Nkem Ndefo, founder of Lumos Transforms and creator of the Resilience Toolkit, joins the program to discuss the difference between healthy and unhealthy storytelling, and the importance of self-regulation. Nkem also shares insights about the physical, mental and emotional costs of feeling unsafe at work, and what we need to do to increase our personal resilience. Discover the positive outcomes that can come from modulating our emotions, and how to balance the need to fight and challenge oppression with the benefits of calm and peaceful visioning.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Nkem’s diversity story of growing up as “other” and learning to code switch (3:30)
- The physical, mental and emotional costs of feeling unsafe at work (15:30)
- How to share our stories in a way that increases empathy (19:30)
- The importance of self-regulation in creating and sharing transformative stories (25:00)
- What we need to understand about our audience (29:30)
- How to balance uniqueness and commonality at work (34:40)
- How stress and trauma prevents us from doing our best work (36:30)
- How personal resilience precedes organizational resilience (35:15)
- The positive changes that can arise when we modulate our emotions (38:54)
- How to balance the need to fight and challenge with being settled and peaceful (42:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Nkem, welcome to The Will to Change.
NKEM NDEFO: Thank you so much for having me.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m thrilled to have you here. I enjoy learning from your voice and your work, which is really unique, and so critical, as we will talk about in this episode. And we first encountered each other at Elizabeth McLoughlin’s program, the Gaia Women’s Leadership Program, where you were a speaker. I have pursued this episode with you since then.
I really want to get your thought leadership, your practice as a healer, and all of the different things that you are in your life and your professional work in front of our audience. As our listenership will hear, as a trauma specialist that you are, we experience a lot of trauma in large ways and small as we are doing the work of inclusiveness in whatever corner of the conversation or the work that you live in.
Today, you’re going to be equipping us with a deeper understanding about our stress responses, what our body can tell us, and also some techniques around marshaling our resources in the appropriate way so that our energy is sustainable for what can be very difficult work. I’m really excited to have you pontificate on all that.
Before we do that, we always start The Will to Change with our guest’s diversity story. I know a little bit about yours, but let us know: What do you consider to be your diversity story?
NKEM NDEFO: I have an intersectional identity, like we all do. Everyone’s a little bit unique. It’s very interesting, when you grow up in it, it’s the lens that you look at and you don’t think of any differently.
I remember in my undergrad, I actually studied with Angela Davis. And this was before Kimberly Crenshaw had coined the term “intersectionality” in Angela Davis’s book Women, Race, and Class, looking at the intersection of gender, sex, economics, and race. That lens as a late teen let me look back at my own history to say, “Oh, yes, let’s see those intersections.”
My father was a Nigerian immigrant. He came to the U.S. to study at university on the same program Barack Obama’s father came on, and met my mother who is Ashkenazi Jewish descent from eastern Europe. Only at UC Berkeley in the ’60s would that ever happen.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s for sure.
NKEM NDEFO: Yes. It’s a very interesting intersection. If you look at me, I’m a black American, but I’m an African American – African immigrant child without the first-hand experience of American slavery, but having the colonial experience through my father. I think fathers at a little less culturally adept or expected to transmit culture to children. I was very much in between those different cultures, right? I didn’t speak my father’s native tongue – Ibo. I grew up in a very diverse neighborhood of Los Angeles, but primarily Latino, so, Spanish, if anything.
There were all of these things pushing against each other. I became very adept at code switching. Code switching, to me, is also perspective switching. It’s not just the language and the appearance, it’s actually being able to step into the other – being “othered” and then stepping into the mainstream and the dominant and going back and forth. I later came to understand that I can hold both at the same time, I actually don’t have to switch.
JENNIFER BROWN: What a talent.
NKEM NDEFO: It doesn’t have to be a duality, right? It doesn’t have to be a duality.
JENNIFER BROWN: Could you define code switching for our audience? I think about it a lot, I read a lot about it, but people might not know what that is.
