How a blow to the head made me get real about diversity

How a blow to the head made me get real about diversity

Tom and Jerry always cracked me up. Classic slapstick, like a knock on the head of Tom the cat, was a sure-fire comedy kickoff. An anvil falls, a huge bump rises, then amnesia, personality change and hilarity. And with just one more bonk on the noggin, character returns to normal – presto. As I found out first-hand, this trick isn’t quite so easy. Not that funny, either.

Last May, while cruising on my brand new bike, en route to a client meeting, my tire was suddenly and firmly jammed in a streetcar track. Bike halted, I was pitched to the pavement and landed on my head. Sure, I wore a helmet, but was still knocked out for several minutes and remember nothing of the following few hours. Amnesia. Just like on TV!

I awoke in the hospital, where, due to severe vertigo, I was stuck for 5 days, until I could sit up without vomiting. Once I could walk (with the help of a walker) I was released. I spent many weeks at home, in a dark, quiet room, unable to tolerate noise, read a book, or look at screens (I know. This last was insult to injury.) Unlike Tom, it took many months for me to feel at all like my old self. But, like in the cartoons, that knock to the head changed me. I wasn’t who I was before. I might not ever be. I think it’s a good thing.

Here’s the deal. My work is focused on diversity and inclusion. D&I training – when done right – helps us recognize and understand what’s often called the ‘dimensions of diversity’, the layered characteristics that help define who we are in the world – things like our age, race, marital status religion, the list goes on. These dimensions shape and describe our experience, and influence what we each believe is “right” or “normal”.  Our preferences of how we manage conflict, deal with hierarchy, manage time – are all shaped by the cultural influences around us.

These inclinations are hard to notice at first, but awareness is what helps us to see, understand and appreciate why other people don’t behave the way we do.  They affect everything.  How we interpret events, how we relate to other people – how we communicate at work.  We all sort the world by our “orientation” to certain values. The tricky part is that values are not universal – and this is where things get juicy.  A straight, introverted 57-year old white man is likely going to have a very different perspective – hence, way of being – at work than his colleague who’s an extroverted, 26 year old, Chilean lesbian.  They might get along great.  Or there might be conflict.  Or both.

My work is also about communication. Sure, we all know that communication is important – to organizations, to leadership, to getting our neighbor to turn their music down. In communication, the meaning of any message lies in the receiver. And if their world view is really different than yours – how can you be sure you’ll be understood?  Truth is, we need to see things their way, and adapt our message.

Sounds simple, right? But can we understand someone else’s point of view without being in their shoes? This is where a brain injury comes in handy. I got myself some empathy and boy, oh boy, I got it good.

After my accident, my brain didn’t work the same.  I had to spend a lot of time alone. I had to slow down. I needed things quiet. I hated every minute of it. But here’s some of the ways I had to change, and hence, learn.

Alone or with people?

A diehard extrovert, I get energy from being with others.  My life is organized to be around people. After my concussion, I spent most of the day alone and I was desperate for connection. Facebook helped a bit, but with screen time limited to 5 minutes at a time – so much for that. Eventually, I found the calm that comes of being alone. I could be still, and aware of my thoughts – reflect. Turns out, it’s kind of a good life skill.

Time isn’t actually money

Some cultures see time as something to be measured, rationed, hoarded – and finite. Others see time as more fluid and are not ruled by the demands of the clock. For example, spending time with an old friend you run into on the street might be more important than getting to that meeting on time. I sat firmly in the former camp; I like to cram a lot into a day, and love ticking items off my to-do list. I hate “wasting” time. Watching it stretch before me, with no idea of my recovery timeframe was crazy-making. People who advised me to “live in the moment” might as well have suggested I climb Mount Everest.  Mindfulness?  Please.  But, I got better at living in the present. I had to. Anxiety’s hold on me began to loosen.

Us?  Or me?

North American culture prizes individualism: work hard, and you’ll get ahead. But some cultures prioritize communal needs – and consider the benefits to the group before the individual. Mainly an individualist, I felt humiliated by the need to rely on others, and I strained against this mightily at first. However, as the house filled with cards, and flowers, and offers poured in to bring meals or take my children on an outing, I realized the power of the collective. I realized that in order to recover, I needed to start thinking less of my own goals, and more about how I fit into larger groups – my family, my friends, and my community.  They needed me, sure, but right now, I really needed them.

Being vs. doing

This was the hardest one of all. In some cultures (North America, I do mean you), individual worth is often measured by what we accomplish. By nature a do-er, I preferred to do many things, preferably at once. It made me efficient, but often irritable. Now it was one thing at a time, and slowly… I grappled with impatience, and found the value of doing each thing carefully, and assigning it the time needed. I saw that some people are like this ALL the time (sure, they used to drive me nuts).  I saw it their way.  I found the pleasure in sitting quietly in a park.  Looking at trees.  My exasperation eased.

So, what’s the takeaway?

The Power of Empathy

Do I advocate brain injury as a shortcut to inclusion strategy? C’mon, guys, that’s just silly. But what I did learn is that the power to bridge difference lies in empathy.  And the shortest path to empathy might well be through curiosity, imagination and an open heart. I keep this in mind as I feel my impatience rise as I watch someone with a cane cross the street – long after the light has changed.  I have a sense now of how it feels.

Struggling to understand someone whose ways seem, well, different? Frustrated that they don’t get you? Begin with curiosity. Follow with empathy. Real empathy. A diverse community, workplace, team – it’s already there.   Imagining ourselves in someone else’s shoes is the first and most crucial step to making a real and meaningful connection with them. It is the path to real inclusion.

 

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16 Comments

  1. Great post Sarah!

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  2. Thank you for sharing your story in this great post! It has me thinking about empathy 🙂

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  3. Much food for thought. Thanks for sharing, Sarah!

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  4. Wonderfully written Sarah. Thanks for taking your ‘time’ to share this with your ‘community’.

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  5. wonderful words from wonderful Sarah!

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  6. Thank you for this inspiring message!

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    • So glad this resonated with you, Jodie!

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  7. Your words express exactly my perception of diversity and inclusion. While most people recognize all types of exclusion are damaging, in practice, inclusion is thought of within small, specific categories. Thanks for opening our eyes to your own experience.

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    • Thanks Kate. I agree, we tend to think of inclusion quite narrowly, and often as something that we can “do”. What I have been thinking about is how much of it’s success depends on our mind-set, and openness to new ways of seeing things. Glad it worked for you!

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  8. Oh this is just so good. I hear your voice in your writing,and it’s really working 🙂

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  9. Us? or me? Whew I had a very hard time with that one at first, especially after two surgeries. Now I realize to let my guard down and let people in for the better.

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  10. Very well done Sarah…and I didn’t know about your head injury – so glad you are ok now!

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  11. Thank you Sarah for sharing your story and your beautiful “take away”. I hope you are healing and at the same time able to be a healing agent in your work.

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    • Loved your TedTalk, Tanvi. A really fresh take on inclusion!

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  12. Love it and as usual your insights are bang on!

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