Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Are You the Salad Bowl or the Salad?

Finally brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on those things.

---Philippians 4:8

In Daniel Amen, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life

I was introduced to the salad bowl/salad concept many moons ago when immersed in an intense personal growth exploration phase. It goes like this:

When confronted with an issue or a conflict which provokes emotionally-charged views, do you get right in there and fight with the cucumbers and tomatoes or do you take the role of the salad bowl, holding the entire salad in place for the sake of all?

The Tucson, Arizona shooting rampage reminded me of the significant role of any leader and any person in setting and managing the emotional tone of each and every difference of opinion. This is the least we should expect from our political leaders. Better to be the salad bowl with the aim of making everything work than inciting riots among the salad ingredients.

Our deep limbic system, the seat of our emotions, is much older than our rational brain. It generates our first reaction to all that goes on around us. At the same time, it is directly connected to our executive brain, the pre-frontal cortex which helps us with judgment, sifting and sorting information, thinking about our thinking and ultimately with good (or bad) decision-making. But when the deep limbic system is in overdrive, reason goes out the window. We know from our family environments, that one upset leads to another at times spiraling our of control. The opposite is true too. So is the case in an organization or a nation.

Leaders do set the emotional tone. Each of us sets the emotional tone. Will it be rhetoric twisting the truth to bash those with whom we differ?Or, will it be issue-focused, not person-focused, with the aim of finding good solutions to shared, vexxing problems with no obvious solutions?

Dacher Keltner, author of Born to be Good emphasizes that self-interest, competition and vigilance have been built into our evolutionary makeup to survive. But, he explains that these tendencies are only half the story. "Homo reciprocans" is a more apt description of our social nature with emotions as the glue that binds. Emotions trump facts and figures. They are infectious, especially positive ones which open minds up to possibilities. Fear or negativity makes for more closed minds, reducing novel approaches to intractable problems. How does a leader deal with this responsibly to bring about change for the whole, critics and supporters alike? 

The "Jen ratio" is a tool that can help us cultivate being the salad bowl holding the whole rather than being one piece of the salad having no impact or inciting riots with other pieces, so to speak. "Jen" means "humane". The numerator (the salad bowl) refers to acts of kindness, compassion, awe, love and gratitude. It implies, "I am responsible" for the process and the results. The denominator (the salad) embodies the "bad" action when establishing one's character in relation to others. Such a person, who is "in the salad" is disdainful, critical, condescending and contemptuous. Each of us can track our "Jen ratio" and make improvements consciously.

So can leaders of nations. Keltner further explains in his book that "nations whose citizens bring out the good in others thrive because it generates trust". Trust facilitates "economic exchange with fewer transaction costs, adversarial settlements, discrimination and economic inequality."

Americans are united in grief now over the attack on Congressman Gabrielle Giffords and many other innocent people. But they are not united in responsibility. Time will tell. If politicians and pundits alike can choose the salad bowl as a stance for action, rather than the salad only and a positive Jen ratio as a continuous goal, always in need of calibration, issue by issue, conversation by conversation, the emotional tone in America might shift for the betterment of all.

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