Article 7 - The conversations we are not having

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"You're open in the sense that once someone asks - once someone pinpoints the specifics - you will tell them about it, however, you will not spill your secrets out yourself.”


I have realised that I have been hiding, for a very long time, within my identity. What I need at this point is to ditch the muteness, step into the light, and into connection.


The other day saw a momentous break in my usual routine of rushing through my interactions with others and overlooking my conversational omissions. After a particularly withdrawn interaction, I stopped to think "we all know what we don't have the time or the ability to say, but what don't we have the courage to say?" In that moment, I realised that if I did not operate through the omissive filter of my fear of vulnerability, I would say a lot more than I currently do - infinitely more - and I would say I am someone who is relatively free-spoken. This all started with a lie...

I had been occupying a managerial role in a business project with a small team for a couple of months now. Quarantine saw the transfer to remote working. I had sought to avoid such aspects of the project, but this morning’s meeting was planning out the software requirements for our prototype. I wanted to tackle this technophobia and get stuck in with prototype planning. My efforts, presented to the group, were not well received; the team did not understand and they did not approve. One person in particular left early - for unrelated reasons, but it hurt, nonetheless.

I could not evade the feeling as if I had failed to deliver on my strengths; I had not sold them. The knock my confidence took as a result engendered a yearning to hustle for my self-worth. I felt the need to redeem myself, my pride, and prove I was capable. Prove this to myself, thinking back on it, more than my teammates.

Coincidently, this juncture was accompanied, in the book I was reading, by a chapter on psychological safety - "by far and away the most important of the five dynamics which set successful teams apart." Psychological safety is "team members feeling safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other. It enables tough feedback and difficult conversations without the need to tiptoe around the truth. In psychologically safe environments, people believe that if they make a mistake, others will not penalise or think less of them for it."

Equipped with a definition for what I lacked from my team, I knew exactly what was going on and what had caused it. Fixing things, however, proved less simple.

I had planned to raise the topic, delving into our strengths and weaknesses as well as the ways we think, speak, receive, and criticise. My aim was to foster a comfort in the vulnerability of openness within my team. My chance came the very next day.

The morning brought a technical call about the newly proposed prototype - a much more feasible proposition than my own had been advanced after my pitiful attempts yesterday. This meeting, however, marked not the start of my redemption - there was no display of technical capability, no very important conversation about psychological safety - I just could not bring myself to it. Instead, in the position of "project manager", I found myself mute. (These inverted commas were figuratively donned at this point, such was my perceived inadequacy).

With my typical effortless confidence rather evasive, once again I waded the murky waters of the technicalities. So far was I out of my comfort zone that I proceeded to lie when my uncharacteristic silence was brought into question; I attributed my behaviour to tiredness - "a lack of sleep having helped a friend out last night."

For the rest of the day, my thoughts were stuck in a loop:

"Why did I not say the things that I wanted to?"

"I really don't like to lie"

"Why was it that I felt this way in the first place?"

I delved into the reasons that I had to go to such extremes to hide my perceived inadequacy. All explanations drew back to one, overarching facet: they were all conversations that I simply had not had the courage to have.

Despite me not knowing quite what this illusively unspoken sentiment was, instinct told me that one of the conversations I was not having promised to be especially illuminating. It pertained to the newest member of the group - the one, coincidently, that left my prototype proposal early. As I explored my thoughts, I kept being drawn to a statement that I was not convinced accurately described how I felt. It was all I had at this point, so I decided to run with it: “I think I am trying to impress you..."

Struggling to propose a better explanation, I took my business notepad and entitled a fresh page with: "The conversations I am not having". Putting pen to paper, I was surprised by how easy an exercise this proved to be - forthcoming was a litany of unspoken sentiments. With this particular group member, I wrote:

"I feel as if I am trying to impress you. I am not used to being aware that I am trying to impress people, and I don't know why I am in this case. It is not that I am doing anything in particular, it is more what I am not doing..."

"...I think it is a consequence of the combination of my constitution, and a group full of fiercely strong members. I think I respect and look up to yourself and your abilities immensely. I see you almost as a mentoring figure in some senses due to the qualities that you possess and your experience. Hence, I think I may be trying to impress you - or rather live up to an elevated vision of myself for you.

