  That leads to some vagueness and confusion. But a careful examination of how we use the words in common language is useful.

Integrity and the Dictionary

Merriam Webster says it’s “the quality of being honest and fair,” and/or “the state of being complete or whole.”

If you’re into derivations of words (as I am), then it’s the second of these definitions that rings true. The root of “integrity” is Latin, integer.  That suggests the heart of the matter (integral), and an entirety. “Integer” also has the sense of a non-fractional number, i.e. whole, not fragmented, complete.

In manufacturing, we have the idea of “surface integrity,” the effect that a machined surface has on the performance of the product in question: integrity here means keeping a package of specified performance levels intact. Similarly, a high-integrity steel beam is one that will not break or otherwise become compromised within certain parameters of stress.

Related also to this theme of wholeness is the idea of transparency, of things being whole, complete, not hidden – in this sense, we have high integrity to the extent we appear the same way to all people. Think of the phrase “two-faced” as an example of someone without integrity. (For a somewhat different and nuanced take on this issue in cyberspace, see @danahboyd on Mark Zuckerberg and multiple online identities).

Sometimes when we say someone has integrity, we mean they act consistently, in accord with principles. We say someone has high integrity when they stick to their guns, even in the face of resistance or difficulty.

Which raises an interesting question: where’s the line between integrity and obstinacy? For that matter, can a politician who believes passionately in the art of compromise ever be considered to have high integrity?

Then there’s that other common use of integrity that has a moral overtone – honorable, honest, upright, virtuous, and decent. Some of it has to do with truth-telling; but some of it has to do with pursuing a moral code.

Yet that raises another interesting question: can a gang member or a mafioso be considered to have integrity? Can an Occupy person ever consider a Wall Streeter to have integrity? Or vice versa? There may be honor among thieves, but can there be integrity?

Integrity – Your Choice?

So which is it?  Does integrity mean you tell the truth? Does it mean you operate from values? Does it mean you always keep your word? Does it mean you live a moral life? Does it mean your life is an open book?

Let’s be clear: there is no “right” answer. Words like “integrity” mean whatever we choose to make them mean; there is no objective “meaning” that exists in a way that can be arbitrated.

But that makes it even more important that we be clear about what we do mean. It just helps in communication.

For my part, I’m going to use “integrity” mainly to mean whole, complete, transparent, evident-to-all, untainted, what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

For other common meanings of “integrity,” I’m going to stick with synonyms like credible or honest; or moral and upright; or consistent.

What do you mean when you think of integrity?

This post first appeared on TrustMatters.

Integrity: What’s Up With That?

 

Integrity, like trust, is something we all talk about, meaning many different things – but always assuming that everyone else means precisely the same that we do.  That leads to vagueness and confusion at best – and angered accusations at worst. Particularly in this time of elections, a careful examination of how we use the words in common language is useful.

Integrity and the Dictionary

Merriam Webster says it’s “the quality of being honest and fair,” and/or “the state of being complete or whole.”

If you’re into derivations of words (as I am), then it’s the second of these definitions that rings true. The root of “integrity” is Latin, integer.  That suggests the heart of the matter (integral), and an entirety. “Integer” also has the sense of a non-fractional number, i.e. whole, not fragmented, complete.

In manufacturing, we have the idea of “surface integrity,” the effect that a machined surface has on the performance of the product in question: integrity here means keeping a package of specified performance levels intact. Similarly, a high-integrity steel beam is one that will not break or otherwise become compromised within certain parameters of stress.

Related also to this theme of wholeness is the idea of transparency, of things being whole, complete, not hidden – in this sense, we have high integrity to the extent we appear the same way to all people. Think of the phrase “two-faced” as an example of someone without integrity. (For a somewhat different and nuanced take on this issue in cyberspace, see @danahboyd on Mark Zuckerberg and multiple online identities).

Sometimes when we say someone has integrity, we mean they act consistently, in accord with principles. We say someone has high integrity when they stick to their guns, even in the face of resistance or difficulty.

Which raises an interesting question: where’s the line between integrity and obstinacy? For that matter, can a politician who believes passionately in the art of compromise ever be considered to have high integrity?

