Vulnerability and consent

This isn’t about what you might have thought when you read the headline, and I promise I didn’t choose those words as clickbait.

I’ve never been really afraid to share what I’m thinking. As you can imagine, that’s got me into trouble over and over and over again. Once I even had a boss that wasn’t afraid to name it ‘Susan, you’ll never rise above middle management because you say what you really think’.

I have been told more than once, within a few weeks or months of joining a firm that I was like a ‘breath of fresh air’ because I call it as I see it, unafraid to name the unnamed. On reflection, some of that is about my tendency to ‘think out loud’ and also probably because I’ve never had a lot of patience for learning let alone practicing the unwritten rules of organisational politics.

My expressiveness is not always delightful. I am forever grateful to those who have pulled me up on things I’ve said and asked me to think about the impact of my words. I have done a lot of work on that, and although I say and believe about myself that would never intentionally hurt someone personally with my words, of course sometimes I do.

There is a significant level of vulnerability that comes from honesty and especially when it’s coming from a place that’s not strictly rational. Brining all of ourselves, our whole selves to work means having the vulnerability to share our feelings, our fears, our impressions, and what we notice. All from our perspective and our experience.

I stand in an organisation of a couple hundred humans. I work really closely with about 20 all up, in different configurations. In two of these tight configurations, it’s understood and expected that we can ‘work our stuff out’ through our work. What that might mean is a topic for a different day, but what that means for me is that I can, virtually unfiltered, talk about not only what I’m noticing about the issue or opportunities at play, but how they are affecting me and my development; what are they bringing up for me. Am I being triggered by a word? Is it encouraging me back into old unproductive hierarchical patterns?

The ability to be able to continue to develop is an absolute gift to me, and the gratitude I feel for my colleagues to hold me in that is unbounded. The even greater joy for me is to hold them as they do what the need and want to do to exercise their muscles and sinew and sometimes tear ducts in the process of letting go and letting come.

Does that sound scary, or does it sound awesome?

I’m the first to admit that I’m probably not always hard to hold. Because what comes out is opinion mixed with fear and sometimes anxiety but very often joy at having connected some dots that bring understanding and clarity.

And that brings us to consent.

This week I was in an expanded circle in another group in which I participate. I was triggered by something and challenged it and started processing out loud. It wasn’t appropriate, and it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair because there were at least two people in that gathering from whom I did not have explicit consent to ‘go there’.

If I’m honest, I knew almost instantly that what I said (what I processed aloud) hurt someone. Because I didn’t intend it to be hurtful, and assumed everyone assumes that of me, I didn’t over-explain myself. And it’s all because I didn’t have the consent of the broad group to do that — to work my sh*t out aloud.

There was at least one other individual that I know was made uncomfortable. Sometimes that’s OK, for example if I’m thoughtfully trying to provoke or challenge, but in this instance it wasn’t — because neither had they given consent.

I’ve apologized subsequently, and I know that over time the trust will or will not manifest, and consent will or will not be granted to me by this individual to do the work I want to do (MY work) out loud, in a group, with them.

Much of what I’m ‘processing’ is the old memes and attitudes and assumptions of 25 years of institutionalization in multi-nationals. Next week I’ll take on the paradox of masks and shadows — and the challenge of re-acquainting ones self with some long ignored facets — let alone the challenge of welcoming them into the workplace.