It’s back. Like some Dementor trained by the Sith, it floated into an otherwise efficacious conversation, sucking the soul out of any sense of accountability. I was shocked. After all, this was a demon from the past, long thought deceased. But there it was, emerging from the mouth of a colleague about someone whose actions once again caused others harm: “She did the best she could.”

Since that moment, I’ve heard variations of the phrase in a diverse range of gatherings. I’m afraid it’s returned, slipping back into our patter of set phrases.

Although I’m exaggerating for effect – scandalously mixing Rowling and Lucas – there’s substance to the concern.

In a given moment, I might be doing my best, my absolute best, and still contribute negatively to a state of affairs. Everything I think I know, every skill I’ve developed, may offer little to rectify a situation as it unfolds. Out of compassion, kind people might reassure me, “Keven, you did the best you could,” and they’d be right. There was nothing more that I could offer.

It’s how I respond to the assurance that determines which side of the force comes into play.

If I accept their words, allow myself to feel good about my effort, and simply hope for a better result next time, I’ve fallen victim to a ghoulish apathy. When a similar problem arises in the future and I again fall short, there will undoubtedly be a new group of people who will tell me that I did the best I could. This time the application of the phrase is wrong. I didn’t do my best; I did the same. If the pop-psych panacea proves as popular as it was two decades ago, some dear soul will use it yet again when I repeat the scenario a third time.

And here’s the trap: the speaker feels better for having offered soothing words and I feel better for having been soothed – all while remaining ineffective in a way that continues to impact others negatively.

Avoiding that trap requires more of me. I need to honestly and openly reflect on the situation in a way that leads to the development of stronger skills. Through this process, the next time I find myself in a comparable situation, I will have done my best in preparing for the moment because I’ve been intentional about growing from the last attempt. This holds true even if I again fall short. Ultimately, our “best” is about our willingness to learn, not a particular day’s result.

Which brings me back to the use of the phrase in the first place.

Unless the person knows me well enough to discern how I responded to the last iteration of the situation, they don’t really know whether or not I’ve offered my best. That makes their assurance somewhat hollow, even when it’s correctly and compassionately applied. Worse, it makes their words dangerous, should I use them to console or encourage my apathy.

My lightsabor wielding Patronus? More than pat words of comfort, delve into meaningful feedback and re-framing. Use the magical phrases: What went well this round? What was problematic? What remains to be my goal/role in this matter? With the answers to these three questions in hand, along with any guidance offered from our personal Kenobis and Dumbledores, we can shift our approach in the hopes of being more effective for the next round.

This way, you and I won’t need to be assured that we did our best. We’ll know it.

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