the struggle with sharing opinions

As I write this, I am in the Czech Republic with twelve of my colleagues, figuring out together how we work together as a community. A big part of this is having the trust in the group to be able to challenge, give feedback and critically engage with one another’s way of working and thinking. This afternoon I co-facilitated a session to help us learn about each other’s stories and build up trust, partially with the goal of us being able to do exactly that. We talked about our personal challenges, particularly in groups.

As I have written about, I have been struggling with sharing my point of view. During my undergrad degree, as I mentioned before, I did not need to share my opinion. Our learning took place in lectures and not through participation and our essays were based on arguing through research findings and the value of how that research had been conducted. You didn’t need to apply your own opinion. I also hadn’t built up a particularly rigorous debate strategy within my family. I have a couple of theories about why this is – one being that by age 11, both of my sisters had moved out and I guess I lost my most likely sparring partners.

When I did my MA in Gender Studies, I was hit by a big change. I had to express myself in intimate seminars – and part of my grade was based on this. I was really scared of saying the wrong thing. I was in a room of activists and academic heavyweights. I had become very aware of my own privilege – which is definitely something I want to keep spending time learning about and being aware of and holding myself to account – but it meant I ended up scared of saying the wrong thing. Even more than before, I overthought everything I said. I had to make notes before I spoke up and often missed the opportunity. I had experienced a lot of a-ha moments around that time – realising the systems I had benefited from and all of the shitty stuff the UK has done, and I knew more of these were waiting around the corner. It seemed safer to stay quiet, rather than face one of these moments in front of my peers.

In my early twenties, I started realising that a lot of my friends who I had been close to when I was younger, were now pretty different to me. They seemed to be stuck with views I really disagreed with. One friend asked me, seriously amused, if I had heard that one of our female friends had “become a feminist”. Funnily, he asked the same question to her, about me. A friends brother used homophobic language and in a group of friends, I was the only one that questioned it. I drifted away from this group. Some people I was friends with at university posted hateful stuff on Facebook and I just unfriended them. In a work relationship that lead to conflict, I just left the organisation. As I wrote this, I realised there are a number of other friendships that have quietly ended in a similar way. With all of these situations, I did not take the time to have a conversation and either challenge their viewpoint or learn from the experience (or both!) I just completely avoided any possibility of further conflict and gave up on the possibility of something generative before even making an effort.

Why am I so fearful of doing this? Lack of practice obviously plays a role. As does the fear of not being able to explain myself well enough. I have an underlying belief that an opinion needs to be perfectly formed and executed, with a list of corroborating facts lined up and ready to go, otherwise it feels like too much of a risk. And I think the risk is shame. Feeling ashamed when someone disagrees and I look stupid or incompetent and probably feel flustered and overly emotional. This was the fear behind being asked to speak on LBC. (I am really interested to know how many guys reading this find they relate to this problem, or whether it is mostly women).

I think I know the solution, really. I think it just takes practice and accepting that you’ll mess up. You won’t always sound perfectly polished or feel in control or comfortable. I think one problem is that I really read into any conflict or disagreement – if I have a discussion with someone about something important to me and we disagree on it I sometimes wonder about the implications on our relationship. I find it very difficult to distance myself, and my relationship with that person, from the thing we disagree on. This is problematic, as I don’t want to have a homogenous group around me, all agreeing on everything, but clearly, there must be a line. How do people figure out where that is? I think understanding where people are coming from with that viewpoint is important – so actually bothering to have those conversations that I haven’t had in the past.

P.S. Proofreading thanks to Joel and to Anita (my sister)