In the winter of 2011, I was a woman on a mission. It started with a personal realization that I’m a bit of an avoider when it comes to uncomfortable conversations. According to the communication books and classes I was taking, I could learn skills to help me share my perspective, even when I was worried about the consequences. Speaking up sounded much more empowering than staying quiet, and I wanted to live a totally new authentic life starting immediately. I called my mission Truth Quest 2011 and it involved a lot of intense conversations, long phone calls back home to Pennsylvania, and walks around Lake Merritt sorting out old misunderstandings. I believed that I was on a potentially world-changing journey that would inspire the people around me to be more authentic too, which would in turn affect the people around them. Two-and-a-half years later, I have changed a lot of my communication habits and have improved many relationships—and I no longer aim for 100% authenticity in all situations. I’ve also learned that the avoider part of me that says “don’t speak up!” is a valuable skill in some situations and has wisdom to share, too.
It took a lot of oomph to change my ingrained communication habits, and the first couple months were exhausting. I pushed myself to tell the truth as I saw it at every opportunity. I thought of my old habits as weak and my new patterns as strong and empowered, but I didn’t examine where I learned those habits or why. I thought that my individual willingness to be brave and bold, and my skill level, were the only factors standing between me and genuine authentic communication with the people around me. I ignored systemic oppression, power and privilege, and history, and how they affect who gets to say what to whom, and how it is received. I guess that’s a typical mistake in a culture that celebrates the power of the individual to create their own life and overlooks bigger systemic forces that affect the lives and options available to individuals.
I realized the limitations of this approach while I was preparing to teach a workshop on interpersonal communication. I know that as a teacher and facilitator, I have a lot of influence on how people experience the material. It’s like being the host at a party; if people are unsure how to behave, they will look to you for cues. There were things I took for granted as a student that I realized I didn’t want to pass along to other people. For instance, I didn’t want the participants in my class to pick up a message that learning these skills should be a self-punishing endeavor. I certainly didn’t want to tell people that knowing these skills obligates you to use them in all circumstances at all times. And I definitely didn’t want to take a one-size-fits-all approach with organizations whose staff members had different levels of experience (ranging from six months to decades of tenure) without mentioning that different levels of positional authority have different kinds of responsibility in creating a culture of genuine feedback.
Position Affects Responsibility
At the height of Truth Quest, I attended a not-so-great meeting with some colleagues at CompassPoint. I wasn’t sure of the point of the meeting, and 30 minutes after it was supposed to be over, we were still talking. I felt really torn! As a person in a support staff role, I didn’t really believe that my experience of the meeting was important to the people in the room with more positional power than me. On the other hand, I had heard a lot of talk around the office about the importance of feedback and effective meetings, and according to my new philosophy of authentic communication, the fact that this meeting was not going well was important information that I felt my team deserved to hear.
During that time of my life, when my messages were full of passion but low on technique and confidence, I did speak up, but in a totally ungraceful way. Looking back, I see that as a risky but bold move. What made this a communication success was partly the fact that I spoke up and partly the way my message was received. My colleagues, including my supervisor and her supervisor, thanked me for sharing this rather disgruntled “gift of feedback.” They let me know that my input was important, they were sorry that I was frustrated, and we came up with some ways to make sure our meetings were a good use of everyone’s time in the future. That was a crucial moment in our development as a team. The example also provides some helpful lessons and perspectives as you think about your own communications approaches across power and cultural differences:
- Understand the culture of feedback within the team or organization: If my coworkers had ignored my message, or gotten offended by my frustrated tone, or became angry that I didn’t appreciate their meeting planning efforts, that would have affected the way I communicated with them on an ongoing basis. I would have learned that feedback is something I am meant to hear but not deliver, and I probably would have been very frustrated with myself for not using the perfect words and approach to get my message across.
- Consider the varying levels of authority and power at play: In my position of less authority in that meeting room, my responsibilities in creating a culture of open communication were different from the responsibilities of my colleagues in their supervisory role. If speaking up had bad results for me, I would have been wise to think twice about sharing my feedback in that environment again.
- It’s about speaking up AND being open to others’ perspectives, too: Organizational authority is, of course, just one of the ways that we humans experience power imbalances; race, class, gender, and a million other factors sometimes make the power dynamics between us and the people around us very complicated. That’s why it’s important to develop skills in speaking truth to power and holding space for others to share their truth (even if it comes out a little rough sometimes).
Using New Skills at the Right Time, in the Right Way
That’s what I was missing when I first jumped into authentic communication with so much gusto. The situations where I was scared to share my truth? That fear is valuable. It’s a survival instinct. And the takeaway lesson from this: My new goal isn’t to override those instincts whenever they come up; it’s to learn how to speak up, even when I’m scared, so that I know I have that option.
I want to practice in low-risk scenarios, until I get better and better at these skills, so that when something high-risk but important comes up, I’ll have the option of sharing my truth with a steady voice. Authenticity is a powerful option, but it is not a mandate, and depending on what you already know about a specific situation or environment, and how diverse and critical voices are received, it might not be the right choice at all.
I want interpersonal communication to be fun and the process of learning new skills to be like adding onto the menu of options in your relationships and in your life. And that’s one of the many reasons why culture, power, and privilege matter—because they affect the ways that you learned to move through the world, and the ways that people receive your message. I continue to believe that an authentic approach can inspire the people around me. In fact, I know this is true because when I witness the people around me showing up to difficult conversations with their real thoughts and feelings, I am inspired and energized to continue my quest.
Amy Benson is a project coordinator at CompassPoint. Amy provides customer service and support to CompassPoint workshop attendees and operations support for several of CompassPoint’s cohort leadership programs. She also writes and trains in the area of interpersonal and organizational communications and co-leads CompassPoint’s Multicultural Organizational Development Team.
- Blog: “Stop Telling Me to Stop Saying I Have a Boyfriend”
- Book: Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott
- Book: Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication by Susan Ellison
- Book: Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson
Read Amy’s Past Blogs
- “Professional Development and the 70/20/10 Rule”
- “Conflict Response Styles: What’s the Point of Avoiding?”
- “Can Vulnerability Be Power?"