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Life Lessons from "12 Angry Men"

I am one of those people that can watch a movie over and over and over again. And every time I watch it, I discover new gems of wisdom. Some might argue that I over-interpret these gems. This may be true and perhaps the original author never intended to communicate these points. However, I argue that just like all things in life, there is a lesson and blessing in every human experience. When I watch movies over and over again, I see parallels with "real" life - with my life and have this inner urge to share.

So here is a whole narrative of twelve men (testosterone - alarm!! ) - strangers stuck in a room on a hot summer day - the tension is palpable - called to decide whether a boy is guilty of murder. I can only imagine the challenge of this. I repeat: twelve sweaty, hungry and conflicted men - twelve angry men - that need to find consensus on the fate of a young immigrant with the criminal charge of murder at a time where the death penalty was still valid. The challenge: there is hardly proof. Only two testimonies.

Now, politics (and identity politics) aside, I believe this random selection of people could reflect society as a whole. Of course, you could say, this would be different if women were the decision-makers. I refuse to follow this divide, because the lessons in this movie, I believe, are independent of race, age and gender and can be helpful to everyone.

Here are my life reflections I saw during the movie:

  1. The need for conversation

  2. Stand up for your values

  3. Be mindful of prejudice

  4. Our World is our mirror

  5. Look beyond perception

  6. It's okay to be wrong

  7. It's okay to be alone

  8. Ask the right questions

  9. Stay calm

The need for conversation

This is, at this moment in time, at the core of almost everything I preach. Sitting in Germany with my privileged life of a german-peruvian working woman, 2020 is turning out to be the year all my core values are being challenged. The year where the Black Lives Matter movement, the Corona Crisis and the Climate Challenge all come together and I feel society is at the brink of either coming together or splitting farther apart. It seems that a difference in opinion is often unwanted and the fear of being wrong ever so prominent.

In the movie, twelve men are forced to have a conversation to reach the final verdict over a murder trial. In the beginning, most just wanted to vote quick, get it over with and go home. Until one of them "ruins" it for them. Not bending into peer pressure, he stays true to his personal values and is acutely aware of his responsibility over another person's life. As the movie progresses and the men adopt a different and more curious stance on the case, conversation starts to flow. One by one, discrepancies of the case are pointed out and each man has valuable input to share. Together they are open to disagree, to being wrong, to ask questions and adopt the common goal of solving the mystery. They end up saving the boy's life.

Imagine this important decision on the accused boy was made by only voting. Eleven to one, resulting in the death of an innocent man. A tragedy. Only through discussion and the requirement of meeting consensus was the truth found and an unnecessary and unjust death of a man prevented. Difficult, yet possible, with all the hard conditions and different perceptions, experiences, strengths and weaknesses.

Lets take two pieces of testimony and try to put them together

The best things in life are born from good conversation. Love, partnership, babies, friendships, community, work goals, you name it. Having conversation is not always easy, especially when the topics are close at heart. Especially when we strongly define our identity with our emotions and thoughts. It is a life lesson and it is a skill we learn by having them.

Stand up for your values

I think there comes at least one point in life, where you need to stop and seriously consider your personal values. What are your core values? Is it trust, equality, family, justice, courage, love? What do you value most? And why?

Being clear on this is, I find, the key to being true to yourself. The most powerful way to express self love and to (re-)discover what lies behind your self-motivation, self-fulfillment and your perceived self-identity. It is an important element to finding your passion and purpose in life.

It takes a great deal of courage to stand alone even if you believe in something very strongly.

So every man on the jury had their set of values. And the architect (Juror #8) clearly values truth and justice over everything. He is willing to put his comfort aside, face peer pressure and the rage of his fellow jurors to stand up for this value. He is neither convinced of the guilt nor of the innocence of the accused, has reasonable doubt and believes this decision deserved more than a 5 minute vote.

There were eleven votes for "guilty." It's not easy for me to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first.

One by one, the jurors align on the values truth and justice and seek to find evidence to prove the guilt or innocence of the boy. Indifference, prejudice and the rush to judge are replaced by dialog.

