09/02/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Gates, Crowley, Biden and Obama: A Teachable Moment?

"When the student is ready, the teacher appears"
- Chinese proverb

Teachable moment at the beer summit in the White House Rose Garden? I'm not sure that the student(s) were ready, so I'm not sure what exactly they learned.

I've been thinking about what constitutes a teachable moment. It seems to me that it occurs when a student is genuinely motivated to listen and learn with an informed, but open, mind.

Psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion explained that "listening without memory or desire" is the purest and most open form of listening. When we listen with memory, we listen with an old agenda that we are trying to fit the other person into; when we listen with desire, we listen with a new agenda where we are trying to to do the same thing. In neither case are we listening to the other person.

It is hard to imagine that either Gates or Crowley listened to each other without either an old or new agenda.

If they could have, they may have each learned that the other was acting more from "fearful aggression" than from pure malevolence. Fearful aggression occurs in many decent people when in a state of fear they react with hostility. It's a very primitive "fight or flight" response that not only lower animals, but humans react with to a perceived threat or assault. It would be easy to see how both Gates and Crowley reacted in this way and how Obama's initial reaction to the incident was a manifestation of his "fearful aggression." (On a tangent, it was the "fearful aggression" of Hilary Clinton and John McCain that may have lost them the Presidential primary and general election).

In truth, what maintains the walls between races, generations, genders and globally between nations is more "fearful aggression" than true hostility.

If instead of reacting in a reflexively aggressive way when we feel under attack, we could pause, take a deep breath (or as many as we need), ask the other person what they meant by what they said, take the further step of asking them what we had done that in their eyes had provoked such a response and then correct the misunderstandings, there's no telling how many situations we might prevent from escalating out of control.