Earlier this month, I had the pleasure and privilege of joining the WorkHuman Conference in Austin, Texas. It was probably the most uplifting and inspiring large-group experience in my professional life. The interesting thing is that I had never heard of it before and the only reason I found out about it was due to my exploring upcoming speaking engagements of Brené Brown. For a long time I had been very eager to experience her at a live event, since her ground-breaking research around Vulnerability, Shame and Courage has had significant impact on both my personal life and my work. When I saw on her website that she was going to speak at a conference with the name WorkHuman I was naturally intrigued and thought that could be a good fit for me on more than one level.
Was I ever right?! The line-up they were able to engage for those three and a half days was so impressive that it must have taken me all but one minute to decide that I was going to clear my calendar for that time and book a flight to the U.S. as quickly as possible. And it was worth it. Listening to people like the beforementioned, Salma Hayek, Simon Sinek, Amal Clooney, Tarana Burke (creator of the #MeToo movement), Ashley Judd, or Shawn Achor was beyond what I had expected. The mix of people was diverse, yet, so consistent in terms of everyone focusing on bringing more humanity into the world and particularly into the workplace.
There were so many memorable moments during those days, but two clearly stuck with me the longest. Not to my surprise, they were linked to one of the keynote speakers on opening day - Brené Brown. She made two comments that got to me like a razor-sharp knife. I couldn’t say that they resonated with me right away. On the contrary. Both statements took me by surprise and had me sit with them for a while before I could embrace and truly “get” them.
The first one was „joy is our most vulnerable human affect.“ How could she say that when it is something so obviously positive to be joyous? I found myself having an almost sad reaction to the comment and eventually it dawned on me that we do put ourselves out there when we show or talk about what makes us happy and gives us joy and pleasure. What if anyone uses that to our disadvantage and either exactly withholds that pleasure from us or uses it to ridicule us and expose us to others for having that desire, need or joy? Both can lead to significant pain, feeling unrecognised, unloved or disrespected. By holding our cards much closer to the chest, also in terms of what makes us happy and has us be silly and joyous, others get less of an opportunity to use it against us in any harmful way. Also, we all feel typically a sense of connectedness with others when we engage in laughter, particularly if this sentiment is reciprocated, and that alone makes us vulnerable in and of itself. What if that connectedness gets broken for whatever reason?
Then, there was the other statement, which she mentioned in the context of insincere empathy or compassion, and which took me much longer to come to terms with. Brené said something to the effect of 'there only being one person in her life who would be allowed to say those words, otherwise it is an absolute no go for her.' Believe it or not, the phrase is: „Bless your heart!“ I was floored. Given the spiritual person I am, I couldn’t believe it at first. I thought I must have misheard, but then she went on explaining: „Let me translate that for all non-Texans among you – here is what it means: „You are screwed and God is on my side!““
How could such a seemingly lovely phrase hold such a destructive connotation? How did I feel about that? Having heard so many fellow members of my beloved church community in Northern California use the term “God bless,” I had more or less viewed Brené’s to be the same. I had never taken the former in any negative way, but always thought it to be a kind way to end a conversation, or even an email. I kept rehearsing the two phrases in my head and started to sense the difference. “Bless your heart” is a separator. It indicates that there is something ‘wrong’ with the other person … whether it is the person’s fault or not, whether it is a misfortune or anything else. While it alludes to compassion on the side of the person saying it, it does not offer a sense of real connectedness. It sounds much more like “I see that there is something ‘wrong’ with you and that circumstance puts me in a one-up position.” It started giving me a shiver, especially when I was reminded of how often I use the term “poor you.” Pretty much every time I saw someone deal with any kind of misfortune, I tended to use those two words. So, how does that relate to Brené’s anti-statement? I like to think that I come entirely from a place of compassion and I haven’t been hearing or picking up any vibe to the contrary from the people who were on the receiving end. Yet, do I really know that? Probably not.
This incident has been such a helpful reminder to become more thoughtful again about these common phrases that we tend to use on a regular basis and which might entail off-putting connotations for other around us. Language holds so much power in our lives … for better and for worse. As a trusted friend of mine mentioned to me before, in the end, it is the intent with which we use language that makes the speaking person feel trustworthy or not. May we always remain willing to second-guess our underlying intents, especially during times when we speak without awareness of both our motivation to speak and the impact of our words on others.