Contributed by Caterina Viterale
Reframing responsibility to help organisations, teams and individuals be better humans
Until recently, I have had a tug-of-war like relationship with the idea of responsibility for as long as I can remember. This recent shift felt like I was handed a key to a new understanding that nested in my mind and then expanded to create a form of internal freedom.
As if handed down by the magical powers that be directly into my awareness, I was offered a unique and transformative way to reshape how I look at, and understand, responsibility beyond what I had thought previously, which was always associated with a role, title or position.
I now consider this a framework, a concept, a potential mapping of sorts, for how we can navigate ourselves and each other through the terrain of modern living and all of its complexities, and in this article I will be sharing it with you.
So, grab yourself a glass of your favourite beverage, sit back and let’s go on a little meditative and contemplative ride of curiosity and wonder together about how we can potentially reshape how, and what, we think when it comes to responsibility.
Responsibility, for a very significant amount of my 32 years of life, has been an extremely heavy, yet liberating, topic and experience for me. On a personal level, it’s been extremely burdening. On a professional level, I have always thrived with some form of weight on my shoulders – a team to manage, a goal to hit, something to organise, pieces to put together.
Recognising why I have these two experiences of the same topic was something I really struggled to understand and master.
Why was I exceptional at managing a team, being a good leader, and exceeding professional goals, but I could barely manage my personal life?
Why was it different?
I couldn’t figure it out because the weight of my personal responsibility was too heavy for me to be able to look up, look around, and see things differently.
Then, one day, a few months ago whilst meditating, an entirely new way of looking at responsibility came to and through me, right when I was no longer looking to understand it.
And this is what I will share with you.
The New Understanding
“The application of one’s ability to provide an appropriate response to any moment or situation, whereby one has, or is perceived to have, something that is of benefit to someone or something, including themselves”.
Let’s highlight the many important, and specific, elements to provide us with the guidelines for putting this into practice, and break down this new way of thinking about response-ability.
Application: because the rest of the definition becomes completely useless if we do not APPLY it. Simples.
Ability: ability for humans is never one dimensional. It is both within and between the elements of physical, emotional and mental that we may or may not actually be able to do something.
I may know you have the intellectual capacity to fulfil a task based on past experience, but not know that you’re physically unable to do so in this moment because you’re exhausted from lack of sleep as your new born child is unwell. Or because you’ve started seeing a therapist about that childhood trauma no one knows about and it’s emotionally and physically exhausting you.
We may have assumptions about someone (colleague, friend, partner, parent, employee, neighbour, person at the checkout) with regards to their ability to fulfil a task, without considering the infinite number of factors that contribute to one’s ability to do so, even if it appears, they are, in fact, able to do so on face value.
This is where the co-founder of the Flow Genome Project Jamie Wheal’s ‘Playground Rules’ provides a handy rule to live by:
#2 “Benefit of the Doubt (Everyone's Doing Their Best!)”
Appropriate: This is about emphasising whether or not we have consciously assessed the situation and considered the response we are about to make is, in fact, as appropriate as we can assess it to be.
This requires a certain level of mental development and complexity - specifically the utilisation of a particular mental faculty, ‘perspective’.
How many perspectives outside of our own have we considered in our analysis of an appropriate response?
What internal space is this analysis coming from?
Are we angry, tired, hungry (or hangry), overly excited, focused on one perspective?
Does it feel rather cerebral, meaning, are we just thinking about it intellectually, or are we allowing for things such as empathy and compassion to enter our consideration of what’s appropriate?
The findings of our internal investigation provide important reflections and considerations for how we may expand what we consider appropriate.
Response: without getting into technicalities of dictionary meanings, I feel the significance of response is that, in embodied practice, it is very grounded. It is clear, open, attentive. It is a state of assessing as much available information as possible whilst knowing that even in this state we are unable to know absolutely everything. Thus, remaining open to the information we receive as a unique opportunity to add to our knowledge base.
I want to emphasise also what it is not, and more specifically what it isn’t in comparison to a reaction.
Typically, when using ‘reaction’ in conversation, there is an assumption that the reaction was a direct and immutable outcome as a result of a specific cause that is often emotionally explosive; it’s automated and without control or influence.
This is definitely not what I feel a response to be.
Response seeks to find the causation(s) of the present moment, assesses it in as many ways as it seems appropriate that is the most expansive and inclusive, then consciously CHOOSES an outcome.
A moment or situation: this brings the mind’s attention, and the practical application of this response-ability principle, to the here and now (whatever present moment we find ourselves in).
Not yesterday, not tomorrow, not in five minutes time, nor the previous encounters with this person/s in the environment we are in.
