Breaking the Silence Habit by Sarah Beaulieu Book Summary
Breaking the Silence Habit, A Practical Guide to Uncomfortable Conversations in the #MeToo Workplace by Sarah Beaulieu
Workplace consultant and trainer Sarah Beaulieu went on a two-year “listening tour” to learn to understand how people talk about sexual violence. Interviews with leaders, experts in sexual harassment and violence, and men and women from diverse backgrounds led her to create a five-point framework to guide people through the workplace conversations they need to have in the wake of #MeToo. She offers a ticket past the eye-rolling and grumbling that usually accompany office training and shows how to make people feel safe so they can do their most productive work.
- A safe, productive work environment requires a new competency: the ability and willingness to engage in uncomfortable conversations.
- Honest assessment and deliberate practice nourish habit change – not just a reiteration of existing rules.
- The “Uncomfortable Conversation Framework” includes five principles that help participants arrive at a conversation with shared expectations and goals.
- 1. “Know the facts” – Be aware that victims of sexual violence can be male, and perpetrators can be female. Victims often experience long-term effects.
- 2. “Get uncomfortable” – Discomfort will be part of any conversation about sexual violence.
- 3. “Pause the reaction” – Suspend your responses. Pause long enough to become curious and ask questions.
- 4. “Embrace practical questions” – Examine the situation from multiple perspectives.
- 5. “See the whole picture” – Discussing fictional sexual harassment scenarios by using the Uncomfortable Conversation Framework can prepare you to deal with real-life incidents.
Breaking the Silence Habit Book Summary
A safe, productive work environment requires people to develop a new competency: the ability and willingness to engage in uncomfortable conversations.
One out of every two transgender individuals, one out of three women, and one out of six men have experienced sexual abuse or assault. In 2018, a Pew study found that due to the recent cultural focus on sexual harassment, 51% of men were unsure about how to interact with women at work. A June 2016 US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) study found sexual harassment rates of up to 85% in some industries. It’s likely that sexual abuse or violence already influence your workplace even if no one talks about them openly.
“If organizations are to achieve the psychological – and physical – safety required for productivity, they must establish new ways of behaving and interacting among employees.”
Conversations about sexual abuse are uncomfortable and often unpredictable, but avoiding them doesn’t lead to change. You’ve likely witnessed legal, financial and public relations disasters arising from sexual misconduct in the workplace. The loss of productivity stemming from working in an unstable or unsafe environment is less visible but similarly damaging.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines sexual harassment as “a sexual act that is committed or attempted by another person without freely given consent of the victim or against someone who is unable to consent or refuse.” Someone may be unable to consent or refuse because he or she is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The EEOC defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature” that “directly or indirectly” affect a person’s job, “unreasonably interfere with an individual’s work performance, or create an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”
Honest assessment and deliberate practice nourish habit change – not just a reiteration of existing rules.
Employers base most training about sexual harassment on regulatory compliance. Companies tend to teach rules, policies and reporting guidelines. Official sexual harassment policies take the pressure off would-be victims, recognize power imbalances inherent in the workplace and create a culture that invites people to communicate their personal boundaries.
“What defines an uncomfortable conversation? It’s a conversation where we intentionally prioritize the safety and health of our relationships and our community, even if it means making ourselves feel uncomfortable.”
Establishing an environment that prevents sexual harassment rather than only dealing with it when it occurs requires taking further steps. In skills-based training, going over rules and reviewing reporting policies is only the beginning. The next step involves an honest assessment of how much experience each individual has with conducting conversations about sexual harassment. Each individual on your team can fill out an anonymous conversation experience assessment (available from the author at sarahbeaulieu.me). Then the team can open its conversation about sexual harassment by sharing everyone’s survey results. Make sure individual results remain anonymous.
The “Uncomfortable Conversation Framework” includes five principles that help participants arrive at a conversation with shared expectations and goals.
After acknowledging everyone’s different comfort level, introduce the Uncomfortable Conversation Framework. Conversations about sexual harassment often devolve into polarizing arguments about right versus wrong, men versus women, or winners versus losers. You can prevent that.
“The Uncomfortable Conversation Framework “is less of a step-by-step approach and more of a mind-set, a set of guiding principles, that will build your capacity to engage in more meaningful and productive conversations about sexual harassment and violence.”
The five principles of the Uncomfortable Conversation Framework are:
1. “Know the facts” – Be aware that victims of sexual violence can be male, and perpetrators can be female. Victims often experience long-term effects.
Begin a conversation about sexual abuse by asking whether you and the person you’re talking to have correct, pertinent information about the concern you’re discussing. Getting accurate numbers about sexual harassment is difficult because few people report it. Estimates suggest that around 75% of victims remain silent.
Come back to the conversation after you do your research and have the facts. Familiarize yourself with a study’s data collection methods and analysis to understand research results. Give more weight to data and facts that are open to professional scrutiny than to people’s opinions and the conspiracy theories that are rampant online. You interact with survivors every day, whether you know it or not.
Regardless of a victim’s gender, the consequences of sexual abuse don’t usually end with the incident. Victims are more likely to develop chronic and long-term health problems such as heart disease and diabetes. They’re more likely to use drugs, suffer from depression or commit suicide. The CDC suggests that adult rape victims suffer a lifetime financial burden of around $120,000 due to lost productivity, medical bills and property damage. In 2017, sexual harassment cost companies $43 million in disclosed settlements. Most final payment amounts are confidential.
“You will believe people of all genders if you understand that sexual harassment is about power, not gender.”
