On Speaking Up at Work

Lately I’ve been doing more work than ever related to speaking up at work. Typically I use the book, The Courageous Messenger, that I co-wrote twelve years ago, as the hand-out for the class. I love teaching this material because it brings people together who are willing to acknowledge that they need some help and they take the risk to show up at the workshop. I admire them because they often bring deep feelings about their dilemmas at work (and at home, too) and they are universally willing to help one another with ideas and strategies and in-the-moment feedback. Usually I ask people to focus on a particular speaking up situation during our day together so the learning is often very personal. By the end of the day, people are willing to comment on their own “communications dilemmas” — the conditions of temperament and personality that interfere with sharing what they want and need to share at work. This makes the training more than “assertiveness” work. In fact, sometimes the dilemma is just the opposite, leaking too much aggression or blame. I like to think of the learning as finding a way for the soul to show up without the woundedness that we all have acquired along the way.

Telling stories from the class would be a violation of the rules of confidentiality that all class members and I agree to. So, instead, I’d like to talk about this in the context of who you are and the kinds of relationships you want in the workplace. But first, some background from Michael Meade, sociologist, regarding levels of reality as described in a short essay found in The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart:

If the First Layer of human interaction is the common ground of manners, kind speech, polite greeting, and working agreements; if the Third Layer is the area of deeply shared humanity, the universal brotherhood and sisterhood of all people, of the underlying, fundamental oneness of human love, justice, and peaceful coexistence; then the Second Layer is the territory of anger, hatred, wrath, rage, outrage, jealousy, envy, contempt, disgust, and acrimony. It is the Via Negativa, the field of Conflict, the plain of Discord, the hills of Turmoil. And, the Second Layer always exists between the First Layer the Third.”

“All three layers are necessary for a society to continue, for a relationship to endure, for an individual to endure.

I believe Meade has it exactly right. We say we want to live in accord with those human universals found in the Third Layer, but mostly we have trouble — and have been conditioned to have trouble — making the passage through the Second Layer. And it gets worse, says Meade, not only do we have to make the passage if we want to live in tune with the universals, but the Third Layer “is constantly moving around its location; its not to be found today where it was yesterday…The Third Layer is mysterious, unpredictable, leaves no forwarding address.” Which, in essence means that the passage is never for all time, but only for right now and then inevitably we will need to go back for more — but perhaps having learned a thing or two. We learn we can trust the journey more than we thought we could.

The people who come to the workshop on speaking up are asking for passage through the Second Layer. “How can I tell my boss she needs to change,” someone might ask, “without actually ruining the relationship?” We muse together about the risks involved in opening the conversation, get clear on the message and the messenger’s motivation, work at accepting the receiver for who he or she is, and focus on specifics, including a specific request. “I’d like you to treat me with the same respect that I offer to you.” And so on. This is work without guarantees, and the messenger also has to focus on accepting the outcomes whatever they might be.

And so it is, to be a messenger is to take on an eminently heroic journey, filled as it is with scary creatures. Meade says, “The population of the Second Layer includes a high percentage of giants, hags, trolls, boxers, bars, street criminals, cops, vultures, gargoyles, streetwalkers, and outraged motorists. The sidewalks are cracked, the stores are closed, the lights don’t work, and there is no one who’ll listen to you.” He is explicitly not talking about the messenger’s outer world or the nature of the receiver to whom the message goes. He’s talking about the messenger’s private and subjective world that has to be faced internally in order to deal with the fear of repercussions externally. On the way to asking my boss to be included in an important meeting, perhaps I need to make a deal with the pathetic orphan I carry around inside of me, the orphan who is never included, always begging. Perhaps as I confront my co-worker about pulling his weight, I notice a lethal shape in my internal shadows ready to stab him in the back at the slightest provocation. This is why, of course, Meade calls this the Via Negativa, the dark way.

This is exactly what constitutes our heroism: the willingness to go into the dark spaces inside us that are called up by organizational or personal realities. We have to if we want to find that “fundamental oneness of human love.” Not a popular thing to talk about at work. Yet that is the direction, isn’t it, really, that we must go to create real understanding? Sometimes people are surprised when I open the class by suggesting to them that the problem of speaking up at work isn’t the problem of a situation that needs to be resolved so much as a true relationship between and within people that needs to be formed.

Too often, we protect ourselves, saying consciously or unconsciously “well, it wouldn’t do any good anyway,” and in fact there may be evidence for that. But essentially the cynical posture is a safe one and doesn’t give the soul what it keeps asking for. You can put on earplugs. You can muffle the sound coming out from under the door with a towel. But ultimately everybody knows it’s there and there’s only one way to find it and address it — which is to open the door.

Something else people discover from the workshop is that courage isn’t some thoughtless force or confidence, but comes from full awareness of the risks and the solid, conscious, self-knowledgeable choice to face them. That facing may lead to a decision to speak up or it may not. The path of integrity, the path of the soul, doesn’t actually care, but it does demand that we look right through the doorway, and having found what is waiting for us there say loudly and clearly, “yes, I will” or “no, I won’t.”

I like to think of this work, ultimately, in the way Wendell Berry describes the relationship with his wife in one of his most moving poems, The Country of Marriage:

Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to.
The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in.

If even a fabulous marriage requires us to enter the darkness, how much more the conflicts we experience in our daily work? But can we take the same opinion with us, can you, that “the dark [is] richer than the light and more blessed”? Do you have the strength to “stay brave enough to keep going in”?

I do believe the principles apply, if we are going to create a better marriage or a better, richer, more human and humane place for us to get our work done together.

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  • I love that you combine your photos with your writing. Very powerful. Your vision, mission and values are very clear.

  • Amy — Thank you!

  • “I like to think of the learning as finding a way for the soul to show up without the woundedness that we all have acquired along the way.”

    I love this thought. We all have so many reasons not to act with sincerity and genuineness. If only we could get out of our own way.

    After the stage of acknowledging all the hurt that was done to us and the hurt that we did to others, how happy to leave the baggage behind. To say, well, that was then but this is now, and here is what I am thinking and feeling.

    Sorry I missed your comment, glad to hear the cat is better. The dog is not, but the new puppy is all about now.

  • Karen

    It’s good to hear from you.

    Your lines are beautiful and hold much to learn from, containing as they do, the wisdom that comes much later from the hurt and the hurting. After all the ashes have been sifted and the meadow has grown up again where once the fire burned, I find, for memory’s sake, just those same old stones circling the wildflowers.

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