Communicating With Compassion
In January 2021, we enrolled our two-year-old twins in St Giles Outdoor Learning preschool. Each weekday from 10am to 1pm, they explore the outdoors with their energetic band of toddler friends – in rain, snow, or shine. They embraced their new community just five minutes into orientation and now consistently arrive home dirty, tired, happy, and hungry.
Once a month, we also attend parent education events. Last spring, we had the privilege of participating in an anti-racism session facilitated by Angela Ma Brown. I felt strongly that I would likely learn very little, but I couldn’t have been more mistaken – and I wanted to share two key takeaways:
The first is the concept of lookism, which the Oxford Reference Dictionary defines as, “When a person is discriminated against based on some aspect of their physical appearance.” In hindsight, this is the original form of discrimination, and one we’ve all been guilty of at one point or another. All comments related to colour, strength, power, speed, pitch and tone of voice, height, and weight need to stop, because they categorize a person based on one trait, while disregarding the rest of their being.
My second takeaway was ‘intent vs impact.’ As with actions, once our words leave our mouths, they’re no longer in our control; we don’t know how those around us will receive them. When the impact is positive, we tend to take full credit, pat ourselves on the back, and bask in a moment of glory.
But if the impact is negative, we tend to highlight our lack of control and move on. Unless you’re a ‘special’ kind of human, no one intends for their words or actions to harm someone else. We strive for happiness in ourselves and those around us – especially the ones we love.
As Angela was speaking, I immediately thought of an incident between my daughters earlier that evening. The three-year-old, Tanaka, had inadvertently elbowed her seven-year-old sister in the eye. The seven-year-old was hurt, both physically and emotionally. I asked Tanaka to apologize and she refused. She is the sweetest little girl who idolizes her older sister, and yet, she was adamant that she wouldn’t apologize. I believe she refused because she didn’t intend to hurt her sister, and therefore, had nothing to apologize for. Despite her sister's tears, she was firm in her resolve.
I can’t recall how all parties were placated, but five minutes later, they happily ate their dinner while working on a puzzle together. Listening to Angela, I flashed back to that moment and considered how else I could have approached it. I could have explained to Tanaka that even though she didn't mean to hurt her sister, she has to recognize that her actions were still hurtful. It made me realize that the lens of impact versus intent can be applied in many situations, and it’s rarely as obvious as an elbow to the eye.
In everyday situations, we reveal our unconscious biases through our language and behaviours in the form of microaggressions. A microaggression is a statement or action that offends or hurts someone based on their appearance or identity. It happens so frequently and is rarely addressed, because in many cases, microaggressions aren’t intended to hurt the other person.
Many people feel uncomfortable taking responsibility for the negative unintended consequences of their behaviour. However, it’s important to recognize that even when you don’t intend to offend, only the other person can decide how your words affect them. Their experience is what matters. And if someone explains how your actions hurt them and why, now you have more information. Take what you’ve learned and use it to avoid unintentional harm in the future.
Here are some examples of casual comments that can be microaggressions:
“Your skin (hair) are amazing” — to racially unambiguous people of African descent
“You must be good at math” — to people of Asian descent
“Your English is really good” — to all immigrants
“You must feel so lucky to be out of there” — to immigrants from economically devastated or war-torn regions
“Did you have this growing up?” — as an assumption of lower socioeconomic status, usually based on race
In all of these situations, the speaker didn’t intend to be hurtful, but their words reflect assumptions and biases about the other person’s identity. When someone explains how your words affect them, you have the opportunity to show your intentions. A dismissive response might be:
“That wasn’t racist. You’re being overly sensitive”
By refusing to acknowledge the impact of your words and the biases behind them, you silence the other person. Instead, prove your good intentions by learning from your mistake:
“I’m sorry I made you feel that way. Thank you for taking the time to educate me.”
I attended an Anglican boarding school for my high school years, and our headmaster always used to quote St. John of the Cross: “I am not made or unmade by the things which happen to me but by my reaction to them.” It’s okay to make mistakes – and hurting someone by accident does not make you a cruel or heartless person. Your reactions are what define you.
How we measure ourselves and others all comes down to impact. As the old adage says, “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Nobody sets off to destroy lives, ruin the environment, and ravage communities… and yet here we are. Maybe we should measure our success by impact – in all areas of our lives. When all is said and done, what impact do you want to have, and what legacy will you leave?
As Neon continues the BCorp Certification process, Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) in the workplace has become an important frame of reference for our organization. This short video from Diversity City LLC offers a great summary. For me, it’s essential to work in an environment, and with a team, where people feel comfortable enough to call out the impact of comments and behaviours, either towards themselves or their colleagues.
The BCorp process requires organizations to outline their intent and measure their impact. Continuing this process also equips companies to grow and learn. Over the past year that we’ve been pursuing BCorp Certification, we’ve worked hard to address and learn from the biases and assumptions that show up in our workplace.
I’ve noticed how this work has enhanced our team, and it makes me hopeful for the future of inclusivity in the tech sector, and beyond. Our intentions are clear. Now we have the tools to assess our impact – from how to interact with each other through to the products we build and share with the world.