My friend posted this chart encouraging people to try being sensitive and personable in work communication. My first thought was YEAH, being nice is like free money. Some friends of my friend (some of them were mutual friends) got ticked off. They felt the chart was inconsistent, preachy and basically saying you should hem and haw because being direct is mean; so they should just stop it and instead be fake nice. I was interested in that take and thought it through a bit. I remembered times I’ve experienced (or worked with others who were struggling with the experience of) getting shut down or judged for being direct. But I began to see a few sarcastic comments about the “weakness” of “crying” about feeling bad about languaging that feels rude, or addressing it as something to try changing. Like it is “babyish” or “whining” to ask people to consider trying something different than what they’re doing.
It seemed to me that the conversation quickly became one in which people were vying for the upper hand, competing for who sees things the “right” way. I saw various people in different ways essentially saying that their feelings about communication styles in various settings and contexts were sound and that people with a different point of view or different feelings, were being mean or controlling or weak. Or stupid. I started to see an interesting (to me) dichotomy develop, between those critical of insensitivity and those critical of oversensitivity. I wondered why I was feeling stirred up by the conversation and pressured to pick a side.
This made me think of the current discourse around neuro- and psychological diversity, the growing public awareness of the concept of “highly sensitive people” and the usefulness of normalizing vulnerability as an asset which in a manner of thinking, is actually universal.
Some people want a bit more consideration of their feelings in relationships, school and in the workplace, and it’s becoming more acceptable for them to ask for what they want. It may seem weak and whiney (to some people) especially if the asking is done in an entitled or condescending manner, or by mandate with rules and scripts and shaming statements – like some people thought the corporate speak chart was doing. But in my opinion, it’s worth thinking about the chart even if it’s limited and has some problems, taking what’s useful, and disregarding the kitchy cringy corporate-speak directive tone.
The themes that emerged in the conversation brought to mind a wonderful article called “Why Your Sensitivity is Really a Strength” by Crystal Hoshaw, from earlier this year, which I think is helpful in putting the passions stirred by this little corporate-speak preachy chart, into better perspective. I think the article’s advice about looking at emotional reactions like they’re icebergs with layers and levels, is helpful. I wonder what lies beneath strong emotional reactions, like neediness, anger, frustration. I had to look at my own reactions in this conversation among friends and friends of friends and wonder about what was getting stirred up in me.
My biggest take away from the conversation was noticing the diversity of sensibilities and sensitivities and how for myself, I like to work at (and help others work at) being freer in communicating what’s on my mind and what I need, and more accepting of others doing the same; and also knowing we can’t always get everything we want or think we need. And that that’s very often ok – like when you choose to stay at the job or in the relationship anyway – even if disappointing.
Whether we ultimately get what we want from ourselves and other people in our lives, it’s still valuable to be able to articulate our needs for ourselves, and to share them with others when we choose to – and especially when the relationships matter to our personal and professional lives.**
**With a big caveat being – only when we can do so without setting ourselves up to be abused or scapegoated, which unfortunately is all too common in organizations and groups in which “isms” and abusive dynamics and hierarchies are the norm.