On Saying What You Mean

Some­times when a per­son becomes ill, their skin becomes sen­si­tive. Mere­ly brush­ing the hair on an arm becomes painful. Some­thing like that seems to be hap­pen­ing in orga­ni­za­tions right now., sen­si­tive skin being a metaphor for a painful hes­i­ta­tion to talk in a mean­ing­ful way to others. 

Will keeps his video feed off on almost every zoom call, includ­ing those with his team. He’s the Assis­tant Direc­tor of an impor­tant func­tion and it’s aggra­vat­ing for team mem­bers not to see his face. Still, Can­dace, Will’s man­ag­er, is hes­i­tant to push too hard on this rel­a­tive­ly minor point despite numer­ous requests from staff and col­leagues. Frankly, in this era of peo­ple leav­ing their jobs, if Will chose to leave it would be a dis­as­ter. She’s already had one recent, tense con­ver­sa­tion with Will about his assign­ments — which are a much big­ger deal. And he’s the guy who has been here over ten years and lit­er­al­ly built the sys­tem from the ground up. Nobody else under­stands exact­ly how it works, includ­ing Can­dace her­self. And now, because she’s not cor­rect­ing the prob­lem, she is per­ceived to be cow­ard­ly. She tells her­self she does­n’t exact­ly know what to do. She coach­es oth­ers to get a mes­sage through to Will about his Zoom calls but this is also under­min­ing her cred­i­bil­i­ty. As a result, every­body in this sce­nario has sen­si­tive skin — with the pos­si­ble excep­tion of Will who has always been known to be prick­ly around feed­back. He’s been quite clear that he does­n’t like remote work and isn’t a “peo­ple per­son” so why should he turn on the cam­era? It should­n’t mat­ter! He can say what he needs to say with the cam­era off! 

It can feel as if he’s trolling the whole team and now the whole team has a fever. If only there were some kind of aspirin to bring the fever down.

Masks and Day of the Dead Decor: Tzintzuntzan, Mexico 

What gets buried in this sce­nario about back­ground com­plaints and hedged com­mu­ni­ca­tions are the instinc­tu­al feel­ings of peo­ple. Will should just change, peo­ple say, but you know Will! An unsat­is­fy­ing acqui­es­cence to social­ly self-pro­tec­tive norms if there ever was one. 

By instinc­tu­al feel­ings I mean emo­tions that have a lot to do with the inner sense of iden­ti­ty of the per­son expe­ri­enc­ing them. When they can­not be acknowl­edged, peo­ple don’t feel they can be true to them­selves. On the sur­face peo­ple may leak depres­sion, con­fu­sion or frus­tra­tion and are reac­tive in an unde­fined way — sen­si­tive in the way skin gets sen­si­tive. When a per­son keeps try­ing to do the accept­able thing, to make sure he or she does­n’t rock the boat too much, does­n’t risk, the fever comes on big time. Only when peo­ple turn aside from these large­ly group-imposed and self-imposed norms and begin to inves­ti­gate in them­selves what’s gen­uine­ly mean­ing­ful, is there a chance for relief.

But there’s a catch. We con­fuse mean­ing­ful with “expres­sion of feel­ings,” which is a part of what’s involved, but not the essence. An explo­sion of feel­ings may be only an indi­ca­tor of not being in touch with or under­stand­ing the per­son­al and inner mean­ing of a sit­u­a­tion — the thing which deter­mines how and why we are trig­gered. What do I mean by that?

All too often we focus on how we are being wronged. That’s a trig­gered state of being and what comes out of it only high­lights what anoth­er per­son did or did not do and how that made us feel. That is not a con­scious and delib­er­ate reflec­tion on what the sit­u­a­tion means.

The feel­ing state­ment sounds like, “Not turn­ing on your cam­era is soooooo dis­re­spect­ful. It is incred­i­bly frus­trat­ing, rude and demean­ing when every­one is mak­ing such an effort to be a team and you play like you’re above it all.” A state­ment not like­ly to improve things.

How­ev­er, if you or I take time to sift down through our feel­ings, let­ting them first come for­ward with­out inter­pre­ta­tion or restraint, then giv­ing them some deep­er thought, we can begin to come to a place that’s increas­ing­ly more about mean­ing than feel­ings alone — a place that is focused on what the sit­u­a­tion is about for me inter­nal­ly much more than plan­ning what I could hurt­ful­ly say to some­one else in order to get their attention.

