I recently saw Lee Daniel's The Butler starring Forest Whitaker as a White House butler who served eight presidential administrations.
Though unsure what to expect of the film, I assumed it would be a movie about race in America. To my surprise, it wasn't a movie about race. It was a movie about the complexity of human communication.
In the mosaic interconnect of communication, passion, and people, this film presented two powerful communication lessons we can learn.
Before we get there, allow me to take you on a fictitious journey into the thoughts of Cecil Gaines, the butler, and his college aged son, Louis.
A Father's thoughts
" I can't believe he is doing this. After all I have done to make sure he, his brother, and his mother never had to live in the utter filth of poverty that I grew up in. He lives in a nice house, wears nice clothes, and has been school educated. Always looking down his nose at me. To treat me like this is just ungrateful and I won't have it. He is just too big for his britches and if he keeps acting like this someone is going to put him in his place. And of all the colleges to choose, WHY in the world would he choose a school down there where I can't protect him. There are plenty of negro colleges he could attend in the northeast. I just don't get it."A Son's thoughts
"Stupid ole man is always looking down on his nose at me. I am not the one shining the white man's shoes saying 'Yes, massuh.' It is disgraceful. Our people can't share the same drinking fountain, go to the same school, or sit anywhere we want in a restaurant, bus or movie theater, and he is fine with that. Don't rock the boat? The boat needs to be torpedoed! At least I am standing up for what I believe in, all you are doing is bowing down doing what is expected of you."
Experience dictates demand!
We can imagine as we read these thoughts, what emotions are behind them. For the father, it is fear for his son's safety. For the son, it is anger. Wouldn't it be nice if all of our thoughts could be neatly typed up and presented to others. (Well maybe not all our thoughts but you get the point). It would be so much easier to read each others minds and then we'd all know exactly how to respond.
But that is not possible.
What happens, then, is we have these internal dialogues that no one can hear except us. In our streams of consciousness, we draw conclusions based on our experiences in life. Those conclusions grow into beliefs. Our beliefs dictate our expectations. Our expectations morph in our norms. From our norms we make demands on ourselves and others.
The problem? The person or people from whom we are demanding are not privy to the experiences, conclusions, belief, expectations, or norms tucked away in the recesses of our minds. All they ever experience is our vehement, belligerent, emotional, or threatening demand.
Respect doesn't have to be earned!
When I tell people I don't believe respect has to be earned, I get weird looks. I believe their is an inherent flaw in most people's definition of respect. If you have to earn my respect, that means I have the power to give or deny you respect based on whatever measuring stick I determine. Viewing humans this way is extremely dangerous.
As the film highlights, blacks in America were at the mercy of earning respect from those in power. Under the "respect has to be earned" philosophy, white Americans could grant or deny respect however they saw fit. Black Americans then, under this philosophy, had to wait for, perform for, and be validated by whites.
This example of how believing respect has to be earned strips people of their intrinsic God given value and puts it in the hands of flawed mankind.
I think what people really mean is that my trust needs to be earned. We should expect people to prove they are competent, capable, talented, etc in regard to whatever task, job, or position they have. People can earn my vote, my loyalty, my money, or my friendship.
What lessons can we take away from this?
1. Put your weaponry aside!
When we invite others to our homes, our goal is to make them feel at ease and welcomed. If we open the door to greet our guest with a switchblade in one hand and a crossbow in the other, what hope is there for honest dialogue? Chances are they aren't going to want to come in. In fact, they'll probably pull out their arsenal too.
Lay down your weaponry for a second. Put your argument and point of view aside for a minute and open yourself up to hear a different view. Don't worry, you won't lose or forget your argument! It has been shaped by your life experiences and it is so ingrained it isn't going anywhere.
We have gotten so used to being in battle ready positions that we forget what open, honest, agenda-free communication looks like.
2. Don't demand, invite!
Sending an invitation inherently suggests that someone has the option to accept or reject it. Inviting others into our point of view opens the door for exchange.
If you are at odds with someone, invite him/her to share not only their point of view but why that point of view is so important. This invitation has to be crafted on the papyrus of respect for it to be effective.
It takes courage to initiate the communication process I just described. Philosopher Immanual Kant said "Always treat people as ends in themselves, never as means to an end."
If you haven't seen the film, I encourage you to go see it. Go with your weapons down and look for points of view that differ from your own...if you are BRAVE enough!