Choosing to Challenge is not always that easy

Yesterday was International Women’s Day and the theme is “Choose to Challenge”. Now, don’t get me wrong. I think this is a really good theme for a day that is all about empowering others. However, I think that the statement “Choose to Challenge” leaves room for interpretation. Not least of all, it assumes that the individual that is choosing to challenge has the confidence and the psychological safety to do so.

It assumes that the person doing the challenging, has the capacity to articulate in a way that is going to be understood by the receiver.

The other thing about Choosing to Challenge when you are not confident to is that all of your energy is taken up on speaking and saying the words. A big part of positively challenging somebody’s perceptions is how we come across. How we hold ourselves – our body language, the terms and vocabulary we use and our literal tone the voice. Without confidence, this all goes out the window. If you are not a speaker, imagine the feeling of having to get up in front of a room of people and present an idea. How do you think it will come across? Perhaps you will stutter your words. Perhaps you will look uncomfortable, perhaps you won’t look at the audience and you will rush through your slides. This is what will happen to an individual who is not confident but feels as though they have to challenge.

I don’t doubt the people behind the campaign slogan had all the intentions of the campaign message receiver to do this at their own safety and with their own autonomy. But reading the campaign slogan alone does not suggest this.

I wish I was more like others – others are very good at taking pictures when hosting an event. This shows everybody what they’re doing and it is not harmful from a marketing perspective either! I am rubbish at selfies. I think about them far too late in the day when everybody has left the event.

Being a good ally

However, a couple of weeks ago I ran a talk for LiveWesthere is what they said about the event. The talk was on being a good disability ally. During that talk, I spoke about the importance and the ways to go about being an ally for disabled people. The message was that you don’t have to have experienced something to be a good ally, you must be willing to listen and learn from the individual to understand what support they need from you. Sometimes that support can be challenging a bias. Sometimes it can just be listening and being somebody that someone else can bounce an idea off. This is definitely what I found helpful from allies in the past.

A good ally can support an individual to develop the confidence to challenge in a positive, successful way. This brings both parties along the journey to learn something for and about themselves. So let’s explore the notion of supporting another person to develop confidence and to articulate feelings.

Understanding and articulating feelings

There is a model of counselling called person centred counselling. Unlike some others such as psychodynamic counselling, it stays in the conscious and does not venture into the unconscious. For example, everything discussed is what the patient already is aware of about themselves. The principle is that the counsellor holds up a mirror to reflect back to the patient what they cannot see for themselves. In person centred counselling, active listening is utilised. The main principles of active listening are reflecting, summarising and paraphrasing. Using these skills, an ally can support an individual to understand the situation and to articulate the feelings that are revoked.

Supporting development of confidence

It’s not always easy to have confidence. For people that are confident, it is sometimes tempting to say “just have the confidence”. However, this is because it is not an issue for us. Or even if it is, we are very good at covering it. My motto in life has always been “fake it until you make it” and I am very good at compartmentalising. I’m very good at leaving things at the door and returning to them later. This may have been a result of studying as a psychodynamic counsellor where I was taught to leave things at the door. My mantra is quite often “what’s the worst that can happen?” Most of the time I am right. The worst thing that can happen is that somebody says no.

However, for many people this is so much more easily said than done. Experience might tell people that it never works out the way they want it to. It may actually end up 10 times worse. Mental health impairments might be a huge factor in a persons ability to feel confident. Personal backgrounds, family experiences for example, might be ones where people have said that it is not worth trying. These examples and many more are why people do not have the confidence to speak up for themselves when otherwise they might.

We, as allies, can support this by understanding and empathising with the person’s situation. We can utilise active listening to support us when learning where the other person is coming from.

It doesn’t have to be done by the individual

In social care, often, the term “independence” is twisted to mean something that it doesn’t. It is utilised as an excuse when trying to get out of paying for a disabled person’s support. Time and time again as disabled people we here: you wanted to be independent so I don’t need to help you”. The suggestion being that if you’re independent, you can do it yourself. However, this is not what independence is. Part of being independent is having the autonomy and personal authority to be able to ask for support when you need it, the way you need it. And this is sometimes the role of the ally.

It may be to support your colleague/friend/coworker to understand we don’t have to do it alone. They might want you to attend a meeting with them or even to have the meeting or the conversation on their behalf.

So, perhaps instead of internalising the idea of Choosing to Challenge alone, the slogan can evolve to say: supporting each other to feel valued. Not as punchy but perhaps a little more accurate.