NKEM NDEFO: I think everyone code switches in various different ways. It’s how you talk with your family and how you talk at work. You’re going to switch the language, the signifiers, your body language, how you’re casual with your friends and you’re in a professional setting. That’s code switching.
Often, we’ll say people who have marginalized identities are forced to code switch in professional spaces which are normed to white norms, dominant norms – white, straight, ableist – if you want to go down the list.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
NKEM NDEFO: We don’t have a choice. If we don’t code switch, it’s really a problem for us. It’s not a privilege to be able to code switch. Sometimes I’ll call it “conscious chameleon.”
JENNIFER BROWN: I like that.
NKEM NDEFO: I know who I am. I hold all of these identities, but being able to consciously flip into another identity knowing full well what I’m doing. This isn’t an accident. Right?
JENNIFER BROWN: It strikes me that the role that somebody like you can play in building bridges and holding the space in the middle by inhabiting so many perspectives at once feels like where we all want to get to. It’s that sense of peace in what perspective you’re inhabiting at that moment, versus code switching, which feels like there is a painful part of it, a dishonoring of the self in feeling the need to code switch. But the way you’re describing it is a really loving description. I’m sure that it’s a product of your intersectionality and all that you’ve been exposed to in your life so far. But it’s a conscious choice, too. You didn’t have to turn out the way you did or focusing on what you do. That’s really beautiful, and it’s completely opposite to the binary energy of the world that we’re living in right now, the “us and them” and the polarization that is so destructive to us right now.
NKEM NDEFO: It is, but it’s not to say that it’s always fairies and sparkles and glitter. I can think of places where it’s conscious and it’s not always about putting the other person at ease. Code switching is really about putting the dominant at ease, the other at ease, right? Other than “me.” And sometimes I’m like, “No, this is where I want to be.” And the other person might have to sit in some discomfort around me being me, my full me. There is an awareness of it. It can be a burden that this even has to be thought of. Sometimes I can think in particular meetings where even questioning the norm, the communication norm is met with – people are just incredulous. “What have you been talking about that we have a norm?” When you are the norm, that’s the privilege to not see that it is a culture, that it is a norm.
JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely. So many important things in what you’re saying.
Let’s talk about stress and trauma response, which is your specialty. I know you’re also a midwife, which is incredible. You told me that through working with women in the birthing scenario, you came to understand some really deep truths about the purpose of stressful situations. But something very different is going on. There is information, we know what we do to heal ourselves, and yet somehow in the modern world, we’ve become very disconnected from listening to our bodies as an instrument to tell us what we need to know, relying on that, and letting that guide us. I was fascinated by all that.
Take us through what you do now for work, how this all fits in, and what do you focus on? Bear the audience in mind that I work with a lot, which is those in the workplace where you could argue that the trauma experienced in the workplace can be mild and death by a thousand cuts by microaggressions, and it can also mean enduring homophobic jokes and sexist managers and hostile situations which re-traumatize some of us over and over again. It leads to us having to get out of those environments at whatever cost, if we can afford to economically, because it’s just so miserable.
NKEM NDEFO: There was a lot there. I’m going to parse that out a little bit.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, parse it out.
NKEM NDEFO: Parse, parse, parse. I guess I could say I’m interested in upstream root causes, moving up the stream to the tap, where if you put in effort for change, you’re going to see the biggest result. I originally thought that that would be education when I was quite young. I had my first child with a midwife and I said, “Oh, that’s it, you get to birth.” Right? So, we’re upstream now. If you can get a good birth, maybe you can set people on a path.
I realized fairly quickly that toxic stress and trauma were actually a little further upstream. I’ve devoted the last ten-plus years working in that arena. I’m in the Los Angeles area, and I see people privately to work on stress and trauma. Primarily, my work is with organizations in social service, education, health care, but not exclusively. It gets phrased around workplace wellness, but I see it as bigger than that. It’s not a little adjunct that you’re doing for ACA compliance. Right?
