“Happy is your grace that can translate the stubbornness of fortune into so quiet and so sweet a style.”
Shakespeare, As You Like It
“Let us be just to him”
Dickens, Dombey & Son
A particular human quality enhances the otherwise emotionless rigour of analysis. When this quality is present, we get to understand matters more completely, make better-informed decisions and increase our chances of getting agreement. When it’s absent we get an incomplete perspective, weakly informed decisions, and maybe grudging agreement. The best word I can muster for this quality is graciousness.
I promise I’m not going to preach, pontificate or pretend that I embody graciousness. But I hope what I’m going to say is relevant to clear thinking and good decisions, and maybe even insightful.
First, here’s what I mean by graciousness: being generous to another person’s perspective if it sits uneasily with our current one. I’m not talking about thoughtlessly accepting someone’s opinion or pacifying pretend agreement. I am talking about allowing someone else’s position to challenge ours.
I’m not advocating graciousness as self-sacrificing altruism. I truly believe that graciousness benefits the thinking of the person being gracious. By giving a fair hearing to arguments against our initial suppositions we can grow beyond the constraints of our conscious and unconscious beliefs. When doctors believed “bad humors” caused disease, they didn’t wash their hands after handling cadavers. Sometimes, their next task would be delivering a baby. They changed this fatal habit only when they allowed germ theory to usurp their old mindset. This ultimately gracious acceptance of a challenging view made them better doctors.
The self-serving benefit isn’t entirely inside our own minds. Graciousness can help us have more constructive debate. If we graciously welcome other views, conversations become more of an open dance than a defensive fist fight. Counterparts might even want to dance with us again, and not duck away from us like when were a stubborn, self-justifying, graceless smarty-pants.
I haven’t been able to find any scientific studies to back up my assertions about graciousness aiding understanding; but the process of science itself is a convincing example. You know the approach: start with a thesis; challenge it with different perspective, an antithesis; then look at the evidence and logic for each; and finally come up with a new thesis, a synthesis, that’s better than the one you both started with. Continue repeating the process for the betterment of humankind until the end of your particular golden age.
Try taking this approach without being gracious about the antithesis. Oversimplifying the extremes of history, we seem to have a choice: gracious consideration of challenging views (golden age, renaissance, freedom of expression, democracy), or defensive dismissal of those challenges (dark age, reaction, broadcast dogma, dictatorship).
Graciousness also helps us better turn our analysis into action. We become better company: more accepting and more acceptable. We’re good to bear when proven right, and happy when proven wrong. And when we make decisions, others will more likely embrace them.
Anecdotal evidence is everywhere for how graciousness makes good company and acceptable leaders. Think of the people whose personalities you most admire, whose company you would seek, and whose advice you would follow. I’ll bet they’re gracious. It’s not entirely for his insights that Mandela is invited so many dream dinner parties.
Everyday evidence about the consequences of lack of grace is also plain. Look at the ranting graceless nitpicking comments below many online articles, and see how quickly the discussion deteriorates into defence, attack and ad hominem attacks. I’ll bet you don’t respect the ranters, that you find it difficult to accept their good points. I’d guess there’s about zero chance you’ll follow their advice. Even the excellent Socrates, clinical but graceless, ended up with a choice of exile or hemlock.
That’s enough about not being defensive. I also want to clarify that being gracious isn’t the same as defensiveness’s opposite: being a doormat. Graciously accepting challenge gives us permission to graciously challenge others. We can then occupy the firm ground of listening, considering and agreeing or disagreeing graciously, rather than the easy, low extremes of shutting up shop or murmuring martyrish acceptance.
Though I’m convinced it’s worthwhile, I find it a tough quality to adopt: emotionally harder than defensiveness, and mentally harder than pretending to agree. I find it even harder the more heated the situation. Maybe this required wherewithal is our biggest self-imposed barrier to enjoying graciousness’s merits. I’ll let Hemingway make a final emotional appeal that works on me:
“By ‘guts’, I mean grace under pressure.”