When people act up, whether it’s a child throwing a tantrum or an entire generation of people protesting, the cause is almost always a deeply felt pain that has been triggered. In acting up, however, the problem is often that the noise of their behavior drowns out the cries of their pain.
Focusing on the noise makes us deaf to their pain. Subsequently, we start solving for the noise rather than the underlying cause. If we have the power to do so, we punish the behavior actively; if we don’t, we punish it with passive aggression or with judgementalism. It is important to separate the cause of the pain from the way it plays out and manifests.
Columnist Seth Frantzman writes, “Sometimes the spark that sets off something, that speaks to a generation…leads to a groundswell of awakening whose underlying causes were already there.”
Hearing the cries and feeling the pain does not mean we condone the behavior. It only means we are hearing the cries and feeling the pain. Sometimes that is all the other person needs—to be seen, to be heard, and to be experienced and felt. Then the healing can begin without having to do anything more.
Years ago, I worked with Nelson Mandela and leaders of government and industry in South Africa, helping the country transition and heal from the pain and suffering of the apartheid era. Key to that process was the work of Bishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission. That Commission did not punish anyone on either side for the atrocities they committed. It simply allowed the nation to hear the cries and feel the pain of the people so that the healing could begin.
As leaders, we are often confronted with unacceptable behavior or performance: an employee has a pattern of arriving late or missing deadlines; an individual gets into conflict with their colleagues; a leader continuously complains about their team. I am not suggesting for one moment that as leaders we should tolerate that. I am, however, suggesting that in addition to dealing with the behavior, we filter out the noise so that we can hear the cry and feel the underlying pain. That way, we will solve not only for the symptom but also for the cause, and we will bring about meaningful and enduring change.