Simon Terry

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Collateral Damage

A new year is a time to reflect on what we want for the year ahead. It is a time to reflect on what needs to change and what kind of world we need to create. One desire rises strongly for me – a world where we have relationships and communities with the least collateral damage.

Collateral damage is a term borrowed from military contexts for deaths, injuries, or other harm inflicted on someone other than the target. For me, it is a useful way to consider how dysfunctional relationships can have wide and unintended negative impacts.

Collateral Damage of Commission 

Reckless, thoughtless, or dangerous behaviour by individuals in our society or our relationships can cause long term collateral damage on those inadvertently impacted or merely around the activity. When we act with simple self-interest or without concern for the broader consequences of our actions we see often devastating impacts of actions that can last a long time into the future.

A wide variety of our social challenges offer us an opportunity to reflect on the unintended harm and victims of actions of others and ourselves: climate change, domestic violence, the social ramifications of rising inequality, and so on. 2017 was a year in which we saw many consequences surface of actions taken without regard for consequences on others. Worse still in business and political domains we continued to see leaders act without regard for collateral damage.  We can all benefit by taking greater consideration of those indirectly impacted by our actions and looking for paths that minimise the collateral damage.

Collateral Damage of Omission

A wider category of collateral damage occurs when we simply fail to take action on matters that could prevent issues for others.  I see so many situations in work contexts, in relationships and society where the consequences of minor omissions lead on to damage to others.

A simple example is the undiscussable issues that exist in many organisations and relationships. Topics like racism, sexism, privilege, discrimination, and many more uncomfortable issues easily fall into the undiscussable category. These issue are real but people will rarely raise them or seek to address them. Undiscussable issues are often those that cause discomfort, embarrassment, loss of status, or confront a given in the current culture or relationship.  As a result of a topic becoming undiscussable, collateral damage can occur widely, particularly if silence perpetuates or endorses the current negative impacts. Some times there will be lots of action to address the symptoms that arise in this damage but because the principal cause remains undiscussable the issue persists and in many cases spreads.

The global upswell in focus on sexual harassment becoming public is an example of a previously undiscussable issue coming out. The stories that have come forth are harrowing examples of the damage that can be imposed on others when people know of issues but neither take action to fix them and feel constrained by power, consequences, or other social circumstances to discuss them publicly. Every person who didn’t contribute to making this discussion more open.

More Compassions & Less Collateral Damage

Unintended consequences are by definition challenging to prevent. However, we can reduce the collateral damage of our actions by addressing the root causes of harm. Thinking more broadly about consequences, including wider groups of people in our consideration and fixing the problems. Importantly, we can also take action to exclude from our relationships and even societies those who continue to act without regard for the collateral damage on others.

Creating better relationships, better communities, and a world with more compassion demands we all work harder to reduce the collateral damage of our actions and our omissions.


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