Then there’s that other common use of integrity that has a moral overtone – honorable, honest, upright, virtuous, and decent. Some of it has to do with truth-telling; but some of it has to do with pursuing a moral code.

Yet that raises another interesting question: can a gang member or a mafioso be considered to have integrity? Can an Occupy person ever consider a Wall Streeter to have integrity? Or vice versa? There may be honor among thieves, but can there be integrity?

Integrity – Your Choice?

So which is it?  Does integrity mean you tell the truth? Does it mean you operate from values? Does it mean you always keep your word? Does it mean you live a moral life? Does it mean your life is an open book?

Let’s be clear: there is no “right” answer. Words like “integrity” mean whatever we choose to make them mean; there is no objective “meaning” that exists in a way that can be arbitrated.

But that makes it even more important that we be clear about what we do mean. It just helps in communication.

For my part, I’m going to use “integrity” mainly to mean whole, complete, transparent, evident-to-all, untainted, what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

For other common meanings of “integrity,” I’m going to stick with synonyms like credible or honest; or moral and upright; or consistent.

What do you mean when you think of integrity?

The Problem With Lying

We learned in grade school not to lie (probably just a bit after we’d already learned how to lie – sometimes you have to know a vice before you can see the virtue that counteracts it).

But even if we learned it – the lesson didn’t seem to stick. (Check daily newspaper headlines). As we see headlines about LIBOR, Volkswagen, drug pricing and you name it, are we losing the ability to be shocked by lying?

——–

When in doubt, look to humor – particularly sarcasm.   Here’s Dilbert on trust and lying:

dilbert

Scott Adams nails it.  And with a surgical sledgehammer, as usual. The pointy-haired boss is ethically clueless, and blatantly so.

We all get the joke, much the way we get the old George Burns line, “the most important thing in life is sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

But sometimes it’s worth deconstructing the obvious to see just what makes it tick.  So at the risk of stepping on the laugh line, let’s have a go at it.

Lying and Credibility

The most obvious problem with lying is that it makes you wrong. Anyone who knows the truth then immediately knows, at a bare minimum, that you said something that is not the truth, aka wrong.

The shock to credibility extends even to denials. Think Nixon’s “I am not a crook,”  or Clinton’s “I did not have sex…” or the granddaddy of them all, the apocryphal Lyndon  Johnson story about getting an opponent to deny having had sexual relations with a pig. In each case, the denial forces us to consider the possibility of an alternate truth – and the damage is done.

But credibility is the least of it. There are two other corrosive aspects of lying: evasiveness and motives.

Lying and Evasiveness

When you think someone is lying to you, you likely think, “Why is he saying that?” Evasive lying is rarely as direct as the Dilbert case; more often it shows up in white lies, lies of omission, or lies of deflection. “You know, you can’t really trust those damage reports anyway,” “I wouldn’t be too concerned about the service guarantee if I were you,” and so forth.

If the first response to a lie is to doubt that what is stated is the truth, then the second response is to wonder what the truth really is. And we sense evasiveness as we run down the list of alternate truths, each more negative than the last.

Lying and Motive

But the most damning aspect of lying is probably the doubt it casts on the liar’s motives. We move from “that’s not true!” to “I wonder what really is true,” to “why would he be saying such a thing?”

To doubt someone’s motives is to add an infinite loop to our concerns about the lie. First of all, motive goes beyond the lie, to the person telling the lie – who is now incontrovertibly a liar.

Second, the rarest of all motives for lying is an attempt to do a  greater good for another. Despite frequent claims that “I did it for (the kids / the parents / justice), almost all motives for lying turn out to be self-serving at root.  (Including the lies we tell ourselves about why we’re telling lies). Why would he do such a thing? Because there was something in it for him, that’s why! It’s almost always true.

And if people act toward us from selfish motives, then we know we have been treated as objects – as means to an end and not as ends in ourselves. This is unethical in the Kantian sense.

Worst of all, bad motives call everything else into question. “If he lied about this, then how can I know he was telling the truth about that? Or about anything else?” This is why perjury is a crime, and why casting doubt on someone’s character is a common way to counter their statements.

