The Courage to Admit When We Blow It

At Courageous Leadership, we often tell our clients, "Diversity and inclusion work can have a profound and positive impact on your relationships and group performance at work." And then we add, "This will also positively impact your most important relationships outside of work."

We also tell ourselves that it's vital to "lab our own work." And, yet, I can still be surprised, and even transformed, when our work hits home.

I had a startling realization recently, courtesy of a dear friend and white privilege educator, Debbie Irving, author of Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race. She was discussing the unconscious roles we play, often taken on through the invisible influences inherent in our dominant culture.

Believing that I knew a lot about invisible influences on human behavior based on my work, and that I paid attention to my behavioral patterns, I was shocked to realize that I can play the "white savior" role ("I know best for you, and I'm going to 'help' you by showing you the right [my] way to do it."). The kicker was that I was playing this role, not at work, and not even across race, but with my (white) husband.

I realized that I had been trying to "fix" Ken. He obviously didn't know how to communicate about emotions -- that is an area of female expertise, and he didn't readily process as much as he should. Growing up in a single mom household, my primary example of emotional discourse was highly verbal, usually real-time, and frequent. Not only did I think this was the "right" way, but because I am a female and grew up doing it, I am well-equipped to help my husband with his emotional communication.

Listening to Debbie, I realized how I wasn't actually seeing or honoring him and his style, which, on reflection, seemed to work well for him most of the time. He didn't have the need to process as often, and certainly not as immediately, as I did. I came home and immediately confessed to Ken. My change in perspective and subsequent behavior (a process) has dramatically increased my sense of intimacy with him.

Initially feeling unsure of how to relate respectfully for both of us, I remembered a few keys we highlight in our work:

1. Release yourself from the prison created by your brain. Not knowing what to do is scary. In my case, not knowing how to create intimacy with my husband's different styles made me fear we would never connect deeply.

The prominent belief in the Western world is that "I should know" how to do something. And, most of the time, we shouldn't. Additionally, we can never "know" for another person or a group. So, the simple and best course of action is to ask and experiment.

One of the most powerful tools to release ourselves from the "I should know" prison is self-compassion, summed up by a simple but profound quote from Paul Gilbert, PhD, author of The Compassionate Mind and creator of Compassion-Focused Therapy (and advisor to Courageous Leadership): "Our brains [and conditioning] are not our fault, but they are our responsibility." And luckily for us, our brains are also a source of our possibilities.

It's not our fault that we have, as Gilbert calls them, "tricky brains." We're wired for real life-and-death situations, and therefore, under stress, we can lash out too readily at people we love, not stand up for people or values that are important to us, or sit quietly when we desperately want to offer another idea or reach out to someone. Nearly 70 years of social psychology reveals that the most ethical and compassionate among us can easily betray our values in challenging situations.

Tragically, this prison of stress-related tunnel vision and self-focus hampers our natural compassion and curiosity, and our desire and ability to learn and connect with others. In this contracted state, we miss vital content and context, which greatly hurts our relationships and performance. And it kills our imagination, keeps us quiet and cut off from others, and creates false choices of "this or that" instead of opening out to new, innovative ideas or strategies.

What to do instead? Remember that our brains are not our fault, but they are our responsibility. You might simply ask, "I'd like to be helpful, but I don't know how. What would be helpful to you in this moment?" Or, "I'd love to know how you see it." Or, "I noticed you looked down, could I have done that better for you?"

2. There is no one right way to do it. Another simple but profound tool comes from Ellen Langer, PhD, who conducted much of the seminal research into mindfulness in the West. In her book, Mindful Learning, she shows how a simple change in one word can dramatically increase students' excitement, motivation and creativity. Change the sentence from "This is the way to do it," to "This is one way to do it."

As Lynne Henderson, PhD and Courageous Leadership's Chief Curriculum Officer, likes to remind people, "There is no one right way to do social interaction. All social interaction is negotiated by the people involved. It's what works for those involved, versus a 'right' way to do it. So, experiment!"

3. Recognize that we all have temperaments to manage. Honoring other people's styles expands everyone's behavioral flexibility and expands creativity and imagination of what's possible. I realize I am prone to trying to control others' actions to feel safe. We think, "I know how to do this, and it will be safe if he does it this way." But of course, he may know another, better way!

Paradoxically, once we give up control and realize we're part of a team where everyone makes a unique contribution, we may actually feel safer, as it won't be all up to one of us to know what to do.

In my particular situation, as I let go, I become curious and get to know my husband better, and know that we're in it together. We are equals learning about each other with openness and respect. And because we're motivated to be close, we experiment and try on what works for each other separately and together as a couple. We call it "relationship fitness," which I've learned is a term that works for my athletic husband.

Now, when Ken does process his emotions verbally and quickly, I am so grateful because I know it can be strenuous for him. And at other times, I can honor his approach over my deeply ingrained style.

4. Don't take your way too seriously. I've learned that my husband's way can be better for me in certain situations. And, that when I let things percolate with time, the issue or my negative perspective about a situation or the future evaporates on its own. This becomes a real blessing for everyone.

My experience illustrates how these work-related tools can greatly benefit our personal lives. In our next post, we'll show the direct impact these and other tools have in diversity and inclusion efforts through stories of courageous women in the field.

Please share your own examples or stories of others' courageous actions using the hashtag: #thecourage2lead.