Do you ever find it challenging to see the good in people when difficult situations arise? On this show Rebekah Cummings, Digital Matters Interim Director at the University of Utah Marriott Library, shares insights on Leading from a “Good Inside” Perspective. It’s a way of shifting our perspective when dealing with others that allows for generosity even when it may be challenging.


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Adriane Herrick Juarez:

This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast, where we talk about libraries and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights in the profession. 

Do you ever find it challenging to see the good in people when difficult situations arise? On this show, Rebekah Cummings, Digital Matters Interim Director at the University of Utah Marriott Library, shares insights on leading from a good inside perspective. It’s a way of shifting our perspective when dealing with others that allows for generosity, even when it may be challenging. Enjoy the show! 

Rebekah, welcome to the show.

Rebekah Cummings:

It is so great to be here today, Adriane. Thank you so much for having me.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #1:  And it’s so great to have you here. You’ve been on the show before and I’m glad to have you here again. Today we are talking about leading from a good inside perspective. One of the things you share in talking about this topic, starts with a reflection you had from the last time you were on this show. Will you please talk about that?  01:25 

Rebekah Cummings:

Of course. It really does feel like coming full circle for me, because the origins of the talk that we’re going to discuss today came from our conversation on this podcast a year ago. Last year I came on as a guest to talk about boundaries, and overwhelm, and being thoughtful about how we allocate our time and attention, which of course—still relevant. I’m sure we’re all still working on that. But, at the end of the interview you asked me, as you do all of your guests, Do you have any favorite management or leadership books or resources, and why? 

Now, for some reason, I really sat in that question for a while, considering the books that most influenced my leadership style. The conclusion that I came to was that despite having read plenty of actual management books, the books that most shaped my communication and problem-solving style were an assortment of parenting books that I had read over the years. It was those books, and not my library work, that had given me my most time-tested strategies for communication and for engaging cooperation. Skills like acknowledging feelings; seeing behavior as a window; investing in connections I could draw from later when it was time to have a hard conversation, or to make a request; giving in fantasy what you can’t give in reality; staying curious, and asking more questions, and maybe most importantly, learning how to draw boundaries so that other people can gain autonomy. 

Now, shortly after our last interview I was asked to give a keynote for the Utah State Library, and I started shaping the talk around those principles. The idea of how to build compassionate curiosity-led leadership that starts from a place of assuming good intent. And really incorporated some of the research that I was talking about—the research and practice of caregiving as an intentional leadership philosophy.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #2:  It definitely can be. You’re talking about seeing people as good inside. So, you start thinking about leadership and what that looks like, and whether we can see that from a new perspective through a caregiving lens. Is that right?   03:32 

Rebekah Cummings:

Yeah, absolutely. A key realization for me, when I felt that I wanted to give that particular answer, was that I felt kind of embarrassed to give it. It didn’t feel like an acceptable answer to tell you that the book that most influenced my leadership strategy was How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. I just felt like it didn’t sound serious enough compared to a lot of the books that most people mention when they’re talking about management and leadership. And, I did worry a little bit that it might sound insulting to my colleagues who are not children. You know, I work at a university, so I work with my coworkers and my students who are eighteen and above, and many of whom are adults. 

But as I sat in that question, it started to dawn on me that there are very particular images that come to mind when we think about leadership, and a lot of those images are representations of masculinity. We think about men in business suits. We think about famous coaches. We think about governors, politicians, and presidents. Those are the images that we elevate as leadership, or being representative of leadership. We don’t, as a rule of thumb, tend to think of parenting or caregiving as leadership. But anyone who has led a family knows that parenting or working with kids in various capacities, whether it’s teaching, or leading a Scout troop, or parenting is all about leadership. I really started thinking of leadership as this role where you are tasked with creating an environment where people on your team can thrive, where you’re building trust and connection and helping people to see and meet their potential.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #3:  And this brings us to the heart of your topic today, which is seeing people as good inside. Will you share what this is about?  05:17 

Rebekah Cummings:

I’m sure there’s a lot of ’80s kids out there who probably picked up on the reference to Depeche Mode—that people are people.That felt like a really appropriate anthem for seeing people as good inside and trying to broaden our lens to seeing things from their perspective. 