Doing stress management and not using the word “trauma.” People have a hard time with the word “trauma.” Trauma is something that happened to other people. Trauma is being held up at gunpoint, it’s being raped, it’s military service, combat. And sometimes the stories that we need to tell ourselves, that mine wasn’t that bad, it wasn’t a trauma, I’m going to honor that. So, I tend to use the word “stress” way more than trauma because people are more comfortable in that landscape.
Looking at all the ways that stress hinders people from doing their job well, and I’ve developed some frameworks and concrete practices that can be implemented in very short periods of time individually or collectively to prepare people for transformative work. What that is organizational change, systems change, whether it’s personal healing work that people want to do. If you have an organization that really acknowledges, we are a traumatized organization. We’ve gone through massive layoffs, reduction, whatever is going on, there may need to be organizational healing, but you’ve got to do the preparatory work first.
Many lessons from being a nurse midwife. One of my specialties is to work still doing resilience building perinatal spaces, different kinds of program development and evaluation.
One of the lessons I learned as a nurse midwife is that, overwhelmingly, it’s not like we’re suffering from underpopulation on this planet. Pretty well, women’s bodies know how to grow babies and birth them and feed them. They may need some education, a guide, or some support. They will need those things, but the system works pretty well.
There is this faith that the body works. Somehow, we have become disconnected. Stress is a normal part of life. It’s our body saying, “Hey, I need to gear up, prepare, or mobilize resources to do something.” Is it protective? Whatever it is, I need to mobilize those resources energetically in terms of just blood sugar – literally – or focus and attention, whatever that is, to achieve a goal, to perform, or to protect. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is when we get stuck in that, when we’re always performing and we never get a break, when we’re always in survival mode and we never get a break.
Somehow, we’ve forgotten that this is a body system and body systems run in cycles. So, of course, if there’s a way to turn it on, there’s a way to turn it off. It’s actually innate, built in, and about how do we lean into that when it’s appropriate? And it’s not always appropriate. Sometimes, if you’re in a hostile workplace and you need to be on guard, you need to be on guard. But when you come home, if you can’t let that off, it builds up, erodes, and corrodes your physical health, mental health, your entire wellbeing. Your capacity for relational connection is eroded. Then you come back to work the next day, and now it’s a stew. It’s what was done to you and the state you’re in. It affects your perception, your reactions, and it’s ugly. It’s a vortex. That’s what I think we’re living as a culture right now is this vortex of unresolved stress – and if you want to say trauma – that just keeps perpetuating itself.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. You and I just talked about the concept of disclosure. We do a lot of work on storytelling in the diversity and inclusion context. We believe that storytelling is one of the best modalities to establish empathy. Do we mean, for example, getting the courage up to tell your coming out story – in my case – over and over again? And managing the emotions that come up around that, both relating to my own trauma. But also the listener, and gauging – we talked about a kind of disclosure that is the ideal amount of sharing what is traumatic for many who are marginalized in all the ways that we’ve talked about. And yet, that storytelling is really important as a change vehicle. How do we know when to bring that rawness in order to enable others to witness our truth? How do we calibrate it in such a way that it’s healthy for us and healthy for them? They can be traumatized as well, and it can not accomplish what we want to accomplish.
NKEM NDEFO: Right. It was interesting, I was just at a training over the weekend that uses a lot of storytelling, and it’s not therapy, it’s a nonviolent modality.
I was watching people tell their stories and I was watching them relive their trauma. It’s not good for people. It’s not good for you. The idea that storytelling is healing, it is not intrinsically healing, telling your story. In fact, it can dig you in deeper. It can reinforce those feelings and those experiences.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s true.
NKEM NDEFO: Literally, your heart is beating, everything is happening at the same time. Right? It’s not good.
I’ve been thinking about this over the weekend witnessing this. I believe that storytelling is healing when it comes at the appropriate time in the healing journey. So, me telling my story over and over again made me much worse, and I see it over and over again for others. It was too early in my healing journey. I had not stabilized myself first, right? I had not learned how to handle my own stress reactions, how to handle my own trauma reactions, on a very visceral, body-based level.