Recovering from Lies

We’ve all told lies. At least, everyone I know has. Okay, I have. We can often be forgiven, just as we can forgive others their lies to us. To forgive and to be forgiven, the liar must express recognition and contrition around the full extent of the lie, and then some.

This can be done more easily for the wounds of credibility and evasiveness. “I was wrong to do that, I know it, and I am sorry.” It is harder to forgive the part about motive, because it goes to something much deeper. How can someone be believed about changing their motives?  How easily can you change your own?

This post first appeared on TrustMatters.

Lost Wallets, Trust, and Honesty

I lost my wallet.

Somewhere between a golf driving range and a supermarket, in a 30-minute period, it went missing. I turned things upside down, retraced my paths, left notes with wanting-to-be-helpful staff.

I monitored accounts for three days; no bank charges, no credit card hits, so I held off canceling the cards, calling the DMV etc. I shudder at the thought of replacing it all.

At dinner on day three, the sheriff’s department calls; I meet the officer at a gas station. All the cards are there, as well as the original $140 in cash intact. He says, “Good thing you left your number at the driving range, that made it easy to confirm it was you.”

I say, “I know you can’t take a reward, but how about the guy who turned it in?” The cop says, “That’s between you and him; here’s his name and phone number.”

I meet the good samaritan the next day – let’s call him Ishmael. Why did Ishmael do it? He gave the Kantian reason; “If it was me, I’d hope someone would turn it in.” I offer him $100 reward; he demurs; I insist; he graciously accepts.

But my big question: why did he wait three days? Had it laid unfound for so long? Was it a struggle with his own conscience?  Enquiring minds wanted to know.

His answer: “I didn’t feel right turning it in to the proprietor at the driving range; I guess I just didn’t know if I could trust him. I meant to call the police, but I worked late the next day, and wasn’t sure who to call at the police. But my girlfriend, she cleans houses; one of her clients is a cop. She asked him who to contact, and he said, ‘call this number.’ So she gave it to me, and I called, and now you have your wallet. I’m glad.”

Whom Can You Trust?

Clearly, Ishmael turned out to be highly trustworthy. But let’s note a few other trust decisions along the way.

Ishmael trusted a cop – note he didn’t trust ’the cops,’ but he did trust one cop. He trusted his girlfriend’s due diligence to find out which one. I wonder how Ishmael would answer an Edelman Trust Barometer survey asking if he trusted the police?

Ishmael didn’t trust the driving range proprietor. I initially didn’t either, though I met a second driving range employee on day two whom I trusted more.

The police didn’t have to trust anyone in this case. Their role was limited to being trustworthy – or not. In this case, they were. One cop gave a correct phone number; the other responded. He checked out the information, made the phone calls, and most obviously the wallet didn’t ‘disappear’ while in his custody. I would add he was pleasant, and also expressed the Kantian view when I apologized for keeping him waiting a bit – “Hey, no worries, I know how worried I’d be if it was my wallet.”

What about the bank? I trusted the bank’s systems in two ways. First, I trusted that any use of my debit or credit cards or withdrawal from my checking account would show up quickly, and I’d find out about it online.

But second, I ‘trusted’ that the bank wouldn’t trust me very far – at the first hint of a suspicious charge, or at my first suggestion of it, I knew the bank would drop the iron curtain on all my accounts. (US laws limit the liability of individuals in such cases, so banks will pull the trigger quickly on a false positive). So, I could afford to wait a bit.

And, I had some sort of trust in Ishmael – without even knowing who he was, or even that he existed. The clue was the lack of activity in my accounts. I figured either the wallet was still in my possession, or it had been stripped of cash by an addict and dumped (or, by a Kantian addict who had then put the cashless wallet in the mail – hey it used to happen that way in the 70s with cabdriver theft in NY).

Or, there was some Ishmael out there. But what was he waiting for? I confess I didn’t have an answer to that.

Past Lost Wallets

There is a pattern here.  Actually, two patterns. One is that clearly I have an issue with losing things. I’ve lost my wallet once before, in Copenhagen.  I’ve also managed to leave my MacBook Air computer on the plane – not just once, but twice.  The first was at O’Hare; the second, in Charlotte.

