The Right Thing To Say

The Right Thing To Say

It is hard to be certain in uncertain times.

Sometimes it seems better to just wait versus taking any action. Shut down – shut out versus opening up – allowing in.

I was interacting with a group of leaders last month where I sensed a fear to speak unless it was carefully crafted and scripted on paper to be read aloud. No one felt comfortable, so nothing was said.

The Topic: Celebrating a specific group of people.
The Fear: Not having done enough to celebrate other specific groups of people in the past.
The Bottom Line: Celebration is always good, and you can never do enough.

Isn’t it amazing how the context of one experience can change over the course of days…?

I had started this blog after that leadership conversation and then I paused after the killing of George Floyd and the events that have followed. I couldn’t write. I could only pause, listen, learn and march. I thought, was my little blog even worth it now? The events were so huge compared to my little example. A tiny moment within the world of a much larger issue. But then I found confidence in my response to those leaders – DO SOMETHING – but please, stop just talking about it in a sheltered meeting room and take some action. Correct course as you move forward, but move forward – do something…

I would have said then – Everyone Matters – Black people – Women – LGBTQ+ – on and on – and that inaction or waiting for the perfect plan and PowerPoint presentation wouldn’t cut it.

I believe that people come first… that people are what matters, in fact – at humanworks as part of our core beliefs we state “Everyone Matters” – and right now we stand with countless others and say Black Lives Matter. Can we just start there?

Maybe the real truth was the leaders were questioning their own comfort in talking about race or gender or sexual orientation. Elevating and understanding other people’s points of view and experience is critical. But so is a critical study of one’s own upbringing and belief system. There is always something to do – always work to do and it is never someone else’s work. It’s always your work. My work. Knowing the right thing to say comes first from looking in the mirror and self-reflection. Maybe even becoming uncomfortable in one’s own skin – maybe that is a good experience and headspace to be in.

Do you worry about saying something inappropriate? Do you worry about offending someone by using a wrong word or phrase? Everything can be taken the wrong way. Every word means something different to everyone. Every phrase can be read or heard through a different lens and be interpreted not quite the way you meant it. Knowing this I try to start with a foundation of three things.

Pause More – Listen More – Learn More.

This practice doesn’t quiet me when I have something to say, but it does help guide me and my words. I think all the worries about saying the right thing can cause people and leaders not to say anything at all – not to speak up – not to speak out – not to speak from their gut – not to lead with their heart. In this day and age when you worry about how anything you say may be taken out of context, is it any wonder that leaders are becoming less authentic and more scripted? If you are afraid to say anything that may hurt or offend, isn’t it better and safer to say nothing at all? Since we all have our own individual biases, can we even try to grasp everyone’s very personal experience and perspective? Can you ever say the right thing? Right to whom? Words are so perfect in their imperfect use.

History matters. How about starting with education and understanding? I see leaders – maybe for the first time – recognizing their lack of knowledge and perspective of people. So, start there. Take an inventory of your personal understanding. Is something off? Take action and work to fix it.

Pause. Listen. Learn. Move forward. Say it right.

I have finished reading White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Move forward. Say it right.

Truth matters. Start with your truth. And then realize even if it feels like a slap in the face that it is a fragile truth – built only through one thin line of experience. Work to expand your truth. Engage with people. Ask people questions.

Pause. Listen. Learn.

I asked questions and was guided to what’s next on my reading list – Well-Read Black Girl by Glory Edim, Reclaiming Our Space by Feminista Jones, and Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi.

Move forward. Say it right.

And if someone may not hear what I had intended, pause, listen for that – my error, my ignorance – learn, maybe there is a better word or phrase, but it wasn’t coming out of my mouth at that moment because it wasn’t in my brain because my mind is still evolving into this new understanding of others. Authenticity and trust come from not always saying the right thing but being self-aware and owning your wrong words. Do that enough and people around you will know you are coming from a place of good. And practice what I do – I don’t look for ways other people’s words might offend or hurt me, but I will ask them to tell me more about what they meant by saying something. Something that didn’t ring true to my ears.

Pause. Listen. Learn. Move forward. Say it right.

We need people and leaders right now who are unafraid to speak. Telling it like it is. And then being fearless to say – sorry, teach me, broaden my perspective, expand my heart. I know I have much still to learn by hearing what others have to say. I must pause. I must listen. I must learn. But I also must speak. Don’t focus on the right thing to say. Focus on what you have to say – from where you are in a lifetime journey of understanding what it truly means to be human.