Tami Simon: Welcome to Insights at the Edge produced by Sounds True. My name’s Tami Simon. I’m the founder of Sounds True, and I’d love to take a moment to introduce you to the new Sounds True Foundation. The Sounds True Foundation is dedicated to creating a wiser and kinder world by making transformational education widely available. We want everyone to have access to transformational tools such as mindfulness, emotional awareness, and self-compassion, regardless of financial, social, or physical challenges. The Sounds True Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to providing these transformational tools to communities in need, including at risk youth, prisoners, veterans, and those in developing countries. If you’d like to learn more or feel inspired to become a supporter, please visit soundstruefoundation.org.
You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Ash Beckham. Ash is an inclusion activist whose TED Talk, “Coming Out of Your Closet,” became a viral sensation. Her talk shares how coming out as a lesbian helped her appreciate our common humanity and the secrets that we all keep. Her intrepid, relatable, and intrinsically comical style has made her an in-demand speaker including events at Microsoft, Lockheed Martin, and the keynote for the first LBGTQ Conference at Harvard University. With Sounds True, Ash Beckham is releasing a new book called Step Up: How to Live with Courage and Become an Everyday Leader. Ash is clear, strong, and humble. She asks us in a gentle and inviting way to take the Step Up Challenge and share a bit more about who we really are, our real heart, with other people. And also to get genuinely curious about who they are. Here’s my conversation on how we can be, in our own way, culture workers and evolve the culture by being who we are, with Ash Beckham. Thank you, Ash, for being with us here. Live, in person, in the Sounds True studio.
Ash Beckham: I’m so excited to be here.
TS: You call yourself an “accidental activist.” What’s the “accidental” part?
AB: Well, I feel like this journey that I went on was never anything I intended, and like so many people when you’re an entrepreneur, you set goals and you achieve them and you make the changes in your life to have that happen. You have the end goal, and I’d always had that in everything else I had done, and this wasn’t what I was expecting. The first talk I did at Ignite Boulder was really just a creative challenge. I hadn’t had a lot of space in my life to do that for a long time and was so inspired by seeing the Ignite Group do that at Ignite 19, which is December of 2012. And there was one guy that spoke about his ups and downs and his struggles with weight loss, and like nobody embolded us that men never do that, and this very honest, authentic, just real speaker that he was, moved me. And I thought, “Wow, I want to create that feeling in other people. How can I share my story to do that?”
And again, I had been having my own businesses and putting in the hustle and doing all that and didn’t have space and time to kind of have this creative outlet. So I figured I would give it a shot, and then it kind of caught some traction online. And then all of a sudden it was kind of off and away, and I spent the next better part of the year trying to kind of catch up with that. And so it wasn’t, again, anything that I really intended for my life. It wasn’t a life goal or a pursuit that I was going after. But then it happened, and you know we’re so lucky for all the online support that kind of fell in my lap. It was almost one of those—this doesn’t happen very often—you have to kind of roll with it. So all of a sudden, an activist life I started and had, and you sometimes you think just going through your life being yourself is enough activism, right? You’re visible in the community, things like that, but to actually engage in a more effective way. Me being a lesbian was kind of a side tangent—not necessarily, I mean it’s part of my identity but not the sole part of my identity—and to become a professional gay was never anything I thought I would do. And then all of a sudden that was kind of the route, the path, that was laid in front of me. And so I just kept walking.
TS: What do you think about that initial TED Talk caught on, garnered so much interest in you and your work?
AB: Yes, I think it was that it was relatable. There are these stories, and I think we don’t talk about diversity and inclusion with a lot of humor and a lot of understanding. And a lot of times it becomes this kind of soapbox kind of teaching down, “this is how you’re doing it wrong” vision of how to be more inclusive. And that to me doesn’t really resonate. I don’t want people to not use pejorative language around me because I tell them to; I want them to not use “gay” in a negative way or to think about how they interact with certain folks based on the fact that— of how it makes me feel. And then once they know how their actions make me feel, then they can make a choice of if they want to change their actions or not. So it’s less kind of teacher-student and more, “Hey, this is what it’s like to be me. I can’t blame you for not knowing, but now you know and maybe that changes the way you approach things.”
