As LGBTQ people and allies, we sometimes find ourselves at a complete loss for words by comments from people who oppose or do not understand our community. These comments can range from painfully tactless to pointedly hurtful, but the result is the same: we don’t know what to say or how to respond. Sometimes our silence haunts us as a lost opportunity to advocate and stand by our truth.
Kathy Reim, a trained mediator and longtime leader of PFLAG Skagit/Stanwood refers to this reaction as “stunned silence,” and has developed guidelines for understanding and handling these situations. She has given her presentation “Stunned Silent: Tactful Responses to Tactless Remarks”, to PFLAG chapters and other groups. Some of her strategies are based on the work of Dr. Bob Minor, a highly respected author, LGBTQ advocate, and founder of The Fairness Project.
We’ve summarized some of the key points here, with deep appreciation for the work and contributions of Ms. Reim and Dr. Bob Minor.
Examining the barriers that keep us silent
- We often don’t speak up because we sense barriers in our way.
- When we name these barriers, without self-judgement and recrimination, we gain clarity.
- Sometimes we are silent to protect ourselves and others: to avoid being rude or disrespectful; to not overstep our given role; to defer to a perceived power imbalance; to not be the scene-maker or focus of attention.
- Sometimes we are silent because the situation: our relationship to the person or event is not worth effort and risk; the setting is too public; the conversation has obvious time constraints; protocol indicates it is another person’s job (the host or authority figure).
- Working through our shock and confronting our barriers can be overwhelming in the moment.
- Adapting some key strategies in advance helps us make better decisions and find our voice.
Considering the source and our relationship
- Our relationship with the speaker can influence how we respond.
- Do we have a positive history together?
- Is there a common concern we can identify?
- Do we have a curiosity about their position? A desire to understand it?
- Do we need time to evaluate our relationship with the person before responding? How invested are we? Is it worth our effort?
Considering group identity and thought
- Examining our ties to slogans and stereotypes helps us understand their power.
- Slogans and stereotypes identify our tribes: that is, our human tendency to align into group identity and thought.
- What do we fail to understand about the speaker’s position and their group identity?
- How does it impact our own alliances and loyalties?
Asking three important questions
- Before we respond, we can first ask ourselves three questions.
- Is it factual?
- Is it kind?
- Is it necessary?
- These three questions help us parse the words that led to our silence, so we can better understand our reactions.
- These three questions also give us guidelines for responding and speaking to others.
Choosing when and how to respond
- If we decide to move past our barriers and respond, we then consider our most effective strategy.
- We can respond right away or wait until later.
- When in a group setting, we can respond in a private conversation with the speaker or add our response to the general conversation.
- We can respond in person or via a phone call, email, text, or letter.
- We can choose from several effective communication strategies.
- The I-Message
- Dr. Minor’s Say-It-Three Times Skill
- The Sandwich Method
Using the I-Message
- Using the I-Statement rather than the You-Statement can be a powerful strategy for expressing our point of view while mitigating a defensive reaction.
- An I-Message expresses the feelings and views of the person speaking and typically begins with the word “I.”
- In contrast, a You-Statement addresses the person being spoken to and typically begins with the word “You.”
- When we express an I-Statement, we generally avoid being accusatory and instead move the conversation to feelings and beliefs that we own.
- Consider these synonyms of I-Statements as alternatives to silence.
- “I don’t think this is true/kind/necessary/fair/nice/friendly/right useful/productive/reasonable.”
- “I don’t see this as /positive/honest/thoughtful/polite/okay/helpful/needed/courteous.”
- “This does not make me feel safe.” “This does not make others feel safe and accepted.”
Using Dr. Bob Minor’s Say-It-Three-Times Skill
- Dr. Bob Minor has devised a method for diffusing disagreement and not overly engaging without compromising our own beliefs.
- We say a sentence three times that acknowledges the other person’s view, as well as our own disagreement, gently but firmly.
- “I know there are people who believe this, but I don’t.”
- “I know there are people who feel this way, but I don’t.”
- “I know this is how some people see this, but I don’t.”
- We might choose to repeat the phrase more than three times or simply drop the conversation after three times.
Using the Sandwich Method
- The sandwich method of communication is where we place our sentence of disagreement between two more positive sentences.
- It aims to reduce the anxiety and defensiveness of the receiver, so they can take in the helpful feedback.
- First we say what we value; next, what we want to suggest; and finally what the person and/or the relationship means to us.
- We try to avoid slogans and use words from our hearts.
- Consider this sandwich statement:
- “I have so many dear gay friends and I want them to have an equal place in society. It hurts to hear them denigrated and dehumanized in crude jokes, so I need to leave now. And our friendship means a lot to me, too.”
Planting the Seeds
- Learning to handle our stunned silence is an ongoing process.
- It takes time and experience to know when and how to speak up.
- It takes practice and experimentation to find the various communication methods that work best for us.
- It is a challenging to be the person who does the emotional work in a relationship, but it can also be our gift.
- No matter the result, we can plant the seeds of change.