Radical Accountability

It is quite literally impossible to open the newspaper and not find a call for someone to be held accountable for some alleged wrongdoing. Whether it is a public official having failed to maintain ethical standards, a corporation which has allowed its product to harm someone, or a family member who has abused a child or spouse; calls for accountability are all around us. Less commonly heard are declarations by individuals and corporations of a desire to be accountable. We tend to think of accountability as something that is good for others but not for ourselves.

Accountability is an essential quality of healthy relationships. If we are to build healthy relationships, we have to learn to be accountable. To start with we have to be sure we know what accountability is and is not. One strategy for constructing accountability is so common and creates such problems in relationships that we identify and address it up front.

Problems with Fault and Blame

One very common strategy for addressing conflict is to ascribe blame. If we can decide whose fault it is, the reasoning goes, then we have done something to solve the problem. There are several reasons why this doesn't work.

The primary one is that blame doesn't actually do anything to change the relationship or the choices that people are making to construct it. When we ascribe blame, we are determining that someone has the preponderance of responsibility for constructing an event with negative consequences. (When the event has what we consider to be positive consequences, we call it credit rather than blame.)

If my wife and I are having an argument about whether our teenage son's misbehavior is my fault, I can either take the position that it is or that it is not. But neither position will affect our son's behavior. Even if we are arguing about some clear choice I made (I put the dishes in the dishwasher without rinsing them first) acknowledging that I did that (and that she thinks they should be rinsed) doesn't mean I won't do it again. We haven't actually solved the problem.

At a deeper level, the problem with blame is that it assumes that someone has the preponderance of responsibility for a given outcome. This is almost never true, though it is a way of thinking about a problem that is supported by the traditions of our culture. When a bad thing happens, find someone to blame.

On February 3, 1998 an American EA-6B Prowler assigned to the base at Aviano, Italy, flying low over the Italian Alps, clipped a cable supporting a gondola full of skiers with its right wing and sent them falling to their death. In the military court of inquiry following the incident (Italian courts determined that they had no jurisdiction over a NATO action), all four Marines on board were charged with crimes. The two in the back of the plane (who couldn't even see out) immediately had charges against them dropped and it appears they were only charged in order to scare them into giving up any information they might have had about the accident.

So who is to blame for this tragedy? Of course it makes sense that the pilot is to blame.

No, as the pilot pointed out from the stand, he was simply flying the course set by the navigator. The pilot doesn't have time to look at a map. The pilot only does what he is told. It is the navigator who decides where the plane is to fly and he was following the instructions of the navigator.

The navigator took the stand to explain that he was simply following the flight plan he was ordered to plot by the base commander using maps supplied by the military. There was no gondola cable on his charts.

The inquiry continued with the testimony of the base commander and the team which compiled the maps. In the end a massive web of failures emerged which included the discovery that the Air Force pilots were not making information available to the Marines who sometimes used the base. The pilot and the navigator were charged with obstruction of justice (they did not disclose a video camera that was in the cockpit at the time of the accident even though the camera was not on), but no one was found guilty for the deaths of 20 people.

The Italian people were incensed. No one was "held accountable" for the tragedy. No one was found to have had the preponderance of responsibility for the deaths.

When we use blame as a strategy for addressing conflict we are engaged in a kind of fight. The person who is found to be to blame loses. Blame is a strategy which has broad social support but which doesn't create what we need and which is based on the clear distortion that only one person's choices matter in the creation of the negative outcome.

Still, it makes sense that we want to have relationships that create a kind of accountability. Blame is at least a kind of low level accountability. We need a more mature and robust perspective on accountability which fully takes into account the choices everyone is making in the construction of the relationship.

Responsibility and Accountability

We often use the terms responsibility and accountability interchangeably. I have reviewed several dictionaries in an effort to discover differences between the terms and have found there is little distinction made between them. Indeed, they are often given as synonyms. For our purposes though it is helpful to define a difference.

When we use the term responsibility we are referring to what actually occurs out there in the realm of the physical world as we can observe it. If there is an action and it has an effect, the action is responsible for the effect.

If I reach for the phone and spill my tea, I am responsible for spilling my tea. If I say, "I didn't spill the tea," I am refusing to be accountable.

Accountability is a condition that is created in the interior of our relationships. It is a quality of the intersubjective space constructed by the assumptions and agreements which build relationships. If I acknowledge that I spilled the tea, then I am being accountable.

This quality of being accountable arises differently in mutual relationships than it does in fiduciary or reciprocal relationships. In a reciprocal relationship, accountability is the ability to give an account. We are accountable to the other with whom we have constructed this relationship.

When Henry hired on at Universal Widget, he agreed to be accountable to Frank. He gives Frank an account of when he shows up for work, how many widgets he has made, and how well the widget machine is working. And Frank agreed that he would give Henry an account of how much he had earned (in the form of a paycheck), how many sick days he had accrued, and whether he was meeting his quota.