So yes, clearly I’ve got an issue with carelessness. But there are other things to note here as well, even though this is all anecdotal.

In the first wallet case, it was returned within the hour by a taxi driver. This was calmly and confidently predicted, both by my client and by the hotel; it’s the norm in Denmark, not even worth commenting on, they said. But you know, I’ve heard many stories about the same even in New York.

And in the airline cases, it all came down to individuals, taking personal responsibility far outside the system.

How Can We Trust Institutions?

The quick answer is, institutional trust is by its nature shallow. I can trust Chase bank’s systems (or not), but if I need something truly out of the ordinary, I’d better find a real person. Trust of the type that returns wallets is an individual thing – or, as the case of Denmark points out, a cultural thing.

It is a kind of misnomer to use the word ‘trust’ in the sense of ‘I trust an institution.’ But that doesn’t mean institutions have no role in trust. They have a huge role. The role is to establish an environment within which people can behave in trusting and trustworthy manners.

That is non-trivial. In fact, it’s vital. An organization that fosters bureaucracy, suspicion, and conformity is not going to attract, and certainly not sustain, trust-operating people.  By contrast, an organization that celebrates trusting and being trusted among its people will greatly influence the amount of trust that is created.

And our job, as we go about our daily lives, is to be open about when other people might surprise us – and, hopefully, to do the Kantian thing ourselves when the opportunity presents.

 

Integrity: What’s Up With That?

Can You Roll The Dice On IntegrityLike trust, integrity is something we all talk about, meaning many different things, but always assuming that everyone else means just what we do.  That leads to some vagueness and confusion. But a careful examination of how we use the words in common language is useful.

Integrity and the Dictionary

Merriam Webster says it’s “the quality of being honest and fair,” and/or “the state of being complete or whole.”

If you’re into derivations of words (as I am), then it’s the second of these definitions that rings true. The root of “integrity” is Latin, integer.  That suggests the heart of the matter (integral), and an entirety. “Integer” also has the sense of a non-fractional number, i.e. whole, not fragmented, complete.

In manufacturing, we have the idea of “surface integrity,” the effect that a machined surface has on the performance of the product in question: integrity here means keeping a package of specified performance levels intact. Similarly, a high-integrity steel beam is one that will not break or otherwise become compromised within certain parameters of stress.

Related also to this theme of wholeness is the idea of transparency, of things being whole, complete, not hidden – in this sense, we have high integrity to the extent we appear the same way to all people. Think of the phrase “two-faced” as an example of someone without integrity. (For a somewhat different and nuanced take on this issue in cyberspace, see @danahboyd on Mark Zuckerberg and multiple online identities).

Sometimes when we say someone has integrity, we mean they act consistently, in accord with principles. We say someone has high integrity when they stick to their guns, even in the face of resistance or difficulty.

Which raises an interesting question: where’s the line between integrity and obstinacy? For that matter, can a politician who believes passionately in the art of compromise ever be considered to have high integrity?

Then there’s that other common use of integrity that has a moral overtone – honorable, honest, upright, virtuous, and decent. Some of it has to do with truth-telling; but some of it has to do with pursuing a moral code.

Yet that raises another interesting question: can a gang member or a mafioso be considered to have integrity? Can an Occupy person ever consider a Wall Streeter to have integrity? Or vice versa? There may be honor among thieves, but can there be integrity?

Integrity – Your Choice?

So which is it?  Does integrity mean you tell the truth? Does it mean you operate from values? Does it mean you always keep your word? Does it mean you live a moral life? Does it mean your life is an open book?

Let’s be clear: there is no “right” answer. Words like “integrity” mean whatever we choose to make them mean; there is no objective “meaning” that exists in a way that can be arbitrated.

But that makes it even more important that we be clear about what we do mean. It just helps in communication.

For my part, I’m going to use “integrity” mainly to mean whole, complete, transparent, evident-to-all, untainted, what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

For other common meanings of “integrity,” I’m going to stick with synonyms like credible or honest; or moral and upright; or consistent.