TS: You called your TED Talk “Coming Out of Your Closet.” What’s this idea? Everybody’s in the closet in some way or another?
AB: Yes, I think depending— at different points in our lives, we all have things where we can’t be our full selves. We hide things that we’re going through, whether that’s a sickness that we have, the fact that we’re going through a divorce, financial troubles—it doesn’t have to be LGBTQ or something like that. We all have these experiences of the people we know in our lives will think differently and maybe less of us if they know this thing. So we keep it hidden, and that sense of guarding and not being fully honest with the people that we’re closest to really doesn’t allow us to fully be ourselves. And the mental energy that it takes to hide and cover like that really doesn’t allow us to fully be who we are. Whether that’s in a personal relationship or a professional relationship, I feel like it holds us back.
And also not everybody knows what it’s like to be gay if you’ve never experienced that, but we all know what it’s like to hide something and to hold ourselves back. And if we can relate to each other on that somatic feeling, then you don’t necessarily have to go through what I’ve gone through to know what it’s like to be me. We can have a similar or parallel experience. And if we can relate on that, what it feels like in our gut, then we have a better understanding of each other.
TS: Now you said you didn’t want people to get this idea of like diversity, inclusion training, that they’re going to act a certain way because it’s the right thing to do. But instead you wanted to help people understand from the inside the pain or the isolation, the anguish, that different individuals go through to open up that empathy channel. So to help our listeners— help them empathize with you and your story and the pain that you’ve experienced in your life to be what you call “gender nonconforming.”
AB: Sure. I think that there’s— you know, you get to the point in your life, or at least for me, growing up in high school and you have these kind of norms that you fit into. And so I was in high school in the ’80s, and there were these ways that you were supposed to fit. And I remember, so specifically, going to prom and having to pick out a dress and wanting so badly to be in a tuxedo and not know why. That I just felt so much more comfortable—not that I ever had gender dysphoria and not that I ever felt like I was in the wrong body—it’s just how I felt most comfortable were in clothes that were not typically women’s clothes.
Whether that’s not the way— that they didn’t fit right. The athletic body that I had, whatever it was, it just didn’t make me feel comfortable. So I think that the desire to fit in like any of us do and find our community, and then not feeling part of that community, I think was part of it. And for me that was— gender nonconformity was also aligned with my attraction to women. So it wasn’t only that I didn’t want to wear the clothes that my friends were wearing; I didn’t understand the concept of having a crush on my guy friends. And so you kind of go through your life and you understand and you kind of fake it till you make it. And I was lucky enough to have great men in my life that were romantic partners and amazing, but it just wasn’t really there. And then the first time I kissed a woman, it was balloons and fireworks and all of a sudden all the love songs in the world made sense to me.
And it was that realization but not knowing why it didn’t make sense was always a struggle, because I think you internalize it and you think, “Well, everybody is finding this thing. Everybody is searching after this thing, what’s wrong with me?” And I think that there’s some pain that comes from that. And so when the light is kind of shone upon that and all of a sudden everything makes sense, there’s this tremendous amount of relief, and I think you don’t understand the pain you’re in until you’re out of it sometimes. And then you realize how much you’ve been trying to fit in.
TS: I want to highlight a situation that you talk about in your book, Step Up: How to Live with Courage and Become an Everyday Leader, that actually happens to me a lot in my life. It happened to me a lot in my life when I was a young person. You took us back to high school. This happened for me a lot when I was more in elementary school. And then also it happens to me a lot today, a lot—at restaurants, at hotels, sitting on an airplane—where people mistake me for a man and they say, “What would you like, sir?” or “Mr. Simon” when I’m checking in at a hotel or something like that.
And in those situations, I honestly, I don’t quite know what to do. And just to share just briefly, I don’t have a big thing on it, like I don’t need to correct the person, I usually don’t do anything. Sometimes my wife who’s with me will say, “Excuse me, that’s, you know, Ms. Simon” or “That’s my wife, Tami” or whatever. She feels more a need to sort of set the record straight; I don’t really care. But you tell a very moving story in the book about how being asked that question brought up a lot for you and what you learned in finding your own response.
