This is the transcript of a 20min. talk I gave at the "Sticks & Stones - Job and Career Fair for LGBTI" in Munich on Sep. 16th 2017, titled:
Be Brave - Come Out. Strategies for employees to be assertive about their identity and handling potential discriminations.
Today, I will talk to you about being brave and true to yourself. You will learn what it means to set intentions before a difficult talk, where you can get help in case of discrimination and what strategies you could use to answer inappropriate questions. Let’s begin with being brave and assertive about your identity at work.
To me being brave is about self determination, living your life true to yourself. Now that doesn’t mean you have to come out at work to be brave. It rather means being brave lets you make your choices out of power and not out of fear from others.
We all know, that coming out is not something you do once. It is a decision to live as who you are in the everyday little things, without being apologetic or nervous around them. Being assertive about your identity is always stronger than defensiveness. Sounds good, right? But being assertive about your identity is something a lot of LGBT’s struggle with. Especially since we live in a weird time, where on the one hand there is a lot of acceptance, and at the same time we are rightfully cautious about discrimination.
While things have improved over the last 10 years, ⅓ of lesbians and gays don’t talk to anybody at work openly about their identity. This number is higher for bisexuals, and 70% of trans people don’t talk to anybody about their identity. ("Out im Office!?" Studie zur zur Arbeitssituation lesbischer, schwuler, bisexueller und Trans*-Beschäftigter in Deutschland. ADS)
So take a young man for example, who has always been open about his idenity during this time at university. He now got a job at a firm in a smaller town, in the south, and he is insecure how accepting his collegues are. So when asked about his weekend trip to the lake, he says he went with a group of friends, rather than saying he went with his boyfriend.
While this seemed to him, like a good choice for the moment, in the long run, it became complicated and most of all he felt really bad.
Hiding your identity at work takes a lot of energy. It creates stress and can affect your productivity and wellbeing not only at work, but also in your life in general. And the thing is, it doesn’t protect you from discrimination. It keeps you in a position of cautiousness and defensiveness and this insecurity can easily be used against you.
Now we know one of the benefits of not hiding your identity, but rather being assertive about it. But what does that mean, and what can that look like?
To be assertive about your identity is to be true to yourself - and that looks different for every individual.
I was working at a counselling center with 12 lesbian women and transmen. You could say we were all were comfortably present with our identities at work. Yet, there were some colleagues I knew a lot about, and some who didn’t share anything about their private life. There were some very outgoing colleagues and some were more quiet or reserved.
Staying true to yourself, means that you get to be the way that you are comfortable and happy with. Whether that means sharing a lot about yourself or nothing at all in a work setting.
Being assertive about your identity does not mean that you have to bring queer topics up at every coffee break - it just means that you get to stay truthful and don’t navigate with lies, or leave out your partners.
When you are assertive about your identity, you will probably at one point or another be in the position to have a conversation with your colleague or boss, that you are nervous around. Maybe you are experiencing people being very insecure about your trans* identity, maybe you are simply asking to take on a new challenge, maybe your gay colleague made a racist joke about immigrants.
The way I prepare for any important talk is to set my intentions. It is a method i teach almost all my clients with great results. Because setting intentions works.
When you are preparing for a talk think about why you want to have a talk with that person: What is your intention behind it?
The same issue can have different intentions behind it. For example, if I want to talk to a coworker and I want to address something that bothered me, and voice my critique:
it might be that I want to get that off my chest
it might be that i want to clear up some tension
it might be to see a change in their behaviour, and help them grow
it might be to end our relationship on that level
it might be to apologize to the way I reacted to her, yet to still voice my critique.
There are many different angles to approach a subject, so it is important to know why are going into the conversation and what your particular intention is.
Keep in mind that there are two people involved in this conversation and you only have control over your own part. You bring something into the conversation and the other person has the ability to take what you said, respond to it, talk about a different angle, or reject what you have said.
You have no control over that, and that is ok.
