There was a knock on my door. “Have you a minute?” Lisa said as she edged open my door. She looked angry. Very angry actually. “Of course” I said as I put down my pen, swung around towards the empty chair in the corner and gestured for her to take a seat. I took a deep breath and braced myself for the SFD.
The “Stormy First Draft” as Brene Brown (a shame and empathy researcher from Texas USA) calls it. Brene, if you don’t know her, is my favourite story-teller and knows just a little bit about shame, blame, and leadership. Her teaching tells us so much about how to be restorative when working with teams, complaints, and breakdown in effective communications.
The Stormy First Draft. We all have it. We all do it. We all need it. It isn’t a judgement on you as a person if you have lots of them. I have a library of them – all unpublished. If you ever see me driving the M2 in Northern Ireland you’ll see me orating them in the car. Every. Single. Day. My husband to be, JP, is a seasoned audience of my SFD’s. Patient, kind, generous of spirit, and one of the best reflectors I know, he is my editor of SFD’s.
The Stormy First Draft is your first and most emotional response to an event which threatens some sense of your security. They are usually gift wrapped in past pain, insecurities, fear, and tied with a colourful bow which reads “I’m not good enough.” And before you think this is a gift just for the girls. It isn’t. Guys have Stormy First Drafts too. They just don’t talk about them as much as girls do, which is a great sadness to me considering the suicide rate in men and the raft of research which suggests that women’s propensity to tell their SFD to, well just about anyone who will listen (including a random granny at the bus stop who just asked how your day was going), is a protective factor in mental health. We all need an editor for our SFD’s, and good leaders accept this (often unacknowledged) responsibility with the wisdom that it will build stronger and more resilient employees. It is the “support” function of your leadership role.
Lisa sat down. She took a deep breath and said:
“I hate working here. I am so fed up with this. Do you know what they did?”
“To You?” I asked, checking myself against the fourth rule of braving leadership – Vaulting.
“Yes to me!” she replied
“Ok, good,” I thought, we were within the boundary of talking about things that belonged to Lisa to talk about. In practicing restoratively, "Vaulting" is keeping confidential things that are spoken to you, but which do not belong to you, and equally important, not listening to things that are spoken to you which do not belong to you or the person talking about them. It goes to the core of integrity – of being trust-worthy. Bottom line is if you or the person talking to you, isn’t involved in the trouble you are sharing, if they don’t impact you or them in some way – then mind your own business and frankly, stop being a gossip.
And so out it came, the SFD, words tumbling over each other. How, ever since she had spoken out against the expectation that everyone should work overtime, and she had chosen to not work overtime, because she had children to care for, “they” had ignored her. Whispers fell to silence when she walked in the room, covert looks were passed over shoulders and although nothing was said, she could feel the judging stare as she packed up her bag at 6pm every evening and left the office.
“They’re bullies – they don’t understand what it is like to juggle children and work. I’m going to put in a grievance.”
Now the Stormy First Draft is a double-edged sword. They are dangerous if they become your truth. And they become your truth through unchecked repetition either to yourself or to others. And so this effective and crucial leadership skill of processing the SFD is not just for managers and HR. Everyone should be trained in it. Because often we choose to tell SFD’s to selective people whom we know will agree with us, we keep them secret from people who will actually process them. And yet, in organisations that have great leadership, the task of processing the SFD is a cornerstone in building a compassionate culture, where creativity, solutions, harmony and collaborative productivity resides, and avoiding the shaming, blaming culture where those things come to die.
The unarguable pre-requisite for the SFD is permission to tell the SFD in the first place, safely, and without fear of judgement that you are “hysterical,” “weak,” “a complainer,” “can’t cut it”, or you “need to grow a set.” Don’t even get me started on what the “set” to be grown is… Balls? Breasts? Both? Neither? Who knows? But the message is clear, “you are less than when you express feelings.” The list of judgements which can come on the back of the SFD when your team are not explicitly trained in the value of it, in the right place with the right people, is long and often the experience is harsh, punitive and destructive.
Now, I’ve covered permission giving and receiving as part of trustful container building before, so I won’t labour it again here. You can read it on our blog here, and learn a quick exercises on how to build it in the resources section of our website here. But let’s talk about what you should do when someone brings you their SFD.
Listen to the SFD
Unfettered. A little like a tummy bug that needs to be expelled from the body, just let them get it out. Don’t try and work out what is in it just yet. Just let them say it out loud. I use lots of these:
Tell me more
Can you say more about that?