Sexual violence doesn’t occur in a vacuum. People contribute to the conditions that facilitate sexual violence if they remain silent when they see something wrong. Bystanders who intervene early can reduce sexual violence. Intervention can take four forms: “Direct, disrupt, delegate and delay.” Direct intervention is when a bystander speaks to the person who behaves inappropriately. Disrupting means creating a commotion or distracting perpetrators with a different activity. Delegating involves asking someone – a manager, a friend of the perpetrator or anyone who has more power than you – to intervene. If you’re not sure how to respond, delay your response until you bring the incident up at a later time.
2. “Get uncomfortable” – Discomfort will be part of any conversation about sexual violence.
Conversations about sexual abuse are polarizing and tend to inspire strong feelings. People often come to such conversations with incomplete or incorrect information, particularly about taboo topics like sexual harassment, and they may cling to pre-existing frameworks that have nothing to do with the facts.
“The key to navigating discomfort is to bring it into the conversation transparently, so we can address it and move on.”
When you confront sexual abuse, you may recognize that two seemingly conflicting emotions can simultaneously be true: Sexual abuse can make you feel powerless, whether you’re the victim or not. At the same time, you may also know, like or even love the perpetrator. Discomfort compounds when conversations about sexual abuse take place at work, where people generally prefer not to discuss private matters.
Pinpoint the origin of your discomfort to gain a better idea of how to proceed. Pushing through discomfort is the only way to create positive results. Men often respond to conversations about sexual abuse with anger or defensiveness. Society has taught men to avoid vulnerability, and sometimes a man responds angrily to conversations about sexual abuse because he, too, is a survivor of it. If that’s the case, he may be ashamed to talk about it and in need of empathy.
3. “Pause the reaction” – Suspend your response. Pause long enough to become curious and ask questions.
When you enter a conversation about sexual abuse, expect emotional responses from yourself and your conversation partners, and have a plan to handle them. Acting on your feelings immediately might shut down the conversation, especially if you feel the need to put someone in his or her place. Pause, acknowledge your feelings and then figure out how to aim for understanding.
“If you can’t talk about sexual harassment or violence, you can’t prevent or respond to it.”
Be generous in your interpretation of other people’s words. Snapping in response to mistakes won’t make anyone learn faster. Blame is an effective tool for closing a discussion about a problem, and it rarely launches a conversation about solutions. Blame contributes to a sense of shame that perpetuates silence. If someone is threatening or aggressive, leave the conversation.
When talking about sexual harassment at work, someone – and this happens often – may sarcastically ask whether hugging a co-worker is a firing offense. You could reply, “Are you always the person initiating the hugs?” or “Does the person you are hugging want a hug? How do you know?” Questions can lead a discussion away from sarcasm to the central issue, and responses to those questions will illustrate that there are no universal answers. Sometimes office hugs are appropriate, sometimes not.
Your questions should be genuine and nonjudgmental. Every person has a unique background that influences how he or she approaches conversations about sexual violence. If you feel at odds with your conversation partner, respond with a basic curious request for more information. People won’t always understand your intentions or respond well to your questions. If people become angry, sometimes the appropriate response is to thank them for their feedback and process the situation later with a trusted friend. If a conversation goes poorly, try to understand why your questions elicited an angry response. Prioritize empathy and accountability over shame, blame and humiliation.
4. “Embrace practical questions” – Examine the situation from multiple perspectives.
Use the framework to practice having uncomfortable conversations. When people hear a story about sexual violence, they tend to focus on one perspective, either that of the victim or the perpetrator. They may question whether the victim is telling the truth or immediately demand that the employer fire the perpetrator.
Preventing sexual assault requires multiple conversations. One conversation might concentrate on the impact on the victim. Another might focus on how the perpetrator can take responsibility for his or her actions. Both conversations require empathy, even for the perpetrator. The company may fire or discipline the perpetrator, but these actions can be humane, with the knowledge that people are capable of change.
“When viewed through this lens we can understand and appreciate that a person who commits harassment will have friends and family who might not love their behavior, but will love them and their potential to change.”
Survivors of sexual assault can benefit the community by sharing the lessons they learned from their healing process. When someone discloses a sexual harassment incident to you, your default should be to believe that the incident affected that person. Respond with empathy and active listening. Allow the victim to decide whether to report the incident formally. Explain what the next steps could be if the victim chooses to report the incident or confront the perpetrator. If the person is upset, ask a practical question, like, “Can I get you anything?” Stay nearby to show your support.
5. “See the whole picture” – Discussing fictional sexual harassment scenarios by using the Uncomfortable Conversation Framework can prepare you to deal with real-life incidents.
Work on habit change, alone and as a team. Like any other skill, having uncomfortable conversations takes practice. Rules, policies and statistics do little to prepare you for how a sexual harassment situation may actually play out. Practicing fictional scenarios might prepare you for the emotions that come up in a real situation. Practice leads to habit change even if you do it under pretend circumstances. Scenarios can help people recognize existing power structures and learn to set boundaries and to respect the boundaries that other people set.
“When we practice with a broad group of colleagues…we begin to see the organization through the eyes of people who have more or less power than we do, which allows us to intervene more effectively.”
If you have experienced sexual abuse, you get to choose whether and how much to share about your experience during sexual harassment conversations at work. Having the experience doesn’t necessarily make easier to have these conversations. Sharing may leave you feeling depleted and “triggered.” Whether you choose to share your experiences or not, practice self-care. Find some way to create solace for yourself while you contemplate these conversations. If you need help in the United States, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673. If you’re outside the United States, similar services may exist in your country.
About the Author
Sarah Beaulieu leads skills-based trainings for sexual harassment prevention and co-founded The Uncomfortable Conversation, Inc., which posts instructional videos on YouTube.