This past month, I read an enlightening book titled I Never Thought of It That Way by Mónica Guzmán. It’s about having tough conversations during these unprecedented divided times. I was so inspired by the book that I did my last Women’s Month episode of Zoo-notable on the topic.
Listen to the Zoo-notable here
I limit my Zoo-notables to five ideas. This challenges me to keep my words and ideas concise, because “five ideas” is about the limit for audience engagement. Too many more and the podcast becomes me just talking to hear myself talk. I leave listeners unsatisfied with less ideas. Five is the magic number. But there were a couple of ideas that really spoke to me and I wanted to discuss further. The idea of Changing Conversations was one of those ideas.
I’m Not Comfortable with This Conversation
“In the group I observed, a funnyman sat at the middle of the table and caused trouble. He was cynical and resistant to the exercise, but kept his group’s attention by cracking jokes. It was leading the group toward some seriously neglectful decisions. I was starting to give up on them.
But then, another person at the table, an older man with a white goatee who’d been quietly observing everything, for the most part, spoke up. With confidence, calm, and absolutely no aggression, he changed the fate of this group’s doomed fictional country with one mighty phrase: ‘I am not comfortable with this conversation.‘”
Mónica talks about a group simulation workshop where participants have to figure out how to lead their countries during a Zombie Epidemic. It’s ridiculous for a reason, so that no one can claim authority on how to proceed. If they chose a natural disaster like earthquakes or volcanoes, then a region where these occur may try to take over the conversation by claiming they know exactly what to do.
So, a Zombie Apocalypse is the perfect scenario. Because last time I checked, no one has experienced that one…yet.
When trying to figure out how to deal with protestors, or infected citizens that put uninfected citizens at risk (do you try to contain them until a cure is found or kill them since one bite or scratch is all it takes to turn other citizens into flesh-eating monsters as well), teams have to work together. While the scenario is completely fictitious, the discussion and the results of the discussion are very real and taken seriously. That’s why a teammate joking around was distracting and unhelpful. Until the older man took matters into his own hands and spoke up.
Speaking up like this takes LOTS of guts. It’s scary, because we just don’t know how others will react.
I know. I’ve been that older man.
At my first job in the animal care field, I felt like I was back in high school. The job was very competitive, and there was an “in” crowd, and everyone else. I was not part of the “in” crowd. So, I constantly worried about what other people thought about me.
Fortunately (at least, looking back, I see it as fortunate), this people-pleasing self-doubt also allowed me to have empathy for others not part of the “in” crowd. So, one day, when I heard several keepers talking and making fun of a new employee behind their back, I felt a wave of embarrassment and anxiety. I embraced the tiniest sliver of Gryffindor persona I possess and spoke up.
“I am not comfortable with this conversation.” Everyone stopped and looked at me. No one said a word for a minute. Finally, I asked, “I mean, what do you say about me when I’m not here?” One of the keepers answered me with a nonchalant comment about no one talking bad about me. That wasn’t enough. Plus, I didn’t quite believe them (it’s probably true, though, I’m at the stage in life where I realize no one is thinking about you…it’s only YOU thinking about you). So I pressed them, “And what would you tell that person if they asked that same question? What would you say if they asked what was being said behind their backs?”
This conversation took all of my courage. I wish it had gone as well as Mónica’s simulation. After the older gentleman said, “I am not comfortable with this conversation,” no one in the group paid attention to the jokester anymore, and the team went on to complete their assignment successfully. I didn’t experience a huge turnaround in attitude at my workplace, but at least people didn’t gossip around me anymore. I had plenty of fun and engaging conversations, played games, and watched movies, but talking about other co-workers was not something I tolerated. If nothing else, I gained a reputation for getting along with EVERYONE on the team, not just certain crowds.
Why am I bringing this up? Because one of the biggest drivers of compassion fatigue and burnout is a toxic work environment. And toxicity in the workplace SUCKS, I know it does. But there are some small things we can do to make it just a smidge less toxic. Speaking up and saying “I’m not comfortable with this conversation” is a huge deal. And it might be just the nudge your team, management, or even your friends at work, need to steer conversations and attitudes back in the right direction.
It’s not going to happen overnight. You’re not going to speak up one day, and then the next day everything is rainbows and roses. But it is a spark. And as I talk about in the Zoo-notable, it’s a step towards building bridges– creating a safe place for everyone at the workplace, not just the powerful and outspoken.
As John Lewis asked the nation: “If not you, then who? And if not now, then when?”
Thank you! This was great! Speaking up is hard to do and I always shake and worry afterwards, but it is important to do. People do respect you for it, because they know inside they were doing something wrong. (but they will never admit it publicly)
I love this post for so many reasons! “I’m not comfortable with the conversation.” , will now be a part of my permanent repertoire! Thanks, Patty!
I love this! Thanks for giving me this sentence. It is not judgmental. It just states how the person using it feels, so it isn’t threatening. Brilliant!