I don't speak French, but an idiomatic expression often comes to mind in my work as a coach: l'esprit d'escalier.
Literally, that's "the spirit of the stairway," which is nonsensical in English, but the French meaning refers to the moment when we think of the perfect response to a comment in an earlier discussion. Sadly, this realization often occurs as we're descending the stairs on our way out, too late to be of actual use. But the problem isn't just the missed opportunity--we can also become consumed with regret over our failure to speak up.
In one of Jared Sandberg's old Cubicle Culture columns for the Wall Street Journal he noted that we often experience this dynamic in our professional lives:
At work there are countless things you should and could and would have said. But the tormenting fact is, you didn't. So, hemmed in by forces such as the fragility of reputations, your dependence on a paycheck, or even just slow-footedness, you re-enact one of the countless little workplace defeats in the confines of your head.
Sandberg suggested that potential antidotes to this corrosive process include meditation and other forms of mental training to decrease second-guessing, and cognitive tasks such as puzzles to serve as healthy distractions. I don't disagree with those strategies--they're consistent with the work of the late William Wegner on the difficult process of directing our attention and avoiding rumination and anxiety. But they're also reactive and thus not helpful in avoiding these situations in the future.
So what can we do?
1. Take some risks.
Yes, in some circumstances speaking up will be risky, but as I've written before, if it feels risky to say, saying it will carry a short-term cost, and NOT saying it will carry a long-term cost:
Censoring ourselves is stressful and generates negative feelings, [and we] inevitably blame those negative feelings on those who "made us" censor ourselves. [We also] know that censoring leads to distant and superficial relationships, that we crave intimacy and meaning, and if we can't find those qualities here we'll go elsewhere to find them. We tend to have a high tolerance for these long-term costs until we cross some undefined threshold, beyond which our capacity to bear them is rapidly exhausted.
And as I've noted recently, there are risks to playing it safe as well.
2. Know your triggers.
Executive coach David Rock has developed what he calls the SCARF model to describe the conditions under which we're likely to experience a threat response, often referred to as a "fight, flight or freeze response"--and it's the freezing that's relevant here. SCARF is an acronym standing for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness (i.e. the extent to which we perceive others as members of our social group), and Fairness.
Rock's study of recent neuroscience research indicates that we're likely to be threatened--and potentially freeze--when we encounter triggers in these domains: When interacting with someone of higher status, when faced with uncertainty, when we experience diminished autonomy, when interacting with others from outside our social group, and when our sense of fairness is violated.
Being mindful of the potential triggers that exist in a given situation won't necessarily prevent us from failing to find the right words when in the grip of a threat response--but it can help.
3. Consider the culture.
The ability to speak up in a difficult situation is never just a function of our individual skill or courage--it's always subject to the influence of the surrounding culture. And it's important to note that every human configuration involves multiple and overlapping cultures. Two colleagues possess a unique culture in their interpersonal relationship, which operates within the culture of their organization, and which may also be influenced by the cultures of their families, their prior organizations, and their nationalities.
When we find ourselves unable to communicate as fluidly or as candidly as we'd like, we have to take some responsibility for that failure and look for opportunities to exert our agency. But it's almost certain that we're not entirely responsible for the situation and that the surrounding culture is contributing to our difficulty--and these issues often involve emotions that we feel uncomfortable expressing in that culture.
For example, here are some communication dilemmas that we often experience at work:
- How to express irritation without seeming too prickly.
- How to express anger without seeming too explosive.
- How to express hurt without seeming too fragile.
- How to express something positive without creating awkwardness.
While our individual feelings about these issues certainly impact our ability to address them, it's important to consider the impact of the culture as well. Is it OK to express irritation, anger, or hurt, or do these feelings automatically get a person labeled as prickly, explosive, or fragile? Is it OK be positive, or is appreciation automatically rebuffed and discounted?
These are culturally-determined behaviors, not merely individual choices. So when we find ourselves experiencing difficulty communicating, we need to look for ways to influence the culture through feedback as we simultaneously seek to change our own behavior--and a great place to start is understanding the norms that govern the awareness and expression of emotion.
Photo by Georgie Pauwels. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
The quote from Jared Sandberg is from October 23, 2007, but it's no longer available online.