Now, good inside is really the belief that we have more in common than not. Whether we are nine or ninety years old—that we really just want to be seen, and heard, and appreciated, and acknowledged, and that people want to know that their struggles are real, and that they’re understood and understandable. Whether or not we admit it that we all appreciate having those reasonable boundaries in our life, and that we crave the comfort and security of having that sturdy leadership and accountability. 

Now, as for the phrase good inside, I really have to give credit here to Doctor Becky Kennedy. She is a clinical psychologist who works with parents and families. She’s become pretty famous over the past couple of years, so people might know her. But, her ideas around good inside—it’s that believing at their core, that people really are good, and loving, and compassionate, and generous, and that they want to do the right thing.

Now, working in libraries, it’s not hard to imagine scenarios where this is really easy to believe when people are doing all those things. But it’s also easy to think about situations where people are really testing us. Maybe they’re breaking the rules. Maybe they’re not doing the things they’re supposed to do for work. Maybe they’re causing a disruption in some way. Those are the times where it’s more difficult to think of them as good inside, but as I try to convey in the talk, that really is the time where it’s most important to believe it. 

What I posit in the talk, is that building this intentional habit—this cognitive shift in yourself as seeing people as good inside, is really an emotion regulation technique that you can use to stay calm and focused on solving problems in moments of conflict, instead of treating that person as if they’re the problem to be solved. Which sounds so easy when I’m saying it here on this podcast, but is so difficult to implement at times in real life.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #4:  So you’re talking about seeing people as good inside, yet this doesn’t include excusing bad behavior, does it? I’m thinking that what you’re talking about is not always easy to do. So how does this work?  07:24 

Rebekah Cummings:

It is not always easy. And as I say in the talk, you’re never going to nail this one hundred percent of the time. There might even be some limitations that we’ll get to talking about at some point. But a misconception that I do talk about is that adopting a good inside perspective does not make you a permissive manager. It doesn’t mean that you work in this anything goes library. I think there’s this idea that seeing people as good inside means that when your employees aren’t performing up to standards, or if your patrons aren’t following library rules that you’re just going to shrug your shoulders and be like, It’s okay, they’re good inside, I’m sure they’re doing the best they can. Which would not be the most effective management strategy. 

Instead, I think it’s useful to think about good inside as developing this mindset that allows you to show up as your best self in those moments of struggle and conflict, and also just being an important way to preserve your own equanimity, or your own mental health in those challenging moments. The way that I think about it is, imagine you are in a situation where you are feeling that physiological reaction that happens in your body, inside of those stressful situations. You feel your blood pressure go up. You feel that cortisol flood through your body. When you feel your fight or flight response being engaged, does it increase your curiosity about why the other person might be behaving that way? Does it help you to put your anger and frustration in the back seat, so you can get to the hard work of solving the problem? 

It’s important to think about how it might change that other person’s response to you.  People will reflect what we show them. When they sense that their internal goodness is under attack. When you’re looking at them, thinking of them as the problem or as the threat, they are going to respond with defensiveness and hostility. 

Now, in contrast to that, think about what that same situation might look like when you’ve been practicing that mental work of believing these good inside principles— when you’ve trained your mind in moments of stress to pause for that moment and remind yourself to take a deep breath, to slow down, to remind yourself that underneath whatever behavior you’re witnessing is a person who is good inside. That just like you, they want to be treated with dignity and respect. That they aren’t a bad person, but a good person having a hard time.

Now, I have found that when you’re able to do this, it really increases your ability to stay curious and ask questions—because they’re good. So if they’re good, why might they be behaving in this way? It allows you to separate the behavior that they’re doing—what someone does in front of you from their identity, or who they are as a person. 