Imag­ine being Can­dace. Speak­ing to her­self alone she moves toward an hon­est self-con­fronta­tion: “What per­mit­ting Will to keep his video off means about me is that I am will­ing to put up with behav­ior that seems dis­re­spect­ful as a trade off for some unnamed future coop­er­a­tion I might get from him. It means he wins in a pow­er strug­gle over my author­i­ty and his auton­o­my. It sig­nals that I will go along with rea­sons that are not plau­si­ble or that are clear­ly insen­si­tive to my needs and the needs of the group because I’m afraid to ask him for con­duct that rep­re­sents full engage­ment. It means I’m unwill­ing to face the fear of Will leav­ing and do some­thing about that. That I would sti­fle this request for change trig­gers me and caus­es me to focus on my own cow­ardice and I eff­ing hate that!

This is such an impor­tant place to stop and reflect, ask­ing your­self potent ques­tions. If you are Can­dace you could ask yourself:

What do I mean by cow­ardice? Where did my self-crit­i­cism around this word start? Who taught it to me? How did I decide I was not a coura­geous per­son? When I am trig­gered by the thought of cow­ardice what emo­tions come for­ward and how strong are they: anger, guilt, depres­sion, anx­i­ety? How do I react to these emo­tions? What do I do now? To what degree is this whole thing about cow­ardice bull­shit? What’s a bet­ter, alter­na­tive response?

There are many ques­tions, ones that can take us far deep­er into our own con­di­tion­ing. Far enough, per­haps to begin tak­ing the reac­tive sting from the word, begin­ning to see how use­less it is to dichotomize cow­ardice and courage in a habit­u­al, trau­ma­tized way.

With that lev­el of self-hon­esty, the sit­u­a­tion can begin to change for Can­dace. Per­haps she will dis­cov­er that the only thing that can real­ly trig­ger her is what she trig­gers in herself…what she buys into and believes with­out evidence…what she begins to mutiny against in her rou­tine thoughts and con­di­tion­ing. Per­haps she’ll see that inso­far as she her­self trig­gers her sense that she’s a cow­ard, she also sets up sit­u­a­tions in which oth­ers come to see her as a cow­ard, too; a repeat­ing loop, a pat­tern in which she’s the com­mon denom­i­na­tor, a self-ful­fill­ing prophe­cy that’s gone on for years.

The next step could be a deep­er real­i­ty check for Can­dace. “Is Will’s behav­ior real­ly about my cow­ardice, as if he is test­ing me to see what he can get away with? Per­haps and per­haps not! If it’s not moti­vat­ed by ‘test­ing,’ which is my own neg­a­tive­ly assumed motive, then real­ly what is there?”

This is a good ques­tion for Can­dace to ask her­self. Indeed, what real­ly is there? Because what­ev­er it turns out to be may be a whole lot less sig­nif­i­cant than Can­dace’s jour­ney toward find­ing her courage. And if she does­n’t con­tin­ue to excuse her­self from that jour­ney, to run away, to avoid sit­u­a­tions which are real­ly oppor­tu­ni­ties because she actu­al­ly has no escape, then what she ends up say­ing to Will is part of a pas­sage through her own inte­ri­or land­scape and her search to find her own true voice. She has to face and go through the tun­nel of see­ing and then express­ing what this sit­u­a­tion means to her, not just how it feels.

She does­n’t have to say, Will, I’m over­com­ing my cow­ardice by con­fronting you. But she might well ask him why his video is turned off. She might share the impacts on her­self and the team. She might explore with him his asser­tion he’s not a peo­ple per­son. She may brave­ly clar­i­fy her expec­ta­tions for change. She might draw a bound­ary describ­ing what respect­ful behav­ior looks like — cer­tain­ly more than just turn­ing on the video feed. She might do this clean­ly, even­ly, say­ing what she means with con­fi­dence and delib­er­a­tion, with the grav­i­tas that comes from a sharp­er under­stand­ing of her­self rather than let­ting her trig­gered, con­di­tioned feel­ings push her around with­out telling her what to do.

I guess we could say that fever goes down and skin becomes touch­able once we start the heal­ing from the inside out.

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