And so I would tell the story and reexperience it and just dig like a car in sand. Once I was able to learn how to be with my story and not reexperience my story, my story became transformative. Okay? In that way, it’s transformative for me healing, but when I can tell it, it can be transformative for others because I actually think empathy – the research tells us that empathy grows when people have more self-awareness, right? If my story is so overwhelming that they get so stressed out that they shut down, they lose connection with themselves, they come into my story. That’s not empathy, that’s a lack of boundary. They’ve come into my story. In that way, they can be hurt and traumatized.
But when they can feel themselves and they can feel what it would be like to be in my shoes, my story is not damaging me in the retelling because it’s contained in some way. The transformative power is greater.
I have a lot of questions about practices where it’s all about the story and no one asks, “Are you ready to tell the story? What is it like for you to tell the story? How do you feel after you tell the story? Is this harming or helping you?” We’re looking at behavior, what comes out in terms of behavior, but we also need to ask about the psychological costs.
I think about a very important study that was done in Sierra Leon on restorative justice practices. That is storytelling, right? And about forgiveness and making amends in community, which is what we want to do around issues of oppression and exclusion that have happened in workplaces.
What they found when they used these restorative justice practices – it was a randomized controlled trial. 100 villages had the intervention, 100 didn’t, and they followed them for three years. Those that did do these circle and story, of course there was ostensibly better behavior. People were more engaged in community activities, they said that they trusted their neighbors better, et cetera, things that we would want to see also translating to a workplace setting.
However, when they asked about psychological wellbeing, the people who had these stories were far worse – far worse. Again, the story is in our heads. The emotions are a little bit closer to our body, but when we have something that’s highly stressful or even traumatizing, it’s a whole-body experiences. If you leave the body out of the story, if you leave the body out of the process, you are just bringing in the thoughts and the emotions. You’re going to get somewhere, but the problem about stress response is that they will hijack your brain and they will hijack your emotions in nanoseconds. Then we’re left with that.
And so I think we need to be a little more holistic about how we approach storytelling and this idea of low-impact disclosure. It’s hard, when our story is very raw, we want to “Blah!” it out. Right? But that’s reenactment, that’s not healing storytelling.
Low-impact disclosure is I can talk about my feelings in a way that I’m present to them, they’re not overwhelming me, I can pause and take a break when I need to, but I don’t need to flesh out the gory details because I’m not reliving the story. The gory details come when you’re reliving. We can leave out the gory details and talk about the impact – the emotional impact.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. Make your story your tool for change. There is some mastery over your story, if I could use that word, that’s what it always felt like to me. When I gave my first TED Talk, and many people who follow me know I lost my voice – my singing voice – and I had to get surgeries. When I first told that story, it was on a TED stage to 1,000 people. I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to get through without crying. I didn’t want to cry during my TED talk, that’s not what I want immortalized.
It was so raw, and speaking vulnerably about it brought up a lot for me. Since then, though, it’s become a part of me to the point where I can tell it as a tool and see the “ah-hah” moments and have the impact without feeling the impact on myself and having to go to the deep, dark place of shame that I was in when it was all happening.
It’s interesting. You’ve just got to go through that process. You have to find where you boundary is. When do you know you’re ready? You probably don’t have a magic answer for that. When do you know you’re ready to tell a story? What are the baby steps you can do towards kind of becoming in control of your story so that it can be useful to others.
The worse thing I can imagine is people not thinking their stories are relevant and never telling their story. To me, that’s equally heartbreaking to ponder.
NKEM NDEFO: Absolutely.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m always saying, “I want you to tell it because somebody’s got to see the light through you.” You can’t predict how that’s going to happen, you can’t predict what lesson they’re going to take from your story, but don’t kill it before it has a chance to pave the way for someone else. How can we then manage our own trauma as we learn how to do that?