Accountability appears differently in mutual relationships. We are invited to take into account the other, not to give them an account. We are accountable with the other, not accountable to them.

For many years I was a member of a men's support group that met every other Sunday evening. This group was a vital support for me during the collapse of my first marriage and I continued to meet with them well into my second one. Joan, the woman with whom I am now married, was very much aware of the importance of this group for me.

One Sunday evening as the group was breaking up; one of the members spoke up and said that he would not be able to meet with us in two weeks. Two other men quickly also stated that they wouldn't make it either. If three of the six men in the group were going to miss, we weren't going to have much of a group left. We began to look at alternatives and found that we would all be able to meet that weekend on Saturday instead of Sunday. It was agreed.

I went and told Joan that the men's group would be meeting on Saturday instead of Sunday in two weeks. She was clearly angry. I asked what the problem was. She stated that she wished I had spoken to her about it. I said, "I am talking to you about it."

"No, I mean before you made the decision."

"I don't see what the problem is. We can't meet on Sunday so we are meeting on Saturday. What is the big deal?"

"Because we always do things together on Saturday evening, and now you have decided that we won't and you didn't talk to me about it."

"Well, we can spend Sunday evening together."

"Sunday evening is not the same as Saturday evening. I have to teach Monday morning. You left me out of the decision-making process."

"Well, what was I supposed to do, tell the guys that I couldn't meet on Saturday without your permission?"

"No, it's not about my permission; it is about whether we consult with each other. You could tell them you will talk to me and let them know."

I was seeing the relationship and thus the problem from a different perspective than was Joan and thus I was coming to a different way of handling things and constructing a different kind of accountability. I was looking at our relationship through the lens of a fiduciary relationship and saw no reason to have to get her permission. She isn't my mom after all.

Joan was seeing the relationship from the perspective of a mutual relationship in which we make decisions together. She wasn't expecting me to get her permission. She just wanted our relationship and the commitments we make to each other to be more important than my wish to be one of the guys. She wanted us to be accountable with each other by taking into account how our choices affect each other.

So accountability in a fiduciary or reciprocal relationship is created out of the ability to give an account; it is accountability to. But accountability in a mutual relationship is accountability with; it is created out of the ability to take into account two things:

  • how are my choices affecting the other, and
  • how are the other's choices affecting me.

This is being mutually accountable.

Joe and Jane had a whirlwind romance and married 10 months after meeting at the picnic. When they had been married for a year an incident arose which thrust them into the hard work of being in a durable intimate relationship.

Back then Jane would typically get home a bit earlier than Joe and she would usually start dinner. One evening as Jane was dicing the onions and listening to the news; Joe got home and came quietly into the kitchen. He came up behind Jane and grabbed her around the waist.

Jane shrieked and collapsed on the floor. She was wide-eyed and hyperventilating. Joe tried to hold her but she screamed, "Get away from me, just get away." The more he tried to comfort her, the more frantic she became until he finally left her on the kitchen floor and she just sobbed.

What Joe didn't know is that Jane was raped five years before when she was walking home through the park. As she was dicing the onions she noticed the knife she was holding and she saw that it looked like the knife that her attacker was holding when he came up behind her and grabbed her around the waist and dragged her into the bushes.

Once Jane's terror subsided it was replaced with rage. "How could you do that to me?" she challenged Joe.

"Do what?" he asked, "I was just giving my wife an affectionate squeeze when I got home."

"Just don't ever do that again," Jane demanded. "Just don't ever sneak up on me again."

As Joe and Jane worked at repairing their relationship, they struggled with the way they understand both responsibility and accountability. Joe did walk into the kitchen and he did come up behind her without her knowing he was there and he did grab her. He intended to surprise her. He did not intend or expect to scare her. He didn't know about the rape and probably wouldn't have thought about it if he did.

Jane did collapse on the floor, rejected Joe's efforts to comfort her, and did imply that he intended to scare her. She had withheld from him information about her experience of being raped.

Each made choices that constructed an event that neither one wanted to have happen. Each shares a responsibility for what happened. What then might it look like for them to both be fully accountable for how they deal with their relationship into the future?

Four Orders of Responsibility

Let's start with a fuller exploration of what we might mean by responsibility and allow it to lead us to as a fuller understanding of accountability. Responsibility, being out there in the physical world of (hopefully) consensual reality, is easier to identify than the more ethereal quality we call accountability. We use our understanding of responsibility to construct a deeper understanding of accountability.

As we do this we are going to observe that there are actually four different ways that we use the term responsibility. Much confusion results from speaking the term from one perspective and hearing it from another. Furthermore, we are going to see that these ways build on each other. There is a developmental sequence of growing responsibility.

