How to Talk so Your Organization Will Listen

Effective advocacy when it feels really personal

By Lindy Elkins-Tanton, Sara Collina, and James Tanton

Her boss told her he’d fire her if she didn’t support his idea. His advisor touched his [x] and he never felt safe in that department again. His partner’s boss sought him out at his favorite coffee shop and taunted him. Her co-worker called her a little girl, sweetheart, and hopeless. His manager said that people like him never made it in this industry.

Each of these stories happened either to an author or someone an author knows well. Dig a little and it seems that almost everyone has been bullied or harassed at some point. Almost every one of us has had an experience that, when revived, calls forth feelings of anger and betrayal just as if it happened yesterday. It still hurts.

Because so many of us have experienced harassment and because we have all experienced acts of implicit (and explicit) bias, we have a sense of the depth of harm that comes of this. And as a result many of us are compelled to find ways to make the world a kinder and more respectful place.

But here’s the paradox. When we step up to make change, our deep and personal experiences can actually get in the way and make it harder to be effective and heard.

Putting our own rage and pain “aside;” and our own need to be heard and answered “on hold,” can be incredibly difficult. And honestly, is there really a ”side” to put these feelings? Is there a conveniently placed emotional coffee table that allows us to put down our baggage and take on the world with two hands? Some baggage just sticks to you, no matter how much you want to put it aside.

Our personal pain can inspire us to take on injustice, and it can nurture our compassion. Sometimes our personal tragedies bring out our best. (Sometimes, not so much). Over our careers, we have suffered indignities in the workplace that still hurt, and we have also worked to create meaningful change in workplace culture, to put a stop to unacceptable attitudes, actions, and practices, to make organizations fundamentally more humane. This work, when one is ready for it, can feel like a mission.

But it is a mission that requires a personal separation, of sorts. Finding ways to heal from — and seek justice for — specific wrongs you have experienced is a profoundly important task. Seeking systematic change that will reduce the chance that others will suffer as you did, is also a profoundly important task — but a different one. Your pain from your individual experience can be a tremendous impetus for change, but in itself does not form an agenda for organizational change.

But when it comes to making a systematic, organizational change in the workplace, it is no longer about you. It is not about you, or me, or any individual.

When we focus on improving the organizations we care about, our personal experiences — and personal pain — may feel profoundly relevant, but may not help us get the job done.

Advocating for a policy change is, by definition, practical. We want something to be practiced differently. There are reasons why a particular system — office or department or division — does what it does, reasons that are based on, well, some kind of reasoning. Advocating for policy change involves practical, strategic, and logical reasoning. It often involves small steps and compromises which can be… infuriating, but can result in the stepwise changes that together bring a whole society forward.

Baobab tree, Tanzania (credit: L.T. Elkins-Tanton)

Here are a few questions we ask ourselves when balancing our personal feelings with our practical efforts to make our organizations more inclusive and more humane. They are, at least, perhaps offer some ideas for first steps to finding the effective means to be heard and thus invoke change.

  1. Will my approach invite my audience in, or shut them down? Personal pain and anger can often shut people up. But is that really what I want? If I want someone to actually reflect on my message, and not end up on the path of inaction because of the emotional overload, how can I focus less on “me” and more on “we”?
  2. Does my approach offer concrete ideas or suggestions for moving forward? If I pose a problem and offer no path forward, the recipient of my complaint may feel like an infinite well of misery was dumped on their lap. Even the most powerful leader can feel empowered by concrete solutions, and disempowered by a seemingly unsolvable quagmire of pain and anger.
  3. Does my approach promote broad inclusivity or does it simply shift the pain to a different group? Even middle-aged white males, with wild hair, and wearing glasses and white lab coats should be invited into conversations about promoting joyful mathematics for one and all, for example. Generalizing and stereotyping a single person with the overwhelming weight against or for their whole group, who you perceive to be their group or against the group, is never fair.
  4. What would RBG say? Ruth Bader Ginsberg is a great role model in this long path upward. She understood the care needed in communicating a message in a way that can be heard, and then slowly and persistently acted upon. Ginsberg said, “Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

To be effective we need to discover how to be heard in a way that will inspire and promote action. Create your vision, be bold, and be kind. Be a leader.

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This article was inspired by work a team of us — including Turner Bohlen, Sara Hill Collina, James Tanton, Christy Till, and Patrick Young — did on a self-guided course on implicit bias. You can walk your way through it in this mind map, starting at the left and following the questions that interest you.

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If you need help with your specific case, consider these options: your Human Resources department, your Title IX office, the federal Equal Opportunity Commission, the State Fair Employment Processes Agencies; a good summary is in this article from The New York Times.

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