“Observe the consequences and modify your behaviour”.
My answer came in response to the question “What am I supposed to do?” The discussion was about improving a relationship.
Of course it’s not original. The concept of a continuous feedback loop has been applied in manufacturing for a long time and is key to the theory of Total Quality Management initially promulgated by the Japanese but adopted more-or-less universally since the 1980’s. The object of TQM is to ensure that an organisation consistently delivers high-quality products with excellent customer service in an environment of trust, integrity and workforce commitment, usually through employee empowerment. The feedback loop is just one element, but an important one.
What’s possibly less common is the idea of applying this concept to human relations. On the one hand we still have entrenched romantic beliefs that good relationships occur as if by magic, without any effort, which was embodied in the mawkish “love means never having to say you’re sorry” of 1970’s Love Story. On the other, the fashionable “we are responsible for our own feelings ” of cognitive behavioural therapy which argues for whatever alteration of belief systems is needed to deny causal relationships between individuals. Whilst the burden of this particular argument may be the increase of personal responsibility for our own happiness it seems to me that the real effect is to further detach us each from the other. The last thirty years have seen an increasingly pervasive belief that individuals should behave precisely as they will without expecting there to be – or considering whether there might be – any impact on others.
I’m not denying the value of personal emotional empowerment in the context of an abusive relationship, whether that relationship be personal, commercial or the result of social stereotyping. It’s a given that no woman should feel intimidated by reiterated statements of her incompetence in any given area. But then nor, too, should any man, any child, any member of a racial/sexual/ethnic minority. In fact, let’s just rephrase that properly: no human being should feel intimidated or otherwise denigrated by the ignorance or malignity of others. So, yes, take control of that negative situation, do whatever you have to do to deny the capacity of another party to make you feel bad. Learn how to bolster self-belief and take time to invest in self-evaluation and your own skills.
But what of the unintentional hurt caused by the thoughtlessness of others? Should we deny that too, along with the intentional hurt caused by cruelty and ignorance? As soon as we say that no individual has the power to make us feel bad then are we not but a hair’s breadth away from arguing that they have no power to make us feel good, either? It would be a very sad society, I feel, where the efforts of one party to impact on another are wasted before they begin: where we are all so fiercely independent of one another that we cease to be a society and become merely a multiplicity of individuals, with no collective noun or feeling to link us to one another.
Even Margaret Thatcher – who I associate with the politics of greed – followed her famous “who is society? There is no such thing” with the statement that “life is a reciprocal business”.
So perhaps we should consider the precepts of TQM within the personal world and see whether we can develop high-quality relationships with excellent care for one another in an environment of trust, integrity and commitment, achieved through honesty, observation, evaluation and willingness to change when change is needed. In other words, by working on them as hard as we work at our jobs.
It’s almost 400 years since John Donne (in Meditation XVII) mused,
“No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thine own or of thine friend’s were. Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”
The human condition remains unchanged. We are so much more than individuals and cannot escape our responsibilities to others. Nor should we wish to: for it is through others that we find our niches, our roles and so much of our happiness.