How do we stick with something when it’s hard?
I queried my Facebook friends this weekend. My favorite answers:
“Doing it with friends/family. People you like spending time with.”
“The alternative of not doing it is worse… and how it helps in the long run. Knowing it helps me feel better about my life. …Also, hope matters a lot. Gotta have hope or else it’s hell. Finally, helps a lot if you love the subject matter or the work, even if it’s hard. Or you care about the person for whom you’re doing it, if it’s not for you.”
Most people thought about exercise and other personal habits. But I’m thinking about those hard conversations about racism, bias, and prejudice. It’s a whole other ball game, and yet similar principles of practice, persistence, and resilience apply.
This week I had a heartfelt and enlightening conversation with fellow physician leaders about addressing racism and bias at work. It was the first prolonged, frank conversation most of us had had on the topic with colleagues. I came away feeling connected and also frustrated, with three conclusions: 1) We all see the problem and we all care; 2) Too often we don’t know what to do or how to help; we feel like deer in headlights—because it’s hard—so we stay silent; and 3) What I want most is for us all to keep trying anyway, even though it’s hard and we don’t feel totally competent—yet.
I see parallels to counseling I do for patients about lifestyle habits. So many people tell me that they don’t bother trying small habit changes because they never stick. They believe they are ‘all or nothing’ folks—full on angels or devils of habit—no incremental change possible. Psychology research tells us that this is not an intrinsic or immutable trait; we can overcome it. But it’s hard. We forget that learning, competence, and mastery take practice, time, and persistence. Sounds a lot like communication skills, no? In lifestyle counseling, we take a very concrete approach to habit change. After work, I often overeat in a fit of stress and desire for reward/relief. I always regret it. I can delay and diminish my mindless vacuum eating, however, by changing small things in my home arrival routine, like bypassing the kitchen and going upstairs, drinking some water, and breathing deeply, to re-center for a mindful dinner. I can take small steps—not all or nothing, rather all or something.
Obviously, addressing bias and racism at work is different from managing eating habits. But we can still take small steps to build confidence and competence. A lot depends on the culture at work—are hard conversations even safe to have? We must also consider relationships and context—sometimes it’s better one on one, other times you can talk about it as a group. There is no substitute for active awareness practice—attunement to self, others, and environment. Moments of potential connection and understanding can be fleeting. How can we develop an effective skillset, one that builds confidence and agility so we may recognize, seize, and capitalize on those moments? Repetition is key for entraining any skill, and it’s our small daily practices that can cumulatively improve the psychological safety of our work cultures, and make the hard conversations easier. Below is a list of small steps we can all take. With regular exercise and training, we can strengthen our upstander and allyship muscles. If we find workout buddies (like my physician leader forum group) and support one another by sharing challenges and iterative victories, just like at the gym, it’s easier and more successful for us all.
How are you already holding up marginalized people in your world? How do you stick with it when it’s hard? What and who holds you up?
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Learn and Use People’s Correct Names
My first name is spelled with a C, and my last name has an E and ends with a G. It matters to me. Allison goes by Ally. ‘Chien’ could be pronounced with a ‘ch’ sound or a ‘j’ sound at the beginning, depending on where someone is from. It’s okay to ask someone how to pronounce their name. It shows that we care to connect and acknowledge their identity and whole personhood. Hear or read this short article on how this simple practice can make a world of difference in how we include one another in the workplace, and for tips on how to do it effectively and easily.
Don’t Laugh at Racist (or Sexist, or Any ‘Othering’) Jokes
And for sure don’t make them. Psychologists call this disparagement humor: “any attempt to amuse through the denigration of a social group or its representatives… (It is) paradoxical: It simultaneously communicates two conflicting messages. One is an explicit hostile or prejudiced message. But delivered alongside is a second implicit message that ‘it doesn’t count as hostility or prejudice because I didn’t mean it—it’s just a joke.’” Such expressions perpetuate a social norm that marginalized people and groups should ‘just lighten up’ as others devalue and dehumanize them. Read how it affected one East Asian woman when she internalized her own white friends’ ridicule, and how she overcame it. If you see a marginalized person participate in denigration of their own group, ask yourself how that came to be; then recognize and consider the complexities of assimilation and survival.
Upstand When You Witness Aggression of Any Kind
What will you do the next time someone makes a racist, sexist, or otherwise denigrating joke or comment? Or when someone starts abusing another person on the bus? How can you help? You don’t have to be a hero or put yourself in harm’s way. And you can still respectfully and firmly disrupt aggression, and signal your support to a targeted person.
Learn and Share—Find and Be Peer Support
I’m so grateful for friends and colleagues who have committed to this work. We validate one another’s experiences, fears, triumphs, and learnings. We exchange resources like everything linked in this post. I keep articles in my Pocket app, so I may share them readily and widely. We acknowledge that the work will not finish in our lifetimes. And yet we persist, because we believe we can contribute. We work to leave the world better for our children, and to lead them by example so they may carry the torches after us. We hold one another up in hope. Please, join us.
How to Support Your Asian Colleagues at Work Right Now: 1. Reach out in support if it’s appropriate to your relationship. 2. Consider your intent—is it really to help them, or are you just making yourself feel better? 3. Don’t invalidate or diminish their feelings. 4. Listen to understand, not to fix. 5. Just don’t stay silent.
InclusionLabs Fellowship Program: For a deep dive of inner work in service of effective action, check out this program to connect to others who have also made the commitment.