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  • David A. Case

Baby Steps


Baby Steps

“You don’t know what is going on inside of me!”

I don’t know how many times I have heard that statement. People have a stubborn belief that they know themselves better than anyone else knows them. Almost without exception, those who say those words are defending a broken mess, not knowing how to handle it themselves, but not willing to let anyone else in.

Teenagers naturally go through a process of separating from adults, a process of becoming independent. To help them feel good about that transition, many of them buy in to some of the cultural justifications for rejecting the input of those around them. “You can’t tell me what to do.” “It is none of your business.” “I’m going to live my own life.”

We say many things to try to deny the reality that we all share outcomes. “None of your business” may sound good. And yes, there are places where privacy is needed and healthy. But the truth is that every action of every person does have some degree of impact on others.

Openness. Accountability. These go against the grain of a nation where independence is exalted. To the rugged individualist, accountability just feels wrong. “I’m a grown woman!” “I haven’t been treated like that since I was a child.” These are the kind of things we hear in our addiction program when we ask for basic accountability. The problem is that those we are talking to have earned the right to be treated like a child!

The other problem is that accountability for accountability sake doesn’t work. A person can be accountable to others for years and not get heart change. He can see no real change in his life outcomes. Why? Accountability is merely a baby step toward the thing that will bring real change: trust.

I tell our leaders that accountability is nothing unless it leads to trust. And trust won’t happen unless those in authority respond to accountability in a way that builds trust. When those who are in authority belittle or demean those they are “covering,” trust is done. When the leaders use excessive force or control tactics, trust is done. The overbearing leader might get compliance, but he does not build trust.

Trust happens when those in leadership ask smart questions. The person offering the accountability needs to know that those who are leading him have his best interests at heart. Two great questions for leaders to ask those coming to them are “Is it safe?” and “Is it smart?” The “Is it safe?” question is clearly worded in the context of an addiction recovery program. “Will this decision increase your chances of using?” or “Is it safe?”

The key is for leaders to truly ask questions of those they are working with that communicate “I am listening to you.” “I want what is best for you.” These questions build trust and they tend to produce openness. With openness comes better information. With better information comes better decisions. With better decisions comes better outcomes.

Many times, accountability is used as a power tool to force an almost brutal submission. Forced submission almost never results in heart change because it doesn’t produce trust. Accountability done right is a baby step toward trust. It is trust that leads to heart change and then better outcomes.

Instead, we look to a power relationship that forces better behavior … as if that could change anything. It might work for a while with young children. But in the long run, if something doesn’t build trust, it is building independence. Independence strengthens the lie that my actions are no one else’s business, so I can do whatever I want—the total opposite of accountability.

Listening is a good first step. Affirming others wherever possible also builds trust. Asking the kind of questions that cause others to think in a helpful way is also essential. Instead, we live in a country where those in competing political cultures are choosing to shout past one another. The divide simply deepens. It is so similar to the addict who thinks he knows himself and what is good for him when he doesn’t have a clue.

It takes effort on both sides. The broken person needs to surrender his stubborn will. The leader needs to affirm and nurture. Once trust is starting, then the leader can ask for more baby steps—more openness and accountability. Trust is what brings heart change, and trust happens one step at a time.

There are those times when a person will take a leap of trust. There are times when a person has enough commitment to endure a harsh approach, and the more dictatorial authority completely changes the life of the one on the receiving end. But I find that those are the exceptions.

Heart change happens when there is trust. Are you giving anyone in your life enough openness and accountability so that you can truly draw life from them? Are you being the kind of influencer that would cause others to want to trust you?

Building a trust environment may be the single most important thing we can do for one another and for our nation. Compared to what I see happening, it offers a real solution. Baby steps. Openness. Accountability. Listening. A trust environment. Are you part of the solution?


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