Upon Further Reflection

When I first volunteered to facilitate the company ‘safe to speak up’ workshops, I wasn’t excited. It just didn’t appeal, particularly. While a good follow up to a session I ran during a leadership session about 6 months ago on diversity and bias, I mostly thought the whole thing would just be another exercise in telling folks “Don’t be a dick.”
I was wrong. The experience of repeating this conversation over and over again about how we treat each other in a business environment proved to be quite insightful – both in my understanding of how people think and feel about the ‘other’ and about how I myself am not exactly the stand-up awesome exemplar of perfect behaviour I would like to believe of myself. Each session I ran surfaced new ideas, new angles and insights as to how people would process the same experience. Each session provoked me to reflect on my own actions, expressions, and engagement with other people.
Those who know me at all well in meat space recognize that I can be quite polarising in person. You either like Toast and want more Toast in your life… or you really don’t. I’m loud (I’m deaf actually so I’m REALLY loud), I’m American, I have no filters, I swear a lot. I’m also pretty blunt, don’t suffer fools, and my go-to tone is generally a bit snarky and almost universally disrespectful. You’d think I’d make an absolutely shit facilitator, but somehow this combination of candour, volume, and authenticity generally works.
Until it doesn’t, right? As I worked through multiple sessions on diversity, bullying, offensive comments, racism, sexism, sheer arrogant pointy-headed assholery, it struck me at odd moments how strange it was for someone as challenging and confrontational as myself to attempt to ‘educate’ others on how to feel safe to speak up and how to create a safe environment for others. Like, seriously bitch? Where do you get off? I’m not exactly a model of empathy, warmth, compassion, and full acceptance of others. I mean I try. I really do try. But the more I walked others through the topic, the less worthy I felt to lead the discussion.
I routinely make people uncomfortable. It is literally my stock in trade. During workshops, in small group settings, in one to one coaching conversations, I push push push. Sometimes I push gently. Sometimes I dig an elbow into the sore mental muscle, lean into it, and grind hard until the person squeals. It is absolutely statistically impossible that I have somehow avoided being a bully in all these moments. There is no question someone, somewhere remembers me as That Person who made them miserable.
Right now, I’m struggling with how to think and feel about that insight. I know that I do help people with this push into the uncomfortable. I know this because people repeatedly come back to me later and tell me how that worked for them. I know that many of the #psychtricks I have learned over the last few years can change the course of people’s lives if they choose to pick them up and use them. I know that there are people who have quit their job because something I said unlocked the courage in themselves to make that change. I know that others have started new educational programmes, health challenges, picked up a new hobby. And because the ones who like my approach and respond to it tell me that they like it, I have a selection bias in the feedback I get that can make me super arrogant and potentially careless.
It’s a Spidey moment. With great power comes great responsibility. The ability to trigger a cascade of reflection in another human being that might enable them to change the trajectory of their lives is a super power. It’s also dangerous; The entire source of this power is making people feel uncomfortable enough to move themselves. I must have made people sad, mad, hurt, lost, frustrated. It must have happened. I must have hurt someone.
We all like to think we do more good than harm. I like to think that. I need to think that to keep doing what I do with the same level of confidence. But what all those many personal reflections shared by the people who participated in ‘safe to speak up’ workshops triggered in me is a desire to be more aware, more keenly sensitive to the small, subtle clues and the big hit-you-over-the-head moments that indicate I’m hurting more than I’m helping.
We all wrote a commitment at the end of the workshops, homework to think about what our personal next action should be to make us better people. My commitment is to pause, listen, breathe, and watch far more closely, to dig with the elbow but not lean in quite so hard until I’m absolutely positively certain that the squeal is one of “thank you VERY much that helps enormously” rather than OMG I’m going to give you a one-star review on Yelp. The S.M.A.R.T. action to support my commitment is for my next 20 coaching/workshop sessions, I will check in afterwards with each and every person who I (with my increased attention to details!) looked uncomfortable… even for a moment. I want to start to hear the negative feedback and learn from it. I want to build a habit of being more careful with other people.
"Before we acquire great power, we must acquire wisdom to use it well." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson