Stuck inside a selfish box

Photo: Thomas Grant

The following post is a transcript of a four-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations:

For nearly eight years, Jim Ferrell has been a part of Sutherland Institute’s Transcend Series of lectures and classes. We created the Transcend Series initially for state legislators to help them cut through politics and focus on sound, principle-based policy. Our first class in 2004 was dubbed the Sutherland 20, a group of 20 legislators who have since served in legislative leadership, including two Speakers of the House.

Jim Ferrell’s role is to help participants to see colleagues, constituents and political opponents as people and not simply as objects. That sounds simple enough, but in the heat of political battle you would be amazed at how easy it is to slip into seeing others as objects to push, pull, climb over, ridicule, condemn and otherwise marginalize.

Jim is the CEO of The Arbinger Institute, based in Bountiful, Utah. He and his mentor, Terry Warner, a former BYU professor, created Arbinger as a for-profit consulting firm dedicated to conflict resolution. Arbinger’s clients include large corporations, government agencies and even foreign governments. It has offices worldwide. Jim’s books, Leadership and Self-Deception and The Anatomy of Peace, are best sellers. In Utah, most people know Jim as the author of The Peacegiver, published through the Deseret Book Company.

Partnering with Sutherland Institute’s Transcend Series, Jim created a program for Utah’s elected officials. At the program’s core is acquiring the personal skills to see others as we would see ourselves toward an end of conflict.

A portion of the class explains how people put themselves into selfish boxes that keep us from constructively relating to others and resolving conflicts. These boxes are the same for everyone and every situation. Some people put themselves in the “I’m better than” box wherein you see yourself as superior to others – you won’t be shocked to learn that that’s my box!

Another problem is the “I’m worse than” box, viewing ourselves as inferior, broken or ill-fated. I’m sure you know people like that. Still another box is called the “I deserve” box wherein we see ourselves as meritorious, even entitled and often underappreciated because we’re just so deserving of reward.

The last box is what has caught my attention most recently during this current state legislative session. The box is called “I must be seen as.” I see a lot of elected officials in this box. Moreover, this box seems to be the general state of mind for many Utahns, especially Mormons. The characteristics of this box include the need to be highly thought of, constantly fronting some virtuous aspect of our pretend lives or hoping against all hope that everyone will see us as decent, smart or righteous.

The “I must be seen as” box came to my mind after hearing a state legislator speak on liquor laws. Here’s what he said, “As a general rule, I like to ask what my non-LDS friends from out of state would make fun of me for when they’re here,” and then he would make up his mind about policy based upon whether or not his drinking friends would ridicule him.

Every legislator is certainly entitled to justify policy decisions based on any reason, including the flaw of “I must be seen as.” But that liberty is not the same thing as good thinking. If you’re a legislator and you’re worried about how other people perceive you, you might want to consider other forms of public service.

Everyone has a part in self-deception, as The Arbinger Institute explains. But the real goal is personal leadership. Worrying about cultural perceptions in a state where its historic culture makes it exceptional is not leadership. It’s self-deception.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.