It’s the here and now, which requires a specific state of mind that has the ability to absorb it for what it is, and not what it has been previously or what we anticipate it to be.
Has, or is perceived to have: sometimes we know what we have, and sometimes we need others to provide the information to bring it to our attention.
This is particularly useful in times when we forget that we have a skill, resource or piece of information that is so automatic in our existence that we forget we have it.
Take speaking our native language as an example.
Most people use it so frequently and have become so acquainted with its existence and use that they forget that it is, in fact, a skill that could be used to help others – a foreigner, a blind person who is unable to read/see something, or even as a means to voice an injustice/issue that requires attention.
Something: it’s important to remember that something isn’t always an object – it can be an idea, a word, a resource, and in fact, something can even be a nothing. The thing that you may be able to provide as an appropriate response is, well, absolutely nothing (silence, for example, when listening to someone share their story).
Benefit: most often, we are used to considering benefit as strictly on the positive side of the negative to positive spectrum. It is important to note, however, that benefit may also include an outcome where there is a reduction in the negative, thus, moving the indicator within the spectrum closer to the positive side and away from the extreme negative side.
Someone, or something: we live on a planet, that doesn’t just have people. It has objects, other living organisms, constructs, ideas, beliefs, houses and e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g else that exists outside of our present here and now. Therefore, it isn’t just about responding to people within a moment or situation, it is also guiding us towards paying attention to, and considering the benefit of, e-v-e-r-y single thing that exists.
Including ourselves: well, because, most of us just don’t think of ourselves, especially when it comes to responsibility! It’s often housed in the environment of others – our roles and duties to others and things outside of ourselves. This can create an array of negative consequences. From illness, to stress, to poor health, poor sleep, no money, poor relationships, minimal joy, and everything else that you can think of when you take a moment to reflect on all the ways you’ve neglected yourself – your body, your wants and needs, your desires, your feelings and emotions, your experiences.
Now that we’ve delved a bit deeper into the elements of this alternative perspective of response-ability, let’s ask a really important question.
Why is this even important?
If we consider many of the issues we face globally, much of it stems from a lack of response-ability.
“How many times have I seen someone (including myself) dismiss an idea or action - a response – when something clearly needed to be done?”
For example, a task at work that wasn’t part of your “job title/duties” so you ignored it; a conversation you avoided having about something that needed addressing but was put off and the issue became far greater than it needed to be.
The list goes on.
And when we collectively leave a large amount of small things unchecked or ignored, they build to HUGE mountains of things that suddenly seem too overwhelming.
I mean, just take a look at the news over the last year, where do we begin?
More deeply, if we consider the global social, economical, political and environmental landscape, a significant portion of it involves us needing to pick up the pieces of other people’s lack of response-ability - we are constantly having to utilise our time, energy and resources rectifying the consequences of others behaviour, decisions and actions, as opposed to showing up in the world and living a life that is full of richness and the freedom to create playfully.
We are devoting the one resource that we have always known to be finite and irreversible in the physical plane – time – to resolving issues as a result of a lack of response-ability of our fellow humans in the past, instead of basking in the playfulness of existence itself.
And, sometimes there’s no stronger blockage than a perception of finite time that limits our ability to be conscious and aware in our actions.
This is an important segue into an often ignored, yet extremely influential element that can dramatically impact one’s ability to practice response-ability.
Burdened people burden people.
Photo by Ben White
We’ve all heard the common phrase: ‘hurt people hurt people’, but when do we consider the reality that often, burdened people burden people?
Think about the Manager who is overworked, stressed out, and feeling overwhelmed by the disproportionate ratio of their skills to the tasks required of them by those above (and sometimes, below) and so unfairly demands more from those they manage and increases their workload?
The single parent, working their asses off (or are unable to), struggling to overcome a past trauma and so demands more from their child, intentionally or unintentionally?
The person in a position of power who is burdened by a personal situation, who comes to work carrying that weight into a decision-making process, and then chooses the less personally consequential option that has an increased workload on others, as opposed to the harder, but more appropriate, option?
What happens in all of these situations?
The person burdened, begins to unwittingly burden those around them.
Whether by having to take on tasks, or holding space for them to react to their stresses (as opposed to processing their emotions in a healthy manner), the weight gets distributed to others who are already carrying the burden of the people and environments they’ve previously been in.
And so the burdened becomes the burdener.
When we’re burdened, we cannot perform optimally, and at our best; we cannot give to ourselves, each other and the here and now moment we find ourselves in. Essentially, we cannot be response-able.
So, what can we do?