I have found it allows you to intervene differently with a growth mindset that really believes that people can do better once they know better. It allows you to search for common ground and shared humanity. Something I talk about in the talk is that if you can turn that good inside lens back on yourself, it allows you to be kinder and gentler to yourself when you make mistakes as you’re inevitably going to, as you lose your temper, or maybe make a bad management decision. It allows you to think of yourself as being good inside and just a person who’s not a bad manager, or a bad person, or a bad parent, but a good person having a hard time. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #5:  That sounds truly helpful, and I’m wondering if you’ll share any examples from your experience when you’ve put this into practice.  10:49 

Rebekah Cummings:

Lately where I’ve really had to flex this muscle is in my role as the co-chair of the Utah Library Association Advocacy Committee. It’s probably not going to be a surprise to the people in this audience that there’s a growing contingent of people who may not understand the work that libraries do. They may not see us as essential, and they might even think that we’re actively distributing inappropriate materials to children. I know that’s probably shocking for some of you, but politics can be really contentious. It has this tendency for polarization, and tribalism, and us versus them, and all the things that work against us seeing people as being fundamentally good at their core—more like us than not.

The example that I wanted to share on this podcast today comes from last February. So the last legislative session that we were in. The Utah Library Association was co-hosting an event at the Utah State Capitol called Let Utah Read. It was such a terrific event. We had about 275 people come out that night, bring their books into the state Capitol. We had fabulous speakers like Shannon Hale and Erika Sánchez. It really was just this incredible celebration of reading. But at one point in the night, I saw a woman kind of hanging off to the side who looked tense. She didn’t really look happy to be there. I went over, and as one of the co-hosts, I introduced myself and started talking to her. Within seconds she was talking to me about how libraries aren’t what they used to be, how librarians have a liberal agenda, and how we’re pushing pornography and X-rated material on children. 

Of course, I felt myself having this visceral reaction as a librarian. I knew that she was misinformed, and I knew that those beliefs really do have a detrimental effect on libraries. But I forced myself in that moment to really listen and stay present, to try to connect, not with her words that I disagreed with, but maybe the emotions underneath her words to connect with her fear and concern, because I also care deeply about the safety of children. I have three children, and while I don’t spend one minute of my life worrying about what they’re reading in their public library or school library, I spend a lot of time worrying about what they consume on YouTube and on social media, Instagram, Twitter, Discord. So I found myself having that shared ground there. 

I also know—let me think about this, but I felt like in addition to the fact that she was probably operating from a place of fear that there might be personal traumas that she was thinking about as well. I really believe, as a librarian, that she was probably taking in this constant stream of misinformation based on algorithms that are designed literally to keep her outraged and capture her attention. So in that moment, I forced myself to listen to her, to acknowledge her humanity, and to truly believe that, like me, she cared deeply about the safety of children. I let her know that libraries have policies in place for reconsideration, and if she ever wanted to reach out to me, I gave her my contact information and she was welcome to do so. 

I felt in that moment, having that good inside philosophy really helped me to stay calm and empathetic, and find those areas of shared humanity—even to keep the door open in case she wanted to keep the conversation going down the road. Now, it is worth noting, too, that we’re back in legislative session right now. There’s two contentious library bills on the table. We’re going to host Let Utah Read again on February 22nd, and I’m already sort of mentally preparing myself to deploy these techniques should they become necessary again in a couple of weeks.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #6:  It’s good to do that in advance, especially when you know you are going to be walking into a situation where looking at someone as good inside will benefit you both and forward the conversation. To do this, I know you utilize something called most generous interpretation. Will you share what this is about?  14:34 

Rebekah Cummings:

Another strategy that I got from Doctor Becky Kennedy again, is this idea of having a most generous interpretation. In the section of my presentation, I pull from other educational and cognitive psychologists as well. Adopting a most generous interpretation is really about broadening your frame and asking yourself relentlessly in those tough moments— what am I missing? It’s all about having the humility to know what you don’t know, and to be aware of the stories that you’re telling yourself that aren’t grounded in facts.

We are all natural storytellers, and I totally love that about us. Because, I mean, who doesn’t love a good story?  But in real life, the stories that we tell ourselves can be harmful. They can color the way that we see the world. A common, probably relatable example is like, let’s just say someone cuts you off on the freeway and starts speeding away. I think a lot of us, our natural reaction in that moment based on our own fear, is that person is such a jerk. I can’t believe they did that. But in reality, we don’t know why the person in that car did what they did. We know it was dangerous. We know that it scared us. But for all we know, that person might be rushing their wife to the hospital to have a baby. Whether we are telling ourselves that that person is a jerk, or maybe they are addressing an emergency, they are both stories that we’re telling ourselves, and we are always free to reach for a different story. Why not reach for the most generous interpretation that we can?