NKEM NDEFO: Right. Those are some of those basics – learning the self-regulation, how to be with intensity in measured ways so that it doesn’t harm you in the telling and it does become transformative. The power of being witnessed is also transformative. If our story is so intense that we check out when we’re telling it so someone hears it, who are they witnessing? We’re not even there.
JENNIFER BROWN: Good point.
NKEM NDEFO: So, you’ve got to be able to be there to be witnessed. That’s why sometimes a story needs to be told in bits and pieces as it comes out. I can’t help but think about Hannah Gadsby, right? Nanette.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my goodness, yes.
NKEM NDEFO: Right? She talked about how she’s been telling her story. And she was telling it in a way that was replicating her trauma. It took many tellings for her to realize what was happening and how it needed to be told in a different way.
JENNIFER BROWN: If anybody hasn’t seen this show, it’s called Nanette, right? It’s her one-woman show. It’s on Netflix and it’s been up there for a couple months now I think. Everyone in my circles has been talking about that show. Hannah Gadsby is the name of the comedian, she’s Australian. It was really beautiful to watch her commit to her truth – not making a joke about her story and what had happened, which was an assault situation, but laughing about it in the way comedians do, but then slowing the audience down and making it very real, very honest, very truthful. It got really uncomfortable as the viewer.
NKEM NDEFO: She could sit with it and she was present. For her, it was transformative, and that’s why I think it was so transformative. Sometimes, people will tell a story and everyone cringes and shuts down, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: True. True.
NKEM NDEFO: Again, I don’t think this is all about the audience. There’s a balance, it’s you and your audience. The point is to be able to increase diversity and improve inclusion. It’s a balance between the person making the effort and those receiving it. There’s got to be some balance.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. You and I spoke earlier about the audience. Let’s talk about that for a little while. You talked about looking at people, knowing that they’re ambivalent, and that they will make change when they are ready to. I think about this so much. The workplace dynamics around inclusion are, of course, if you just simplify them, it’s a bunch of us, I suppose, who are not happy with the status quo. And then it’s a bunch of others who maybe are happier with the status quo or aren’t even really aware that there’s a problem. Maybe they’re in avoidance of the problem or maybe they don’t want to talk about the problem because it reflects badly on them and who they think they are.
In fact, my entire second book is going to be all about this and naming all of the deflections that are either said or go unsaid that are barriers to empath and being able to “perception switch,” as you called it.
Tell us more about discovering what matters to others and how can we get through to people on the other side? They need to be lower stress, by the way, to be able to connect to us as well. You said, “Caring for the community flows from being calm.” You said, “Nerves of hearing hear the human voice better when stress is low.” How do we, then, take our stories, digest them, tell them in a way that we are in control and in service in the best possible way, not hurting us, not compromising us, not taking the audience too far down a road of sharing in the trauma in a counterproductive way? What do we need to know about our audience that we’re trying to influence? So often, they have a completely different experience than a lot of us.
NKEM NDEFO: One, we know that humans are messy.
JENNIFER BROWN: We are, for sure. (Laughter.)
NKEM NDEFO: It’s really important to step out of duality and recognize that people are complex and can hold multiple opinions, emotions, values, and needs at the same time. They may be in alignment or opposing. There is no obligation for people to make sense. We’re like, “That makes no sense.” There’s no obligation for people to make sense – to themselves or anybody else.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you. (Laughter.) That feels like a relief.
NKEM NDEFO: Right? It just doesn’t make sense. It seems like they’re a hypocrite. We all have contradictions. This culture, in particular in North America, insists that it has to be 100 percent, and if it’s not 100 percent, it doesn’t count. It has to be all or nothing. Very, very black and white.
When we can move a little past that and soften around that and recognize that the people that we’re speaking to are complex, and probably have multiple needs, just like we do. I’m a big fan of recognizing that there are multiple needs as a way to connect.
