The surprising barrier to learning and changing for the better

Andrea Howe
Category : Weekly tips September 9, 2020

This post is part of our Weekly Tips series.

Note to readers: Given my commitment to be thoughtful and relevant with my current series of posts, combined with the general havoc that the pandemic has wreaked on life and work life, my weekly Tuesday cadence has been disrupted. I appreciate your patience and understanding.

I have written the last four tips specifically for corporate White people like me, reflecting both my personal passion and my professional mission to promote masterful work relationships that make space for all people’s spirits to come alive. I’ve been sharing what I am learning and believe are fundamental lessons on important topics like White privilege and implicit bias, along with my more traditional self-revelatory exposes, like the five trust lessons I learned from my own churn about this series, and now this one about a compelling force that recently almost stopped me from practicing what I preach.

Brief background: A few months ago, I hired an advisor for me and my team—a White woman who has championed White awareness, inclusion, the leveraging of differences, and more for 40 years. Her name is Judith Katz. Her landmark book, White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training, which was first published in 1978, was the first systematic training program to address racism from a White perspective. I am so fortunate to have first met Judith through my organization development studies many years ago, and to have her now on board to help me deepen my learning and make good on my commitment to uncover and address the biases and racism that are undoubtedly embedded in the work that my team and I do.

Fast forward to August 2020: Cate Gregory and I were getting ready to co-lead our very first all-day virtual workshop on trusted advisorship for a really big group of people. We had a call scheduled with Judith to review our design, our materials, and our debriefing points. Judith was poised and ready to do three things: (1) Help us catch any images and references that weren’t inclusive, (2) give her expert advice on how to create a truly supportive learning environment for everyone attending, and (3) guide us on how to plant seeds for those who don’t regularly pay attention to the “isms” that infiltrate our work environments (racism and beyond) to consider new perspectives as they work to improve their relationships.

My moment of truth: Throughout our two-hour call, I caught myself looking for reasons and excuses to skip stuff in our review. Numerous times.

That list of 24 trust accelerators that we’ve been using for a couple of years now with great success and to which we have grown very attached? Too much detail to get into in the time that we had in order for Judith to really understand them, so maybe let’s just skim.

That custom scripted role play we created for the event—the one it hadn’t even occurred to me to have Judith look at before the draft went to the client? It had already been reviewed and approved, so too late to mess with it now.

The video we love love love to use that makes the perfect point upfront about blind spots? Probably just fine, so not worth Judith’s time.

I basically wanted to avoid just about everything where I wasn’t fairly certain we were already in pretty good shape. I felt a strong gravitational pull away from the very reason I had hired Judith, and asked for this particular call, in the first place.

My aha: On the surface, it seemed like I wanted to avoid learning and changing for the better. Taking a closer look, I realized what I really wanted to avoid was yucky feelings, like the guilt and embarrassment and shame associated with seeing ways I had maybe been unconscious to my biases.

I especially wanted to avoid feeling shame—a surprising barrier between me and my personal commitment.

My “learning”: I almost didn’t call myself out with Cate and Judith, even though I could not have felt safer with them. That’s how strong the pull was. But I took the leap, and then redirected the conversation towards the things I had been steering away from.

I’m tempted to tell you that the immediate prize was something evolved like “insight” or “growth” because that sounds good. But what I actually felt was relief.

There was the relief in discovering that our lists and videos and scripts were in pretty good shape, for sure. But there was also relief when Judith made suggestions for things we could change, because then we had a path forward for dealing with something, rather than avoiding it. And there was relief in Judith’s wise words, encouraging both me and Cate to be kind to ourselves as we learned a new way of teaching and engaging, because our Rome wasn’t going to be built in a day.

And with all that relief came a burst of energy, which fueled my motivation to change.

Funny how that works.

Lessons for us all: A quick Google search reveals countless articles on why we should “never stop learning.” It sounds so inspiring and easy. But then there are the sneaky and insidious forces at play that keep us stuck in old patterns. Finding ways to acknowledge and tend to those forces is important any time we’re aiming to do better and be better. But it’s imperative with sensitive topics like racism that can be rife with challenging emotions.

Which reminds me to remind us all that doing the work that extraordinary relationships require takes something. Actually, it takes a lot of things. Self-awareness. Humility. Personal courage. Perspective. Ego strength. Persistence. A sense of humor.

And a really, really great support system.

Make It Real

Consider including Brene Brown in your support system. Check out her podcast, “Brene on Shame and Accountability,” where she shares some great insights into why we need to “get our heads and hearts around the difference between being held accountable for racism and feeling shame and being shamed.” She includes the strategies she uses to pull her “thinking brain” back online when she’s experiencing the flight and fight energy fueled by shame. Great stuff.

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Andrea Howe

Andrea Howe

As the founder of The Get Real Project, I am the steward of our vision and our service offerings, as well as a workshop leader and keynote speaker. Above all else, I am an entrepreneur on a mission: to kick conventional business wisdom to the curb and transform how people work together as a result. I am also the co-author, with Charles H. Green, of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook (Wiley, 2012).

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