August 19th is World Humanitarian Day. In 2019 it celebrates women humanitarian aid workers and their contribution. For me, it is also a time to reflect on how they can help each other persevere.
Women humanitarian aid workers operate in complex work environments exacerbated by the conditions that led to the #MeToo and #Aidtoo movements. There are very clear aims shared by all of these women: to do an effective job, ensure the human rights of all people and to work with dignity and respect.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen. What pains me to see is how some women actually replicate bullying, harassment, sexism, racism and the practice of making people, including other women, feel small, isolated and fearful.
In the 15 years of applying conflict resolution skills informed by a nonviolent communication approach, I have observed how relationships are negatively impacted by positional statements. These are complex times and yet, experiences are reduced and conveyed through sentiments similar to the following, “You are wrong.” “I am right.” “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”
I watch women, young, middle-aged and old work in toxic workplace cultures struggling to be taken seriously, many unable to communicate their boundaries in a healthy way or voice their perspectives and concerns. The result is for women to shut down, be passive aggressive or resort to attacking each other.
Women humanitarian aid workers have a right to feel anger and express it. You only have to read reports and research from sources like Insecurity Insight (see link below) to see the documentation of what women have experienced in this field for years. They should express their anger because it is an impactful way to get people to really understand where women’s boundaries are, be aware not to cross them and know consequences will arise once those boundaries are crossed.
A key to expressing anger is in how it is done. Practitioners in humanitarian aid spend years learning to be experts in what they do and yet many have not learned how to communicate in a way that is efficient while also being mindful, respectful and ensuring a person’s dignity. Particularly problematic is when anger is expressed in a way that evokes shame. When I see women shame other women, I witness a dangerous cycle replicated because shaming someone is essentially conveying to another person that they are a flawed human being unworthy of love, belonging and connection (see definition and source below). Shame used as a starting point to have boundaries acknowledged and behaviours changed will not achieve these objectives. What it does is make the person on the receiving end feel more disempowered in an already toxic environment.
A powerful tool which I don’t see practiced skillfully or enough is empathy. Dr. Brené Brown, PhD LMSW (Licensed Master Social Worker), in her book Dare to Lead says, “Empathy is not connecting to an experience, it’s connecting to the emotions that underpin an experience.” (page 140) If women are to be taken seriously, respected and treated with dignity, empathy is required.
In a keynote presentation at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in June 1981, Audre Lorde noted the importance of empathy in the context of anger. In her speech titled, The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism, she said of other women with different lives and experiences, ““[I]f I fail to recognize them as other faces of myself, then I am contributing not only to each of their oppressions but also to my own, and the anger which stands between us then must be used for clarity and mutual empowerment, not for evasion by guilt or for further separation.” When I see women attack each other as a way to protect themselves from the elements that create an #AIDTOO environment, I am immediately reminded of this quote.
Women are entitled to their anger and feelings and we must be careful not to turn against each other. Instead of fearing each other and what we stand to lose we can learn to communicate with empathy in a way that shifts the unhealthy power dynamic of “power over” to “power with.”
As we commemorate World Humanitarian Aid Day and the women who make incredible contributions to the implementation and reinforcement of human rights let’s take a moment, as women and as allies to reflect on what’s necessary for allyship among women and how to transform anger into a process to build healthy relationships to achieve positive outcomes.
Step 1: Practice Self-Care First.
Before choosing to react and state your opinion, give yourself space to breathe and acknowledge your emotions – including your right to feel them, be your best friend and/or reach out to your support system of friends and allies. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself first.
Step 2: Empathize.
Before speaking to the other person, consider how you would want to be spoken to if you were on the other side of the conversation. How would you wanted to be treated? Can you model this method of engagement for the person you are talking to and others by practicing it yourself?
Step 3: Acknowledge.
Acknowledge to yourself first what you have done well and that you are doing the best you can. You can’t go any faster than you are going in being your best version of you. With that perspective consider this: the person you are in conflict with is also working from their best selves. As controversial as this may sound, try to be with this. Know that it doesn’t lift accountability and responsibility for harm caused but it does compel us to see connections amongst each other as human beings having a human experience.
Step 4: Look for and accept help.
This means having an intentional sit-down with yourself (it could be 5 minutes with your timer set and a pen and paper) to write down what help looks like for you. After, summon up the strength to break through myths that we should figure out problems alone or suck it up and instead, look for and ask for help.
Step 5: Learn healthy communication skills.
Communication skills are evolving as quickly as the mediums we use for communication. If we want to feel seen and heard we need to learn how to do this because the skill set we currently have doesn’t work. Nurture your curiosity on what is the best way for you to learn how to communicate you needs and wants. Feel free to sign-up for a needs assessment with me to learn more about coaching with me or learn, at your own pace, what the options are. Below is a resource by Brené Brown to get you started.
We are imperfect, beautiful, intelligent, emotional human beings dealing with extra-ordinary circumstances. The least we can do is learn how to communicate our needs, wants, rights and desires and build internal clarity of what these are as a means of ensuring our well-being, resilience and objective to make this world a better, safer and more peaceful place.
As always be gentle with yourself. You’re doing the best you can to be empowered to make a difference.
To women humanitarian aid workers, my deepest thanks for the work you do in the challenging contexts you work in.
If you feel it’s time to learn how to communicate in order to feel clarity within and build healthy relationships take one or all of the following steps:
Sign-up for my free toolkit on Clarity, Empowerment and Resilience using this link. You get a total of 4 tools which include how to communicate mindfully.
Check-out my coaching page for a session or package that works for you using this link.
Check out my training page for information of some of the trainings I offer and/or send an e-mail to email@example.com to learn more about how I can build relevant trainings for your team and context!