The Mean Turn

There are times when I might unknowingly frighten or intimidate another person. And there are times when another person might also unknowingly frighten or intimidate me. This awareness causes me to think about human disconnections, how they arise and how we must address them, for all too often, unaddressed, they move us backwards towards becoming strangers to one another. If the first stage of a relationship is to be far from one other and then get to know each other and become closer, later stages may show us falling away until we are estranged.


Often we don’t know what is behind these movements from far to near and near to far, but I suspect there are tiny signals in our everyday communications which we are always in the process of interpreting — and, sometimes, maybe all too often, misinterpreting. We can become so intolerant of not knowing what’s going on with one another that we are apt to make up all kinds of stories, especially when those slippery things called motive or intention or agenda are involved. I think I know you but do I? Perhaps this is one of the reasons in workplaces, where power differentials and organizational silos amplify our need to understand the signals, a paranoid tilt can so easily set in.

The wondering, the projection, the process of assumption and belief and bias that we bring to such situations leads us in two directions. One is toward the comfort of certainty, even if it is a negative certainty. The other is a desire to transcend the fear, to change or rebuild things even as little sparks of fear keep flying. We battle within ourselves about which is the better course.


When I’ve been in the honored place of facilitating as two people try to tell one another the truth in order to overcome an estrangement of some kind, it is always about these little sparks. “When you challenged me about whether I made the right decision…” “When you hurried from the restaurant so that we didn’t walk back to the office together…” and so on. And then the explanations, human and sometimes even endearing: “When I challenged you, it was a bad way of saying I was feeling insecure …” “I hurried back because I felt embarrassed about what I’d said earlier….” The misunderstandings, elucidated, return the sense of safety by actively explaining the sparks. The explanations help remind us we are still decent people and have a vulnerable, human side in common.

Having gotten one’s truth into the open, a participant might then suggest, “Oh, I see, so that’s what’s been going on!” even if it’s just through the visible relaxation of his face or the wordless look of relief in her eyes.

Perhaps the larger canyons of difference, between political partisans, members of different racial groups, different religions — perhaps something structurally similar is going on but we have little actual experience and no actual knowledge. We may not be ready to solve even the smallest differences between us, and so we need practice — we need it very badly.

We cannot know exactly where another’s experience of fear might be and how it feels. When I feel it myself, it seems to be the flicker of a moment when I no longer exist — there’s just terrifying void. The brief and instantaneous blotting out of self — the shock — and my quick desire to cover it up is often followed by recriminations, humiliation, the desire to find and expose the negative motives and incompetence of others. How quickly I grab for the blanket of the injured! It is what might be called the mean turn, given that meanness by all accounts is an outcome of intra-personal fear. We are afraid of the nothingness and the terrifying things that might emerge.


It’s plain then why people often don’t want to address their conflicts. And, yet, this is also most often a mixed feeling. We are pulled to find and meet each other, even as an estrangement continues. Ultimately, this pull is why there is hope. The ground beneath us may be our only commonality, yet we do want to get over it, to meet again, to experience another kind of human redemption instead of running away.

This is why personally, when I’ve suffered the mean turn, by my own or someone else’s hand, I like to go back to the garden to figure out what yet I can do, finding the place where I can come back to myself, where the beauty of the flowers remains unscathed and a quiet stream still flows gently from its source.


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  • Jay howell wrote:

    Thanks, dan, for this great reminder about intentions, motives and agendas – All of which I carry around in a big bag and often forget to share with my friends and work colleagues.

    I just have to share the great poem by William Stafford

    A Ritual to Read to Each Other

    If you don’t know the kind of person I am
    and I don’t know the kind of person you are
    a pattern that others made may prevail in the
    and following the wrong god home we may miss
    our star.

    For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
    a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
    sending with shouts the horrible errors of
    storming out to play through the broken dike.

    And as elephants parade holding each
    elephant’s tail,
    but if one wanders the circus won’t find the
    I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
    to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

    And so I appeal to a voice, to something
    a remote important region in all who talk:
    though we could fool each other, we should
    lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the

    For it is important that awake people be awake,
    or a breaking line may discourage them back to
    the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
    should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

  • Thank you, Jay. It is my favorite poem of all time. The first verse, in particular, is part of my personal credo.

    Deep appreciation to you for all your support over the years for my work and my being!


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