What do you mean when you think of integrity?

8 Ways to Make People Believe What You Tell Them

Get Straight to the TruthCredibility is one piece of the bedrock of trust. If people doubt what you say, all else is called into doubt, including competence and good intentions. If others don’t believe what you tell them, they won’t take your advice, they won’t buy from you, they won’t speak well of you, they won’t refer you on to others, and they will generally make it harder for you to deal with them.

Being believed is pretty important stuff. The most obvious way to be believed, most people would say, is to be right about what you’re saying. Unfortunately, being right and a dollar will get you a  cup of coffee.  First, people have to be willing to hear you. And no one likes a wise guy show-off – if all you’ve got is a right answer, you’ve not got much.

While each of these may sound simple, there are eight distinct things you can do to improve the odds that people believe what you say.  Are you firing on all eight cylinders?

1. Tell the truth. This is the obvious first point, of course – but it’s amazing how the concept gets watered down. For starters, telling the truth is not the same as just not lying. It requires saying something; you can’t tell the truth if you don’t speak it.

2. Tell the whole truth. Don’t be cutesie and technical. Don’t allow people to draw erroneous conclusions based on what you left out. By telling the whole truth, you show people that you have nothing to hide. (Most politicians continually flunk this point).

3. Don’t over-context the truth. The most believable way to say something is to be direct about it. Don’t muddy the issue with adjectives, excuses, mitigating circumstances, your preferred spin, and the like. We believe people who state the facts, and let us uncover the context for ourselves.

4. Freely confess ignorance. If someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, say, “I don’t know.” It’s one of the most credible things you can say. After all, technical knowledge can always be looked up; personal courage and integrity are in far shorter supply.

5. First, listen. Nothing makes people pay attention to you more than your having paid attention to them first. They will also be more generous in their interpretation of what you say, because you have shown them the grace and respect of carefully listening to them first. Reciprocity is big with human beings.

6. It’s not the words, it’s the intent. You could say, in a monotone voice, “I really care about the work you folks are doing here.” And you would be doubted. Or, you could listen, animatedly, leaning in, raising your eyebrows and bestowing the gift of your attention, saying nothing more than, “wow.” And people would believe that you care.

7. Use commonsense anchors. Most of us in business rely on cognitive tools: data, deductive logic, and references. They are not nearly as persuasive as we think. Focus instead more on metaphors, analogies, shared experiences, stories, song lyrics, movies, famous quotations. People are more inclined to believe something if it’s familiar, if it fits, or makes sense, within their world view.

8. Use the language of the other person. If they say “customer,” don’t you say “client.” And vice versa. If they don’t swear, don’t you dare. If they speak quietly one on one, adopt their style. That way, when you say something, they will not be distracted by your out-of-ordinary approach, and they will intuitively respect that you hear and understand them.

What’s not on this list?  Several things, actually. Deductive logic. Powerpoint. Cool graphics. Spreadsheet backup. Testimonials and references. Qualifications and credentials.

It’s not that these factors aren’t important; they are. But they are frequently used as blunt instruments to qualify or reject. We’d all prefer to be rejected or disbelieved “for cause,” rather than for some feeling. And so we come up with rational reasons for saying no, and justifying yes.  But the decision itself to believe you is far more likely driven by the more emotive factors listed above.

 

 

Brutal Honesty Isn’t

I have to be brutally honest

Oh it’s brutal, all right. But it’s not honest. Real honesty is empathetic.  Here’s how.

I suppose you could be honest in a vacuum – but who cares?  Was Robinson Crusoe honest?  Until Friday came along, that was just a silly question. You can’t be usefully honest, except in relation to or with someone.

Honesty Implies a Relationship

If you’re honest with someone, then suddenly it’s about a relationship. You might be honest with them, or you could lie to them; both are a form of relationship.  The quality of your honesty affects the relationship, just as do the quality of your appearance, your manners, or your powers of observation.

If you’re in relationship, you may intend to honor and promote that relationship – or, you may choose to work against the relationship,  to take advantage of it for your own purposes, or disavow it, or destroy it. If your intentions are to further the relationship, then honesty – and any other theme – must serve that goal.

