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Our Stories Have Value, But Timing is Everything

Shaping a culture is no easy task, yet it is one that many are ever-ready to do with their personal social media content.  


Recently, I came across two separate posts from two separate friends, whom I respect greatly, and are unknown to each other. When boiled down, their posts referred to the appropriateness, (or rather, the inappropriateness) of sharing one’s own story as a response to another individual sharing theirs.


The first post read: “Normalize not bringing up a relatable story about yourself when someone is telling you something about themselves, and just listen.”


The second post: “Maybe next time someone compliments a piece of clothing, I’ll try saying ‘thank you’ instead of telling a little tale about where I got it.”


The point of these messages is to not ‘center yourself’ in the conversation. That we must actively listen in order to embrace the full impact of the original story being shared and, more often than not, your validation is not wanted or necessary.


According to The Good Life “Centering ourselves means that instead of truly listening to someone's experience, we derail or challenge the conversation by sharing our own.”


In any conversation, we must always take the theory of Impact vs. Intent into consideration.


Impact vs. Intent means exactly what it sounds like: Just because your intentions are well-placed, your intentions are not always reflected in the impact derived from sharing them.


A prime example: If a person of colour is sharing their story of discrimination, immediately jumping in to discuss your own experiences of oppression as a non-person of colour is naïve to the systemic racism your friend or colleague of colour regularly faces.


However, Impact vs. Intent should not be considered a hard-stop rule, but rather a tool of caution. By not sharing our own stories, we are leaving a door open to cut out opportunities for connection, showcasing empathy, promoting inclusion, and, in certain cases, healing.

Context is key and timing/environment always relative.


Here are a few tips to consider when communicating with people to ensure that you are being inclusive, respectful, and helpful, when necessary:


ACKNOWLEDGING DIMENSIONS OF DIVERSITY

Depending on how well you know the person you are conversing with, consider all of the dimensions of their diversity that you are aware of, and understand that there may be many dimensions of which you are unaware.


One’s diversity can be broken down into two dimensions: primary and secondary. 


Primary dimensions are the basic human differences that are often in-born and/or exert an important impact on our early socialization and an ongoing impact throughout our lives. Examples might include race, gender, being born differently-abled, or one’s sexual identity.

Secondary dimensions are differences that we acquire, discard and/or modify throughout our lives, such as education, political preferences, faith, and environments.


We often hear people say, “I don’t see people for their skin colour or ability.” My response to that is “Why not?” Their skin colour or how they are differently-abled, are intricate and beautiful parts of their identity. By claiming to “not see” those dimensions, you are ignoring the core of the individual.


MAKE NO ASSUMPTIONS

Just because a person may display aspects of a diversity dimension that you feel you can visibly identify, do not assume anything or their comfort level. We all have our own choices, traumas, histories, and parts of our identity that we may or may not feel we want to share, converse with you about, or publicly acknowledge.  


ASK WHAT’S NEEDED

If you feel inclined to share a piece of your own experience or history in response, ask the person you are speaking with if you may share your story with them. When we share our stories, we create a space that allows for individuals to connect, not feel alone, and sometimes assists in organizing a blurry scope of their own situations.


Also, depending on how close you are with the person you are speaking with, you can ask them exactly what they need from you: an ear to listen, solutions to move forward, or examples of how you can relate. 


ACTIVELY LISTEN

I have had several opportunities to work with younger generations over the years in a classroom setting, and one thing I can tell you is that active listening is an actual skillset. I have delivered many presentations to blank faces, people doodling, yawns, and non-responsive crowds, leaving me to want to tap the mic with a “Is this thing on?” moment.


When listening, consider your own body language, eye contact, and how you are choosing to affirm the person you are speaking with so that they know you are hearing them, but all without talking yourself.


We live in a world built on storytelling. It’s how we educate ourselves. It’s how we relate to one another. It’s how we preserve our own public and individual histories.


“Centering yourself” is very different than being vulnerable and “giving of yourself.”


Your experiences matter; just take that extra step of precaution to share those experiences at the right time, when they will truly impact the course of someone’s life.


“THERE IS NO GREATER AGONY THAN BEARING AN UNTOLD STORY INSIDE OF YOU.” - MAYA ANGELOU

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