When you prepare for a talk, you prepare what you have control over, and that is what you want to say and how you want to say it to the other person. That gives you great power over setting up the talk in a way that you have control over and that feels good to you in the end.
Let’s get back to our example:
What is my intention?
My intention is to clear up the tension, to state that their comments bothered me, but I that want us to have a good relationship.
What do I want to convey to the other person?
I respect them as a colleague and I care about our relationship.
When I am clear about what I want to convey to them, and bring that across, then I have done my part - then it doesn’t matter, if the other person is able to get this in the moment or not.
I can only bring myself into the conversation, but i don’t have control whether they are able to respond to right in that moment.
So even if they want to start a fight or an argument, you don’t have to meet them at that level. You can stay focused on your intention.
That also gives the other person a chance to hear you, if their reaction is different than your intention. When you stay focused and convey what you wanted to convey, it is easier for them to get it, in this conversation or maybe after they had some time to reflect upon it.
When you ask somebody for help with a discrimination you might want to get clear on:
What do I give as reasons?
What do I request from them?
What do I need help with?
Do I want to victimize myself and tell them how bad I am feeling to show that I really, really need this help, or
Do I want to tell them: Hey, it would be really great and supportive, if you stepped up and I am counting on you.
It is important to know what you want to convey. Because it is so easy to feel vulnerable and insecure when approaching discrimination, when you set your intention beforehand, it really helps you to stay focused and be true to yourself.
To summarize let me repeat the steps of setting intentions before a conversation. Think about:
Why are you having this conversation
What do you want to convey to the other person
What do you want to say (and also what things you don’t want to say)
If you set these intentions before a conversation you are much more likely to feel good about yourself in the interaction and get the results you are looking for.
Where do I get help in case of discrimination?
The law that I am going to use as a framework here today is the “Allgemeines Gleichbehandlungsgesetz (AGG)” or in English, the Equal Treatment Act. This is the basis for your rights and it is also available in English, if you want to read up on it.
The Equal Treatment Act is there to prevent or stop discrimination on the grounds of race or ethnic origin, gender, religion or belief, disability, age and sexual orientiation.
It covers different forms of discrimination, such as:
Direct discrimination, where one person is treated less favorably than another is, has been or would be treated in the same situation.
Indirect discrimination, where an apparently neutral provision, criterion or practice would put persons at a particular disadvantage compared with other persons.
Harassment, including sexual harrasment
The most recent study about LGBT in the workspace, states that over 70% of lesbians, gays and bisexuals have experienced some form of discrimination at work. 40% have experienced sexual harassment. That is a high number and includes anything from social exclusion, comments or actually not getting a promotion. If you look at the law, you will find that ⅔ of these cases are protected by the Equal Treatment Act (AGG) and for one out of five cases you could actually file a police report, because it goes against criminal law. Now you can imagine that in reality the numbers of people actually reporting discrimination is way lower.
The reason I stress the equal opportunities law, is not because I want actually expect you to go through with a lawsuit. Yet I want you to know that this law is very special in the way that the burden of proof if not on you. If you watch any good TV show about lawyers, you probably have heard about cases where there is a lot of evidence, yet no proof.
With the AGG law, you don’t need to have proof that you have been discriminated against. If there is an indication for discrimination, that is enough to file a complaint and it is the employee's responsibility to prove that they did not discriminate.
So if you have been discriminated at work, the first step I would take is to see: Who are your allies? Maybe there are collegues, you can talk to, maybe your boss is supportive. As part of the Equal Treatment Act there must be a contact person at your job, who is there to support you in case of discrimination - and that person is bound by confidentiality. So find out who this person is, and consult them if you want to address discrimination at work, if you plan on coming out and want support, and especially if you are Trans* and are planning your transition at work. There is also a lot of support available outside of your workspace. I just want to point out one central agency, and that is the Federal Antidiscrimination Agency: www.antidiskriminierungsstelle.de
You can call them, send them an email, they have an online form. And these are real people working there with the goal of ending discrimination and supporting people like me and you. They offer free counselling and consultation and they are connected to all kinds of local agencies, so they will be able to point you to support locally, if that is what you wish.
