On today's episode of Let's Talk About It: Skills for Better Conversation, Dialogue Company founder David Campt tackles the thorny issue of microaggressions. He defines microaggression as something we either do or say that has an unintentionally bad impact on somebody, particularly because it conveys that we see them as part of a group and not as an individual.
How can we comfort the target of a microaggression?
"The goal is to empower and equip people for the circumstance when they witness a microaggression and don't know what to do or say. The good news is, there's a relatively simple tool for what to do to help create the possibility of useful dialogue with the person you think committed one, or was the target of one. And what's really great is that the tool works both ways — for the target person, and for the perpetrator. I call it the 'I Statement Bystander Tool.' In a nutshell, it's saying, when this happened, I felt uncomfortable or awkward or strange, or whatever.
For example, if someone says to an Asian American person they just met, 'Your English is really good,' and let's say I witnessed that, I could go up to that person and say later, ‘When Hal said that to you, I felt really uncomfortable.’ And this gives the person who was the target an opportunity to say something about how they felt. And this relates to what we talked about in our last episode — you have the right to your own feelings and a right to share them, but not a right to impose them onto other people."
What can we say to the perpetrators so that it becomes less likely that they utter microaggressive comments in the future?
"The 'I Statement Bystander Tool' goes the other way too. I could go up to Hal and say, 'When you said that, I felt kind of uncomfortable.' I'm not saying who he is, or what he meant or anything like that. I'm just reporting my feelings. The key thing is to ask their intent but ask in a way that comes from a place of compassion. And one way to do that is to remind yourself and the other person that it could be a case of positive intent, but negative impact. They might have a bias I'm not aware of. It's very complicated, but we want to set the tone for understanding that intent and impact can be out of whack."
On how sharing personal experiences about intent and impact can help:
"By way of background, I'm going to tell you about a time when my intent and impact were out of whack. A long time ago, I had a new girlfriend, and I wanted to get her something special for our first big holiday together and I took her to the mall. And we looked around at different things and dresses and music and jewelry, and she had this dress she said she wanted to get into. And I wound up giving her a gym membership so she could fit into the dress that she wanted. It did not work out well! My intent and impact were out of whack.
But I have used that in subsequent situations as an example of when my intent and impact were out of whack. So let's suppose that I saw Hal say to the Asian American person something about their good English. I might go up to Hal later and say, ‘When you said that, I felt uncomfortable, and I was wondering what your intent was. I know that sometimes intent and impact can be out of whack. One time, for example, I gave a new girlfriend a gym membership so she could lose weight to fit into a dress she wanted and the impact was different than my intent. So ultimately, what was your intent when you said that?'"