Be mindful of prejudice

You are not born with prejudice, it is something you learn along the journey of your life. There's nothing you can really do about it. It usually happens quite quickly, you judge someone or assume something of a person before you know them (pre-judice). It's there.

It's very hard to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this.

The judgments in prejudice are based on stereotypes and opinions rather than fact or evidence. Hence people are in essence incapable of making decisions completely objectively. Which is why mindfulness, using pure logic and discussion are powerful tools to overcome them.

We nine can't understand how you three are still so sure. Maybe you can tell us.

During the movie, Juror #10 clearly shows how prejudice clouds his judgement. For him, the accused boy's neighborhood was the typical "slum" and so he assumes that all people similar in race or economic status to the boy are disrespectful and are lousy at raising kids. If it were up to him, people like the boy are wild and poor and anything bad that happens to him is "well-deserved".

Look at the kind of people they are - you know them... You can't believe a word they say. You know that!

I believe it is important to understand that you, your true higher spirit self, are not your thoughts or emotions. Your identity is not solely defined by these and you have it in your power to act different than your thought and emotion.

He's a common ignorant slob. He don't even speak good English! (reply) He doesn't even speak good English.

Your world is your mirror

Projection is real. And in my own experience, it happens ALL the time. Which is perfectly fine, we are all human. The trouble comes, when those projecting don't even realize that they are doing it!

You all know he's guilty! He's got to burn! You're letting him slip through our fingers!

Juror #3 at one point admits that he has a son that violently hit him and ran away. He is ashamed (and obviously sad) that he hasn't seen him for several years. He is personally angry at his own son and feel unappreciated for everything he has done for him. He projects this image and resentment onto the accused boy and identifies with the father, in his eyes, the victim of the story. Analyzing this story somewhat deeper it is obvious that Juror #3 wasn't the best father and deep down he knows that. Nevertheless he denies his failure, blames his rebel child for everything and projects this anger and his personal unpleasant memories onto the defendant.

Bad boys, you do so much for them and this is how they repay you!

according to Jung, we boldly project our personal psychology onto our surroundings. The psychological mechanism of projection is based on archaic identity and the only way to see through these projections is to understand the nature of them. So, before you are quick to point fingers at things that trigger you extremely, it may be helpful to look within and ask yourself, why this bothers you so much. Be honest with yourself. Dig deep. There is usually something personal at the core of every angry outburst.

Look beyond perception

Perception is always going to be bias. Kind of like prejudice. The difference is though, that perception is a form of truth. Your truth. While prejudice is nothing but an assumption, a generalization, that is usually far from truth.

In the movie it becomes clear that the murder can have two perceptions. And the trial was based on the assertion of an old lady. No one questioned her perception, but when they started to view things from another point of view, the truth seemed to change.

"Let me go! I'll kill him! I'll kill him!" "You don't really mean you'll kill me, do you?"

Just like a pregnant mom suddenly starts to see baby-carriages all around her or a recent pup-owner starts increasingly focusing on all the dogs in the neighborhood, we are biologically trained to focus our eyes and other senses to that which we need or are interested in at that moment. We subconsciously blend out so much of reality - if we didn't our system couldn't cope with all the information. Ever seen the video of the white team throwing balls to the black team and a giant gorilla walks by in the middle of the screen? The gorilla is initially completely blended out by most! Now imagine you see the video only once. And encounter someone who has noticed the gorilla but didn't count the number of ball argument of whether the gorilla existed or not would be very difficult if you couldn't replay the video to prove your point, no?

Remember that your truth is one version of the truth. More often than not, the whole picture can only be seen when you put several perceptions together. In other words, it makes sense to engage in conversation and approach other perceptions with curiosity. Be open to add to your truth instead of defensive to cling to your perception. Be willing to grow and expand your world view.

It's okay to be wrong

The problem I see today is that we seem to identify much with our thoughts and our emotions. If someone puts our beliefs into question, we tend to feel personally attacked and often people feel the need to defend this belief to the death.

Do you think you were born with a monopoly on the truth?