"It could be that I am intimidated by you - I doubt this, however, as I am not at all aware that I am experiencing a competitive element within myself or the team - or that, in this case, I am tip-toeing around you. If I had to pinpoint something, it would be your incredibly virtuous and utilitous trait of being a good, impartial judge. I feel like you would be the first person to give due praise but also the first person to bring me back down to Earth, and I do have a tendency to have my head in the clouds..."

In formalising these thoughts by writing them down, I had rediscovered something first unearthed much earlier in the year - my tendencies to try and protect my image. This is not something that I do by orchestrating what others' see - not by actively doing or saying anything in particular - I would like to think that I stay true to myself in everything that I do. Rather, this was birthed through omissions from my personal narrative. What I had concluded that this had boiled down to was the fear of letting people down - I had fallen victim to its vice on several occasions. Excelling at striking a good first impression, it has proved easy for me to feel, from the very onset, like the only way I can take things is downhill.

*Exhale* - that was quite a lot to take in all at once!


Taking a step back from my thoughts, I could not shake the feeling that this was the start of something - pushing back against that censorship and allowing the lesser-advertised parts of myself to step out into the light. Despite only writing about my business partners (with all due respect to them, they are four persons whom I have been acquainted with for just over a month at this point), this felt like a rather momentous exercise in uncensorship and openness - and I was not even aware that I had anything to withhold from these people.

What I had discovered through this exercise was so profound that I could not just leave it there - there are conversations I am not having that make me feel uncomfortable even thinking about them (by the time of publishing this article, this is much less so - marginal gains!). "If I were able to derive so much value from my business partners, surely this could benefit me if applied to my personal life," I thought.

I decided this level of openness and introspection was a responsibility I would don not just for myself, but for others; I can only eventuate my best self if I know who that person is. More importantly, if I know which parts of myself I am seeking to omit from that, as to reintegrate them constructively. "I am going to write them down," I told myself. "I am not necessarily saying that I am going to have all of these conversations but this is something to stick; writing down and documenting the conversations that I am not having with people, however small or large" my thoughts went.

A couple of days later I got to putting that practice into action. I took out a fresh notepad and entitled it "The conversations that I am not having with people". Atop the first page sat the text: "Why I am doing this." Then read following:

"As of this point there are a lot [of reasons why I am doing this]. On this day, 10/04/2020, I am only 20 years old, yet it already feels as if there is an entire identity that I have left behind in conversations that I am not having. I cannot escape a sense of encroaching shadow. This shadow started unsuspectingly a number of years ago, once you realise that not everything is to be shared. It used to abide only at the very periphery of my existence, but now it seems to be making a definitive voice for itself. That voice is a voice of muteness; a voice of censorship; a voice of cowardice. A voice that is suppressing the fragilities of my identity and robbing me of the solutions and connections that I so desperately need. This book is for that voice; for the conversations that I am not having..."

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About now I started to come to the realisation that I share so little and I am affected so much,

And I suspect that I am far from alone in this.

In my censorship, I mute and I silence entire regions of myself, my experience, and my identity,

And it harms me.

The only antidote I have found for this is courage,

And on the path to this courage is the vulnerability that fuels connection.

When I decide to hide rather than stepping wholeheartedly into the light,

I give others less to connect to,

I rob myself of the situations, circumstances, and relationships which serve my full self;

My hidden self;

The parts of me which I have confided to the shadows.

If I want to be served, if I want my relationships to be conducive to honouring who I truly am, I need to show up in my entirety.

That means rescuing that hidden identity from the depths of muteness.

Thankfully, I have all of the tools to do so;

The device that I can affect this with is courage,

And the medium through which I can engender these changes is conversation.

I need to start facing the conversations that I am not having...

It presented itself to me that I had initially broken my duck of avoiding difficult conversations a few weeks prior. I took this new sentiment to the friend with whom I had ended the silence:

"I would like to invite you to embark on this journey with me. I would like to invite you to pull out a notepad, if you have one, and write on it 'the conversations that I am not having with people'. As and when they pop up, or you are ready to confront them, jot them down, with no censorship. Not as a commitment to go and have these conversations, but as a means of knowing what is going on.

"You can join me on this if you want, but I am not going to force you to do anything. I think if you do want to get behind this, I am going to run some of the conversations that I put in my book by you, so that you know the person that I am, and maybe because it will make you feel more comfortable doing similar. I do this, so that if you can relate at all to anything that I wrote down about why I am doing this, you can push back against that tide.”

They replied:

"...I will grab that rope with you, and we will climb together."

Written by Yunus Skeete


PDProject Founder and Manager

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