Bridging the Language Gap

Photo of a tunnel with a light at the end. A person stands far down the tunnel.

Question: My colleagues don’t understand the importance of looking at oppression and intersectionality and I don’t know where to start with them.

My perspective on this:

Most of us were born into a culture in which feedback is very difficult. 

If we tried to challenge someone with a lot of power over us (a parent, a teacher), we were reprimanded/punished. (“Don’t talk back! Don’t ask questions! Just do it! Because I said so!”)

So we learnt to stay quiet, to stay small, to not jeopardise any good things that we had (acceptance, love, access to resources).

Or we learnt how to replicate this power over other people (we became parents or teachers or bosses).

Or both. There can be situations where we don’t want to hear feedback, and situations where we feel like we cannot give any feedback.

And the lack of a healthy feedback culture really hurts everyone: We can’t get full information, full perspectives on what is really happening in a situation, in the world — because of not being able to share our own perspective, and not being able to hear other people’s perspectives.

So an organisation, a society, the world gets stuck. Stuck making the same mistakes over and over. Stuck replicating systems that don’t work, that are hurting the ability of humans around the world to make the difference we need for a planet and for cultures that allow life to thrive.

To avoid this, we can interrogate, get really curious about, what the barriers to a healthy feedback culture are.

Tema Okun describes 18 cultural patterns that are blocks to the flow of information. 

With these, we can see some reasons why we have trouble giving and receiving feedback.

We can also see how power and privilege play into this. Someone with a lot of power and privilege won’t have as much fear speaking up as someone with less, the repercussions of speaking up are fewer. 

Someone with a lot of power and privilege may have trouble hearing other people’s feedback, particularly if it is coming from someone “junior” to them, for fear that indicates that they are not competent in their job because they are learning from someone who should be learning from them.

Lots of these dynamics are at play.

And these dynamics create stress and pressure for everyone involved, no matter what their positionally is in relation to power and privilege.

So, by looking at barriers to feedback, we end up seeing how power, oppression, and their intersections lead to the stagnation of a culture, of a mission, in our relationships, in our organisations, in society.

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