Watching with the sound off

My family is the main priority in my life and I always thought that my behavior reflected that truth. And then, several years ago, I was presented with a question: “What have you done today to show the people in your life that you love them?” In examining myself from the perspective of a third party, I saw a different picture than the one I held in my mind. I saw myself working long hours, leaving early and coming home late. I saw myself checking my email or being distracted during dinner or other family time. After dinner I would retreat to more work, missing that precious time between school and my kids’ bedtime. I saw myself with my extended family, using that time to talk and complain about my job. 

Anyone watching me would have assumed that work was the single most important thing in my life. If they watched me “with the sound off” – not in total silence, but absent my narration  – they would probably have been surprised to hear that I prioritized family. The shock of realization that my actions did not match my words started me on a path of change in the way I looked at my job, my family, and how I constructed my life. 

Today we are experiencing many crises at once and people are feeling the need to to take a public stand and speak, email, or post their beliefs. These statements – or the lack of them – can be very important. But it’s also important to remember that what people say they believe is simply an intention. It’s a story that we tell ourselves, and some stories have more truth to them than others. 

Turn off the narration for a moment – the mission statements and professed beliefs, the dramatic press releases, the lists of positive actions. Watch “with the sound off” and see if the intentions reveal themselves in actions or results. You can do this at whatever level you want – the individual, the company, or the country. Company X claims to put their customers first – how do they treat their customers when they miss a payment? How easy do they make it to get help, cancel service, or return something? What processes do they have to convert customer complaints into product improvements? Mr. Y might claim to be “the least racist person you will ever meet,” but what actions has he taken against racism or prejudice? Would you guess that racism is an issue for him, seeing what he talks about, posts about, or participates in? 

If you observe a country that has 4.4% of the world’s population but 22% of the world’s incarcerated population, would you guess that “freedom” and “liberty” were among its core values? If you see that black people make up 13% of the population but more than 30% of the incarcerated population and 22% of the poorest class, would you conclude that “justice for all” and “equality” were knit into the fabric of the country?

It’s not about dishonest intentions, it’s about the stories we tell ourselves – stories that are so powerful, stories that we want to believe so badly that we do so even without supporting evidence. We do this by cherry-picking the evidence to support the conclusion we’ve already decided or the label we’ve applied to ourselves. A more truthful test is to go backwards – to look at the final results as evidence of whether the intent was supported by action.

If you realize for yourself or your groups that your actions don’t match your words, you have a choice. You can choose to tell a different story – maybe you don’t really stand for what you thought you stood for. Or, you can change your behavior. You can try to be the person, company, or country you want to be. You can make it so that anyone can clearly see what you stand for, just by watching. You can focus more on being what you claim to be, and less on justifying your current actions to fit your story.

Many people are telling you what they claim to believe in. But saying it doesn’t make it true. It needs to be seen, even when watching with the sound off.

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