“If you can’t hear me, you can’t see me.”
-Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement
Our nation is struggling with, and sometimes feels stalled by, disparate beliefs—conflicting worldviews and beliefs about what facts or truths are valid. We all carry different perspectives based on our identity markers and life experience, and these perspectives often bump up against each other. This tension is what comes from difference.
When faced with difference we’re not ok with, it is up to us to build our capacity to hold space for disagreement and healthy conflict. This week, we want to explore how we move into and through these moments when your reality contrasts with someone else’s. How do we hold on to each other’s humanity in these moments? How do we stay grounded in ourselves while remaining open, vulnerable, and listening?
Who Do You Say I Am?
Recently, Jennifer and MJ’s realities conflicted with people in their respective circles, which feel like microcosms of what’s happening at the national level. For MJ, a family member named a behavior that MJ found out of keeping with her understanding of herself. For Jennifer, an organization requested someone else on the Leverage to Lead team facilitate a presentation because they found her to be “too harsh.”
While it’s normal to want to argue and change what we believe is an untrue perception of ourselves, MJ cautions that the key to moving through a conflict of realities is to “interrupt judgment” in order to access my own curiosity. Because her situation involves a highly-valued relationship, MJ’s actions are aimed at preserving and even enhancing the relationship. “I thanked the person for their feedback, apologized for my actions, and planned a call to make space to hear them out further and gain more clarity.”
What you want to avoid is pathologizing the other person (“they’re just crazy”), judging them (“she’s always been so sensitive”), or bringing your baggage to the conversation—this can be the hardest part, requiring internal personal work in order to show up and not let old wounds, expectations, or dysfunctions derail an already difficult conversation.
“I have a choice in how I respond,” Jennifer notes, “when someone contradicts how I see myself. I choose what to do with that. I choose to hold someone else’s reality, to hold both perspectives.”
Being labeled the harsh or angry Black woman isn’t new to her. “It’s not how I see myself, but I’ve learned with experience that this is part of almost every client’s process. It’s something I have to name and approach as part of their DEI work. If we all value and want to nurture the relationship, then we work through it and get uncomfortable together.”
We know that implicit bias causes people with different identities to be perceived differently even when they exhibit the exact same commonplace behaviors. A Black woman’s “no” is seen differently from a white man’s “no.” A firm deadline from your Asian American manager sounds different from the one your white manager imposes. Part of the work of reconciling realities is to dig into who is seeing what, and why.
The Realities of Power
A clash of realities is further complicated by the fact that we’re always negotiating power dynamics. Consider the differences in power when you imagine a clash with your boss, your neighbor, your child, your child’s teacher, a police officer, your direct report. Consider what it would be like to hear from them, “This is who you are,” or “This is not who I am.”
In our experience, the closer you get to power and privilege, the capacity to hold someone else’s reality alongside your own can diminish. When you benefit from a system of bias, it’s hard to let go of the perceived safety and status you’ve attained. Power can come from your age, rank, status, wealth, position, or a host of other sometimes surprising factors. As an older sibling, you may hold power you’re not even aware of. The same might be true if you’re the highest degree holder in your family.
Part of self-awareness and cultural competency is reflecting on your position of power in a relationship. And when you hold more power, a conflict of realities can be a gift. When someone with less power contradicts your reality, they are the one taking the risk. Consider that they may even feel less than safe to do so, which indicates their investment in the relationship. How much easier would it be for your employee to not bother correcting you? How much safer would it be for them to ignore a serious disconnect? So, take these as opportunities to build better connections.
Here’s an example of how power and privilege can shadow DEI work. The partners at a large law firm in the beginning stages of their leadership’s values excavation express doubt that implicit bias and systemic racism are at work in their organization. They want DEI work to involve a few seminars and simple commitments to better teamwork. Our response was, “We hear what you’re saying, but there is evidence for all the ways systemic racism is clearly at work here.”
And their response is where it gets interesting. “You’re being condescending,” they said, even though we and their whole team heard them out fully. “You’re being patronizing,” they continued.
What’s speaking here is their power and privilege. When we heard them out without moving to accommodate their beliefs, they took it as condescension. This is how accustomed they are to other people changing their perspectives any time perceptions clash. It will take internal work for them to create a company culture where everyone’s perspective carries equal weight alongside their own.
We want to caution that proximity to power can affect anyone. We’ve seen people of color work their whole lives to fit in and achieve the dominant standard of success—filtering out their difference, silently enduring bias and discrimination, working harder and longer without compensation. Once they “belong” to the circles of power, it can become painfully difficult for them to hold the realities of those with different identities, especially those they have given up now that they hold power. When our identity is at stake, it’s easy to fall into binary thinking—I’m X but not Y; I’m like her, but not like him; those who disagree are my enemies.
Moving Through Disconnected Realities
When Tarana Burke says, “If you can’t hear me, you can’t see me,” she means that holding my perspective in equal regard with your own is a requisite for acknowledging my humanity. When we fail to do this for each other, all our humanity is denied its wholeness.
When it comes to moving forward, we all need to do our own personal calculus to determine the right path. Ask yourself the questions below:
Is reconciling this clash of realities in my best interest?
Is it safe?
What’s my position of power?
What am I feeling and why?
Which of my feelings is about something else entirely?
What do I want?
What do I need?
Is reconciling worth my time, energy, and vulnerability? Is preserving this relationship worth the risk?
We’d love to hear about how you’re moving through these challenges in your life. Please be in touch with our team any time.