2. Remember that during times of emotional, physical and/or mental internal imbalance, people are not at their best, and therefore, we need to recognise the inability of the other person to provide what we believe to be an appropriate response.
A potential tool for these moments would be to become curious and ask the person we are about to request something from, “what is your current energetic, emotional, and physical capacity?”
We could even go so far as to ask them to rate their levels out of 10 or 100, and if used in a team environment, whoever has the highest score may be able to take the reins for a moment to allow others to regain their equilibrium.
3. Use the description of ‘response-ability’ as a principle to live by, outside of roles, duties, status and labels – let’s perceive it as a guiding principle.
Here are nine ideas I invite you to consider to help make the shift from responsibility to response-ability a little more easier collectively.
1. It’s a paradox that we must develop in to
We must both let go of, and embrace, the past and future in helping us navigate the now.
In the context of providing an appropriate response, we must clear ourselves of the past conditioning and future assumptions that blind us to providing an appropriate response, whilst also utilising past knowledge and holding future ideas and plans to help us navigate the situation to the most appropriate and beneficial outcome.
This can be challenging for some, as it requires a high level of mental complexity that many of us are not yet capable of, or are still developing into.
Therefore, we must consider this a journey towards response-ability mastery on both an individual and collective level due to the navigation towards, and transformation to, living this as a guiding principle.
Developing self awareness through mindfulness practices such as meditation can assist us in the optimisation of processing throughout the here and now and maximise the ease at which we can practice this principle fully.
2. We’re all going to be students, and teachers
No one is a master at this, nor will they be. Every moment we are growing, evolving and changing, as is everything else that exists, and therefore, there will always be more to learn, to adapt to and to consider.
What’s that playground rule again we need to follow?
“Benefit of the Doubt (Everyone's Doing Their Best!)”
3. It’s never going to be 100%
There’s ALWAYS going to be some form of “problem”. This perspective isn’t about solving and eradicating all of the tension in the world, it’s about limiting the amount of unnecessary realities we’re creating that require subsequent solutions - the burdened burdening others included.
We must ensure our thinking going forward is built upon a foundation of knowing there is no final and complete utopian destination.
4. Try to refrain from worrying about over there, focus on your here
Until your ‘here’ is functioning optimally and beneficially, refrain from utilising your valuable energy, time and resources on the “over there” situations – trust that they are being dealt with by those there, experiencing their own here and now within it and utilising these same principles.
Make sure your house is in check first, then go out and help others optimise theirs.
5. There’s no reason not to play and have fun
This piece was written deliberately with a hint of playfulness to provide a glimpse of the light-heartedness that we can bring to the spaces we occupy.
It may feel as though we have a big job to do – personally, professionally or collectively as a human race - but if we bring an element of play and child-like wonder, we can get the job done in a much faster and cohesive manner.
Maybe we can start asking ourselves “how can I make this a more enjoyable process?”
6. Trust ourselves, each other and the bigger picture – all of which we know very little about
The greatest of minds have always proclaimed that the more they know, the more they know not.
Let’s take that piece of advice on face value and act accordingly.
7. We have a choice
Response-ability is a tool we can use to help us CREATE the world we want to live in – it gives us agency, sovereignty and conscious engagement, and not simply be a passer-by in this great adventure that is life as a human on this planet.
Let’s CHOOSE to be the person/s we want to see in the world.
8. Not everyone is as keen as you are
When we think something is important, we forget, or simply fail to consider, that whilst we are having an experience right now of something having our focused attention, so too are the people around us who we are interacting with.
We must remember that no matter how important or significant we feel and believe, or even know, a thing that is requiring our attention is, we must accept and forgive those who cannot give us the energy, focus and attention we may want or need.
9. Response-ability is always a 100% game
If you are conscious, and in a body that is able to move with conscious engagement, then you are 100% responsible for your response-ability - remember, existence equals responsibility.
No situation is about breaking down who contributed what percentage of 100% of the outcome.
It’s about taking personal accountability for our own actions, choices, and behaviours (including what we do not do), and recognising that we are 100% responsible for the contribution we made in any given moment.
We shift our focus and analysis from “they did A, B and C!” (usually blame) to “what did I do here?” (self empowerment and mastery).
The more I think about this, the more I feel there’s so much to say, develop and find clarity on how the actual practical application of such a framework fits across our lived experiences.
Though, essentially, I think it can be summed up by being more considerate of others and the environments we find ourselves in, and shifting our focus and attention from other people’s choices, actions and behaviours to our own.
If we at least start from there, I trust the magnificence of who we are on a fundamental level - kindness, compassion, openness, curiosity, playfulness, joyfulness - will help us find our way.
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