You recall that any developmental sequence has certain characteristics. Insects develop from an egg to a larva to a pupa to an adult. Oak trees develop from acorn to seedling to sapling to adult tree. Each stage in a developmental sequence builds on the one before it. We may not skip a stage and we can't do them out of order. If an earlier stage is missing or damaged, the later stages cannot develop. These facts are true for all developmental sequences.

At 1°, responsibility is the relationship between a cause and an effect. When an infant is teething, the growing teeth pushing through the gums causes pain. The new teeth are responsible for the pain. When one sits out in the summer sun for a long time, one can get sunburned. The UV rays are responsible for sunburn.

At 2°, responsibility is a result of a choice. The choice is a cause that results in an effect. When the infant chooses to bite down on a teething ring, the biting relieves the pressure of the emerging teeth and causes the pain to subside. The infant is responsible for relieving her own pain. When the sunbather sits for hours in the sun, the sunbather is responsible for the sunburn.

At 3°, responsibility is a result of an agreement. When two or more persons make a choice to enter into an understanding with each other, they construct a set of rights and responsibilities as a product of the commitments they each make. If I contact the gas company to arrange for natural gas service to my apartment, I enter into an agreement with the utility in which they are responsible for providing me with gas and I am responsible for paying the bill. As the infant is nursing, her mother is responsible for nourishing her and she is responsible for suckling. When the infant is teething and bites the mother's nipple, the infant has reneged on an implied responsibility and the mother begins weaning the child.

At 4°, responsibility is a result of a way of being that one creates as a consequence of taking into account all of the relevant expectations of others, the choices that are available, and the desired effect that one wants to create. 4° responsibility is the ability to respond to the demands of the relationships in which one finds oneself in a manner that constructs conditions which meet ones own needs and ideally the needs of all. The mother, unwilling to experience the pain of being bit by her daughter, but still committed to nourishing her child, begins to express her milk with a breast pump and provides it through a bottle.

In our efforts to build healthy relationships we are looking to do so by being responsible at 4° [Interpersonal-relational: choice]. We recall that responsibility at each order is constructed on top of responsibility at the previous orders. The mother's ability to be responsible at 4° is dependent upon her ability to meet her 3° commitments by making a 2° choice to have a 1° effect which is to nourish her child.

By way of example, let's return to Joe and Jane and their responsibility for her panic when he grabbed her.

At 1°, Jane experiences a flashback and the associated emotions when she is looking at a knife and remembering the rape as Joe grabs her from behind.

At 2°, Jane chose to have a knife in her presence to dice the onions and chose to remember her own experience. Joe chose to surprise Jane by coming up behind her and grabbing her around the waist.

At 3°, Jane asked for an agreement that Joe wouldn't do "that" again but Joe wasn't sure what it was that he had done and couldn't see how it had caused the outcome. Jane chose to construct a deeper understanding between them by telling Joe about her assault. They both came to understand how much the assault had affected her and how much she was still traumatized by it.

At 4°, Jane decided that she has more healing to do than she realized and found a support group for rape survivors. Joe supported Jane in her commitment and vowed on his part to not sneak up behind her and to generally be more cautious about surprising her.

Four Orders of Accountability

While these events are happening out in the manifest world of the relationship between Joe and Jane, there is a parallel set of circumstances that are being created in the qualities of the subjective world they are creating with each other. It is this interior of the relationship that we want to explore with greater depth.

1° Accountability

At 1°, accountability is the ability to take into account the experience of the other. It is the ability to construct a quality of presence in the relationship. I am accountable to the degree to which I can be fully emotionally present to the feelings of the other. This capacity for presence has its own developmental sequence from pity to sympathy to empathy to compassion. It is hard to be fully emotionally present to others because their feelings can resonate with our own feelings and thus trigger a flood of emotion that we may not be prepared for. A deep compassion for others is thus only possible when we are fully comfortable with our own feelings.

Joe has done something to trigger panic in his beloved. She is clearly terrified and is reacting to him as the one who is the cause of the feelings. If Joe can fully experience her fear then he will likely get in touch with his own fear. He may be afraid of losing his relationship with Jane because he has harmed her. He may be angry that she has identified him as the assailant. He may be guilty about scaring her. He may even get in touch with guilt about times in his own past when he engaged in sex with a woman when he was more interested in the sex than in the woman.

Accountability at 1° is hard to do because of the emotional demands it places on us, but it becomes the essential building block for higher orders of accountability. We are never fully accountable at 1°. Even as we work on building accountability at the higher orders, we must continually return to go deeper at 1°.

2° Accountability

At 2°, accountability is the ability to take into account the choices we have made which construct the relationship. It is the ability to recognize the extent to which the actions we take which shape our relationships with others are actually a consequence of choices we make. Often the actions we take seem as though they just happen. They don't seem to be our choices. Accountability depends on being able to acknowledge the fact that we do what we do because we choose to.

