As soon as we are born, we are given a name, a nationality, a gender, a race and a religion. We spend the rest of our lives living within and defending that identity. These are the boxes that define us.
As we find ourselves amid a global crisis, we have a significant opportunity to reimagine the way we communicate around power, identity, inclusion and belonging. At the Women’s Economic Forum in London in 2019, I was asked to speak on the subject of gender equality as a means of reclaiming our humanity. My response was to pose the question: Should we not flip the script? It is through seeing each other as being fully human that we will treat each other as equal and correct the systemic issues causing the inequity and inequality.
The #NoMoreBoxes movement, started by Runa Magnus and Nicholas Haines, is a fresh lens through which to have this conversation. It examines the labels and stereotypes we assign in society and opens a deep and conscious conversation to unpack these boxes to emerge into the human space.
At the 2020 IABC Virtual World Conference, we explored the conversations that could get us there. The hashtag has become the way we have social discourse. Rather than a box, I view it as a container that is useful to provide social context to an issue. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen the radical polarization between opposing views, the need to be right and the only view. I was reminded of Steve Biko, an African hero who, in 1977, was brutally killed in police custody. As I watched the protests, the anger and the division, I would humbly pose the question: Isn’t it time we changed the conversation? In 2020, we are still facing the same issues. It was Albert Einstein who suggested that we cannot change the problem with the same level of thinking that created it.
Coming from the African continent, I believe we have a gift that could transform the way we communicate around these issues of difference. It is the gift of Ubuntu. Nelson Mandela described it as “the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others, that if we are to accomplish anything in the world it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievements of others.” When we see the humanity in others, our difference becomes a descriptor rather than a definer. This is not the clichéd “I don’t see color or race.” It is that I see you in all your richness, your color, religion, gender and sexual orientation. I do not, however, treat you based on that description.
At the 2020 IABC Virtual World Conference we spoke of the journey of change through the Kubler-Ross change curve where one moves from shock to anger, and then to bargaining before reaching a place of final acceptance. It is only then that we can move forward.
The brain science of Conversational Intelligence™ tells us that at the left of the curve the brain is hijacked by the fight-or-flight response and does not respond well to rational thought or persuasion. The communication strategies in this part of the curve should focus on tuning in, deep listening to each other’s stories, gaining perspective and creating connection as people. Creating psychological safety for people to process their pain, anger and frustration is a priority for facilitators who hold this space. It is in this space that people feel seen and heard and the healing can begin, and a level of trust emerges that can move the conversation forward.
Once we get to the place of acceptance, the shift in the conversation moves to finding a common language. At present, so many of our conversations are binary. We are not listening to each other. The central tenant of Ubuntu is “I am because we are.” What is the language of “we?” What is the shared language that will help us find each other as humans?
I personally believe that we find this as we meet each other as individuals. When we meet each other as groups, we are defined by our boxes that society has assigned us. With each box comes its own language, and with the current polarization we experience that language is keeping us apart. What if we could re-language this conversation and find common ground? When I get to know you and you get to know me, we celebrate what we have in common and appreciate our unique differences. In this context it is difficult to apply the derogatory terminology we associate with the boxes, the labels and the stereotypes. It is in these relationships that we step into the human space, creating a shared understanding through robust, honest and vulnerable conversation and communication that gives us the common language to move forward.
If we are still having the same conversations in another 40 years, then we have failed. If we are only addressing the public relations issues, then we are not speaking truth to power. Only when we do this through effective communication will we effect systemic change.
Arianna Huffington compared the contrast between the words of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. In 1857, Douglass made the powerful statement, “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and it never will.” King stated, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Huffington highlights the paradox that for transformational change to occur, both statements need to exist. Power sits quietly and watches the noise and protests knowing that in time, a new crisis will replace the current one.
We spend a lot of time trying to reframe the rules of the female box, the Black box, the LGBTQI+ box. I would like to pose the question: Are we not creating more acceptable boxes? What would happen if we stepped out into the human space and co-create a new system together?
As we move forward, it is always good to ask what we as communicators can stop, start and continue doing to move from confining boxes to being fully human. We can start by noticing the language we apply to ourselves and others. Are we acknowledging their uniqueness or assuming they have certain characteristics because of the box in which we have placed them? What if we stopped using that language and reframed it, so that we have a common language that moves us toward a more human space?
Are we avoiding having the tough conversations in the hope that everyone will “get along,” or could we create safe spaces to listen to each other’s stories and give them space and support to process their anger and pain?
Lastly, what opportunities do we have to challenge the system wherever we find inequality in our world, no matter how small? Are we using our privilege to make a better world for others?
Our current global crisis has presented us with an opportunity to rethink the world. As communicators, we must ask if we are heeding the words of Winston Churchill — “Don’t let a good crisis go to waste.” What is our role in creating a more inclusive human world where the system rewards uniqueness and human contribution?
It was Steve Biko’s dream that “in time, we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift — a more human face.” I would love to see this happen in my lifetime.
At the 2020 Virtual World Conference, Bev presented “No More Boxes — It Is Time to Change the Conversation.” Review this session and others by purchasing one or more of the conference recording packages. View all available recording packages here.