Oct, 2016

How Nelson Mandela’s Life Example Helps Us to “Pause our Biases”

By Guest Blogger, Michael Frazier, Adjunct Professor, West Georgia University


With the recent celebration of former South Africa president, Nelson Mandela’s, birthday it serves as a reminder of poignant topics related to forgiveness and unconscious bias. Mandela serves as a modern day embodiment of forgiveness. Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years as a result of the institutional and systemic racism through apartheid. Upon being released from prison, not only did Mandela become the president of South Africa, but also helped to facilitate peace talks between the people of South Africa and the government. Mandela inspired a nation by urging them to forgive their oppressors and asserted, “We made the brain dominate the blood.” Mandela revealed that many South Africans, included himself, did not want to speak to white government officials because their emotions told them not to interact with them. Mandela also stated that our “brains” told us, “If we do not speak to them then our country will go up in flames.” Although Mandela and the people of South Africa had intensely strong feelings against their oppressors, they made a decision to begin peace talks with them. This act of meeting with government officials required an acknowledgment of their feelings, their biases, and an openness to possibly to seeing another’s perspective.

Let us apply this same model to our daily lives. How many times in our families, on our jobs, with our friends have we experienced an incident where our experiences have significantly influenced our perspective where we become unconsciously biased or predisposed in any given situation?

Forgiveness can be quite a nebulous term. For some, forgiveness elicits a religious connotation. For the purpose of this discussion, we are focusing on how forgiveness can help us push pause and discover our bias.

I recently had an experience with a colleague where I felt they did something that was unethical, and I questioned whether I could continue to work with this individual. As I experienced this situation, it triggered many strong feelings, and I felt myself becoming extremely angry, defensive, and perplexed by this person’s actions. Their actions triggered a significant amount of thoughts and feelings that I did not like. To provide more context to the relationship, the individual had a history of being a friendly and supportive colleague. Although definitely not the magnitude of apartheid, I can draw several lessons from how Mandela approached forgiveness of the South African government with my colleagues.

  1. Push the pause button

Pausing first is probably one of the most difficult things that we can do. Before I could respond to my colleague I had to be aware of what was going on for me internally. I experienced many thoughts and emotions. Simply being reactive will not be fruitful for our relationship and for our discussion. Some practical steps with this are to step away from the computer screen, take deep breaths, refrain from social media posts and emails, and removing yourself from the situation.

  1. Get congruent with your emotions

Many times we do not give ourselves the permission to feel what we may need to feel, rather we talk ourselves in to what “we should feel”. I was angry with my colleague, and I had the right to feel the way I did, however these are also my feelings based off of my previous experiences and through my unconscious mind. These feelings are how I am feeling NOW, but they do not mean these feelings are the entire story. Give yourself the space and time to express how the situation may trigger in you. Some practical steps are to use the power of writing down exactly how you feel. There is something powerful about writing down and letting go of how you feel in that moment. Make sure you rip up the paper and throw it away when you are done. In an age of social media posting, resist the urge to post any of this on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, or any other outlet.

  1. Acknowledge your feelings and thoughts

This aspect of the process is crucial because after you have given yourself the space to acknowledge how you think and feel explore potential reasons you may feel and think this way. Ask yourself, “Does this situation remind me of previous experiences?” “What does this trigger in me, and possibly, why?” This step proves somewhat more difficult because it requires me being honest with myself. In this situation, am I assuming a victim role because I typically like to play the victim or is there substance to how my colleague was acting? Potentially does this person have a different perspective that influences their actions?

  1. Seek guidance from your close circle of friends/colleagues

Seek out that trusted circle of friends that will hold you accountable, and not allow you to assume you are right and the other person is wrong. The caveat to this if you do not feel you have a trusted friend/colleague, seeking out a professional coach, counselor, etc. might be of assistance to you. These are the friends that are unapologetically honest with you, and are not concerned about your feelings, but more concerned with your well-being. I sought out friends and colleagues who will challenge my biases and assumptions, ask questions to get a better understanding, and will role-play with me if the situation requires it.

  1. Be willing to speak with the person

Having the courageous conversation with my colleague is the ultimate goal. If Mandela and the people of South Africa can meet with government officials who implemented institutional racism through apartheid, surely I can speak to my colleague about my issues with their actions. As Mandela references, “We made the brain dominate the blood,” it can be synonymous with how I can make the decision to speak with my colleague and discuss my perspective, and make myself available to hear their perspective. Hopefully the intentional discussion can create understanding and facilitate more discussion about our working relationship going forward. Sometimes it may prove to be more prudent to involve an unbiased third party in the discussion to support both individuals in getting their points across.

My intention to meet with my colleague is not to fix the situation, but to communicate how their actions affected me, and vice versa.