Naming What is
July 26, 2021
Image: Wolfgang Hasselmann, Unsplash
Among all creatures, humans alone have the gift of language, yet ironically, we often squander this gift by not speaking up, speaking our truth, naming what is. We thereby miss the opportunity to make progress in resolving difficult situations or conflicts. What hinders us? It’s usually fear—of conflict, of being judged, of hurting someone else’s feelings, of not being liked, of being thought a fool, or of putting our job or a friendship at risk. In Hans Christian Andersen’s folktale, The Emperor’s New Clothes, everyone but a child pretends not to see and dares not to say that the emperor is naked.
The expression “the elephant in the room” refers to the same avoidance of discussing an issue that’s uncomfortable or controversial. The longer the topic is avoided, the more it sucks up all the attention and energy in the room. When someone finally has the courage to name it, often everyone breathes a sigh of relief and, in addressing the issue, the group gets unstuck and can make progress.
One of the ground rules I ask everyone I work with to agree to is “communicate openly.” This rule comes after “respect each other.” These are not only not mutually exclusive, but directly linked. We frequently hide behind politeness, using it as an excuse for not expressing our observations or views honestly. This can be part of the programming of our culture of origin—familial, religious, or national. When I ask course participants whether they would rather be told the truth respectfully or be lied to politely, they consistently choose respectful truth. This reaction from thousands of individuals from every part of the world convinced me that human beings have a basic need to be communicated with transparently. Honest feedback, given in the spirit of serving the other’s growth and the preservation of the relationship, is a gift, not an offense.
And yet we frequently avoid openly naming what’s happening, especially when a situation or behavior is bothering us, and is perhaps even in violation of company policies. Instead of speaking openly, we dance around the topic in order to avoid unpleasantness or conflict, dropping hints in the form of non-verbal signals of anger or disapproval, hoping that the other individual will magically figure out what the problem is, or that someone else will address it. Avoidance wastes energy as we simmer in our negative feelings, and almost always results in a perpetuation of the situation and sometimes a tacit acceptance of inappropriate behavior. If we don’t dare to speak up, it’s virtually impossible to get anywhere. Naming what is enables us to move forward.
Tackling a difficult situation head on takes courage and is a skill that we need to learn and cultivate. We need to bring ourselves into a fully present, clear-headed, calm state, slowing down to differentiate between what is happening and how we are reacting to it. Taking a deep breath before speaking is a helpful first step. Repeating back what another person just said, especially if it offended me, slows down the interaction and can serve as a mirror. If someone in a meeting says my proposal is idiotic, I can respond with “Idiotic?”, and pause for a moment, allowing the person who made the remark to reflect and perhaps rephrase it. If they do not respond, I seek to understand by asking “Please tell me what specific concerns you have with my proposal.”
Naming what is can also be as simple as saying when a meeting discussion has veered off topic, “I have the sense that we’re getting off track.” This intervention is not “against” anyone, but for everyone’s benefit. It names the objective situation, and centers the discussion back on what needs to be faced.
The approach advocated in nonviolent communication (developed by Marshall Rosenberg) starts with a factual and objective description of the situation we are in or what has transpired, often including what another person has said or done. This builds a common ground, a shared reality for us to work from. It only works if we vigorously eliminate judgement and blame, first from our minds and then our tone and words, making it non-threatening.
Under stress we often respond unconsciously in a primal effort to protect ourselves, by labeling, judging or blaming the other person. This side-tracks the ability to name what is—that is, to describe the other person’s behavior neutrally, rather than labeling him or her as “wrong,” “arrogant” or “a jerk,” etc.
Psychology calls this the fundamental attribution error, in which we ascribe an individual’s observed behavior to their personality or character. Separating the behavior from the person, consciously and actively choosing to respect the person and address the behavior are essential prerequisites to collaborative communication. Respect works wonders, both when we respect ourselves and take our own feelings and needs seriously and when we respect others. Assuming good intentions helps me to be open to the other person and believe that he or she is unaware of the impact of the behavior or perhaps also feeling uncomfortable with the situation. We are equal partners, and we will both benefit from moving forward.
In non-conflict situations too, disclosure often improves our physical and psychological health. It is literally healing. Talking to a neutral party—whether a therapist, counselor, or friend—can help us to get perspective on the situation, separate facts from feelings, understand what’s at stake, and reflect on how to resolve it.
Even in our own minds, it’s much harder, if not impossible, to get clarity about a situation if we don’t put it into words. Simply asking ourselves “What’s bothering me?” or “What do I need?” can be enormously helpful. When we realize and verbalize to ourselves “I’m exhausted” and “I need a nap” or “I need help”, we can take action to help ourselves feel better.
Writing is another way to use words to shift our state. Studies have shown that journaling about difficult or even traumatic experiences can improve our mood, reduce stress, and strengthen our immune system. Writing gives us both distance and insight, enabling us to acknowledge what we have experienced or are experiencing and to feel less overwhelmed and helpless. By embracing rather than denying or repressing our experience, we take ourselves seriously and expand our options for reacting. Writing can also help resolve conflicts in a meeting. Just going to a flipchart and listing the pros and cons can work wonders.
Avoidance of or even denial of objective facts, especially uncomfortable ones, is unhealthy for us as individuals and in our relationships. Within organizations and societies, it can lead to a culture of mistrust and an unraveling of the fabric that holds the group together. We urgently need to have courageous conversations in which we name what is to achieve mutual understanding and address the problems we are facing.
Developing the ability to name what is, to express ourselves, and to respect others when confrontations are unavoidable is no easy task, but one that reaps enormous benefits both for our own mental well-being and for furthering meaningful and open communication with others to find the path forward together.