What’s primary to them and being able to take some guesses, and we have to be aware of our own needs, right? So, if we have a need for inclusion, that’s a strong need. We also have a need for security, like being able to pay our bills, right? And they, sometimes, will come up against each other. I have to sacrifice my need for inclusion to be able to pay my bills, right? Look over Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. But the person you’re speaking to in terms of audience, they may have a big need for how others perceive them, that’s the biggest need, right? Or a sense of mastery, a sense of control.
Really, how can you find the common ground between our shared needs? That’s a great entry point. Recognize that just like I may have needs that are butting up against each other, they may too, right? They may have a need for things to be peaceful in the workplace. But looking at someone’s need is very different from the strategy they use to meet the need. Strategies can be effective in meeting needs or ineffective in meeting needs, right? The strategies are often more movable than needs are enduring. If we can acknowledge the need and say, “Great need. We all have a need for mastery. We all would love peace.” You know? Then we look at the strategy. And the strategy is where you can get some wiggle room.
This comes from nonviolent communication, this big push around identifying needs, often the emotions underneath and around those needs, and separating strategies from needs and then trying to play in the strategy.
If you think about a couple – this is a perfect example. Both of them want connection, they’re in relationship, right? But they have different ideas about how to get that connection. One person might be like, “Let’s never talk about anything controversial so we’ll stay in connection.” And the other person is like, “No, we’ve got to really process everything so there’s nothing, no stone unturned, so we can maintain connection.”
This is classic. We see this all the time. Both of them want that connection and it’s really important, but their strategies are completely diametrically opposed. If you can bring that situation to light, you’ve got a starting point.
JENNIFER BROWN: And managing all of your assumptions about that other person, all of the triggers that you may be experiencing in looking at someone before they even open their mouth. The assumptions and the “othering” that’s happening in the workplace is such a difficult starting point for talking about what’s shared in the workplace particularly, and highlighting our identities as unique. It’s this balancing act between talking about our uniqueness and our cultural differences and what makes us who we are, and yet focusing the conversation on what’s shared in order to establish commonality.
When we’re trying to define the word “belonging,” which is a very big and popular word for many companies now. They’re moving through diversity and then inclusiveness, and belonging is this concept that a lot of people resonate with. The closest I’ve come to being able to define it is the celebration of the uniqueness of us and the ability to feel in community and what’s shared so that we aren’t isolated and we aren’t alone.
It is that balancing act of bringing all of who you are to work and being as different as you want to be, celebrating that, feeling positive about that, but also not reminding people about how different you are. What you really want people to focus on is what you share.
I don’t see a lot of people and organizations doing it well. It’s very interesting. We’ve been in an age of celebrating the uniqueness, and a lot of people who push back on our work say, “Aren’t you being exclusive in the way you’re setting up diversity networks that are separated by gender and ethnicity? Aren’t you being exclusive in order to be inclusive?”
Of course, they use that as a red herring. There are a lot of other dynamics and reasons why. It’s a resistance point. It’s another way of obfuscating a much larger and more important point. It is that.
I like to have a profound answer for that, too. How would you answer that question?
NKEM NDEFO: Are you familiar with the term “cultural humility”?
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. Yes. Yes.
NKEM NDEFO: Which does celebrate uniqueness, but there’s a humble attitude right there because everyone’s examining their culture. This is asking people who are in the norm to examine their culture because we all have something that’s normed. It’s hard to find someone where every single identity is the marginalized one. It exists, but it’s not common. We have something, right?
If I can move up to a little bit of a meta view, everyone is so stressed out that people are very rigid and fear-based. They are not doing their best thinking. They’re not doing their best connecting. It’s just the truth.
People are doing things through a spirit of fidelity. It’s a fidelity checklist. Let me check off my boxes. What we’re asking for is a culture change. Cultures don’t change under a spirit of fidelity.
JENNIFER BROWN: Can you define fidelity in the way you’re using it?
