Responsibility and Accountability

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.

[levels are from the Orders of Self ]

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.

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