AB: Right. And I think we all, when you feel questioned like that, I think that’s another one of those things that we can all relate to. Not everybody that’s listened to this has ever been mistaken for the wrong gender, but we’ve all been mistaken for something we’re not. We’ve been categorized in a way that we don’t identify with. And that idea, especially if it happens publicly, of being simultaneously under a spotlight and at the same time unseen is incredibly unsettling. It kind of makes the ground shake underneath you, I think. And so for me, for years, I would just want to avoid that insult, and to publicly be called out like that was really challenging for me, because there’s that part of you that makes you feel defensive and you want to protect yourself, but you also, for me a lot, it would happen in the women’s restroom and you don’t know what your allies look like in there.
You don’t know who would stand with you in a confrontation like that. You just want to get in and out as quickly as possible. But that idea of putting your head down and not making eye contact with people and feeling like you’re perceived as a threat time after time after time—I think we all have our—when that starts to spill over. So for me, eventually, I knew I had to say something, because it would be “What are you doing in here?” or the double-take and people would shake their head, and I knew I had to stand up for myself. And it happened as much when I was with someone else. Like if it was me, I could kind of like slink away and not really worry about it, but if I was with someone I was dating or with relatives or with nieces, then you feel like when that happens, people kind of look to you like, “How are you going to respond?” And then all of a sudden you feel like you have to have a response.
TS: So you’re in a public restroom of some kind—
AB: Yes, public restroom—
TS: —or airport or something. And what would happen to you?
AB: And it would be somebody saying, “Hey, you don’t belong here; this is the women’s restroom. What are you doing?” And the worst-case scenario is like, “What kind of predator are you?” There was this visceral reaction that I was a man in the women’s bathroom. And I think the fact that I was at ease—we’ve all walked in the wrong restroom, right? And you kind of do that, “I see a urinal,” and you’re like, “Oh, I’m in the wrong place,” and you turn around and walk out—and the fact that I was so at ease, because it is how I’ve always identified, made people think that there was mal-intent. And so there would be a confrontation or there would be a little kid that would say something too loud to their mom or a double take. This feeling of unease that would come over me that I didn’t belong where I was.
And then eventually I had to say something and blew up at somebody in a bathroom, and then all of a sudden, like you said, it’s not really a thing for me right now. I feel like when I was at a point where I was hiding and trying to kind of put my head down and go to the bathroom and get out without anybody saying anything, I was more likely to be called out. But when I kind of own my own power in that situation, made eye contact with people, smiled, had interactions, then I was questioned less often. And also it became an opportunity—it didn’t feel as threatening to me—it became an opportunity to engage with somebody in a more personable way. And so by having an outburst at one point all of a sudden took away all the pressure from years of not saying anything.
TS: So today if you go into a women’s public restroom and somebody gives you a strange look or says, “You’re in the wrong bathroom”— I don’t know if that happens today. What do you do today?
AB: Smile, usually, and give them a wave. I think making eye contact first, and engaging and just being more confident in who I am, I think, is part of it and kind of embodying that sense of belonging. I think also in the last 20 years, people’s exposure to the continuum of gender expression is significantly different. So I think that that’s a huge piece of it— is that what people see in media, what conversations are about, what’s on TV, what’s in movies is just different. So I feel like time has changed, but then my sense of self isn’t necessarily to fight every battle like that, but more, use as an opportunity to educate somebody: “Yes, I belong here, I’m in the right place. I know I have short hair, but it’s—I know it’s confusing—but this is the right bathroom for me.” I’m way less defensive, because I think what I want is for those people to have a better understanding the next time they see somebody that looks like me, that they have a different reaction, that their mind is a little bit broader of what it looks like to be a woman.
TS: What would you say are some of the principles in your book Step Up that apply to situations like that? It might not be the bathroom. You give another example of when you were a waitress in a local diner that I go to quite often for a late-morning brunch where young children would often ask you when you were their waitress, “Are you a boy or a girl?” “Are you a man or a woman?” And how you had to figure out a response that would be skillful and true to your values. So help us understand for whatever people may be dealing with how they could navigate in situations like that.
AB: Well, I think the first— the thing that changed the dynamic is that when you see a stranger, somebody that you’re never going to have contact with again, it’s easier to either walk away or engage more forcefully because it’s not a relationship you’re trying to continue. But if I’m working at a restaurant, I’m in a cafe where a lot of people are coming regularly and I have that response that’s too strong—I’m going to see these people again and then it’s going to be uncomfortable. And so when you are interacting with people and you have an opportunity to educate people that you have a continuing relationship with, I think we handle things more delicately. Also I think kids are just honest. I mean, there’s something about having a conversation with a kid that isn’t years of understanding gender in a certain way.
