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 I have a library of them – all unpublished.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.
Shame. Do you have it? Here's the thing. We all do. Some of us deal with it better than others, yes, some of us are more aware of it when we experience it and process and recover from it more quickly or more whole-heartedly. But we all experience it. It does not discriminate between those who have money and those who don't, between race, religion or gender, between young or old or educated or not. It is experienced by us all, and often on a daily basis. So what is it? How does it affect us and what can we do about it?
Shame is the most base and powerful emotion we experience when something goes wrong in our lives. It has a powerful impact on our self esteem and our self confidence.
It is usually experienced in response to an event that presents evidence that we are "not good enough." These events can be anything from someone hurting you deliberately, to the loss of a loved one or the ending of a significant relationship. The message we internalise is that we are "not good enough to be loved," "not good enough to be respected," "not good enough to be protected," "not good enough to be prioritised."
The variety of ways in which shame can present in our lives as multiple, minor everyday events, or one off, major, life-changing events, mean that we cannot avoid experiencing shame. All of us. Even well adjusted adults, teachers, parents - me and you. They can be experienced at home within our families, in the community with our peers, and in school.
Take a moment to think about the last time someone communicated to you, either with their words or their behaviour that you "were not good enough." It might have been someone tailgating you on the way to work and you felt unsafe, it may have been harsh words spoken to you by your partner and you felt unloved, or it may have been someone using the last of the milk this morning, and you felt unimportant. In all of these examples, you felt "not good enough" to be protected, loved, valued.
As a result of this you will have presented a shame behaviour. It may have been very subtle or it may have been quite extreme. Shame behaviour or responses are an attempt to seek relief from the discomfort of feeling "not good enough" by behaving in one of the following four ways - what we call shame responses.
1) Denial or Avoiding, (with the purpose of not confronting the shame feeling and replacing it temporarily with another feeling)
2) Withdrawing, (with the purpose of not having to deal with the public face of the shame you have experienced or the risk of someone finding our about your private shame)
3) Attacking others, (with the purpose of discharging negative internal feelings and transferring them out of you and onto someone else)
4) Attacking ourselves (with the purpose of punishing ourselves for being not enough).
Each of these shame responses can be exhibited singularly or in combination and they can present in a range from mild to extreme. Below are example of a mild and an extreme example for each.
To Deny or Avoiding Behaviours
A mild example might be to pour a large glass of wine and ask your partner to watch escapist drama on Netflix with you so you don't have to think about whatever has shamed you, whereas an extreme example would be to engage in a serious drinking binge, or to be involved in addiction or other life risking behaviours such as poly drug misuse, joy riding. Anything to switch the feeling of shame with another feeling of temporary excitement or pleasure.
A mild example might be to take a sickie from work or school, whereas the most extreme example is to withdraw from life, to feel so shamed by an experience or set of experiences that the need to withdraw permanently and irrevocably from feelings of any sort becomes preferable to living with the feelings of shame.
Attacking Others Behaviours
A mild example might be to swear at someone under your breath, through more serious behaviours like bullying or trolling on social media. More extreme examples would be to seriously assault someone, the most extreme of all of course being to kill another person or living animal.
Attacking Self Behaviours
A mild example of attacking self would be the negative self talk, sometimes spoke aloud, sometimes just a voice in your head that says "You're rubbish at this," "You'll never get that job - don't even both applying" or "look at how fat you are" through to more extreme examples such as self harm.
Recovery from Shame Experiences - Time and Perspective
Time and Perspective are two things that assist us to recover from these shame behaviours.
Having the time to process, and recover from one shame experience before another is anticipated is crucial. This is why children sometimes have extreme reactions to minor disappointments or upsets, because they have experienced a layering of shame events and have had no time to recover from one before the next has arrived. Then when someone scratches the surface there is a gush of shame responses that come out in response to all those which have not yet been recovered. Helping children (and yourself) to build in time to process shame feelings is a fundamental self care strategy.
Being able to gain perspective is equally crucial. This is usually done in communion with others as perspective requires you to get outside of yourself and see this from another person's view point. Therefore strong and trustworthy social networks are fundamental in assisting individuals to see that there are different ways of thinking about an event that happened to you other than that you were "not worthy" of love, protection, thought, help etc.
So what can you do about it?
Shame survives in secrecy. It grows when you can't get perspective on it. So talk about it. Find a trusted other and tell them that you are feeling less than, not good enough, ignored, undervalued, not pretty enough, not clever enough, not protected, or any of the other shame feelings you have. Talking about that feeling carves out the time and space that you need to start processing it, to start measuring the evidence against the reality. And doing it with trusted others allows you to get the perspective that your own negative self talk won't let you have. And if you see someone else struggling with shame, help them to carve the space and time out in their relationship with you to talk about the feelings of not being enough, and help them to gain perspective by testing the evidence with them.
Shame has huge implications for individuals ability to meet their potential, to achieve in both your professional and personal life and so it merits thinking about what your pattern of behaviour is when you experience shame and how you process it, whether you carve out time and space for perspective. If you want to know more about shame, and how it impacts on a child's ability to learn and reach their potential, then reach out for a conversation about our restorative workshops and online training at firstname.lastname@example.org
One of my favourite sayings comes from a conversation with a colleague – Edele – when I worked in Youth Justice in Ballymena. “Don’t ask how smart are you? Ask how are you smart?” I loved this saying from the moment I heard it. It made me wish someone had said this to me when I failed my GCSE Maths for the 3rd time! I was not Number Smart and I wasn’t Geography Smart (ask anyone who has ever heard my story about where I thought Venezuela was until my 30th year). But that was ok, because I was Art Smart, I was Word Smart, I was People Smart. My self-esteem was grown through a realisation that I wasn’t perfect, I wasn’t good at everything, but I was good at something – I was good enough.
I think one of the biggest challenges a school faces today is figuring out how to meet the performance targets set by the powers that be, but to recognise and embrace the differences of each student they encounter and all the different ways that they are smart.
Helping children to learn how to grow good self-esteem, to learn how to fail successfully without the shaming belief that they are not good enough, how to see mistakes as opportunities to learn whether it is a curriculum mistake or a behaviour mistake, is all part of the fabric of a school culture that is not recorded in the performance targets. And yet it should be. Because learning how to be accountable for our performance, our behaviour, our relationships is so so important in being a well-rounded adult ready to meet the world.
In every part of life, personal and professional, people will have to foster relationships, find ways to disagree and negotiate and resolve differences of opinion and perspective. It is not an easy thing to do - I am still learning. But letting our children go out into the world without the skills to listen to others, put right hurt that they have, and will again, cause others, whilst also communicating their own needs is failing them in their move towards independence.