Whether it is our ego or our self that is misunderstanding our identity, i don't know. In part, though prejudice, perception and all the external factors (time, heat, hunger) play a part in the verdict, it must be quite a challenge for those men to go back on their vote and accept that they were wrong.

Nine of us now seem to feel that the defendant is innocent, but we're just gambling on probabilities. We may be wrong.

It was only when they aligned on the values and adopted a more curious stance on the subject and engaged in discussion did it make it easier to go back on their previous "decision" or belief.

Admitting our error takes enormous courage because it is then when we admit our vulnerability and the fact that we are only human. All I can say is that, no matter what discussion you engage in. Be open to being wrong. Question everything. And this may end up saving a life.

People make mistakes. They're only people.

It's okay to be alone

Juror #8 is all alone at the beginning with his belief and values. He elegantly and politely deals with the other "angry" men. Obviously he values justice more than his own ego and is willing to receive a couple of blows for the cause. His ethics alienate him from the rest of "society".

Well, it's not easy to stand alone against the ridicule of others. He gambled for support and I gave it to him.

In a world where men sell their soul and authenticity to conform, things are easy. You are relieved from choice and from personal responsibility and are protected from the anguish of possible exclusion. On the other side, when you are in a state of pure personal identity, dialogue and debate are also hindered because you are blocking the possibility of relationship and cohesion. It's finding that balance that can be tricky for many.

The downside of personal identity

In the movie, many of the jurors are trapped in their heads and personal identities that being wrong feels like a personal attack. Juror #5 was so intent at the beginning "to belong", that he doesn't dare to go against the group initially. However, it is also his personal experience growing up in the slums that enables him to make a valid case for the defendant towards the end. Juror #2 also is extremely shy, goes along with general opinion and in general is shown to be easily persuaded. Juror #10 on the other hand is so temperamental and quick to speak. Any vote in favor of the defendant was a personal attack to his person, who in general doesn't seem to like immigrants that much. He makes dialogue very difficult throughout the movie.

Speak your mind and don't succumb to social pressure to belong. At the same time, separate yourself as much as possible from your thoughts, keeping your values in focus nevertheless. It's okay to be slow, observe and listen first to understand better what is happening and make the right decisions.

Ask the right questions

One of the most important things you learn as a coach or any team leader, in fact, is to ask the right questions. It is at the heart of communication and exchanging information. The solutions sought are found by asking the right questions. And in this case, that is what is being catalyzed more and more as the plot advances.

The jurors displayed learn to debate with purpose. Using constructive arguments and facts based on the evidences and witnesses, as well as theories to support or refute the opinion of the other person. They learn to ask questions like "Doesn't she wear glasses", which after a build up of questions leads them to the answer that the so-called witness lied. Why would she lie? That question, remained perhaps an open question.

Gentlemen, it's a sad thing - to be nothing.

Stay Calm

The way you argue, not just the actual arguments you make, can determine how good you are at "winning"/"losing" ...mind you, if argued with the right intention I believe everyone is a winner. Juror 8 never claimed - throughout the entire movie - that he knew for sure the defendant was innocent. If he had adopted the high-handed position of knowing it all, he would probably never have convinced the others. His calm nature was key to giving him great credibility within the group

Give time to important decisions

When the jurors gathered, eleven of them just wanted to get it over with. So they chose to do the easy thing of voting the boy guilty without offering any insight into the matter. They didn’t want to invest any time and intellectual efforts. If a decision is important, do devote the time necessary for it - allow this decision that minimum of respect. In the movie, the life of a boy was at stake!

You lousy bunch of bleeding hearts.

Tone matters

After watching 12 Angry Men, I realized that the most influential jurors who were able to make a point were the ones who maintained a steady and calm disposition throughout the discussion. Those who kept yelling, lost their temper, shouted, and attempted to impose their views and arguments were the ones to soon lose their persuasive ability. Short-tempered and aggressive folks did make an impact — just not the one they really wanted to.

And there you have it! The nine lessons I could immediately identify with as I watched the movie and perhaps also why I love it so much. Could you relate?

#conversation #dialogue #life #lessons

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