At work, two thoughts are top of my mind this week – creating a compassionate workplace, and hiring people with ‘lived experience.’ Both are terms that have been rising in mainstream media and both deserve some deeper discussion.
This has been a tough couple of months for me and my family. I lost one of my sisters at the end of 2021, and lost my oldest brother in January, the day before we started our Partner Convening. This past week, I had two nephews in separate ICUs, one recovering from a stroke, and the other passing away. I’ve been struggling in some moments, and fully functional in others. I come from a large family, the fifth of six children. My parents had 22 grandchildren, and the great grandchildren list keeps growing. I grew up in poverty, and to this day I can’t imagine how my parents supported us all on my dad’s salary. (When he retired after 33 years working for the federal government, his salary was less than mine in my first year after college.) I’m trying to grapple with my older brother dying in the same time frame as one of our nephews. Our worlds and experiences are that different.
My nephew struggled with addiction and alcohol, and yet, even as we knew he was burdening his physical self, we never imagined that his body would give out on him so young. I’m reminded of the book “The Body Keeps the Score.” My nephew carried years of accumulated physical and emotional trauma and even when he was ‘well,’ those years took a toll on his health and well-being.
There was a recent opinion piece in the New York Times that has also been on my mind – When Someone You Love is Upset, Ask This One Question? It suggested asking “do you want to be helped, heard, or hugged?” I tried that with my team this week to see how it would play out. I shared about my two nephews, my brother facing a decision about taking his son off of life support and how that was weighing on me. I knew that they would feel sympathy for me and my family, empathy for what I’m going through, but I knew I didn’t want to tell them everything about my life and my family in that setting. They could not help me or my nephew with this pain, but they could surround me with compassion. Standing on a street corner in La Conner after a meeting, being hugged by five people who I know are also going through their own struggles, was medicine that I needed at that moment.
For our teams, I want to offer space where they can bring their whole selves to the table, but that doesn’t mean they have to share their whole stories with strangers or co-workers. Their lived experience is their own, and they get to choose if, how, and how much they want to share with others. My job is to create a space that allows them to feel safe in what they have to give on any given day. We all bring our experiences with us – family history, personal experiences, laughter, seriousness, and trauma. We don’t need a trauma-filled workspace, but we do need space that recognizes that my mood, my affect, my willingness to lean in, my attention span, my level of engagement that can and will be altered by things that my coworkers can’t see, and I may not want to bare all to them. I want no assumptions made about why I am behaving in any certain way. Curiosity yes; judgment and assumptions no. Asking if there is anything I need, yes. Assuming I need to be fixed, no.
I share with colleagues that I’m always amazed at this emoji – 😂 – wondering if it is laughing while crying, or crying while laughing. It sounds silly, but when I am at my most vulnerable, some things can still bring me joy, or make me laugh. And when I am feeling joyful, parts of me still feel pain and tears at the underlying emotions that sit around our stories. It doesn’t mean that I am “fine” or that I’m “not fine.” I can be both at the same time. So if you stop me and ask me how I’m doing, my answer depends on how large of my own eco-system I’m responding from. “I’m doing well.” “Nanc and I are doing great.” “Our kids and their families are doing fine.” “I am grieving and suffering.” “My nephews lived really challenging lives, and we are all hurting around them.” All of those sentences can come forward at the same moment and all be true, and I never know which one will come forth first. At the same time people are being shot for knocking on doors, for pulling into a driveway, for rolling a basketball on a lawn. How can any of us be totally fine? It depends on how wide of a circle I’m responding from.
A compassionate workplace would allow space for all of those, not because we need to pull a fire alarm, but in order to recognize that whole and amazing human beings can also be hurting, harmed, and living with things we are unaware of. Imagine a world where we can all be whole human beings and no one is trying to tell me a story with only one arc to it. It’s a lot of work, takes some trust and vulnerability, and it is totally possible.