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"Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself.
It is precisely that simple and also that difficult.”

– Warren Bennis

Missing Conversations: Why Trust Erodes and Meaning Disappears

1st of May 2020

Part 1 of An Open Invitation to a Conversation on Transformational Leadership

Written by Stefan Beiten

Stefan Beiten is the initiator of The Argonauts.
He is a lawyer, international entrepreneur and investor, with more than 20 years of experience, Stefan is an expert in the development of successful teams and growth-promoting cultures, both with in-house and foreign companies.
Connect with him on Linkedin


Argonauts Initiator Stefan Beiten relates his personal struggle for creative and professional meaning within societies dominated by a ruling ideology which ranks material and quantitative accomplishments of the individual and the corporation as the standards for evaluating and rewarding success. He challenges the status quo by posing questions concerning alternative ways for leaders to measure themselves according to the quality and harmony of their lives and relations. He raises the question about these competing worldviews and their respective impacts on social and individual consciousness:

  • WHAT vs. WHY: How does transactional thinking limit pursuit of meaning in life?
  • How does “the missing conversation” subvert individuals, families, and businesses?
  • What do the “4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse” tell us about personal and social crisis?
  • What do ancient cultures reveal about how to repair relationships and move forward?

WHAT versus WHY


The most impactful experience of my professional life came from executive producing the “Planet Earth” movie project, which I had the privilege of helping to bring to life and to the world about 15 years ago. It has influenced more than a billion people in every country, affecting their views of nature, the planet and the role of humans. I became immersed in a story greater than my own, the story of the spinning blue-green orb we call home and the ecosphere of plants, animals and fish with whom we share it. The production itself, the ravishing cinematography, and the arduous filming experience brought me together with some extraordinary people who share the credit. The BBC TV series was already a global success, but the moment which began my transformation occurred at the world premiere of the feature film.

The finished work was projected onto a gigantic screen in San Sebastian, Spain. The screening left the festival audience in an altered state. Everyone in the room, my children included, was silent, visibly moved, touched to the core. It was as if the whole of the theatre became for one moment a single organism. It was not the ecstatic applause after the rapt silence which moved me so: it was the emotional turning within, and the animated exchanges which followed with people of all ages, from all walks of life, engaging me in deeply self-revelatory human conversations. Similar phenomena recurred with each screening in every country — people speaking with me and each other about discovered Meaning and applying it in their own lives: newly awakened feelings of connectedness with family, with nature and with Planet Earth.

The biggest impact lever on human beings happens at the WHY level

What this experience impressed on me unforgettably is that the biggest impact lever on human beings happens at the WHY level. Meaning is at the inner core, the value around which all else revolves, as in Simon Sinek´s “Golden Circle“. Sinek explains that ‘WHY’ is the central message that an organization or individual communicates: this is the key inspiring people to action and transformation. Or, as Viktor Frankl put it: “The will to meaning” is what drives our lives and determines our destinies. This is your purpose and the reason you exist and behave as you do. By communicating the passion behind the ‘WHY’ you can reach the listener’s limbic brain. This is where we process feelings such as trust, empathy and loyalty. And this, it turns out, is where we make decisions.

The problem with seemingly rational choices, such as investment decisions, is that they usually take place only on the WHAT level, since this is the easiest to measure with standard economic parameters. Our cerebral cortex is wonderful at making calculations and executing transactions calculated to return gains over a fixed measure of time. However, investments that maintain or expand the status quo too often cure only the sick fish. The disease-causing polluted water in which they swim remains infected, unchanged. That stagnates, unrefreshed.

The missing conversation

“We are emotional beings who use logic to justify our emotions” Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman concluded in direct opposition to the old belief in the rationalism of people and markets. Thereby, without Meaning, without a strong WHY, we miss the whole emotional dimension and therefore miss conversations which go beyond the standard social script, limiting the inputs which should inform our decisions. And we are afraid to speak of it, lacking the courage and the context in which to confide our deeper emotions and motivations.

The same holds true for generational conflicts within families as well as within organizations, especially when money and influence are added as incendiary accelerants. On the behavioral WHAT level, an escalating conflict is pre-programmed and almost inevitable. The WHY that gave birth to it, and gives Meaning to it all, has been long forgotten. The family stagnates. The organization degenerates. As Bob Dylan wrote, he not busy being born is busy dying”.

I am personally conditioned by the phenomenon of the “missing conversation” between generations. My parents are representative of the German, the European “Children of War” generation, both of them were children-refugees in their own country having lost everything from closest relatives to their dignity. I realized only later in life that it was a universal experience for most of the world of the traumas of war and the coldness of the era that followed it and how much of this experience has been transferred from one generation to the next, manifesting old narratives and WHYs.

This generation neither had the material nor the emotional luxuries we take for granted today. They were taught to make the rational WHAT level the core of their existence, driven to become as professional and successful as possible. Yet members of this generation were raised to ignore, even distrust and demonize, the emotional and spiritual layers that formed the belief system of their existence.

We are all born into someone else’s story

By this, they have missed, until today, a holistic conversation about the WHY of their lives, and therefore the opportunity to harmonize the rational with the emotional. It has been said: “We are all born into someone else’s story,” into another’s WHY, mistaking it for our own.