Of course there is so much more we could be saying about this, so if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask questions later on or give me a call next week.
So we were talking earlier about being true to yourself with your identity at work, and in the long run the benefits of being assertive with your identity as is gives you more power and self determination.
You know that setting your intentions before an important conversation - that is getting clear on why you want to have a conversation and what it is you want to convey in addition to what you want to say - helps you to set up the conversation in a way that is beneficial to you.
So this is something you can use also if you are going to challenge discrimination at work, and prepare for conversations, either with your boss, the contact person at work, or a when you are seeking a outside support.
Being assertive about your identity and setting your intentions is also the basis for a good strategy to respond to everyday inappropriate questions from colleagues.
How do you respond to inappropriate questions?
There are many ways to react to inappropriate questions. Again, here I want you to come up with a strategy that really suits you personally.
Sometimes questions take us by surprise, and if they are inappropriate it can baffle us. So just as a general guide, give yourself a strategy of how you want to answer.
I usually ask myself: Is this person honestly interested in me or is this person purely curious or even offensive and thinks they can just ask me anything?
In the first case, I usually tell myself that people make mistakes and I am going to judge by second impression. You set the standard for how you want to be treated. If you are insecure and answer everything that you are asked, it is likely that that is what will continue.
You know, I had a client, let’s call her Alex who really cared about honesty and connection with people. And when people would ask her questions, even very personal ones, she would answer honestly, yet it still left her exhausted, as inappropriate questions and conversations often do.
Her partner would tell her to never just answer honestly but to either make something up, or block the question all together.
Now that strategy might be working for her partner, but it felt absolutely wrong to Alex. She didn’t want to build up walls around herself, as she really cared about true connections, even in fleeting interactions.
In the coaching she developed a strategy for herself, to give a truthful but more superficial answer and ask back, putting the attention on the other person, and through actively asking questions herself she was taking charge of the conversation, shifting it back to a space that felt comfortable to her. She could then still decide if she really wanted to go more indepth into a conversation with that person or not.
This strategy became very useful to her and was true to who she was.
Other people take on the role of the educator - that would be me. I often point out inappropriateness in a polite way, and generalize the topic. So I might not answer about my life personally, but talk about different scenarios to emphasizes the complexity and individuality of the topics.
Some people choose as a strategy to show their disapproval, some choose to stay polite but not offer any answers. Others are really good at using humor
Again - there is no right or wrong strategy. But when you have made a decision ahead of time, what kind of role you would like to fall back on - it makes it that much easier to react in the moment.
Ask yourself right now, what strategy you have used in the past and if that is what you want in the future.
Do you want to
Block it off
Make a joke
Give a super short answer and ask back
Show your disapproval but stay polite
As you are thinking about this you might notice that maybe the strategy you are using, is not actually the one that is most supportive to who you are. So this is a great time to reevaluate this and try out something else. If you feel like you would need some more skills or practice to actually apply a new strategy, then you can talk this through with a friend, or use a free coaching session. I offer those free sessions to people from LGBTI communities and would love to support you in strengthening your strategy.
So to wrap this talk up, I want to encourage you to be brave and make your choices out of power and not out of fear.
In some cases that could be the choice not to come out at work - in most cases I hope that you find a way to be assertive about your identity, in a way that is really true to yourself.
When you prepare an important conversation ask yourself - what your intention is, what you want to convey to the other person and then what you want to say (or not say), and it will give you the confidence to stay focused on your intention even the other person wants to make it about something else. And honestly, it is my belief that once you start practicing this, you will experience such great results, that you never want to skip setting your intentions again.
So that’s my website. I offer coaching on career and relationship topics.
I have a bunch of free resources up there and I also offer coaching here on the conference.
Thank you for listening and I hope we get a chance to talk in person later today!