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Walking Away

Last weekend we had a big family party celebrating birthdays and Easter. Post-pandemic, my tendency to hibernate seemingly has no spring. So going to anything that is not happening on the couch in my office, while I remain in my footie sweats (you read that right, they make sweatpants with feet and they will change your life), is a massive undertaking met with anything from mild to outright resistance.

My family, I expect like many of yours, has a wide spectrum of beliefs. And, while we love each other deeply, at times this has made for some rather tense moments when we get together. Leaving my security blanket (see: footie sweatpants) at home, I began the journey over to my parents' house with the familiar anxiety made up of both excitement to see everyone and wanting to avoid conflict by staying on said office couch while surrounded by my dogs - whose only belief I am in conflict with is that I owe them a bite of my food every time I am eating.

Sure enough, a group of family members began talking about gun control. I have some opinions on this topic. And, to be clear, they don't align with these family members. I could feel my blood pressure and heart rate shoot up almost instantly. So, what did a trained Diversity & Belonging Facilitator and Certified Professional Diversity Coach do in that moment?

I walked away from the conversation.

You read that correctly. I walked away from the conversation. It has been a long journey for me to recognize this is a valid option. I am hardwired to come to the defense of those who are marginalized. It is in my DNA to go all in. I will put all of my energy, resources, and self in to righting perceived wrongs - often at the expense of my physical and mental health. In the past, I would tell myself that walking away from a conversation like this is a betrayal of those who are being harmed; a betrayal of my values.

What I have come to learn is the measure isn't how many times I speak up. It isn't keeping a tally of how many people I have "converted." The measure is impact. Here are some things I have learned about impact:

  • I take a moment to ask who I am centering. Is this about my own ego and need to be right? One of my brothers and I have a long history of sibling rivalry. As we have grown into adults he also happens to be the one I am the farthest away from in terms of social and political beliefs. At some point along the line, I realized that while I did believe passionately in what we arguing about, I was also playing out long established patterns with my brother and was often more concerned about winning (centering myself). I now avoid almost all controversial discussions with my brother because as long as we are playing out family patterns and roles, I am not going to have impact.

  • I determine what my objective is and evaluate if what I am going to do / say will help me achieve that. My particularly objective with this issue is to address the systemic problem at the legislative level. No one in my family is a legislator. No one in my family is active in influencing legislators. Nothing I was going to do or say in the moment was going to have an impact on my objective. I don't need them to agree with me to have the impact I want to have. And I was going to exhaust a lot of energy that could be used towards making real systemic change.

  • Evaluate what the context is of the situation. There were three people sharing the same belief and they were feeding off of and validating each other's opinions. I may have impact in a 1:1 conversation but probably not in that moment, at a family party. Now, I might have made a different choice had another person been listening to the conversation. If by saying something, in that situation, influenced that particular listener that would serve my objective - even if didn't influence the original three - I might have gone ahead and spoken up. But that wasn't the case here.

  • What is my default? As I noted earlier, I tend to speak up. A lot. Because I know this about myself, I have become more intentional about when I am speaking up and when I cede space to other voices. I have found as I have done this I have been surprised at a niece or nephew chiming in or how the discussion just dies a pretty slow death when it isn't given air. Maybe some of these beliefs have been hardened in place when I have insisted on arguing in the past. Maybe I am creating space for future conversations by not feeding the fire in the present.

  • Am I able to humanize others while making my point? Finally, when I find myself becoming so upset that I begin to dehumanize others who disagree differently, no matter how harmful or gross those beliefs may be, it is time for me to walk away. I now hold myself accountable to walking away even if these are only thoughts in my head. Every, I repeat every, human being has worth and value. And when I begin to devalue someone, I am participating in the very behavior I claim to be against.

Two things can be true. It might be true that you would have chosen to speak up in this situation. Maybe you don't normally speak up (default). For people who don't speak up often, when they do it tends to have a lot of impact. Maybe your family members would have been more receptive to considering your point of view (context). The takeaway is: What impact do I want to have and how do I achieve that? How do I recognize and stop doing the things that don't have impact?

I finally got home and back into those footie sweatpants. And, just when I was settling back in the couch, I got the following text message from my mom (who was not part of the conversation): "I was proud of you for removing yourself from the political conversation. Very mature."

And then I learned something else: Even at 51 years old, it still feels good to make your mama proud.



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