Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There

In his podcast, Akimbo [], Seth Godin teaches us how to adopt a posture of possibility, change the culture, and choose to make a difference. Here are my takeaways from the episode.

We were often told, “Don’t just stand there, do something!” It could be sound advice for certain situations, but we should give more thoughts to a situation before we react.

We should be asking ourselves:

  • What is the purpose of this exchange?
  • What is the purpose of the point I am trying to make?
  • If I am teaching someone a lesson, what lesson am I trying to teach them? What would I like them to do instead?

“Who is it for and what is it for?” is the essence of design thinking. Another word, who am I seeking to change and what change am I trying to make?

“Don’t just stand there, do something” can get us into a purely reactive mode. It wastes precious attention, emotions, and effort. It can also lead to endless false starts because doing something right now makes us feel like we are making progress in solving the problem.

The alternative is to stand and pause. By standing there, we are not ignoring the situation but to acknowledge the situation. The situation exists and can be very uncomfortable. The answer is complicated, and we might not know what to do.

Instead, we should be immersing ourselves in the situation and applying plenty of empathy. Empathy means that the outcome is important enough to us, so we are willing to exercise effort to get that outcome. If we care about the outcome, we would ask this question.

The question is not “What would I do if I were you?” because I am not you. The question we should ask is “If I knew what you knew, if I wanted what you wanted, if I would have been exposed to what you had been exposed to, what story would resonate with me?”

It is about letting go of our self-satisfaction, uncertainty, and our correctness. If we can be empathetic and understand the “agency” held by the other person, we will be able to explore possibilities. Professionals do empathy on purpose, so they can work with the other person productively and help everyone get what they all wanted.

Empathy does not mean we need to like the person we are trying to empathize with. It does not mean we like the situation. It simply means that we are choosing to do what works. We choose to do what works for us that is also something fair and just for the other person. We must be willing to imagine what the other person is going through that we are not.

The opportunity we have when we serve people with empathy is to understand what they know, understand what they want, understand what they believe and then work hard to give them new information, new understanding, new insight so they can make a new decision based on new data and be able to work with us again going forward.

This idea of having the empathy expands way beyond the realm of customer service. It gets to the heart of what we think about when we think about justice. We react badly to injustice because we do not want to appear to be indecisive. We want to do something instead because standing there would mean taking a deep hard look at what caused the problem and beginning to understand what happened thoroughly.

When we are trying to solve a longer, more complicated problem, we can stand there, to breathe, to see, and to imagine what would happen if the shoe was on the other foot. It doesn’t feel good in the short run, but what it does is to open the door. It opens the door for us to be able to work with other people, to make connections that matter, to share dignity because the thing about dignity is it’s hard to take but very easy to give. When we give the other person the dignity of empathy, even when we disagree with them or don’t like them, we have made it possible to move forward.

The choice we must make is “Do we want to do something right now, something draconian and dramatic, that lets us blow off steam or feel safe at the moment but ultimately not get what we want?” Or are we willing to be professionals, to stand up and say, “Maybe we need to think about this? It is not what is going to make us feel good today, but what is going to make us feel proud of our actions in the long run.”