As I was facilitating a group last week, a male participant I’ve known for a long time directed some sexually-laden, provocative comments to me in front of the group.
Although I was caught off guard, I began by bantering something back (I hardly remember what I even said) attempting to field this with grace while redirecting our collective focus back to what we’d originally been discussing.
Instead of changing course, however, he continued with a couple of follow-up comments in a similarly sexually suggestive vein, and for a moment, I found myself just staring at him intently while I tried to figure out what to say or do next.
Stuck between my good-girl conditioning (he doesn’t mean it, he’s just being playful, don’t make waves, don’t overreact) and indignant judgments (WTF just happened? Did you really just say that to me, here and now? Excuse me??), I bought myself time.
We’ve all been there, right?
That moment when something completely unexpected gets said and we literally lose access to our voice, our words.
We are rendered speechless.
And then, hours later, a wealth of reactions, feelings and responses all come tumbling in.
While there is so much to unpack and understand about the complexities of this moment, I want to reflect here for a moment on my own learning and how skills that I really thought I had were nowhere to be found in that moment.
What I learned and discovered about myself:
Despite years of training in communication, healing and personal development, I can still be rendered speechless, go into a freeze reaction with no access to what I’d really like to say. I was only able to find the words I wanted, after the fact … (more on this below!)
I don’t believe in either the judgementalism of call-out culture or in minimizing triggering statements just because someone has good intentions and “didn’t mean it”.
I want a third way: One in which everyone is held with care and regard, the unaware person gets kind, direct feedback and we can come together for mutual understanding, learning, self-responsibility and growth.
As a strong female leader, I don’t want to be sexualized at work. I also don’t enjoy repressive and puritanical cultures in which we can no longer be playful and have fun with one another. I want a safe middle ground in which we calibrate our language to context.
I can always buy myself time and don’t have to have all the right words on the spot. Later, I looped back to this person, and we had an insight-oriented, connecting conversation about what had transpired for each of us. He was open and mortified that his comments had had the effect that they did. I appreciated being able to share what it had been like for me and be met with care, regret and self-reflection from him.
Every moment is training for the next moment. Hindsight is 20/20.
I received quite a few emails from people in that group, and one woman in particular asked me for some new strategies that she might use in similar situations. So, with that in mind …
I want to introduce you to Kasia Urbaniak’s work.
Even though I have completed most of her trainings and know this work (in my head!) I simply haven’t practiced it enough to have it fully available to me in my body, in the moments that I need it … yet!
Her Verbal Self-Defense Dojo is free (I highly recommend it!) but, if you just want my adapted cliff notes, here are three strategies to keep in mind the next time that you’re gifted with a triggering, inappropriate, ambiguous, threatening, or provocative comment, and you want to respond with clarity, confidence and compassion.
Make the implicit explicit; clear up ambiguity.
The problem with ambiguity is that it creates a culture in which we feel triggered and uncomfortable, but we don’t feel able to call others out or defend ourselves because we will be accused of misunderstanding or overreacting. When we can’t name harmful behavior, we minimize it, excuse it, and pass it off. Then it’s allowed to set the tone and the culture.
So, begin by making the implicit message, more explicit.
Imagine this person had said something like, “Watching you work the room makes me wish we were in bed together… If you were my type, you’d really be in trouble… ”
Clearing up the ambiguity and gently confronting the comment might sound like this:
It seems like you are trying to compliment me, is that true?
It also seems like you are trying to be playful with me, is that true?
It seems like you’re saying that I am not your type, but that if I were your type that you would overpower me, is that true?
It also seems like you’re feeling entitled or free to make sexual comments about me in this public space, is that true?
Regardless of what they say, you will get one of three answers: they will deny, affirm, or correct your statement, and no matter what they do, you then ask follow-up questions from a place of curiosity.
2. Get off the spot when under pressure by asking questions.
Use questions to create space and play – not to shame.
When I’m on the spot, I tend to play defense. I feel like I have to participate in a game that I didn’t want to be a part of in the first place. Get yourself out of the spotlight by changing the game. Instead of answering or responding, simply ask more questions. (See examples below under #3)
3. Calibrate for Context: Does this person invite a light touch or a heavy touch?
Sometimes we just don’t know if it’s innocent, ill-intentioned, or malicious. There is a big difference between people who actively abuse their power, and people who are just clumsy or insensitive. Also, what feels innocent and playful in one context, can be harmful and hurtful in another.
Here are some examples of questions you could ask in the moment:
Light Touch (said in gentle and friendly ways when you’re assuming miscommunication or unawareness and wanting to gently redirect or raise awareness)
Would you mind keeping sexual comments out of this space?
What is it about making these comments in this room at this time that is appealing to you?
What impact are you hoping to have on the group by making these comments?
What are you hoping these comments might get you?
Would you say things like this to men, too?
Heavy Touch (said with confidence and curiosity, when you’re wanting to increase discomfort or intensity and set a firm limit)
What makes you think that this is an appropriate place to make comments like this?
Did you really just suggest that you’d like to sleep with me if I were your type?
Do you think it’s appropriate to speak to me in this way, at this time?
Do you realize that sexualizing my leadership might make a woman feel uncomfortable?
Do you enjoy making provocative comments that make others feel uncomfortable or are you just insensitive to the impact you’re having?
In real life, your relationship with the person and the context within which a comment is made will help you discern out the right amount of pressure/pushback that you’d like to exert in any given situation.
A question that sometimes comes up is this:
Why bother to calibrate? Why do I have to do that? Can’t I just call them out and teach them a lesson or give it back?
The outcome I want is increased openness, learning, growth, awareness, and more trust and safety in as many relationships as possible. I don’t want to shame and blame; I don’t want to split or fragment people further.
If I say nothing or too little, no learning happens. If I bring harshness and judgment, no learning happens. And I’m all about the learning. I’m all about moving forward, together.
A final word: I’d love to have been able to actually use some of these skills in real life last week, but I hadn’t practiced them enough myself to have them fully internalized and available to me in the moment.
I’m reminded that it’s not enough to just know something: we need active practice using the words, saying out new scripts, hearing new things, and going through role plays with people in safe spaces.
Join me at a practice group or online to engage in active practice – behind the scenes of your real life – so that you are ready for compassionate, confident and clear action the next time that you are on the spot too!
I’d love to hear from you! Have you ever been in a similar situation? What helped you to protect yourself and still care for all people in the moment? Leave a comment below.