This takes a wee bit of time, so remember your boundaries. If you don’t have the time right there and then, schedule a time and acknowledge the importance of respecting their story enough to give it time.
Acknowledge and Empathise with their feelings
Acknowledge and empathise with the feelings they are expressing. Naming them is important in building emotional literacy so that they are able to verbalise the emotion rather than demonstrate it. Did you know that only 20% of adults can name more than 3 basic emotions to describe their feelings? That means 80% of us can only name, 1, 2 or 3. And when we can’t verbalise a feeling, we tend to act it out in the manner of a 3 year old stamping their foot.
Find the emotion. Name it. Check it. Without stepping over the boundary, into their feelings (sympathy). So lots of these types of acknowledgements:
"This sounds really difficult for you – you feel treated unfairly, I understand how angry you are."
"I hear you saying how rejected you feel."
"You sound hurt and isolated."
But never this:
“I know exactly what you mean, I felt totally furious when that happened to me. It’s horrible isn’t it?”
This is sympathy. Not helpful. Because now you are both wallowing in the SFD and sinking fast.
Reflect and reframe the basis of their feeling as a consequence of their unmet needs
Learning how to reframe SFD’s as having an impact on your needs as is a key skill in restorative practice. We have a very snappy title for it – “Restorative Language.” Good eh?
Different to blaming language, where the feeling is connected to the other person’s behaviour, in restorative language we connect the feeling to our needs. Identifying your needs which are impacted by someone else’s behaviour, allows you to express much more clearly what is and isn’t a boundary for you in a concrete, professional and assertive way. The difference can be seen in Fig 1 & 2 below.
Restorative Language follows a very simple formula.
For example you might say in response to Lisa’s SFD:
“So when Julie and Aoife stopped talking as soon as you came into the room you felt hurt and suspicious because you need to feel like you belong in this workplace too and if there is a problem you need to be able to address it transparently?”
“So when you pack up your bag in the evenings, you feel judged because you need to be valued for the work you do when you are here and not for the choice to put a boundary around your home life?”
The above way of reframing feelings as connected to our needs rather than someone else’s behaviour helps us to feel more in control of ourselves, express our needs more clearly and take the personal out of what often feels (and sometimes is) very personal to us. Often we go straight to blaming language which connects our feelings to their behaviour and sounds more like this:
“Every time I walk into a room and they stop talking they make me feel like crap.”
This contributes to a sense of not having control over our own feelings because we have given power (in our heads) to someone else to “make us” feel something. And of course this just isn’t true. So having someone help us to make sense of that SFD and start to identify which needs of ours have been offended or infringed upon helps us to identify what we then can do about it.
Bridge the Gap With Them
This is where you help the person to identify what request they must make to best secure their needs being met. It’s the “would you be willing to…” request made clearly and directly after an assertive assessment of how what is currently happening is impacting on their needs.
So the above restorative statement above extends to become:
"When you stop talking as soon as I come into the room
I feel hurt and suspicious
because I need to feel like I belong in this workplace too.
If you are upset with me, would you be willing to talk about it privately with me? "
Of course, when you do this you are making yourself vulnerable to a refusal, a further rejection. This is the bit that takes the courage. There are some things you can do to maximise the chances of the person agreeing to your request.
In my experience, when you use this very clear way of communicating, taking radical responsibility for your own needs in expressing what the problem is for you, instead of pushing your feelings back onto them, I have found people generally work in harmony with you. Of course not always. So let's look at 3 possible outcomes:
When this last example happens it is disappointing but surprisingly it won't bother you anywhere near as much as you think it will. It has less power to impact you, because you now know this is about them and their issues and not you or yours. Because for you, your SFD is no longer tied up with the bow that reads “you are not enough as you are,” and that shaming message, at the end of the day, is most often the real crux of the problem.
LJ Sayers is a restorative practitioner and trainer, a mum, a partner, a mediocre saxophonist, and the chief quality controller of all chocolate in her household.
It hit last night. An outpouring of grief and loss and all that had changed in his world since… well since he was old enough to remember. It started early on in the day. Constantly at my side, clingy, irritating, pushing buttons and doing things to attract attention. Over and over, I put the jigsaw puzzle I was tussling with, the presentation I was working on, the spoon I was stirring with, down, and turned to him. “You have my full attention, what do you need?” And each time, it was pushed aside, he wasn’t ready (or able) to express whatever it was that was bothering him.
