Accountability

What is your reaction when you hear someone talk about holding people accountable? Do you think that it is about judgment? I don’t, I think it’s about our need for truth and/or the need to feel that we are being treated fairly. No one wants to feel like they are being taken advantage. No one wants to feel “stupid”. Miriam Webster defines accountability as- the quality or state of being accountable; especially: an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.

When you were a child, how did your parents hold you accountable? They likely grounded you or punished you in some other way for not doing your homework, getting bad grades or not cleaning your room, or not following some other rule, right? As an adult, who is there to hold us accountable? Sure, at work, you likely have a boss that will hold you accountable, but what about in life?

In life in general, it’s a little different, everyone has their own moral compass; yours is likely different than mine, though they may be similar, they are probably not exactly the same. This year, I’m working with second graders in my church who are presently preparing for their first Penance and Reconciliation. Our class the other day was about examining your conscience. I went through a number of scenarios with them and asked them what they would do in certain circumstances and why. There were a variety of answers and reasoning behind them even among the eight year olds in the class. As adults, there are more grey areas and rationalizations in our decision making, but we still need to be accountable to ourselves and those around us. Whether it’s right or wrong to eat that chocolate in the cupboard, the scale will hold me accountable for my actions.

I find that when I’m mediating or even practicing law, one of the things expressed by one side or the other is the need for accountability.

  • From landlords, “Look, I know that he can’t pay me the thousands in back rent that I’m owed because he’s not working, but I have my own problems and bills I have to pay too. I just want him out so I can rent the property to someone who can pay me. I also want him to accept responsibility for what he owes. I want him to know how I’ve been affected by his actions.”
  • Or from a plaintiff in a small claims action “I just want her to acknowledge that she swore in front of my kid and then hit him.” “I just want him to admit that he didn’t take the steps he should have before he painted.”
  • Or from a wife in a divorce “I wish he would just admit he was out with another woman.”

Sometimes the resolution of the case is contingent upon one side or both acknowledging their actions; this is true whether there is an apology accompanied with that acknowledgment or not.

  • Tenant: “I’ve told my landlord that I’m not working and it’s been months since I’ve been able to pay my bills. I don’t understand why he doesn’t just give me some more time.”
  • Defendant: “I did everything I should’ve I don’t how what his problem is… I said I’d fix it so it looks better.
  • OR “She’s always swearing at her kids and swatting at them if they break the rules. Her kid hit mine…”
  • From the husband “I didn’t cheat!”

As a mediator, I’d reflect back something that I learned from the other person in the joint session in an effort to get the person I’m speaking with to put themselves in the shoes of the other party. I believe it’s my job to help my client resolve their conflicts in a manner that is best for them, as an attorney representing my client to do that I often need to find out what’s behind my client’s position (keep in mind I don’t represent people in criminal matters). I believe this is especially important in the context of family law to help the client look at the situation from the point of view of others, whether that means their soon to be ex-spouse or their children, etc.

When we feel like we are being judged, its human nature to defend our actions (past or present) and to express the reasons for our position, but does this help you move forward? It’s not my job to judge you or your actions, no matter what role I’m in. I’m there to help you resolve your conflict and might mean helping you acknowledge those actions that may not have been seen in the most favorable light. Before you jump to defend your position, I urge you to look inside yourself and think of how others might have been affected by your actions or words. Remember, sometimes solving the problem may be as simple as acknowledgement so that everyone involved can move forward.