Over the past few months I have found myself coming back to a theme that continues to ring true broadly in my life. In numerous professional situations, personal discussions, or political realities I am struck by how many times I keep finding myself saying to not get distracted by the talking points/discussions or “the words”, but to “watch the feet,” and let the actions of the situation betray the truth.
I was in a recent private discussion with an old friend who had introduced me to a new professional colleague. I had just met this person as we sat down to lunch to discuss a challenge she was dealing with professionally, and my role was to be “the outside guy”, not encumbered by ANY knowledge of the specifics of the situation. She described numerous meetings, and pronouncements by the different parties involved the posturing back and forth and the debates on various key issues. After a few minutes of quietly listening she looked over to me as asked, “Bill, what does this all sound like to you???” Maybe it was lack of sleep or too much travel, but I blurted out in almost a “rain manlike” tone, “well, it sounds like a bunch of chatter, just a bunch of monkeys in the trees!” Well the conversation stopped and I apologized for being so abrupt but I asked her to describe NOT what people were saying or talking about, but what they were DOING or NOT DOING. While there had been a lot of “chatter,” it became clear from her answers there was very little action of any kind.
I shared the story from the movie “The Reader” that I have quoted in earlier essays where the student in the movie approaches his professor, asking his opinion about a challenging situation he was facing. The professor after listening politely responds sharply that the student’s feelings and intentions were “utterly unimportant” and all that truly matters is what the student “chooses to DO!” It’s the actions, not the words/intentions/feelings that are important to assess.
Shakespeare in his tragedy Coriolanus has a marvelous quote that amplifies this same concept:
“In such business action is eloquence, and the eyes of th’ ignorant more learned than the ears.”
This idea that “action is eloquence” is the center of my point. Even in this lesser known of Shakespeare’s plays, he advises the audience to watch the actions of the characters, more than listen to their speeches, enabling even the most ignorant to become truly learned.
Recently I was on the phone with an old friend who was once again missing a college reunion activity. He expressed his frustration on the date of the get-together and it’s conflict with his teaching schedule and while I listened for a moment, I did interrupt his commentary; reminding him that since he had missed our 5 , 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 year reunions, I wasn’t surprised that he was missing this recent activity. Flustered and a bit defensive by my comment, I just said that we would miss him and we would continue to invite him in the future, (clearly with no expectations for his participation.) Watch the Feet!
We often see this dynamic in the political arena worldwide. How many times have you seen some world leader give an eloquent speech that is a description or more likely an obfuscation of the actual facts on the ground? It is not bounded by country, party, or ideology, this habit of using “spin” (another word for “chatter”) to “reposition or clarify” the actions are unfortunately common across the globe.
Whether in business, personal affairs, or in politics, the more we can “watch the feet” and not be distracted by “the chatter in the trees”, the better we are all off to truly understand the environments where we operate. We need to work hard in our media dense world to not get distracted by the “monkeys in the trees” that bombard us every day, but to keep our eyes on the “eloquence of actions” across the landscape.