In these days of long buried frustration, years of horrific and repeated injustices, when new voices are emerging (many for the first time), we, as caring people, want to respond. We want to respond in a way that is right. To let others know that this is our intent. So, we make public statements. Statements about the unfairness others have experienced, over long periods of history, that has finally come to public attention. Statements speaking to righting the wrongs other people have been forced to live with.
As someone who has lived with a disability all my life, running a company almost completely staffed by people who also live with the disabilities, the pattern isn’t unfamiliar. I would never imply that the familiarity is a shared plight we have with people of color. But the familiarity lies with people’s reactions to the discovery of the injustice and exclusion in which both groups live. The reactions people have towards these circumstances can easily be traced back to one word: discomfort.
A diehard optimist, I believe that most people are decent, kind, and want the best for those around them. But a person’s ability to live with discomfort is vastly different if you fit into your surroundings most of the time, versus those of us who don’t.
My nutshell explanation is that human beings crave rhythm, or predictability, in our day-to-day lives. Sure, we all love excitement now and again, but for the most part we want to know that the roof is still going to be over our heads each morning when we wake up.
This means that when something in our existence strays from that rhythm, we do everything in our power to get it back in line. It feels better. It makes sense to us. It is comfortable. And for those of us who have had more predictability regarding fairness in our lives, seeing unfairness in other’s lives can be downright impossible to tolerate.
When people and situations we encounter don’t fit what we characterize as part of that comfort rhythm we crave, we react in two basic ways:
- We want to know why.
- We want to fix it (or believe we’ve fixed it), thus bringing it back into line with our comfort level.
Statements like “the problem is…” or “what you need to do is…” are easy to fall into when we feel uncomfortable with someone else’s situation. They provide an explanation and diagnosis and make us feel better just by saying them. After all, we are demonstrating that we care, and we are making the problem “go away” with a proposed solution. Right?
But making statements about someone else’s experience may have the exact opposite effect.
They may invalidate the person’s experience.
You may feel much better after telling someone that you “identify” with their experience. That you’re certain everything can be fixed with “X, Y and Z,” solution. You may amplify that feeling by restating this in social media, issuing email statements, and posting banners on web pages with these sentiments. And while all of these things may serve a good intention, your voice may not be the one that needs to be heard right now.
Take a moment and consider: while my statements communicate to the world that I’m listening, am I really hearing what is being said? Or am I simply making myself/my organization more comfortable with someone else’s experience of pain and unfairness? What if, instead, I allowed myself, or our organization, to sit with that discomfort, and hear what the voices are saying?
Because right now, we all need to be doing so much more than listening. We need to hear.
Read more posts by WeCo about disability inclusion:
What is it so hard? Including People with Disabilties in the Workplace
How Employees with Disabilities Improve Workplace Culture
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