In this section we also talk a little bit about the lenses through which we see the world, and the biases that we bring to all the situations that we are interpreting. One of the activities that we did together was looking at different cultural frames—thinking about the ways that we have our own biases and our own lenses and frames through which we see the world. I shared some of my own frames in the talk—I’m white, and of European ancestry. I grew up in Venice, California, which you know, is a really progressive city, but in a really conservative family, which I think has always made it hard for me to kind of demonize the other side. I’m a librarian and a voracious reader, and of course, that informs the way I think about library issues. Sometimes it surprises people to learn that I dropped out of college to go be a snowboarder for a few years. Then I went back to college as a nontraditional student. I’m married. I’m a mom, and I’m an autism mom, which deeply affects the way that I interact with the world.

When people are, maybe, not being super friendly, or maybe they’re doing things that are socially not deemed acceptable, or they’re not making eye contact. I don’t immediately jump to thinking that they’re rude. I often just think that maybe it’s a neurodivergence issue. 

Something I talk about is that I had a really happy childhood. There is no doubt that affects my ability to see the world as a fundamentally good place. Those are just a few examples of the hundreds of different lenses through which I interpret different situations. 

Now, I went to a workshop last year led by a cognitive psychologist about multicultural orientation, and when she was having us examine our frames, one of the things she pointed out, that I thought was important, was thinking about what frames we’re not thinking about. For me, it didn’t even occur to me to put things like—I’m straight, or I’m able-bodied because when our frames match the dominant frames, they do tend to become invisible to us. So, as a hiker and snowboarder I see living in Utah, for example, is this unmitigated good. But for my students who have mobility issues, like going to college on the literal side of a mountain might represent a real challenge. So those are the things we talked about when considering a most generous interpretation.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #7:  It’s excellent to consider those frames and put those into this good inside consideration that can start to arise from all this. Within this, is there anything else you’d like to share?  18:25 

Rebekah Cummings:

There was one story I learned about in my research that I would love to share with your audience, because I thought it was so powerful. I had become familiar with a woman named Loretta Ross. She is a really powerful activist who has been working on women’s rights issues for decades and decades. What she’s become more known for now is this idea of calling in, in a calling out culture.

We all know this calling out culture where we’re quick to point out all the things that other people are doing wrong, or to judge them, or to cancel them. Loretta from her years of activism, and her years of working with people—like walking them back from hate movements, really just thinks this is something that we all need to work on, that we need to adjust from calling out, to calling in with love and respect, in her words, preferably done offline. 

The story I wanted to share is one from when she was twenty-five. Now she’s in her ’70s now, but says this is the beginning of this calling in work for her, or thinking about people as being—maybe not judging people too quickly. When she was twenty-five, she was the director at the DC Rape Crisis Center and was herself a survivor of childhood rape and incest. When she was in that role, she got a letter from a man named William Fuller, who was serving a life sentence at a federal penitentiary just outside of DC. The letter to Loretta said, I raped people outside of prison. I have raped people in prison, and I don’t want to do that anymore. Now, sometime between when he was eighteen-years-old and was convicted of rape and murder, and when he was thirty-five and reached out to her, he had come across black feminist literature in his prison library. Shout out to prison libraries, by the way, that had started to change his consciousness. That made him realize that he wanted to be a better person. 

So, he reached out to the DC Rape Crisis Center, and Loretta was honest. She’s like, I was not prepared for that. That letter, as she puts it, had to simmer on her soul for six months before she could even reply because they didn’t have enough resources even for the victims of rape, let alone the perpetrators of rape. But working together with her team, they decided first to lay some ground rules, but that they would help. 

She’s like, We’re not smuggling you cigarettes. We’re not writing you letters to the parole board. But if you want to talk about feminism and fighting rape culture, we will come every Friday and lead a reading group. Over the course of two and a half years, they introduced a group of six men at this penitentiary to amazing authors like Audre Lorde, and bell hooks. They talked about feminism and rape culture. Over that two and a half year period as she got to know these men, what she realized is that all of them were the victims of abuse, and assault, and neglect as children as well. 

