Before I get to my story, a quote from a 2017 Forbes article titled: “How Empathetic Are You, Really?”. On empathy, the author Liz Guthridge says:
“Being empathetic is similar to cooking. You may know the recipe for how to prepare empathy. But until you actually use the recipe a few times, taste the results, see how everyone reacts and adjust the recipe, you and your guests don’t know how satisfying and nourishing your efforts will be.”
Empathy continues to be a challenge in life and at work. For most people, empathy has conditions and limits. It goes something like this, “if I agree with what you are saying and how you say it pleases me; I will support the breathe with which you are speaking your truth”. If by chance, you share something that fundamentally debunks a point of view or has earth-shattering ramifications for a particular position someone holds, empathy is (more often than not) enqueue to meet an imminent death.
I have both written and spoken about some thorny subjects in the past year. I knew going into it that there would be people who praised me for my bravery and others who would chastise me for sharing my truth. When I speak up on issues, topics or instances that matter to me it is just that — it matters to me. That I have something to say about matters of societal and economic importance as someone who also happens to be an HR professional should not rub people the wrong way in 2018. Working in any industry (and more importantly HR) is not an opportunity to operate as if dumb, deaf and blind nor is it a sentence for being mute when it matters most.
Last month, I had the privilege of attending and speaking at Connections 2018, an annual user-centered event curated by Ultimate Software designed to engage, enlighten and empower their user community. During my Women in Leadership panel, there were two women who questioned why a white man was moderating my panel and moreover why most of the event’s speakers were white males. Admittedly, it was an awkward moment and not one we had solved for in our discussions about managing questions as a panel. A part of me was overjoyed that someone saw the obvious inequity of the panel. The other part of me felt sorry for my moderator, Jason Lauritsen who I personally chose to be the moderator and is someone who I do believe is inherently good despite the gender and race he belongs to. Time stood still, but something had to be said.
Empathy in motion…
I shared the truth and posed a question. I shared that I had been asked to moderate and asked the two women how that made them feel? They perked up and said that would have been much better. In response, I said: “Really? Not for me. Why should I moderate a panel of all white women in 2018?” To which an Asian woman yelled out: “What is wrong with that?”. What I shared with the group is that I wanted the ability to speak my truth as a panelist, not as someone on the periphery of the discussion. I went for what I wanted and chose Jason as a moderator because I admire him as a person and because we cannot exclude men from the discussion of how women are treated in society and in the workplace.
I have my views and strong ones at that. Nonetheless, my views are always rooted in experiences and fact and never devoid of the ability to see how it may affect another human. My panel could have been one big feminist party where we talked about how the patriarchy needs to die and how Ultimate got their programming wrong and how patronizing it must be for me to be the only black woman on the panel. What would have been accomplished by this? Isn’t this part of the problem and what we have always done?
That question was a twist of fate that I ultimately thanked those two women for. It opened us all up to have a more authentic conversation than was possible with my carefully-curated script of questions. We moved on to share openly and listen to one another’s experiences. From that moment on, we weren’t just listening we were feeling every word uttered in that room. Isn’t that the hope and prayer for empathy and also the challenge in exercising it?
The truth we all need to embrace and settle with is we are all right and all wrong at the same time. Life is a continuous cycle of contradictions. For every view you hold, there is at least one instance to debunk the position you hold. Even in a world of contradictions, it still means that what I experience is true for me. My experiences and knowledge of the world cannot be diminished or diluted. You can challenge it, but it cannot be dismissed as a data point. Dismissal is the typical reaction to hearing things we don’t want to accept. Empathy means that even if your individual or collective truths tell you that anything I say is bogus it warrants further investigation or at a minimum your heartfelt consideration if you can muster it.
People are not naturally wired to say or do what is convenient for others to feel good about a situation. This is also a part of the problem we have at the moment. Stop looking for convenient truths and answers to serve your agenda. Instead, ask yourself if what you hear, see or read could have the slightest possibility of being true. If your answer is “yes” (and it should because anything is possible), then it requires extra effort to understand on your part.
We are recalibrating as a human race which means an industry founded upon human relations should be doing the same. I challenge professionals everywhere to do the following:
1) Say less. People are finding their voices again and feeling more and more empowered to speak out. This is not the time for you to debate them and take up space. Instead, say less and hold space for the most vulnerable in our workplaces and society to share their truths.
2) Stay curious. Some of you grew up in towns of 1000 with not a dose of cultural or ethnic difference to color your world, yet others of us have grown up in complex environments with a myriad of influences. In both regards, there is a need for more curiosity, fewer assumptions, less convenient truths and judgments. Be open to learning a new perspective.
3) Exercise your empathy muscles. The road to becoming more empathetic is not linear. You will fail, you will be awkward, you will resist it at times. Still, you ought to try to be more empathetic and willing to endure all of that at the same time. I know it is a tall order, but what if it could shift budding interactions with people you admire or help someone you love feel more heard and understood? Trust me it is worth it.
For the livestream of my Women in Leadership panel click the link below:
Connections 2018 Women in Leadership Panel
Here is Jason’s account of the Women in Leadership Panel and lessons learned:
Gender at Work
May we all rise to the challenge of exercising more empathy.
It must be a hell of a feeling when your skin, ideas, and presence become a golden ticket of Willy Wonka proportions in life. It must be nice to not only create the rules, systems, and standards but to actually be “the standard”. It is utterly astonishing when you can be given the space and grace to be both tone-deaf, ignorant, a disaster, and human all while stumbling towards what seems to most of your counterparts as you “trying to be a better person”. The memo I missed in all of the years I have spent explaining everything from my disposition to why I was worthy of equal treatment is the people; white people in specific did not care. We don’t even penetrate their aura even slightly.
