How to Avoid Becoming a Person You Hate

I was so angry my whole body was shaking. I stared at Günther* with hate, my left hand in a fist and my right hand gripping a tennis racket as a weapon. I was ready to kill him.

Was this really me?

I had returned to Ann Bradney's extraordinary workshop, The Radically Alive Leader, which I wrote about last year. This time there were 23 of us from around the world — many from countries experiencing tremendous violence — and the topic had turned to war.

One by one people stood up — people from the U.S., Colombia, Somalia, Mexico, Israel — and spoke about the cruelty they had experienced in their countries. As I heard about family members being kidnapped, raped, or killed, people being bombed and forced to live in refugee camps, my empathy for the victims and my anger at the perpetrators intensified.

Then a quiet woman named Nancy spoke. "We all participate in one way or the other," she said, "We are all guilty."

I could no longer restrain myself. "We're all guilty?" I burst at Nancy. "Really? How about the babies who are dying or the women who have been raped? Are they guilty too? Guilty just like the rapists? That's ridiculous!"

The room went silent.

Nancy shrank, and I didn't care. Actually, that's not true — I did care. I loved it. It felt great to lash out. I felt powerful. Safe from the violence. Righteous. And relieved, as the tension that was building inside me began to subside.

Then Ian, who hadn't yet said a word, spoke into the silence. He asked me if I could see myself killing, if I were in, say, Somalia. I was quick to respond no.

"You scare me." Ian said

I scared him? I was the one showing outrage at evil! He shouldn't be scared of me; he should be scared of people who could see themselves killing.

But Ian was on to something deep and important. Something all leaders need to understand: When empathy plays favorites, we should all be scared.

It makes us feel better to separate ourselves from people whose behavior we don't like. It makes us feel moral, safe, and beyond reproach. But separating the other people as evil means we are more likely to lash out at them and, before we know it, become cruel ourselves.

I am not saying that we should excuse violence or poor behavior. There must be consequences to people who act destructively. But psychologically separating ourselves from them makes us dangerous.

It didn't take long for me to learn that lesson firsthand.

I was still filled with emotion from the last conversation when Günther, a German man, started yelling in German, and slamming a tennis racket onto a large foam block, one of the tools that Ann uses in her workshop to get energy moving.

Every time the racket slammed down, I flinched. His accent, the yelling, and the slamming brought me back to my family's memories of the Holocaust. My mother and her family were in hiding in France during the war, and her newborn sister, Ariel, was killed by a doctor who gave her milk that was too thick. He said he did it because she was Jewish.

I imagined Günther in a Nazi uniform, cold eyes peering out behind a low-hanging army cap, emblazoned with a swastika. I was flooded with rage, sadness, and fear. My whole body was shaking. I pictured baby Ariel, dead, wrapped in a blanket, as I picked up the racket.

I slammed the racket on the cube with all my strength. "Stop it," I screamed, completely swept up in the moment. "Stop screaming. Stop the hatred. Stop the violence."

In that moment, I could have killed Günther.

But Günther isn't a Nazi. He's a software developer with a German accent.

In other words, I didn't want to kill Günther for something he had done. I wanted to kill him for something he represented. For his accent.

In that moment — and I feel chills down my spine as I write this — Günther wasn't the Nazi. I was.

In different circumstances — perhaps raised by a parent who taught us differently — who's to say what choices we might make? Any one of us is capable of just about anything. And unless we acknowledge that, we are at greater risk of becoming the person we fear the most. We're more likely to lash out against others to defend our view of ourselves.

This is not just about world leadership and violence; it's about mundane leadership and everyday relationships, as well. Any time we think or say, in disbelief, "Can you believe what that person did? What kind of person does that? I just can't understand her!" we are separating ourselves from other people, making them essentially bad and us essentially good.

When we do that, we are, at worst, dangerous, and, at best, weak leaders.

Holding the racket, angry enough to want to kill — was that really me? Yes. At times it may be you, too. Though disturbing, this is a good thing to admit. It's only when we are willing to feel the racket in our own hands — to look at that dark part of ourselves with our eyes open and realize that we are not so different from those around us — that we can be trusted to act responsibly.

*Some names and some details changed.

Peter Bregman is a strategic advisor to CEOs and their leadership teams. This article originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review.