Jane is not likely to find it easy to acknowledge that her reverie about the memory of her rape was a product of a choice she made. It just came up when she saw the knife. She will certainly not be immediately able to see that collapsing on the floor of the kitchen was a choice she made, though she may be able to come to see that her dropping down in that way may have been her body's strategy for protecting her. She will probably see that telling Joe to get away was her choice and she may even see that her identification of him as a threat was a choice.

Joe will have an easier time identifying his choices because he was less overwhelmed with feelings but he may still have difficulty admitting that he did choose to surprise her, that he did choose to grab her, that he did choose to try to hold her, and that he did then choose to leave the kitchen. But he may tend to minimize these as choices by asking the rhetorical question, "What should I have done?" The implication here would be that there was nothing else he could have done which is certainly not true.

The challenge of 2° accountability is, first of all, to see that our actions are the result of choices, and, as our choices construct actions, our actions are constructing consequences; and then to name this connection in our relationships with others.

3° Accountability

At 3°, accountability is the ability to take into account the understandings we have made which construct the relationship. It is the ability to recognize the set of expectations, agreements, understandings, and commitments that we have constructed or which have been constructed for us. Even if we don't end up doing what others expect us to do, accountability still demands that we maintain an awareness of those expectations. Further, accountability at 3° depends upon our capacity to clarify and repair those understandings when they are not being met.

Jane was under the impression that she could be in the kitchen of her home and be safe from assault. She thought she could count on Joe being sensitive to her space and emotions and would not terrify or harm her. She thought the rape, since it happened before she met Joe, was none of his business and was not something that she ever needed to talk about with him. She expected that if she told him not to touch her that he would respect her wishes.

Joe expected that he could come up behind Jane and surprise her and that she would be pleased by the surprise and happy to see him. He expected that he would be able to comfort her when she was emotionally distraught. He expected that she would see him as abandoning her if he left the room when she was upset even when she was asking him to leave her alone.

Recognizing that each of them was coming at the events from the perspective of their own expectations and that the differences between them were constructing a conflict, they could create a new set of expectations. Joe will not surprise Jane. Jane will talk about what happened to her and the feelings that arise for her now.

4° Accountability

At 4°, accountability is the ability to take into account the ways of being we have made which construct the relationship. It is the ability to see that how we enter into the relationships we build makes the relationships what they are, and that, when the relationships are not as we would have them be, we can heal them by adopting a new way of being.

This is a very difficult concept to take on. Even when we think we understand it, it remains a difficult thing to actually apply in our lives. A good part of the rest of this book is an exploration of what it looks and feels like to be accountable at 4°.

Jane has come to see that her way of being around the trauma of her rape five years ago is not only not working for her relationship with Joe; it is not working for her. She has decided that she wants to develop a new way of being in relationship to the rape. Rather than adopting a position that it was in the past and she is over it now, she has decided to be a rape survivor and to ally with other women who are surviving rape.

Joe has recognized that, whatever his intentions might be, they are not worth much when it comes to how he is actually affecting Jane. He has decided that he is not content to simply be someone who has good intentions; he wants to adopt a way of being that is attentive and responsive to whatever the actual effects of his behavior might be.

Becoming Mutually Accountable

If we are to develop healthy relationships, we have to learn to be accountable, and to do it in the most complete ways. This means being able to be mutually accountable at all four orders.

  • Be able to know when something is bothering us, and be able to know when the other is bothered.
  • Be able to know what it is that others are doing and what choices they are making that we are finding bothersome, and be able to know what we are doing that they find bothersome and to recognize that our actions are the result of choices we are making.
  • Be able to know what we can reasonably expect of the other and what they can expect of us and be able to clarify and repair the understandings that we have with others.
Be able to allow the ways in which we are bothered and the ways in which others are bothered by us to inform us and to help us discover new ways of being that move us toward relationships in which we are more and more likely to create what we need.

No TrackBacks

TrackBack URL: http://www.creativeconflictresolution.org/JustConflict/mt-tb.cgi/163

1 Comment

Outstanding thinking and reasoning here. I am new to the concept of radical accountability - this was informative and most helpful. Thanks for sharing.

Leave a comment

Recent Entries

The Law of Three and Creative Conflict Resolution
The Law of Three and Creative Conflict Resolution for pdf.pdfThis is a pdf of an essay I wrote specifically for…
Summary worksheet for Patterns of Conflict and Critical Feedback
Interview on BeliefNet
In interview with me about the book has just been posted on BeliefNet. You can check in out at http://blog.beliefnet.com/lessonsfromarecoveringdoormat/2010/06/resolving-conflict.html#preview…