Consequently, many conversations within such families only take place, if at all, in a purely transactional exchange of objective facts and subjective fictions. Wealth, along with its old stories, is inherited. But the belief systems that attach to them do not fit the new realities. The succeeding generations, trained to be complacent in return for comfort, become lost in translation. WHY-based conversations about Meaning are avoided at all costs. Feelings and profound questions are neglected and distrusted. Bad decisions are made. Conflicts inevitably lead to confrontation instead of cooperation. These are the causes of the sad reality that, in 84% of all families, a family’s wealth is lost from the 3rd generation onward.

Viktor Frankl, having experienced the worst atrocities of these times as a survivor of Auschwitz, offered humanity a guide of wisdom and truth with his ground-breaking work, Man’s Search for Meaning. Yet for members of his generation and their direct descendants, the core of Meaning was often too painful to confront and integrate in their personal lives. Traumatic experiences of sheer survival were the only priority in their lives for too long.

And with every new man-made mass traumatization by war, civil war, in refugee camps at our borders, with humans seeking refuge dying in the oceans, and many, mostly untold, others and anywhere on this planet, we continue to scar humanity, starting with ourselves, for generations to come. Hence this monumental challenge is not only one for the children of war, older generations, but for the current and future generations. For us.

Trauma alone may not cause genetic change, but recent research suggests that it can have a triggering effect on our genetic make-up. The young science of Epigenetics even suggests that “Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes”. As we become more and more aware of generational legacies, including traumatization, we realize that these issues remain highly topical, and urgent in light of our current trauma. The “Search for Meaning” may have just now become accessible to be included in the conversations of our lives mostly lived in a bubble, a comfort zone of safety and wellbeing that is not a birthright but an obligation.

“be afraid of the conversation you need to have but be absolutely terrified of the conversation you are missing”

A mentor once taught me to “be afraid of the conversation you need to have but be absolutely terrified of the conversation you are missing”: The power of a non-existing conversation can leave scars deeper than a conversation that went bad. As Martin A. Ciesielski and his “school of nothing” would say: The unmeasurable nothing is forming us and our world more than the measurable something.”

For all of us, this phenomenon becomes painfully apparent in our relationships, from intimate ones to other social and professional interactions. If “missing conversations” are not recovered and resolved, we can’t understand what the other means. What pass for “normal” conversations between parties who “miss” each other often end up with misunderstandings and disrespect for each other’s essential belief system and offense, intended or not. Each speaker manifests and justifies their respective attitudes and behaviors, ignoring those which come from the other. We don’t even know what we’re missing.

Everyone remains trapped in their silos, prisoners of their own perceptions, mistaking them with objective facts, unable to become emancipated and sovereign over their own stories, and thus over their lives. Yet without this sovereignty, our individual “pursuit of happiness” will remain a hollow one. It will lead to a dead end.

The four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse

This produces a hallucinated reality from which communication in any private or professional relationship too often follows the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, empirically proven by Dr. John Gottman in more than 20 years of research: defensiveness, criticism, stonewalling and contempt, in that order. Once those grim riders of damaged human relations take over the reins, fear grows in the damp and dark until the most fundamental glue binding human relationships erodes: Trust. And then, without fail, love: love for life, for others, for oneself. In the Christian understanding of the world: the loss of love is when the Devil has won.

But the eclipse of the WHY, the suppression of Meaning, need not be the end of the story. Apocalypse, after all, comes from the Greek apokalypsis, which means uncovering, revelation. We look on the apocalypse as the end of the world. But is that the only possible meaning and outcome of this revelation?

Hoʻoponopono, the practice of reconciliation and forgiveness

Hawaiian culture brought the world Hoʻoponopono, the practice of reconciliation and forgiveness. A student of this practice, Ihaleakala Hew Len, co-authored a book with Joe Vitale called Zero Limits, asserting that its goal was to reach and reveal a “zero state” with no memories and no ego. The state was achieved expressing the mantra: “I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you.” It was based on taking responsibility for everyone’s actions, not just your own. If you take responsibility for your life, then everything you see, hear, taste, touch, and experience becomes your responsibility because you realize, that it is not merely your individual life but the all-encompassing life you share with every other creature – the universal life you constantly converse it. Entering into this conversation is the gateway to being fully alive and giving a meaningful response to the question: WHY?

As we pause in the wake of the continuing pandemic, our world stopped in its tracks, regarding most of humanity doing the same, what is our takeaway? What is this crisis revealing about ourselves? What is it uncovering in our relations with each other, and with the planet on which we spin? WHY? If we have the courage to seize the reins from the Four Horsemen which destroy relationships, and pursue Meaning ourselves, seeking forgiveness and taking responsibility, we may find that a surprising answer, and an opportunity, awaits.

In Part Two, Stefan Beiten candidly discusses how his creative and business accomplishments became overshadowed and undermined by a personal crisis which triggered a profound disruption in his life and re-evaluation of its meaning. 

You are invited to the Argonauts conversation. If you have something to say, we would like to hear it, either in short form or long form, in writing or in your voice or video. Write to us at feedback@The-Argonauts.com and tell us what’s in your heart and on your mind.

Interested in joining a different conversation? Learn more about The Argonauts and Membership by   contacting us here. 

Stay courageous.


Stefan Beiten

Initiator of the Argonauts

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