The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.
By Estela Hartley
The most ordinary events in one’s journey through life can bring us to a crossroad that has the potential to greatly alter one’s perspective and path. In 2004, three such events brought me to such a crossroad, one which called my identity into question.
In February of that year, I was struck by an intoxicated driver while driving home from work and I was placed on medical leave for several months to recover. A mere seven months later I married the love of my life and I changed my maiden name at the age of thirty after having established myself personally and professionally. Finally, the year ended with my leaving a job I found immensely rewarding due to a shift in workplace culture that I could not adapt to as the result of a new supervisor.
These are not uncommon occurrences, but they dramatically shifted my perspective and path by calling into question who I thought I was as a person, a wife, and a professional. I would like to share an approach to learning that, in hindsight, would have been very helpful in dealing with the confusion I experienced surrounding my identity after these events.
One of my most positive learning opportunities has come from Live Exchange: Authentic, Effective Communication taught by Linda Yaven in the MBA in Design Strategy (dMBA) program at the California College of the Arts. Live Exchange is a communications course focused on fostering one’s authentic self by increasing collaborative, communicative, and emotional intelligence.
We recently completed reading “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most,” and this book resonated deeply with me. “Difficult conversations” involves talking about issues we find hard to talk about and provides a framework that makes those conversations many of us cringe at the thought of having more approachable.
The ability to understand, ground, and communicate subjective points of view is incredibly empowering and valuable, allowing us to make intelligent decisions when emotions run high and the participants are divided. Having a few “difficult conversations” would most likely have prevented the worst of the tumultuous effects I experienced as a result of the aforementioned events. The information I would have received from these “difficult conversations” would have helped me better prepare myself beforehand and/or helped me better frame my experience afterward.
In the situation where I felt the need to leave a meaningful job, a “difficult conversation” would have given me critical information to either clear up misunderstandings with my new supervisor, or be certain that he was unwilling to work with me to overcome our conflict. I do not have any major regrets about the professional path I have taken as a result; however, at times I ponder whether this conflict was reparable and if the stage could have been set to establish a collaborative work culture beneficial to all employees.
Regarding my new identity as a married person, I would have benefited from conversations that seemed too sensitive at the time. A communication framework would have been very helpful as a guide. By talking with married friends, family, and colleagues about their decision to change or not change their maiden name, how would that have affected my identity as a wife and professional? How would the information I received from both of those conversations affect my perspective in regard to my roles and path in life? Perhaps if I had overcome my anxiety to approach these conversations when questions arose, I would not have been so easily susceptible to the all of the forces at play calling my identity into question.
Positive relationships contribute significantly to an individual’s physiological, emotional, intellectual, and social wellbeing. For this reason, positive relationships help us feel secure in our identity and path in life. I imagine that like the neural network in our bodies, effective communication makes us highly functional in further developing relationships. Having the courage to be vulnerable and open to giving and receiving a different perspective and vital information in support of important decisions is what effective and authentic communication is all about.
How have you overcome your communication fears to make life-altering decisions, and what methods have you seen for doing so? How would having certain “difficult conversations” affect the stability of your professional identity?