They ask, “Are you a boy or a girl?” in the same way they ask, “Is this a chair or a table?” They’re trying to get a grip on the world around them by categorizing things, and that is one of the things, and you don’t fit in the boxes that they’ve ever seen, and so they genuinely want to know. So I think there’s empathy—is a huge piece of that—that comes into play of understanding where that person is coming from. I think the courage to not just say nothing, to just pretend you didn’t hear the comment, or to not engage—I think the courage to engage in conversation is incredibly important. I think authenticity is also important. I want to be able to have the same level of conversation with a three-year-old in a cafe that I do with my boss, that I do with a client. I want to be the same person day after day, situation after situation, and that is part of my identity.
And I think the biggest thing is figuring out that that person’s challenge of who I am doesn’t challenge how I see myself. My sense of my identity is so secure that their questioning of it isn’t really that personal; it’s more their understanding of me, not my understanding of myself. So I think that that’s a huge thing, is getting to the point where I was solid in my own identity to be able to kind of have those strong roots to be able to engage.
TS: Well, let’s talk about this courage to engage versus being silent, because I could imagine someone thinking, you know, “God, in a lot of situations—” like especially if they aren’t a confrontational person.
TS: “I’m just going to stay silent. In fact, I’m going to stay silent 99.99999% of the time.” Is that a lack of courage? Like why engage? Why connect? Why bother? Why not just, you know, “I’m just going to go back with the people who know and love me. This isn’t my job to educate the world.”
AB: Absolutely. Well, I think that you go from saying—I think the growth is going from saying nothing 99.99% of the time, to 99.98% of the time, 99.97% of the time. That we have these relationships that we value, that we want people to see the world through our lens, that we know they would want to know this information, that they can better interact. I think that we have a role, if we so take on this role, we have a role in the community where if somebody sees somebody that is gender nonconforming, for example, and then all of a sudden their kid comes home from school and there’s somebody in class that is like that, then now they have a reference. Now they have a resource. Now they have a friend that they can talk to.
That these aren’t, again, it isn’t this top-down, “I, LGBTQ person, are educating you, straight person, on the way it is”—this is just what it’s like to be me. These are the different challenges that I face. This is if you’ve never walked down the street holding your partner’s hand and had to make a decision to let go because it felt unsafe. That’s a feeling that straight people have never had. But if you know what that feels like, then you can understand the fear that exists in folks of a different community that you’re not a part of. So that empowers ally-ship, and I think we all need more allies. And it’s a lot easier to get allies from one-on-one relationships, because if I talked to my straight colleague about the Rockies and how they look for next year or how they’ve been doing in spring training, or we have this relationship based on the things that we’ve done that have nothing to do with my identity, but then all of a sudden I can also have an open conversation with him about the experience of my wife and I trying to get pregnant.
Then they have a resource point. They have all of a sudden the “them” becomes an “us,” it’s one of us. And so you’re like, “Oh, I know somebody like that. I have some relation to somebody with a similar experience.” We create a broader tent, I think, to bring people in when we’re able to more effectively share our story and share our experience with people. So I think the reason that we have the conversation isn’t to change somebody’s mind, it’s just to broaden the scope of how they see things. We don’t have a vested interest in being right or to have them think—again, to have them change your mind. You just want them to think slightly differently than they did before that interaction. To me, that’s all education is. So if we each spoke up just a little bit more, think of the breadth of knowledge and how much broader everybody would be able to see the world.
TS: Can you share with me some situations where you’ve spoken up recently, and you thought to yourself, “OK, this is a moment where I’m going to step up—to use the title of the book—and be courageous and speak up. This is a moment.”
AB: Yes. I think I’ve had more moments now having— my wife and I have a son. We have a two-year-old, and I’m older, gender nonconforming, gray hair. People don’t expect me to be the mother of a two-year-old. And so there’s been a lot of, “Where’s his mom? Are you his grandma? Where’s his real mom?” And my wife carried our son, and that was a hard thing for me to really embrace and understand that I wasn’t kind of like a second-tier parent because I’ve no biological link to this child. My wife carried him— it was, again, it was me really getting my identity and understanding around it to be able to then have that conversation with people, to be like, “Oh…” And be open enough to share the story of this is how we conceived this child.
