Gloria Steinem celebrates a birthday this week and for umpteen year, I am not sending her a card or present. I wrote her once, but she never wrote back.
When I was in my early 20’s, I was invited by a young lady that I was dating to join her along with her sisters and mother at an event where Ms. Steinem was speaking. This was in the days before TEDx Talks became common but looking back on it, it had a TEDx-like feel. Since I was just beginning a very part-time career as a professional speaker, I wanted to hear a variety of keynote speakers on interesting topics. Previous to that evening, I didn’t know much about Gloria Steinem, Ms. Magazine, or NOW – The National Organization for Women. All that would change after the evening! The lecture was held at Ruby Diamond Auditorium on the campus of Florida State University in a completely packed auditorium.
At the conclusion of Gloria’s talk, the moderator invited questions from the audience (I bet you already know where this is going). I was bothered by one of her comments, so I made my way from the balcony to the microphone on the floor in front of the stage. I was steaming mad (it’s never good to challenge someone when you’re mad). Even so, I attempted to be composed and I asked what I thought was a reasonable question:
“Ms. Steinem, you are correct women have been discriminated against and it’s not right. But it’s not just women who have been treated unfairly – American Indians, Blacks, Asians, and others have also been treated unfairly. Are you suggesting that men need to experience the same unfair treatment that has longed plagued women? If so, what you are describing is reverse discrimination and you’re wrong it’s not the solution to the problem!”
Yes, I did. I challenged the leader and a spokeswoman for the American feminist movement! I told her she was wrong and did so in front of audience for which I was greatly outnumbered.
While I am not sure that I deserved the venom Ms. Steinem gave me, I certainly deserved some coaching for the way I said it. If I had only paused before speaking, I might not have been glared down as I made the long walk back to join my astonished date, her sisters, and mother. Who knows, if I hadn’t opened by big fat mouth so quickly, I might have had a ride home that night. There might even have been a few more dates with this young woman and I wouldn’t have felt compelled to waste my time writing a 12-page letter to Ms. Steinem which I did that evening – partly as therapy and partly as a rebuttal for her “attack” on me.
All of us, particularly in the workplace, could benefit from committing to more thoughtful, paused filled communication – communication for which we carefully consider what we say or if we should say anything at all.
This experience from long ago, reminds me how carelessly communicated opinions can be polarizing and they can destroy relationships or prevent prospective ones from forming.
Employees leave organizations because of perceived or real differences in values. It may be a contributor to The Great Resignation. If you want a greater sense of community in your organization, consider the following:
- Fully listen to the other person and ask them questions to clarify their viewpoint. Remember good listening doesn’t necessarily mean you agree.
- If you can’t say something nice (or in a nice way), stop, reflect, then maybe don’t say anything at all – sage advice from my mother and likely many of your mothers as well. BTW, I see this violated weekly on LinkedIn and it’s much worse on Facebook for which I have mostly ignored for the last few years.
- If you don’t personally know something is true, take a minute to verify it before sharing it, liking it, forwarding it, etc. IF you feel compelled to respond to someone with whom you disagree with, do so in a thoughtful way with a careful, well-researched response. Attack the problem and not the person!
- When conversations get heated (or ideally before reaching a boiling point), say something like, “It’s obvious that we are both very passionate about this subject. Fortunately, I care more about my relationship with you, than I do to try to convince you that I am right, and you are wrong. Let’s shift our focus to another topic for which we both agree“.
- Consider setting boundaries for what can and can’t be discussed in the office (or even in personal situations). When we are at work, our focus should be on projects that advance the mission of the organization. There’s enough disparity in how to achieve a goal, complete a project, or launch a new product or service, that can make the workplace sticky without polarizing or politicizing conversations.
- Decline fierce debate. In a formal debate, there is a winner and a loser. Emotionally charged debates about superfluous or serious topics at work, can result in two losers.
The art of respectful conversation has been altered in ways that we could have never imagined a few years ago. Instead of contributing, let’s think before we speak and bite our tongues a bit more often.
As former U.S. President George H.W. Bush said in his 1989 inaugural address, “America is never wholly herself unless we engage in high moral principles. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.“
If only both Ms. Steinem and I had heeded this advice year ago we MIGHT have had 2nd date. It’s too late for us but not too late for you.