One of the five core agreements at Turntide is that “we talk to people, not about people.” Another is that “we create psychological safety for others.” The wording may have evolved a bit, but the fundamentals remain the same. I wanted to take a moment to reflect on these two agreements while relaying my most recent bout of cognitive dissonance.
The first of these two has instilled in me a keystone practice that I hadn’t previously habituated in full. Namely, whenever I catch myself talking about someone who isn’t present, I hold myself to the standard of speaking as-if they were. Or, as my parents often asked me: “would you say that to his face?” I am proud of my commitment to this practice at Turntide and any colleague reading this should hold me accountable to it. If you catch me transgressing, call me out.
Which leads me to the second agreement and my experience of tension. The psychological safety agreement is grounded in Carol Dweck’s seminal ‘growth mindset’ frame coupled with a commitment to the non-egoic pursuit of truth. One of the key tenets is the provision of space for people to grow. This will often entail an agreement to keep what is discussed in confidence. When we struggle with issues — be they dilemmas, problems, or interpersonal conflicts — finding the best path forward is a difficult, messy process. Getting through to the other side will involve fits and starts and plenty of mistakes. Having a trusted confidante around to help us navigate this is immensely valuable. The friend who assumes this role doesn’t have our biases, is less emotionally invested, and has the advantage of third-person perspective. The space that they provide is devoid of judgment. For the confider, processing negative emotion is inherently necessary. This includes airing frustration, exploring anger, and vulnerably acknowledging fear. People will say things they don’t mean and explore false leads. In complement to this, the confider also will need to suffer through the acknowledgement of their own contribution to the conflicts and problems. One shouldn’t underestimate the difficulty, and importance, of this last practice.
My recent cognitive dissonance relates to perceiving a potential tension between these two values. I cherish the trust people place in me when they confide. I hold my commitment to confidentiality as an unbreakable covenant. So what to do when, virtually by definition, this entails relaxing the standard of “would we say it to the person’s face?” Houston, do we have a problem?
I have had quite a few of these experiences in recent weeks. The sense of contradiction has weighed on me sufficiently that I’ve invested quite a bit of quiet reflection time sitting with paradox. Here is how it ultimately opened up for me.
The expression “talk to people, not about them” is not the deepest first principle at work. It is a very profound heuristic that is almost always right. Way more than a rule of thumb. But, as I’ve learned here, it’s not 100%. The deeper fundamental that sits underneath this heuristic is akin to the Golden Rule: “behave in a manner that is in the best interest of all people and all relationships.”
What does this mean for the archetypal spiritual advisor that we are trying to emulate when we serve as a confidante? How do we practice the deeper fundamental? I don’t claim to have the complete or correct answer, but here are a few questions I ask myself:
How can I encourage this person to discuss directly with other people in question; without fear of repercussion?
How can I constructively represent the perspective of others who aren’t present?
I’m sure there are lots more. What do you think?