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.
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.