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How to Be a Better Person in 2018

You’re probably familiar with the expression: It’s not what you say – it’s how you say it. Communication is about content and delivery. Let’s take assertiveness, a behavioral characteristic that means to be forthright, positive, and insistence on the recognition of one’s rights. Assertiveness means standing up for your personal rights – expressing thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in direct, honest and appropriate ways. It means taking into consideration your own and other people’s rights, wishes, wants, needs and desires.

However, an excess of assertiveness may turn into aggressiveness where one person acts in a hostile fashion. A deficiency of assertiveness may lead to passiveness that manifests itself in a tendency to comply with the wishes of others and to subjugate one’s needs and individual rights to another. Many people adopt a passive response because they have a strong need to be liked by others.

Even-temperedness is a virtue that enables you to walk the middle ground between excessive aggressiveness and benign assertiveness. This is what you should try to do to be a better person in 2018. It’s easier said than done because some people may try to irritate us and provoke us into anger. We see this all the time on the Internet by trolls who posts a deliberatively provocative message with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument.

I’m often asked: Why Do “Good” People Engage in “Bad” Acts? There are many reasons. Here are a few that I generally give to my students.

Some people fall victim to self-serving biases in their decision making whereby they tend to gather, process, and even remember information in a way that advances their perceived self-interest and to support preexisting views. People can readily notice how the self-serving bias might affect others’ decisions on ethical matters, but they are often nearly blind in perceiving how they themselves might be affected. This kind of ethical blindness occurs because we fail to perceive or think about the ethical issues and contextual factors blinds us to right and wrong. Just think about all the allegations of sexual harassment lately in the context of ethical blindness.

Another problem is what’s known as “cognitive dissonance, a term first coined by Leon Festinger in 1956. The inconsistency between our thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes and our behavior creates the need to resolve contradictory or conflicting beliefs, values, and perceptions. In other words, we tend to know what the right thing to do is but we hesitate or don’t do it because of pressures from others and peers to deviate from the ethical path. Going along with financial wrongdoing rather than reporting it is a good example.

Today, it seems our beliefs about other people distort our decision making. What we do and what we say is strongly influenced by our reference group. Increasingly, people have a tendency to think of themselves, the groups they belong to or share their beliefs with as better than those they don’t belong to whether based on factors of race, religion, nationality, political affiliation, and so on. Just think about all the political correctness in our society and how we are torn between Democrat and Republican viewpoints; whites and people of color; straight and gays; men and women. More than fifty years after the flower power revolution we seem more strained than ever in our relationships with others.

So, what can you do to make things better. Here’s my New Year’s list. I’m borrowing from Stephen Covey’s memorable 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit 1 is to be proactive and take responsibility for your life. This is a major problem today in society. People feel entitled to be given things rather than earn them through hard work and dedication to a cause.

Covey also talks about dealing with conflict. He says, “A person or organization that approaches conflicts with a win-win attitude possesses three vital character traits:

  1. Integrity: sticking with your true feelings, values, and commitments

  2. Maturity: expressing your ideas and feelings with courage and consideration for the ideas and feelings of others

  3. Abundance Mentality: believing there is plenty for everyone.”

The fifth habit is to seek first to understand, then to be understood. Covey believes most people seek first to be understood; you want to get your point across. And in doing so, you may ignore the other person completely, pretend that you're listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely.

Listening and communication seem to be a lost art in today’s society. I blame our insatiable desire for electronic communication with people we know and don’t know. The danger of using this form of communication is the interpersonal aspects of give and take are replaced by the uncontrollable need to speak one’s mind often without considering the consequences of one’s words.

These days, being a good person is easier said than done. One reason is we are all-too-often exposed to bad people doing bad things, and I blame the media and our entertainment outlets. When was the last time you heard a story about a good person doing good things? It’s rare. Perhaps the media needs to commit to telling positive stories of good deeds; discussing actions by positive role models; and emphasizing what ethics are in each and every story they report on or depict in television or on film.

Peace and health to all in 2018.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 26, 2017. Dr. Mintz is a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Visit his website to read more about his blogs, professional services, and sign up for his newsletter.

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