We (people of color) have spent every waking hour of our existence trying to be perfectly-packaged and poised for a people who don’t really care one way or another about us. Yes, there are a few who genuinely care, but at scale, most white people are happily trotting along in their very monochromatic world where they get to choose amnesia daily about the way they choose to participate and show up in the world. This is the same world and society where being a person of color is synonymous with responsibility, accountability and being of moral character 24/7/365 or at least that is the expectation. There was a time that I wished for a single day where I could have white powers, the kind that gave me the license to screw people over, engage boldly in a debate over the black experience and then play the victim when I realize I am in over my head, create laws and systems that enslaved (and currently enslave) people, the ability to appear smarter and more capable (even though on paper I wasn’t worth a damn) and still get ahead anyway, the audacity to tell people how to feel, speak, and present such that they would do anything from applying harmful chemicals to their hair to make it more presentable to suffocating entire cultures of people so their language reverberated in just the right frequency that could only please my senses. I realized after evaluating these “white powers” that there was absolutely no honor in that life, so black power it was for me and it has served me quite well.
I stopped caring what white people thought the day I realized it would serve me better to preserve myself and my community. Why bother teaching or preaching to someone who has a “but” for every story you have about being disenfranchised or oppressed? Why should I bother giving space and grace to someone who would prefer to play the victim every time I challenge their thinking or perspective? What is the point of debating someone who is not only ignorant of my experiences but isn’t humble enough to simply listen and if applicable offer a genuine apology?
Newsflash: White people are not better or greater than anyone else walking this earth. Judging by the past year and a half there are white people along with people of color that will vehemently agree with that assertion. That said, it turns out black people and people of color, in general, are great, strong, resilient, valuable, capable, smarter, and so much more. This is a shift of consciousness, not a perspective meant for you to cry oppression and whine as if someone stole your IRA money. From the boardroom to online, I have experienced white people puffing their chest out to correct me when I was actually right all to make sure I know my place. I have had white people make lame excuses for their bigotry while simultaneously likening me to a bully for merely stating the truth and holding their asses to the fire they lit. How sway!
In business and HR, we speak a lot about ROI, what exactly is my return on investment when I am encountered with unabashed ignorance and bigotry and the expectation in return is that I overextend myself to help shift the other person’s opinion?
As I know it from my background in Psychology, shifts in behaviors and beliefs happen as a result of these examples:
- People shift behavior when they are ready for a change
- Real shifts in behavior and thinking are intrinsic jobs. Extrinsic elements may be catalysts to people shifting, but ultimately the act of shifting is within the individual
- If extrinsic variables are minimal in impact, then it must be true that we are only ever able to change ourselves and never another person.
- It helps to understand that any person who only thinks of themselves and only believes their own perspectives are valid is still and will always be diagnosable as a “narcissist” among other things
Number #3 is what got me thinking. The only thing that I can change is me. If I focus inward and on my family, my people and stop worrying about white people at all maybe then things could change. Just maybe we have given this group of people too much credit for being the smartest, the best, the most ethical, moral, purest evidence of humanity. Isn’t it possible that white people as the shining example of everything we know is a farce or at a minimum a half-truth? Perhaps, there are different perspectives yet to be examined that aren’t grounded in any human developing debilitating and generational hate of themselves, spelling their names a certain way, losing their language, culture, identity, voice to please another human. Just maybe, it is plausible that we were all duped (white people included), into thinking that white people know what’s best in every situation. Maybe they don’t and maybe there is a better way yet to be discovered and tried.
By 2050, the world population is purported to be heavily focused in Asia and Africa. In other words, a quarter of the world’s population will be African. Times up! No one cares if you don’t think we speak the King’s English (especially when you play yourself speaking our slang in our presence). Language is changing every day and has always been a product of the times. No one cares if you don’t like the kinks in our hair, we like it and thank God we are finally wearing them proudly. We don’t care anymore if you don’t invest in us, we will invest in ourselves (just see what Richelieu Dennis did in buying Essence Magazine back). We already know you aren’t mourning the loss of our babies and men and only march when it suits you – we know our lives matter and continue to march and protect ourselves. A peer of mine in the online HR sphere is quoted as saying “For the first time in the history of the United States it’s not very comfortable to be a white dude…I’m seen as a really great replacement of Trump to pounce on”.
To that I say, talk to us in about 300 years after you process what it has meant to endure enslavement, systemic oppression, and racism, censoring, stealing of ideas, livelihoods, being robbed of your essence and life for no other reason than being a living, breathing thing of this planet and without barely a collective of humans with whom to share our woes authentically. Lucky for you no white man or woman will have to live that plight (unless of course aliens of the Independence Day variety finds your way equally disturbing and come for you). You know why you will never meet that very deserving era of reckoning? It is because with all of the hate that has been shown to us through the generations and even currently we always find a little more compassion, a little more empathy within ourselves to extend an olive branch of kindness or at a minimum a very tired ear to listen to you excruciatingly talk about how hard it is to face your privilege. Did I mention we are a compassionate people? It is worth repeating. Breathe in what you see as so-called white oppression and sit with it as we have our own. I trust you will find the answers you need and deserve whether you like them or not. Until then we will be living our best lives in color- happily and free as we were meant to be.