NKEM NDEFO: Meaning I need my two African-American employees, we all did implicit bias training – check. Your checkmarks, right? They’re asking, “Hand me the checklist; we’ll go through the checklist.” Versus the messy process of culture change, which involves self-awareness. Most people aren’t ready for culture change because they’re so stressed out. It’s about how do we slow down? When we drop the stress, these things become possible. What is the saying? Change moves at the speed of trust. Right?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
NKEM NDEFO: No one trusts each other. What you’re doing, you may say may be completely fine, but everybody is so stressed out that they have zero grace. They can’t give anybody grace on anything. Everything is hyper scrutinized. Everything is over-examined. There’s no looseness around it. It’s held very, very tightly. I think that part of the problem is that we’re rushing to these solutions before dropping the stress level. Change is mess and you need to have some grace to be able to do it.
JENNIFER BROWN: You made the point, personal resilience or capacity building on a personal level needs to be the first step, then moving into team level and organizational level. You’re right. Our team is asked all the time to come in and make magic happen. By the way, you have 45 minutes and 100 people on a webinar. Already, you’re out of the gate with your hands tied behind your back and not working at the level of having the conversation you need to have. You’re being pushed into having an organizational conversation around compliance and, as you say, fidelity. You don’t get the opportunity to do the individual work.
Is there an easy way to take this on yourself as a modality you’re going to work – whether your organization sees it this way or not – to build relationship and trust on a one-on-one level? I know there is probably not a quick way – although, knowing you, you probably do have some great devices and techniques to build this with another human that you need the buy-in with and the participation of in order to see you, witness your story, carry your message, be a better leader, human, et cetera.
Off the radar screen, people are influencing each other all the time in large organizations. People who are going after going after work to better themselves are not waiting for their organization to give them the checklist, they’re doing the work. So, how might you recommend – say I’m getting absolutely no infrastructural support. Maybe I don’t work for a great company that’s really trying to build this inclusion and trust environment. What are some ways that I can connect to other individuals and keep that growth happening?
NKEM NDEFO: I can say for myself, I had to leave organizations for my own health. I couldn’t keep doing it. People have to make their decisions about is it really harmful? And again, what’s your privilege and what’s your ability to walk away from something that is truly toxic? If you’re saying an organization is hell bent on, “We are not doing this, it’s really toxic,” it’s like an abusive relationship. And in an abusive relationship or a relationship with an abuser, usually there’s some kind of economic dependence, but it becomes so toxic that at some point it’s like my survival. You’ve got to leave.
And, hopefully, people are not working in places like that. I really hope that it’s not that bad. If it’s somewhere in the middle, I think some of the best things that we can do is recognize when is stress adaptive for us and helping us? When is our reaction of protection helping us? And when is it truly safe and when can we let that go and reconnect to ourselves and find those soft spots, those places where we can be resourced and nurtured? Even outside of work, through whatever kind of connections or networks that you have, personal relationships, activities that you do, and really hold onto those.
I often find when people can really modulate their stress so that their stress really matches their situation and goes down when they don’t need to be in stress, their bandwidth grows and their ability for more creative problem solving grows, their ability for connection and bigger vision grows, the energy to do some of the work, to have more of the grace.
I always try to be the most stable nervous system in the room.
JENNIFER BROWN: I like that. (Laughter.)
NKEM NDEFO: For my own health. But it is contagious. It is contagious, right? So, where are the places where I can give a pass, but don’t corrode my soul? Where can I give a pass and try to see the other person’s needs underneath and their emotions and find common ground?
You have to be aware that there are power differentials, right? I may be talking to my boss who holds my life in their hands in certain ways. I can’t say that this should always be the work of the – we know change happens best in an organization when it’s full buy-in, all the way up to the top.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
NKEM NDEFO: It shouldn’t always fall on the people who have less power to make the changes because it’s a harder road. So, everyone has to decide how much of themselves they’re going to put into it. The biggest thing I say is: Don’t spend your stress dollars where they’re not serving you.
