Me and You in Space

As a person who likes to hear herself speak

[yeah, you thought I didn’t know, but I KNOW]

it was revelatory to realize that, just because a conversation is happening, doesn’t mean that I have to say anything. In fact: a lot of conversations would be more productive with less active participation.

In this article, I want to review what we should consider when we’re engaging with others in conversation, particularly on issues that require expertise and/or lived experience:

1) What are my responsibilities and entitlements in this conversation?

Let’s start with the most existential question possible: who am I in this conversation?

Do I have a stake in this conversation? If not, we should first consider whether or not we should even be here. A lot of people join conversations with good intentions to learn, but one must consider whether or not one’s presence is impeding frank discussion. If the conversation is not in a public forum and if one has not been invited into the conversation, one might consider finding other means of learning about the issue at hand: books, documentaries, Twitter hashtags. Assuming that the conversation is public and/ or you have been invited to participate, but that you do not have a stake in the issue at hand, you will still be entitled to almost nothing in the conversation and you will owe a very high level of deference to the other participants.

Am I in a position of power? If so, I will owe more to the other participants in the conversation than they are owed. This group includes public officials such as politicians, police officers, prosecuting lawyers, as well as leaders in the private sector such as a manager in conversation with his/her employees and an executive in conversation with his/her managers. The rule of thumb is that the more power you have over those in the conversation, the more you should function as a facilitator of conversation: listening and finding the answers to questions.

Am I the subject of the conversation? If so, I will owe basic responsibilities to everyone, such as honesty, and a higher degree of responsibility to those who are similarly the subject of the conversation, such as not being obstructive or disrespectful. Otherwise, however, I am entitled to express myself however I feel most comfortable or not at all if I prefer. But there is a lot of confusion about who is the subject of most conversations. For example: the centre of a conversation about police brutality should not be the police, it should be the policed; the centre of a conversation about sexual abuse in the church should not be the church, it should be the victims of abuse; the centre of a conversation about reparations should not be the people who would be paying the reparations, but those to whom the reparations are owed. It is incredible the logic that some people use to centre themselves in conversations: a conversation about sexual abuse becomes #notallmen, a conversation about black lives mattering becomes #alllivesmatter, a conversation about anything becomes a conversation about Donald Trump.

2) How should I position myself in this conversation?

Having established who I am in the conversation, and having considered what my responsibilities and entitlements are relative to the other participants in the conversation, this will also be instructive as to how I should position myself in the conversation.

People with no stake, or merely a tangential stake, in the conversation should avoid making the conversation about themselves. I have seen all too many times people joining a conversation “to learn” and then turning the conversation into a private tutoring session – imposing on the other participants of the conversation to educate them and address their questions and curiosities. Even a question such as “what can I do to help” can be highly disruptive and lead a conversation completely off track. It is amazing how much you can learn by just listening, including what you can learn about other educational resources. Others sometimes feel entitled to make the conversation about how the conversation makes them feel. Whether the conversation makes you feel guilty or sad or offended, making any part of the conversation about your feelings is always unproductive; this is not a therapy session for you and the other participants aren’t responsible for making you feel better.

People in positions of power all too often believe that their power entitles them to being at the centre of the conversation. The conversation becomes about them, and their efforts, and their intentions, and their hopes, etc etc. After all, it is easier for one person to make a speech than for that person to engage a crowd in conversation. But using power in that way merely reflects a failure in leadership. Power should be exercised to facilitate conversation, provide answers, and take action based on what was discussed. This is most effectively done when the person in power positions themselves as a facilitator of the conversation rather than as the subject of the conversation.

The centre of the conversation should be the exclusive domain of those who are the subject of the conversation.  As previously stated, people tend to find ways to imagine themselves as the proper subject of discussion. But, if you’re ever not sure whether the conversation is about you, it is totally fine to air on the safe side and just listen. Listening, without the prospect of speaking, is an incredible experience. So much is lost in conversation when everyone is just waiting for their chance to say their piece. We rehearse what we’re going to say, we imagine what others’ reactions will be, and meanwhile when our time comes around we feel unheard because we recognize that everyone is as distracted as we had been while they were speaking.

3) How much space should I take up in this conversation?

Even when we’ve decided that we should wade into the conversation, we should be reflective of how much space we take up in the conversation.

I have heard people, who might otherwise be the proper subject of conversation, go on incredible tangents. I was at a facilitated discussion recently wherein one guy did a twelve minute monologue, which included two verses of a song from the Disney film Moana. And, as hard as I tried, the longer he spoke the less I understood of his point. Just because a conversation is about me or you, does not mean that it is about us to the exclusion of others.

Consider also that a failure to listen to the other participants in the conversation is a way of taking up space, because if only in our own mind we are still monopolizing the conversation. One need not be actively disrupting a conversation in order to be counterproductive to that conversation.

Finally, give deference to people who have more or more relevant expertise and personal experience. For example: I might have a lot to say in conversations about women’s rights, but I always try to be deferential to intersectional women (queer women, racialized women, women with disabilities) because they will likely have fewer opportunities to be heard and they likely have more potent insight into the issues at hand.

None of this is to say that we should not be participating in conversations. It is just to say that I need not say anything in a given conversation to have participated in it. So much of allyship is the willingness to shut up and listen.

Posted in: Progress

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