As we got closer to bedtime it was brewing, the behaviour was getting more boisterous, nothing was right, he wanted this, he wanted that, but not this way and not that way. It was somewhere around this point that I realised this was not boredom, this was not “focus on me, not your work mummy” I realised we were heading for a big tsunami which had been coming for weeks.
After the last “it’s not fair, why can I not have your laptop to load up my games?” and the accompanying slam out the door, (and boy can he slam) I got up from the sofa where my partner and I were watching TV, and said “carry you on watching, I’m going to be a while.”
I knocked his bedroom door. “Can we talk?” “I hate you,” came the reply, “you never let me do anything, you always take everything away from me. You’re more interested in your work than in me.”
I got onto his bed and held out my arms. He came straight in, snuggled into my chest and he let rip. I mean really let rip. It started with “You won’t let me have your laptop, you won’t let me have the living room TV in my bedroom, I didn’t get pizza for dinner tonight,” and I listened, occasionally saying “you are so mad at me aren’t you? I’m sorry you are so mad at me.” I don’t know how many times I repeated this or versions of it, just reflecting back to him what he was clearly feeling without commenting on what he said was the trigger. And then somewhere about 5 minutes in, when he finally understood I was really listening to him, we got to it, the torrential outpouring of loss and grief. The real stuff. The stuff you can’t hide from when it smacks you up the face. I’ve got to hand it to him – for an almost ten-year-old, when he finally feels brave enough to express it – he does it remarkably well.
He sat straight up and looked at me, tears streaming down his face. “You left my dad… you took me away from my dad… you moved me away from my school and friends… I loved my house … you ruined my life… I want it to be 2016 again when it was just you and me… I want it to be 2013 when it was you me and Dad… I wish I’d never been born, then you and Dad would still be together and I would live with both of you, (you have to appreciate the mix up of a child’s reality and fantasy here)… you care more about living closer to your mum and dad than me living close to my dad – how do you think that makes me feel?”
Bam! There was the question. It was like a kick up the teeth. The decisions I had made, for us, without consulting him. Now to be fair he was four years old and didn’t really understand the basis for the decisions that were made, and despite having a good co-parenting relationship with his dad, we do now live an hour apart, rather than the 20 minutes it used to be. But that is irrelevant, because right now, I had to suck up the fact that my decisions impacted him beyond the day on which they were made and long past the situations in which they needed to be made, had passed. My decisions now had come to bear and I had to deal with the feelings of loss and grief that happened as a result.
I took a deep breath and thought here goes - off the diving board, dark waters below – let’s crack this issue wide open. “I’m sorry. You are right to be so mad at me. I made all these decisions that affected you and I didn’t ask you how you felt about them. I made all these decisions and they hurt you. I’m so so sorry. I took you away from your friends and your school and your home and I didn’t ask you about any of it. You must have felt so confused and lost. I’m so sorry. I totally understand why you are so angry at me and feel so hurt. I would feel the same if someone did that to me.”
I didn’t make promises that I could change these decisions. I didn’t justify the reasons for those decisions. I just apologised for the pain he was in. For the loss he had experienced. He threw a few more examples of things I had done to him. (I’m pretty sure one of them was giving him an unreasonable bedtime!)
It was surprising how quickly the tsunami left. Cuddled back into my chest he hiccupped a few times and then asked could he watch TV for a little later than usual tonight. I gave in. “Sure” I said. (So sue me – I was exhausted, he was exhausted, I was fairly certain he wouldn’t be able to stay awake too far past his bedtime anyway).
This grief comes around every so often. It’s like a tunnel that he spins around and every so often he touches the jagged edge and it hurts and then the wound opens and we deal with the outpourings. It can be triggered by anything from a particularly good weekend with his dad and the disappointment of coming back to the mundane of me, or it could be watching his friends’ Dads’ pick them up from school and he realises his can’t. Life throws curve balls at him too, that ricochet him back into that jagged edge, like Corona Virus, which stole his summertime with his friends, and will steal the 10th birthday party he had dreamed to have. These losses just reopen the trauma of his most deep running loss. I know my pending marriage to my new partner and his dad’s pending marriage to his new partner will also open a wound, and while it will be a happy, happy, day for me, consideration has to be given to how it will be another loss for him.
We can’t stop our children from feeling loss and grief, it is part of life. But how we teach them to deal with it when it comes is important. Ignoring it, devaluing it, or pretending they are too young to have these feelings, that they are silly, insignificant or misunderstanding the situation is not helpful. You don’t have to solve it. You just have to empathise with it, normalise it, feel with them.
I am preparing myself for more loss and grief to come. Send wine.