My Self-Filled Thinking

A local 100-year-old non-profit holds substantial influence in the community. Its membership portfolio is made up of 1,200 paying members. The work of the non-profit is valuable, and necessary to its members.

This nonprofit is governed by a Board of Directors. The expectation in the community, and among the organization members, is for this Board to hold substantial influence over organizational outcomes. The membership expects that an intentional delivery of a strategic intent be accomplished by staff. I served on the Board of Directors for this organization. At the time of my story, I held the position of Board leadership. Others involved were the Executive Director of the organization, and the seated Board President.

The problem

I believed I was elected to serve as a change agent for the organization. As an executive committee member, I was substantially involved in the hiring of a new Executive Director. I was heavily engaged in a re-development of the organizational structure. The new structure intended there be increased Board involvement in mission activities, and more intentional intervention in overall operational governance. I led the process for re-development of the organizational by-laws to accomplish that expected outcome. I felt a very strong sense of urgency to be a leader of change.

However, as President Elect, my job description asked me to serve beside the President and Executive Director for a year, intending for me to ‘learn the ropes.’ My self-filled thinking was manifested when I did not feel that these two people had much to teach me, and, I did not have a focus on ‘learning.’ I wanted to focus on ‘doing.’ My self-filled thinking helped me build a ‘case’ that their actions and reactions were indications of their hesitancy, or inability, to make changes. My self-filled thinking allowed me to take their actions, and use them to cement my belief that they were foiling ‘my desire’ to take action. I made much of their actions fit a narrative that they were unwilling to be serious about leading and implementing.

Repeated clashes in meetings became the norm. Conflict was afoot, especially as I aggressively challenged the Board President at every turn, in front of the Executive Director, no less. I was impatient about how little was getting done. I was critical of his lack of focus and drive.

The moment

On a day of frustration, the President and I had a very aggressive conversation in front of the Executive Director, again. To put it simply, I told him if he cannot get the work going, he should get out of the way and let others lead.  In my mind, ‘others,’ meant ME. In that conversation, it became apparent that the conflict I was engaged in was influencing the environment negatively for all. My actions created ‘sides’ among Board members. My actions created a conflict environment that made staff nervous and unhappy. My actions caused the Executive Director to be torn between loyalty to the current Board President, and me, the future Board President.

The change

The ‘change’ came not long thereafter, when I noticed a Facebook post that was shared with me regarding the Board President. He had experienced a fire at his house that just happened a few days before our climactic conflict event. Most anyone would have thought the fire situation was a tragedy. However, in my self-filled thinking, I was worried less about him as a father, husband, and son. Rather, I focused on his loss of property and how inconvenient this would be for him to get work done. I harbored concern that this fire would take him away from his duties as Board President. Soon thereafter I was chatting with someone who revealed that this fire was not actually the source of pain to him and his family. He had other problems he had been experiencing the last six months. He and his family had much bigger things going on in their personal life.

I began to see more clearly as I learned a little more about this man. I learned that his son was struggling with serious health concerns. The result was chronic pain, debilitating, and spreading. His young son was not only experiencing the chronic pain, but was in despair and generating feelings of helplessness. The situation was that the President and his wife had been taking his son to doctors and clinics around the country over the last six months. There was no solution on the horizon. For me, this revealed and fully illuminated a human being, a person, and individual who I had neglected and avoided. His was a situation I failed to look for, or to see. He was a person I chose not to get to know better. He was a person I chose not to care for or to understand.

Ugh…what have I done that added to his burden? Was not he a miracle worker for spending any time at all on the problems and needs of the Board, and organizational business? Yet, I added to his burden instead of being someone to lighten what I imagined as a very heavy load for him. He was suffering, and it took me too long to even notice or care. He never needed to change, I did.

Conclusion

As a human, a Christian, a father, a husband, a son, a community member, a house owner… I held hundreds of personal touchpoints for finding empathy and connection to him, and his life situation. Although, in my self-filled thinking, I was too blind to see any of them. As a person with a graduate degree in counseling, I let me ego override and disregard my instincts and training.

My greatest mistake was blatantly choosing not to learn about the human conditions being shouldered by this person. It was devastating to me that I did not know, and did not desire to know. I was selfishly focused on my goals, my needs, and my desires. It took outside parties and influences to help me see clearly, even when his house catching fire was not enough for me to see his humanity. Self-filled thinking inhibits the ability to see the truth.

Did I do so much relationship damage that he would not accept my apology? Did I take everything too far for him to believe my offering of now genuine, empathy and support? Do I muster the courage to risk his rejection? How do I apologize? How does one apologize for objectifying another human being and not regarding them as being worthy of responsiveness?

I made my apology to him. We did not immediately gain a relationship, or trust. He was resistant to let me be close, and understandably so. My empathy struck hollow compared to my aggressive acts of self-filled thinking. I had work to do. By the time I clued in, and wised up, everyone was empathetic to his situation. This made me ‘questionably’ genuine in my overtures, as my empathy and offer of support were scattered among too many others. The impact of my efforts to reconcile were genuinely less effective, because they came too late.

It took months to undo the wrong I had done, but fortunately, now he and I hold a relationship of shared concern and respect for one another. We probably cannot call each other close friends, but we would call each other caring friends, and valued colleagues. Our relationship is substantially more demonstrative in our care and concern for each other. Our relationship is better, our work delivers on shared goals, we understand each other’s intensions, and accomplish a great deal together. This outcome is a result of beating back my self-filled thinking and trying to see beyond myself.

This all happened over two years ago, and although I am not perfect, I spend more time in self-reflection. I consider other areas of my life where I am applying this lack of care, and using ‘self-filled’ thinking. Through Outward Mindset training, and connecting with others through CornerPeace, I have learned to apply new practices and thinking toward improving my relationships. I have techniques and a ‘language’ for finding effective means of communicating with others, and I seek to avoid problems like the one I have shared.