“I just got isted.”
A young supervisor I was coaching made the announcement as she walked into the room for our session. She had just left a meeting during which she had said or done something that prompted a colleague to accuse her of being racist.
“I wasn’t aware that ‘ist’ is now a verb,” I said with a smile. “When did that happen?”
“It happened when people decided that the best way to win a debate is to accuse the other person of being an ‘ist’ or a ‘phobe.’”
“Oh, so you can be ‘phobed’ as well? It’s a verb now, too?” I replied.
She laughed and sat down before looking at me and asking, “How does one respond to such an accusation?”
“By not responding,” I said.
She looked uncomfortable. “But I have to respond to something like that, don’t I? I mean, I can’t allow something like that to go undefended. That makes me look guilty.”
“I think you’re overreacting and letting your emotions control you, just like your counterpart did in that meeting,” I said.
“Oh really?” She paused, then challenged me. “What would you do if you were in a heated debate and your opponent suddenly accused you of being a racist?”
“I’d probably say something to them like, ‘I’m going to leave now. If and when you are ready to continue this discussion without name-calling and baseless accusations, I’ll be happy to continue.’”
The supervisor raised her eyebrows. “Okay. I’ll give that a try next time I find myself in a similar situation,” she said. Then we moved on to another topic.
A couple of months later, I received an email from that supervisor:
Cort, I was in a meeting yesterday, and during a heated discussion, one of the participants accused another of being sexist. I immediately stood up and told the group, “I’m leaving now. If and when this group wishes to continue without name-calling or accusations, please text me, and I’ll be happy to come back.”
I returned to my office. About 20 minutes later, the manager who was facilitating the meeting came in and thanked me for being willing to stand for dialogue without name-calling. He said that the team had a long discussion about what had happened and agreed to reconvene tomorrow morning, and that name-calling and accusations were no longer going to be tolerated.
As long as we allow people to “ist” others as a debate strategy, they’ll continue to do it. But if we refuse to engage and expose it as reductionism that’s as immature as it is ineffective, they’ll likely alter their strategy.
There is a bigger picture at play here, of course. Ist-ing is a symptom of our culture’s unwillingness to consider opposing views and its propensity for taking offense––which we’ve discussed in the All-In™ blog before. As leaders, let’s not mimic the worst of society, epitomized by pundits and talking heads. Instead, don’t take the bait. Don’t fear the labels people reactively lob.
Let’s model a higher form of debate––one in which ideas may be discussed and mined deeply for real solutions. Today’s stakes are too high not to.