• Benjamin Miller

Who's the Real Us? Seeking Answers in Crisis

"From the forest itself comes the handle for the axe."

- Talmud

Our lives are filled with contradictions. You know this. I know this. They're everywhere. You may have heard that they cause something that psychologists have neatly labelled "cognitive dissonance".* But don't be fooled into thinking contradictions are mainly about individuals. The contradictions individuals experience are often baked into the institutions we're all a part of.

Here's the thing, because people are uncomfortable with contradictions, they will go to some lengths to get rid of them or at least avoid having to think about them. We can hide them or explain them away for a while, but they won't really go away until we figure out a way to reconcile them or make a choice. Making a choice is the hardest path because there is likely something that attaches us to both sides of the contradiction.

Nonprofit's often present these contradictions to society. Poverty alongside wealth. Public good name and private violence. Cruelty towards those we say we most cherish. The list goes on. Every contradiction is an opportunity to change. Every contradiction is an opportunity to tell society, your behaviour may not correspond to our ideals, but that doesn't mean our ideals aren't the real us.

But to do this, it's not enough just to present the contradiction over and over again because the very existence of the contradiction can itself be normalized. The writer Franz Kafka had a clever way of putting this that also points to the solution: "Leopards break into the temple and drink all the sacrificial vessels dry; it keeps happening; in the end, it can be calculated in advance and is incorporated into the ritual."

So what can you do? Identify the source of the contradiction, not according to you but according to the way of thinking of the institutions you are trying to change (i.e. understand the rites of the temple). Then there are two steps.

Step 1-Prepare a Solution: Prepare a path, a new or modified ritual, within the institution's own logic to decide in favour of one half of the contradiction. You will likely be able to find allies within the institution to steward this solution. If building internal support for the solution isn't enough (and it often isn't), then proceed to step 2.

Step 2-Force the Question: Insist on the contradiction in a way that cannot be ritualized or incorporated into the institution but, like the leopards at first, truly disrupts it, prevents it in a very practical way from being able to carry on its business until the contradiction is dealt with. Then hang in there until the contradiction is resolved in your favour. Remember, it can always go the other way.

That's a simple enough sounding two-step plan, but it can take decades to execute. In the 100-Year PR Plan I discuss in greater detail how to prepare for step 2 in the chapter on crisis communications.

Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash

*I wonder if a nice scientific sounding name increases the feeling of dissonance or reduces it.

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