She said that was really the start of her own education—that it is hard to hate people up close and that people are capable of change. Then if you learn about more of her life, it’s just incredible. That was a story that really stuck with me—that if she can work with people as a black woman, working with members of the KKK, working with rapists and murderers, I can certainly work with people putting forward bad library bills. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #8: That’s a powerful story and truly speaks to the transformative potential of libraries. It’s amazing that she could do that, and it challenges all of us in thinking about what you’re sharing today. Okay, Rebecca, so I’m going to ask the question again and we’ll see if it leads to another podcast episode. Do you have any favorite management or leadership books or resources, and why?  21:52 

Rebekah Cummings:

Oh my gosh, I do need to be so careful about this question, because last time this sent me down a real rabbit hole that I’m still investigating. I’m not going to go as far off of the beaten path this year, but I did want to talk about a newer book that people listening to your podcast, maybe, haven’t read yet. 

Last year—now I am a Utahan, so I was obligated to read Mitt Romney’s new biography, Romney: A Reckoning. I knew that I would probably pick up some management and leadership principles in that, especially because something that he’s kind of famously known for here in Utah is swooping in and saving our 2002 Olympics when they were in financial distress. And of course, there was some of that, and it was laudable. I really appreciated that part. But the passages of the book that had the biggest impact on me were really the more recent stories about how he, over the past several years, has had to stand up to his party and make some difficult decisions doing what he believed was right. It really dove into the impeachment trial and his own role, thinking about his role as a juror, an impartial juror wanting to do the right thing, and the moral thing, and thinking about what his own oath to the Constitution demanded of him.

It really was this incredible look of someone who had to stand alone against partisanship, against a lot of political pressure, and his attempt to do the right thing in that situation. If I’m being honest, it also really reminded me of my dad, who has really organized his life around trying to make his family proud, and who always has put this big principle on doing the right thing, even when it’s unpopular. So, I think it doubly resonated with me for that reason. 

But near the end of the book, you get this portrait of a man who is freed from the shackles of partisanship or seeking reelection and just wants to get things done. That’s when he’s able to get to the really hard work of bipartisan infrastructure bills and lowering prescription drug costs. And, I say this as someone who proudly voted for Obama, but the book itself was just this intimate portrayal of courage and integrity and principled leadership in the face of extraordinary public pressure. So, I really think whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, it is an incredible and timely read.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #9:  Thank you for sharing that. It sounds like a book worth exploring in light of what we’re talking about today, especially. You’ve answered this question before, Rebecca. But in closing, what do libraries mean to you personally?  24:31 

Rebekah Cummings:

I’ve been thinking so much about this lately, especially during legislative session when I think we’re always trying to convey the value of libraries in our communities. To me libraries are just so hopeful. They represent this wild idea, which I’m going to be honest, if we didn’t have it in place, I don’t know if we would come up with it today—that we can pool our resources to make everyone’s lives better, to make sure that people have access to books, and movies, and newspapers, and data. And to make sure that we all have the resources that we need to be educated and informed citizens.

Libraries really embody this idea that we are all in this together, and that government does have an important role to play in encouraging human flourishing and self-actualization. 2024, I think, is going to be this weird year when it comes to information, and I see plenty of opportunities for libraries to have this new relevance considering all of our information challenges.

We have an election coming up where misinformation is going to run rampant. We have new deepfake technology powered by generative AI, increasing censorship not only from parents’ rights groups, but from machine learning technologies and other things as well. We have this glut of information of varying quality on the internet and on social media that some people have given up whether or not they can know anything about different issues. 

Now, I see libraries as really playing this critical role in the health of our information economy, of being a trusted place where you can still get high quality information and digital literacy training, and where you can interact with real people in the real world. Right now libraries need funding and resources, more than ever, to connect people to good information and to help them make better choices, and to help shape our society into a better society. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #10:  That’s marvelous. Rebecca. I also see libraries as hopeful places, as you said. And what more important time than now to employ that hope and take it a step further by enacting what you’re talking about—of leading from a good inside perspective. I’m grateful for your insights and for this conversation. It’s been fantastic having you on the show again.  26:32 

Rebekah Cummings:

Thanks for having me, Adrian. This was great.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: 

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes, tune in to Library Leadership, where you can now subscribe to get episodes delivered right to your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time. 

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