Is It Really an Emergency? Some Thoughts on the Lost Art of De-escalation and the Lack of Accountability

When I was a kid, there was only one television in the house. This was long before the advent of technology that allowed you to record one show while you were watching another. If there was a program on that my brother wanted to watch, and it conflicted with one that I wanted to watch, someone had to win and someone had to lose. There was no accountability to each other. We each hated losing. We each felt we had to get our way. So we escalated. Keeping the other person from getting what he wanted suddenly became a major emergency for each of us… which had a negative impact on the family as a whole.

There started to be big fights over who got to watch what on television. After this happened a couple of times, my parents came up with an interesting way of resolving these conflicts. They unplugged the set. Nobody got to watch anything.

That meant my brother and I both lost.

Years later, I figured out that my parents were sending us an important message, one that has stayed with me for years: “If someone has to win all the time…  then nobody really wins.”

This principle ties into a critical commitment for leaders, and for everyone else for that matter: the commitment to “It’s all of us.“ In other words, we win together and we lose together. No individual is bigger or more important than the entire team (or the family).

There is no room for “my way or the highway” thinking in the accountability commitment that I have come to call “It’s all of us.” And that means, by extension, that there is no issue on which any one person within the team can or should expect to win all the time.

My brother and I eventually figured out that if we worked out our own system of compromise – – a way for me to watch what I wanted this time, and for him to watch what he wanted next time – – then that was a heck of a lot better than having both of us lose all the time. So that’s how we started handling this problem. We stopped fixating on keeping the other guy from winning.

Guess what? It worked. Neither of us got his way all the time, but each of us won enough to keep the big fights from happening. Bottom line: We stopped creating emergencies.

By making it clear to us that “my way or the highway” thinking wasn’t getting us anywhere, by subtly encouraging us to calm down, talk to one another, and work things out, my parents were helping us to master some valuable lessons about de-escalation and created a culture based on accountability within our family. For instance: don’t expect to win all the time; don’t make winning at all costs so important that it shuts down the whole system; and don’t manufacture emergencies.

De-escalation sometimes seems like a lost art: in family settings, in the workplace, and who knows, maybe even in the political arena from time to time. That art, I think, is worth practicing in all three realms. It always pays to be accountable.


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