Like many people I know, I have been having some pretty tough conversations lately. I want to start another one today. None of these conversations center around my favorite arguments like LeBron versus Jordan or is a hot dog really a sandwich. Instead, they are about race, law enforcement, diversity, God, political parties, policies, laws, the Second Amendment…the list goes on and on. I have spent the majority of my life being asked, told, and in my case reminded, to avoid discussing politics and religion. Now, unceremoniously, they have been thrust into America’s face.
For those who know me, I have always the person to speak out. About anything. It has not always been elegantly delivered or well received. I have spent the majority of my life getting feedback on my personal delivery. I believe in clear and direct feedback, given immediately. Never walk past a problem, always offer a solution. I used to pride myself in being brutally honest, a straight shooter, a tell-it-like-it-is type of gal. Recipients of my well-intended assistance did not see it in quite such a favorable light.
As it turns out, you cannot tell someone their food is awful or their dress of choice is tacky and be greeted with open arms for a solution. If you are greeted with open arms, this is typically a meaningless gesture by someone who just wants you to hurry up and get your critique off your chest so life can resume. I was constantly wagging my finger in people’s faces and was somehow shocked when no one listened or took my advice. As I have grown into myself, I have matured and evolved my approach. It is now one that centers around conversation. Truly seeking to be understood and also understand. It is the conversation that we seem to be missing today.
The voice of progress cannot always be dictated. No matter how many times I shout at my children to put their toys away or find their shoes, it doesn’t always seem to work. They are convinced that they don’t need their shoes or their toys will be fine on the floor. Inevitably the dog will find them and destroy them. The solution to me is so clear. I can feel the anger bubbling out with each pair of ruined shoes or chewed up toy. Those things aren’t cheap! Sometimes I scream out of pure rage. How can they not understand? Other times I am able to take a step back and look at the situation. This is where the conversation happens. This is the opportunity for change.
Unfortunately, the subject matter that my confrontations deal with today are not always as simple as shoes and toys. It is people’s lives. Their careers. Families. Homes and communities. Huge subjects with a hefty emotional connection. That makes the emotion that much stronger. The audience is that much larger. The conversation is only that much harder. So how do you have the conversation for change when the stakes are raised?
Delivering and receiving criticism happens in two parts: The Face and The Feedback. The face is telling and one area I fail in. I could never be a poker player. If I think something is ridiculous, I am usually the first to furrow my brow and let my jaw drop. If I am wrong, I usually close my eyes, take a deep breath, and look down before I begin to give an apology. And as my one-shoed children will tell you, when I am prepared to dictate in the face of wrong, my eyebrows will shoot up, my chest will puff out, and I am certain laser beams shoot out of my eyeballs.
The face of conversation is different from all of these. It is open eyes, a calm demeanor, and a relaxed face. It is with this face that the feedback happens. I often ask someone to help me understand. I explain my perceptions of the situation since, as one mentor often tells me, perception is reality. I explain things from my view, why I see and think and believe the way that I do. I talk about the good, I talk about the bad. And, most importantly, I ask about what I don’t know or don’t understand. And then, I listen.
Now this next part, the return face, is where I hit my greatest challenges. Sometimes, it’s easy. A quick misunderstanding, a smile with a correction, and things are back on track. Sometimes I am met with a sad face. Other times I am met with an angry face. And many times I am met with the same open and relaxed face. These are my favorite faces.
After a sad face, usually an apology or a wrong is admitted. Other times, information that was hidden out of shame or fear is revealed, shedding an entirely new context to the situation. Sad feedback is hard and emotionally tolling feedback to give and receive, but also provides room for growth, development, and trust. An angry face is another one that has pretty clear feedback. It comes with someone stating a viewpoint. There usually is not an immediate appetite for open conversation and emotions often run high. Sometimes, this can evolve into a productive conversation. Sometimes, you have to agree to disagree, hopefully in a way of mutual respect, and let the conversation go. At you know where the other person’s views and beliefs are.
There is one more face I often encounter. It is the one I see the most and frankly, my least favorite. It is the face of condescending pity.
The face of condescending pity is the hardest for me to understand. I never know if someone is listening to me and taking me seriously. I don’t know if they believe or care about the words I am saying. Many times, this face is coupled with a polite conversation that completely dismisses the reason for the conversation in the first place. As if some poor act of ignorance is what brought our conflict together. I usually get this face from figures in my life that have some aspect of authority. A parent or older relative, someone who is higher than me at work, or someone who is so set in their personal beliefs that they see no possibility of more or different knowledge in a subject outside of their own.
The face is typically a slow smile with a tilt of the head. Sometimes an individual leans forward, as if this will bring us closer together. In other instances, they lean back and spread their hands as if they too share the plight. The feedback never matches this warm delivery. It is often one of superiority in both position and thought. It doesn’t matter what facts, policy, emotion, or any other supporting information is presented. It isn’t even considered. The misguided face of pity is actually one of complacency.
Typically, my immediate response is anger. I value my voice as I imagine everyone values their own insights and beliefs. It is my career and passion to advocate for change. Change in a process, change in a structure, or sometimes change in a culture. I am reminded of the face of change. It is open, relaxed, conversational. I bury my anger and attempt to have the conversation. I strive to bring people to a place where change happens. And so here I am, offering my perceptions once again.
All of the topics I mentioned have been playing out in so many arenas. Social media, work, public, the news…the list is endless. It feels like everyone is here to say what they think but no one is willing to listen to the other side. I often reach out one on one to friends or coworkers to have difficult conversations. I try to post thought provoking comments that facilitate conversation and promote change in social media. Since COVID began, fostering an environment of conversation in the workplace has been tough and frankly, I’m not sure I’ve been successful.
So all of this leads to the points I don’t understand. I don’t understand why people have shunned away from conversations around diversity of thought and change. I don’t understand why the concept of listening to understand instead of waiting to speak has become such a foreign practice. I want to help bring people together and promote a common ground of mutual respect. How can this happen when the cries for change are met with the face of complacency?
I ask of you now to please – have conversations. Have the conversations outside of your comfort level. Have them with people who think differently than you. Have a conversation for change that might change you or someone else. If you can, do this outside of social media. Make a phone call, offer to share e-mails, talk to your family. Remove the anonymous protection that the internet affords and be yourself. Open your minds, ears, and hearts. It is not until we do this that change can start and it is something that needs to happen now.