Actions That Might
In difficult times, whether for a nation, a workplace, or
our own lives, our immediate instinct is to want to do
something—“Don’t just stand there, do
something.” We pride ourselves in being action
oriented. While we need to respond to strong events and
strong emotions, I want to question what constitutes
Our conventional idea of action is to do
something tangible and concrete. We shift direction, seek
justice, enforce controls, increase oversight, set
standards, hold people more accountable, budget money, or
change regulations. In the face of all of this, I have
come to see these as mostly symbolic and constitute doing
more today of what we have been doing yesterday.
I question whether all the habits that we
call action ever fulfill their promise to provide a more
secure and hopeful future. I wonder whether these kinds
of decisions change anything of lasting value, or whether
they simply imbed us in the condition we are trying to
If we think about the changes we truly care
about, they have to do with the qualitative dimension of
our lives. If I asked you what kind of a world or
institution you wanted to create, you would most likely
focus on human values: peace, consideration, love,
cooperation, social responsibility, harmony with nature,
and economic self-sufficiency.
In the domain of human values, I see little
evidence that decisions about direction, controls,
standards, more oversight or protections, have much
impact. These are decisions that reinforce the illusion
that executive action can shift our lives, keep us safe,
or make us successful. Most of the decisions we call for
only reinforce our belief in capturing more control over
events, and it is this mindset of decisiveness that most
often created the symptoms of dysfunction we are trying
Authentic change in the quality of our experience, of our
culture, change that shifts rather than reinforces the
ground we stand on, is of a different nature than what
grows from decisive decision making and pointed problem
solving. If we want to not only fix the symptom, but also
revise our part in creating the conditions that trouble
us, then problem solving and quick action change
I would like to broaden our conception of
what we call action to include deepening experiences.
Something shifts when we differentiate between decisive
action and what we might call “profound
action.” Profound action is about our way of
thinking, our way of being with those immediately around
us, and the nature of the conversations we engage in.
Profound action exists in contrast to what might be
called decisive action.
There are three kinds of actions that could
be labeled as profound: shifting our consciousness,
making relationships primary, and language of
Shifting Our Consciousness
What problem solving misses is that change is about
consciousness, it is about our capacity to reflect on our
experience and see it in a different way. Consciousness
is the realization that I am constructing the world
within and around me, even the evil in the world. This
means we realize that what disturbs us in others is a
part of us. If we long for hope or greater security, it
comes from acts of reflection, not decisiveness. There is
no adequate protection against the external reality. To
believe that decisive, external changes can give us
security and safety is to bet on an illusion.
Bosses cannot protect their employees, the
army cannot protect its citizenry, and parents cannot
hold their children immune from the pain in the world.
All may want to, but as long as we think it is
achievable, we will bet our future on acquiring all the
power, resources, and protective regulations that we can
muster, and thereby miss the point.
If we would include consciousness as a
powerful action step in times of crisis, we would start
to value reflection. We would take time to think. We
would question the limitations of our own world view. We
would value wondering what events mean to us, rather than
how to manage events. We would accept the idea that if we
wish to change the world we first must change our mind.
This puts thought and our thinking at the center of
action. It carries the insight that seeing our role in
creating the world is the essence of being awake and
being in charge.
Making Relationships Primary
In a culture that values decisive action, relationships
are viewed as a means to an end. Every time we meet we
want to decide something. It is almost illegal to end a
meeting without a list of what we have decided to do.
Real change comes when the nature of how we come together
has shifted. The most important questions that impact our
future are not about a list of decisions, but more from a
- Who is to be included and excluded from this
- How do we deepen the quality of contact we made
with each other?
- How do all the gifts of those present get brought
to the table?
Inclusion, contact, and valuing gifts are
profound action steps. When they are the point, and are
not simply process questions to improve the quality of
our decisiveness, we increase our hope that the future
might be different from the past.
Language of Reconciliation
The third action that offers the possibility of an
alternative future comes from a shift in the nature of
our conversations. We anesthetize ourselves with the old
conversations of decisive actions, greater controls,
higher standards, better security, and regulation. We
were weaned on these conversations and even at the moment
we discuss these, we intuitively know that if more
decisiveness were the solution, we would not be facing
the problems in front of us.
We fool ourselves into thinking that last
time we were not decisive, controlling, or watchful
enough. Greater consciousness and more powerful
relationships grow from using language that opens the
door of reconciliation. The reconciliation we seek is to
come to terms with our past and with our own part in
creating the present. We need conversation that
reconciles us to the pain and suffering that exists in
the world that we are not going to fix.
Profound action in the form of a new
conversation includes speaking about our part in
constructing the world we are a part of. This places us
in the role of an active player and the act of going
public with our confession is the radical act. Another
element of reconciliation is forgiveness. We have to live
with the limitations, even madness, of those around us,
otherwise, in our judgment, we become another version of
what we are fighting against.
We could keep adding elements of a new
conversation which might include gratitude,
surrender…you have your own list. The point is
that the language in which we chose to talk about our
concerns is a profound action step that determines our
future more significantly than how we rearrange the
tangible and physical world.
What’s the Point is the Point
Consciousness, relationship, and conversation create
conditions where transformation is possible. They are not
the soft side of taking care of business, they are the
hard part. Perhaps what is required of us is to
acknowledge them for their own sake, and not just as a
means to tangible ends. In fact, we may have it backward:
Perhaps the only purpose of decisive concrete actions is
to provide a means for the real goal of raising
consciousness, building relationships, and promoting
If we seriously adopted this point of view,
then the purpose of our institutions, including
government, would shift, and instead of being in the
business of serving markets and constituent interests,
each institution would recognize it was simply and
completely in the business of human development. Then we
might see some real action.
November 2001 News
for a Change Homepage