Positive Honesty

This is what we usually mean by honesty; telling someone something they will find helpful, sharing information with them in the hope that knowing it will give them a broader view, being open so as to be of service to them. And when we behave honestly with these motives, a collateral benefit is that the relationship itself improves.

If these are your motives in being honest, then you will strive to make the information useful, and able to be heard and understood by the recipient. After all, if the information you present is rejected, or causes resentment, then it cannot help the other person. Additionally, the relationship will be damaged. In being honest, you intend your message to be accepted. If the medicine needs a spoonful of sugar to go down, keep the sugar bowl handy.

Brutal Honesty

But what if your motives are other than to help the other person?  Suppose that, for reasons perhaps obscure even to yourself, your motives are to be right; or to prove that you had been right all along; or to provoke a violent reaction; or to cause pain. What is the effect in those cases?

The effect is almost always negative. The person rejects the advice, and the relationship is damaged, with each party going off muttering imprecations under their breath about the other.

But what about the times when we simply have to confront someone to get them to see the error of their ways? When there’s just no substitute for rubbing their face in it, for conducting an intervention, for shocking them into seeing the truth, which shall then of course set them free? This is what goes by the name of Brutal Honesty.

My experience is that for every 10 of those cases, maybe one works out. The others fizzle out and create havoc. The brutalized party rarely comes to full consciousness and thanks us for saving their soul. Instead, they just stop talking to us. At best.

Brutal honesty, then, is an oxymoron. If you are to be brutal, you will not long stay in relationship. If your view of improving relationships involves brutalizing them, you will not find many willing to travel that road with you.

If someone says to you, “I have to be brutally honest with you, ” say, “No, actually, you don’t. And I don’t have to hear it, either. Now, what was it you wanted to say?” And don’t overly weight what they tell you.

If you are ever tempted to tell someone, “I have to be brutally honest with you,” go hit yourself upside the head with a closed fist, to remind yourself how it feels to be brutalized.

Then ask yourself, “Do I care about this person and this relationship?  Then what do I have to share with them that is constructive, useful, and builds the relationship based on positive honesty?”

Playing a Losing Hand to Win

Four years and 9 months ago I wrote a blogpost called An Honest Wedding. It was about the nuptials in western Michigan of a cancer patient “Jane,” and the widower of a cancer victim, “John.”

This week I was back in Michigan, to attend the inevitable bookend of that blogpost – the funeral of “Jane,” in real life my youngest sister, Priscilla. She was beautifully eulogized by the same minister who had married them.

What stood out was not the tragedy of a good woman lost before her time, but the extraordinary good she made of her life. She played a losing hand, and won.

A Losing Hand

Priscilla had multiple myeloma, a disease that normally has a life expectancy of 1-3 years. She ran it out for 17.

An RN, she had experience in both midwifery and hospice. She had the ability to serve as her own patient advocate, and she did so successfully.

Still, back in 2007, the marriage of a recently-divorced woman already living on borrowed time to a recently-bereaved-by-cancer widower seemed like a long shot bet on the romantic triumph of hope over cold reality.  With four children in play, two of whom had lost one mother already, the potential for emotional damage seemed almost unbearable.

The Honest Wedding mitigated that risk by facing it squarely and directly. But honesty alone can’t stop multiple myeloma.

Winning with a Losing Hand

Over a hundred people attended her celebration this Saturday; it opened with the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts, and closed with drums and trumpet playing When the Saints Go Marching In.

The eulogy, and a dozen people who testified, all said the same thing: she had managed to win, despite having been dealt a losing hand. The longer she lived, the more imminent her death seemed, the more she became kind, open, giving, caring, appreciative, and often joyful.

As the minister said, “She found a way to hold on to every precious moment of her life at the same time that she released her hold on it and let it go.” As her sister said, Priscilla was an old soul since childhood; she was a caretaker, sharing easily of her emotions.

She found her way, everyone agreed, through a focus on simplicity and flexibility: living in the moment by focusing on nature, caring about others, and accepting life on life’s terms. At the same time, her journey involved finding her own boundaries, trusting her own instincts. The minister again:

There are people who become bitter and angry when cancer comes and death looms. They resist help and communication about their illness. Not Priscilla. She embraced her lot in life, her destiny, and took us along on the journey with her.

