Surprise Them With Compassion

In a scene from the film Invictus (2009) - a sports-drama about the way in which President Nelson Mandela used South Africa’s mostly white rugby team to unite a divided nation - Mandela speaks against a motion (unanimously passed by an all-black post-Apartheid sports committee) to change the name, emblem, and colors of the country’s team.

Mandela implores the committee to reconsider their decision, explaining that the rugby team is a national treasure and that to disband them, to uproot a beloved symbol, is to confirm the fears of the Afrikaner. “We have to”, explains Mandela, “surprise them with compassion, restraint, and generosity.”

President Mandela exemplified a leader who successfully used the element of surprise to transform the hearts and minds of his followers and adversaries alike. And he is not alone. Leaders such as Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin, Leymah Gbowee, and Pope Francis have all used surprise as a strategy to both challenge and uplift their audience.

In his book “Getting To Yes With Yourself and Other Worthy Opponents” (2015), negotiation scholar William Ury makes the case for doing the unexpected during times of conflicts. He argues that one of the most low-cost and efficient approaches that you can employ during a heated and emotional negotiation is break the cycle of contentious communication through a show of respect.

According to Ury, three types of actions can strengthen attitudes of respect: empathy, inclusion, and surprise.

Empathy — inhabiting the world from another person’s perspective — increases understanding and tolerance for the other.

Inclusion — deliberately increasing the scope of concern to incorporate individuals who have heretofore been excluded — transforms antagonistic feelings.

Surprise — doing the unexpected — provides people with an opportunity to soften their approach.

Regarding surprise, Ury acknowledges that giving respect in situations of deep conflict can be very difficult. Behavior tends to beget behavior and aggressive actions will elicit similar actions in return. Such feedback loops only exacerbate the conflict. Instead, Ury recommends doing the exact opposite of what the other expects you to do. He writes:

This is the radical contrarian response to being excluded by others. It is a form of psychological jujitsu. In the face of rejection, do the opposite of what you at first feel like doing. Instead of rejecting others surprise them with respect. Take the lead and change the cycle of mutual rejection into a cycle of mutual respect.

A powerful example of a radical contrarian response appeared on my Facebook page this morning. The video is of Mr. Sombat Jitmoud, a grieving father who got a chance to speak face-to-face with Trey Relford, the man who killed his son. Instead of condemnation, the father expressed compassion, restraint, and generosity. He did so in the name of his family and faith.

The video violates expectations on both a personal and political level. On a personal level most of us expect the father to be full of hatred and animosity. On a political level, many of us have come to associate the religion of Islam with retribution and violence. Such an extraordinary act by Mr. Jitmoud (as both a father and a Muslim) destabilizes these models (even if momentarly) and points to an alternative reality.

Finally, the video is also remarkable because of the transformative impact that Mr. Jitmoud’s actions have on his son’s killer. In the words of Relford’s mother: “We are shocked by your forgivness”.

Given the current state of our political and civic discourse, a little less predictability would surely be welcomed.

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