Men: How to Not Get Triggered by Conversations About Gender

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This article by Will Harper was originally published in Leadership Excellence.

As a society, we are in the midst of an important, fundamental change in the way people of different genders relate to each other. I expect the coming years will result in a more just, creative, and connected society. And yet, in the midst of this positive change, many men, including me, are struggling. What society expects of us has shifted under our feet. There is a new standard for masculine leadership. We didn’t see it coming and many of us don’t have a way to process the change.

I am personally committed to equality of opportunity. I’ve dedicated my life and career to helping people achieve their full potential. Yet, despite that, I’ve been repeatedly triggered by these very important conversations about gender and equality. Why? Because messages that are intended to convey a desire for more female leadership sometimes register instinctively with me as, “You are bad because you’re a man.”

I’ve spent the last few years trying to understand the requests women are making of men, looking into my own reactiveness in the face of these conversations, and exploring these issues with many men – from former inmates to CEOs. What’s become clear to me is that the messages many men are hearing, intended or not, are resulting in us feeling shame and closing down.

Smaller, shame-filled men aren’t what we need right now. At a recent conversation on healing the divide between men and women, one woman said, “One of the things I love most about men is that warrior part of you. I just wish you’d direct it toward the right things.” I’ve been trying to do just that – to find a way to help men live into our masculinity that is both authentic to who we are and inclusive of the needs and desires of others.

The following shifts have helped the men I work with and me get out of reactivity and defensiveness and open ourselves up to truly listen and grow.

 

From Constrain Yourself to Enhance Yourself

Recently, a lot of the public attention regarding masculinity has been on “toxic masculinity,” an over-expression of masculine characteristics – for example, masculine boldness expressed as violent aggression. However, based on my experience as both a participant and facilitator of men’s development work, many of us don’t suffer from toxic masculinity, but its opposite, “under-expressed masculinity.” Under-expressed masculinity is when, for fear of our own power and impulses, we hold back and make ourselves small.

For me, this showed up in interpersonal conflicts. I was afraid of others’ emotions because I was scared of what I would do if I allowed myself to feel my own charged emotions. At work, I held back my comments because I didn’t want to take up too much space.

We’re not really being asked to constrain ourselves. We’re being asked to enhance ourselves. To become more open, accepting, and curious, and to learn to participate in a more authentic and connected way. When framed this way, I find myself shifting from defensive and frustrated to curious and motivated. When my wife is upset, I acknowledge and share my own feelings, which allows me to stay present with her. At work, I use discernment to filter my comments to only those that add significant value to the conversation. As a result, I feel both more at ease and more useful.

Ask yourself: How can I use the feedback I get to become the best version of myself?

 

From Stop Talking to Leverage Other Voices

In the past few years, in some cases for the first time in our lives, many men have been told to be quiet. We’re being told we take up too much space and need to stop talking. In a reactive state, my impulse is to say, “Fine! I won’t say anything!”

But that’s not the true request. The real ask is to enhance our ability to create space so everyone can express themselves and be heard. Historically, men served the role of physical protector of our communities. Today, we can bring that same protective orientation to the conversation space, ensuring that the best ideas emerge because everyone feels safe to bring them out.

Ask yourself: How can I protect the groups I’m in, so that all voices are heard?

 

From Stop Leading to Facilitate Leadership

At a recent conversation on the future of leadership, a female participant remarked that in the future, leaders “won’t be men.” With the most recent Fortune 500 list showing that a mere 6.6% of companies were led by female CEOS, to many in the audience, her point was more than justified.

However, for several men in the audience, including me, the comment was hard to digest. We initially interpreted it more literally than was probably intended and so were hurt and frustrated. Because no one spoke up in response to her comment, we were left wondering if the entire room really hoped that in the future, men wouldn’t be leaders. At some level, some of us interpreted the comment and the groups’ acceptance of it as a call for us to “stop leading.”

On another level, we know the real message is different. For centuries, half the population wasn’t even considered for leadership based on their gender. Women weren’t allowed to vote in the United States until 1919! Even today, women are underrepresented in almost all positions of business and political power. As the historically privileged group, men have a unique ability and responsibility to end that nonsense once and for all. It’s not about becoming less “ourselves,” but ensuring that others have space to become more. We can either use our power to limit the power of others or to enhance the overall amount of leadership expressed by all people.

Ask yourself: How can I use my power to facilitate an increase in the quality and leverage we create from everyone’s innate leadership?

 

From It is Unsafe to Have Relationships to Build Relationships of Safety

One of the topics I most hear men bring up when it comes to gender in the workplace is a new fear of relationships with the opposite sex. What once felt comfortable – say, a hug between coworkers – now feels taboo, if not outright dangerous. As a result, some men are leaning back from personal relationships with women at work, resulting in formal, business-only interactions.

Many women have suffered uncomfortable advances at work, but they are not asking for an end to genuine relationships with men. The new standard is to act in ways that help those around us feel comfortable and valued in our presence, regardless of gender. Leaning back from women may avoid discomfort, but it will exacerbate inequality and division. With our coworkers’ comfort and sense of worthiness as a guide, I’ve found that it’s often not hard to find the right level of engagement in most cases. When I’m in doubt, I can always ask.

Ask yourself: How can I build relationships with coworkers that result in genuine connection where all parties feel safe and valued?

 

Historians will see this era as a turning point. A point, not when men stepped away from leadership, but when leadership became more expansive. A point when more space was made for diverse perspectives and orientations. The result will be better leadership, regardless of gender, and a healthier, more creative society.

Men, for us to play our role in this evolution, we have to learn to be okay with criticism of each of us individually, of all of us collectively, and – perhaps the most difficult – we’ll have to learn to be okay with criticism of the worst of us expressed as criticism of all of us. As I engage with these conversations, I remind myself that the standard for masculine leadership has been raised. And I’m glad, because I care about justice and I like being challenged. So, in difficult moments, when I feel myself getting defensive, I pause and search for the deeper request: In what ways is the very thing I’m struggling with exactly what I need to grow into the new standard for masculine leadership?

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