Some people say it takes a village to raise a child. I think – it takes a village to live a life.

To the last days and even hours of her life, Priscilla remained this way: engaged, and in love with life and with those in her village.

That village, represented at the ceremony, included her first husband, with whom she had forged a deep friendship, all five children she had helped raise, members of all churches she had been part of, and innumerable micro-communities she had touched.

I truly don’t think Priscilla ever lost a friend she’d ever made, and she made many.

She played a losing hand and won, not just for herself, but for everyone else who had placed a side bet by being part of her life and her village.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Separation: a Cinematic Tale of Truth and Lies

This past weekend I saw A Separation, an Iranian movie with more awards to its credit than a dictator’s military jacket. It deserves every one of them.

You’ll never find better screenwriting. Rolling Stone rightly calls it “a landmark film.” Filmcritic calls it a brilliant political metaphor. Roger Ebert praises it as a critique of religion. The Irish Times calls it “a thoughtful film that also works as a crackling melodrama.”

It is all those, and something else. It’s a poster child for the corrosive influence of lying and the power of truth-telling.

Relationships in Disarray

I’ve often quoted (and will again here) Phil McGee’s brilliant insight that “all business problems flow from a tendency to blame, and an inability to confront.”

In A Separation, we see a couple struggling with their relationship. The wife wants to leave Iran; the husband refuses to leave his ailing father. The wife goes to stay with her parents. Their daughter is caught in between.

A woman, hired as a caregiver to the ailing father, brings her volatile husband into the mix. A small set of events trigger a progressive breakdown of relationships among these five key characters.

It is the breakdown that is portrayed so brilliantly. All five are shown as partly sympathetic, and the incidents are so trivial that it doesn’t feel like a deus ex machina. And so the plot feels inevitable – the situation falls into disarray like water forming a funnel down the sink.  How could it be otherwise?

The Truth Shall Set You Free

Until, that is, you realize that every one of these people is fundamentally, deeply, living a lie. One’s lie is about honor; another’s about God; a third about loyalty to family. All the lies seem trivial, and understandable. But they all collide; irresistible forces meeting immovable objects.

And I realized, walking out of the theater, that every single one of those characters held the power within them to change everything – simply by being willing to tell the truth. And the power they held was not just to change themselves, but to change everyone else as well – the entire situation.

A Tendency to Blame, and an Inability to Confront

Back to McGee’s thesis. Dysfunction in groups is rarely about one stubborn person gumming up the works. That is the blame game. The one bad apple spoiling the barrel.

More often, it’s a group conspiracy that’s at fault; the entire organization opting to point fingers, rather than engaging in confronting the true issue at hand. And as the movie reminded me, a conspiracy doesn’t need to be undone by everyone – a single defector can do the job.

All it takes is one person to Speak the Truth, to point out the emperor’s new non-clothes. If that can be done, everyone else immediately recognizes that truth has been spoken. Then, whether from shame or from gratitude at someone else having taken the first step, the healing can begin.

Is this too abstract? What about you? What tangled webs are you a part of? What truth might be spoken by others caught up in the web that would set everyone free?

What truth might be spoken by you?

Trust Tip Video: Truth is More Than Not Lying

We all think lying is bad. Pretty much, mostly, usually. We think of lying as saying something that is not true. But not saying something that is true can get us in even more trouble.

We underestimate the power of truth-telling.

That’s what this week’s Trust Tip video is about.

For more on the subject of truth-telling, lies and untold truths, you might enjoy reading Truth, Lies and Unicorns.

If you like the Trust Tip Video series, and you like our occasional eBooks, why not subscribe to make sure you get both? Every 2-4 weeks we’ll send you selected high-quality content. To subscribe, click here, or go to http://bit.ly/trust-subscribe

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Many Trusted Advisor programs now offer CPE credits.  Please call Tracey DelCamp for more information at 856-981-5268–or drop us a note @ info@trustedadvisor.com.