Working with clients across different industries affords me a lot of exciting opportunities to learn. It also means I commonly encounter language and terminology that's new to me.
While facilitating for a client earlier this year, I asked if I was pronouncing a word properly. Someone on the team remarked, "It's pronounced the way it's spelled."
Unfortunately, phonics is something that has never made sense to me. It's part of the reason why I had difficulty learning how to read in elementary school. It definitely explains why I'm a bad speller. And I continue to struggle sounding words out to this day (my 6-year-old has a better grasp of phonetics than I do).
My whole life, when I've asked how to pronounce a word, there's often someone that quips, "It's pronounced the way it's spelled."
I get a similarly unhelpful remark when I ask how to spell a word, "It's spelled the way it's pronounced."
Not only are such comments ineffectual, they are also shaming. I wouldn't have asked the question if using phonetics would have enabled me to find the answer on my own!
I thought of this the other day when a client informed me she feels very discouraged and unmotivated when people shame her. She had written this on the new client intake form where I ask questions to help me learn how to best support their individual needs.
I was struck by this share. On the one hand, it felt obvious; I'm not the type of leader or coach who relies on shaming people. On the other hand, I appreciated her self-awareness and honesty. Overall, it felt like a remarkable invitation for a deeper conversation we rarely have.
Unfortunately, shaming is widely accepted in our society. Many of us (myself included) attempt to brush off shaming comments. We might laugh on the outside as we cower on the inside. We rarely call attention to the hurtful nature of such remarks in the moment because there isn't usually the safety to do so. Acknowledging when one feels ashamed may be one of the most vulnerable shares possible.
What's more, many of us have experienced a doubling down of shame. It's those times we have been picked on for expressing we are feeling hurt. I've witnessed this when children play - one will share their feelings were hurt and another curtly responds, "Don't be such a wuss."
It's no wonder why we rarely give or receive feedback in the moment when shame has been experienced. Doing so is like entering a field of landmines without any protection.
Talk about shame, we must.
As I processed this share with my new client, I affirmed that I would not use shame in our work together. I also acknowledged how we might feel ashamed by an off-handed comment because of past personal experiences.
Some comments have blatant undercurrents of shamming. "You should have..." or "What's wrong with you?" Other remarks like the ones I've frequently heard about spelling and pronunciation might feel like an innocent joke to some. But because of my own personal struggles, it results in a feeling of deep shame.
So, I asked if my client would agree to openly share feelings of shame if (or when) they come up in our coaching arrangement. That way I may learn from and correct my mistake. To my delight, she agreed.
In Conversational Intelligence, we call such agreements Contracting for Success. In addition to establishing Norms for Engagement, we determined a method for accountability. The second step, how will broken norms be handled, is of the utmost importance. A word, phrase or gesture may signal when a norm is broken. In this case, there was a commitment to check-in, share honestly, listen openly and apply lessons learned.
We are all human. Even those of us with the best intentions make missteps that hurt, offend or shame others. The goal of doing this work isn't to be perfect people who never shame one another. It's to be in relationship with each other, openly navigating the way we communicate and interact so we may do our best work together. That means being able to share when a remark hurts and receiving such feedback with grace.