JENNIFER BROWN: Nkem, this has been really enlightening and enriching. I think it’s given us some frameworks to pause, to evaluate, to notice, to modulate, to calibrate in a healthy way and to know that not all stress is bad. It gets a bad rap, but it’s such an important tool that we have to generate our self-knowledge. I think my favorite part of what we talked about today was that we can’t exhibit grace to ourselves and to others if we’re in a stress response ourselves. That self-care piece is what you know so well how to do for so many others.
On The Will to Change, we talk a lot about the resilience to fight and change and challenge, but coming from a place that doesn’t harm us in the process, you know? Our tools are honesty, and our stories and our truths, and sometimes those are not comfortable places to be witnessing, but I do think we need to notice when we’re ready to tell our stories, and certainly to tell them, hopefully, if we can get to a place where they really serve us and others in the best possible way.
I want to thank you. This has been just really very deep conversation, but I thank you for your work. I just wanted to allow you to make any final thoughts that you’d like to make.
NKEM NDEFO: It’s something that I say often. There are places we need to fight. Absolutely. There’s struggle, there’s work, and there’s fight. But if we’re always in that state, the ideas that we generate will be fight ideas. They’ll be struggle ideas. I don’t want to live in a world with the DNA of fight and struggle. I want some of the visioning to happen from a settled, connected, and peaceful place. But if I can’t get there, if you can’t dream it, you can’t build it. It’s about whether we can embody it. Can we embody it? Maybe not all of the time, but some of the time when it’s okay to do so.
This has just been a wonderful conversation. I think about this stuff a love. I love doing change work. I love slowing folks down to prepare to do change work and do it well. It doesn’t have to be a punishing experience. There should be some joy in it because that’s in the DNA, the seeds we plant. That’s the fruit that we get to reap. Let’s put some joy into the work.
JENNIFER BROWN: Hear, hear! And I know that if we could successful do what you’re talking about, there would be a lot more people stepping up to do the work. We always need more people. I wish it were the entire organization taking these things on and not the few, because it puts a lot of burden on the few to have the courageous conversations, lead the organization, and hold that vision for change.
My deepest hope is we can inspire those who have been not so involved or seeing themselves in the work to step in in a meaningful way. Those who are hesitating because they’re afraid of a trauma response, stress, or lack of boundaries, if we can address all of that, we’ll get a lot more folks stepping in and healing themselves through doing the work in a healthy way, which is the whole point.
NKEM NDEFO: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: The fact that I was able to tell my story of losing my voice has actually healed me. In the following years from the first time I told it, it has allowed me, more than anything I could have done individually alone to heal from the trauma that I experienced through having to reinvent myself professionally and losing my voice.
I’ve learned it first hand, and I never could have done that alone if I hadn’t had the chance to work it through with an audience over and over and over again and hear the amazing things and the ways that they hear my story, expected and unexpected, and bringing that back to me. And then being able to look at it their prism of perception has lessened the pain and sting of it, and has given it so much dimension about why it happened to me. My understanding and the peace that I have about it all and the meaning of it has been hugely restorative.
I can’t say it enough, but remember that you made the point that there is a time for stories to be told. In my next book, we are including a section on storytelling, and you’ve given me something really important to add: Time and place, readiness, prepare for change. Get ready to build your capacity so that you can remain intact as you go forth. The world is nothing if you are not whole.
Thank you so much for this, this is beautiful.
NKEM NDEFO: Thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m so inspired by you. Thank you, Nkem. Can people follow your work in any particular place?
NKEM NDEFO: I’m on Twitter @NdefoNkem. Lumos Transforms is my organization. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you’ll recognize Lumos as the spell to light your wand.
JENNIFER BROWN: Light your wand.
NKEM NDEFO: We do believe that that is a really important piece. We have phrase, “Give light, and the people will find a way.” That’s how we see what we’re doing. Lumos Transforms, you’ll find me there.
JENNIFER BROWN: Beautiful. Thank you for your time today. Thank you for joining me.
NKEM NDEFO: Thank you.
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