And so I think a lot of them come up around him, of just saying, “Oh, this is my son.” And then you get the double take. But I think the more honest and forthright you are with people, again, it’s putting it back in their court. They’re not guessing anymore, because you’re completely open and honest. And then if they have questions, maybe they approach you about it, but I think that keeps a lot of those questions at bay or those miscategorizations at bay, the more open and honest you are.
TS: OK. I want to read a quote from Step Up from the introduction that I really liked, and then we’re going to keep going on this track that we’re on. But here’s the quote, “Culture change happens at a grassroots level with small, intentional adjustments to how we live, how we act, and how we interact.” And then you go on, “Don’t start with politics or policy; start with human connection.” And I love this idea that you’re having a human connection with somebody, and there’s this moment where they say, “Where’s the mom?” Or now I’ll go into my story here for a moment. One, because I think it’s illustrative and, two, because I’d like you to coach me a little bit, actually, for real. So I often go places with— I mentioned my wife; she’s 11 and a half years younger than me. I have silver hair and probably look older than I am, and she just happens to look even younger than she is, the 11 … So people will often say, “Oh, you must be mother and daughter.”
And if my goal in that moment is actually to create a human connection and potentially to educate somebody a little bit more, as you’ve been describing, so that they might handle that differently, what would you suggest? Because often I don’t say anything really or I’ll just say, “Actually, we’re married.” I’ll say something like that, but I don’t think I’m particularly connecting.
TS: I’m not going to that place of, “Oh, this is a possibility for me here to really have a deeper connection with somebody.” I’m not doing that.
AB: Right. I think for me the easiest way to get— I mean I think there’s usually two ways, right? Either facts or a sense of humor. And to me, a sense of humor is always the easiest way in those moments, where it could be self-deprecating or whatever. And my wife is 12 years younger than I am. So we have a similar experience, and a lot of times my response is, “Oh, you would think that, but lucky me, that’s my wife.” Or depending on the context, whether it’s like “I’m the cougar” or whatever way to make someone maybe laugh about that and understand their misstep without making them feel foolish or offensive. Because it isn’t offensive to me, really. So there’s a way to come at them, I think, that is a little bit more engaging. And again, it doesn’t have to be this epiphany that this person has, but I think if we can get people to stop and wait a moment and see where they missed and examine that without humiliating them, I think is a growth opportunity for them.
And you don’t have to have an extended conversation about how you met and your age, you know what I mean? Like it doesn’t get into that, but it’s just this moment of like, “You would think that, but…” You acknowledge that’s a valid assumption. However, they’ve missed and this is why.
TS: Right. Well, that’s very interesting. If I said, “I could see why you would think that,” then they would understand that I’m not trying to make them feel foolish or something like that. Because I don’t want to make the other person feel bad, either.
AB: Right. I think that’s a lot of times where so many people that don’t speak up, that’s what they’re worried about. They’re completely confident in who they are. They have no reason to correct anybody. It’s really not worth the hassle. And you don’t want to make the other person feel bad, and it’s not worth them feeling bad for you to make your point. So we just say nothing. And I think that’s a fine choice a lot of times, but if we do want to engage just a little bit farther, we can have this very simple conversation of, “As a matter of fact, this, this, this.” And then all of a sudden they understand. And again, my thought is it doesn’t change the interaction that you have. It maybe changes an interaction they have later with somebody that doesn’t have the courage that you have and the composure and grace and confidence to be able to say something.
It’s like paying it forward for the next experience for somebody who isn’t going to say anything. Because until somebody says something, that person isn’t going to change their pattern of behavior. They’re just going to keep doing it till they know they’re wrong. And it’s not mal-intended; it’s just a miscategorization.
TS: Well, let’s expand our conversation because I realize you went from being an accidental activist to now a professional inclusion activist. What are some other situations people face where they’re in public and they’re misidentified, and how they might be able to handle those kinds of situations. In your work with people, what comes up when people come up to you?
AB: Well, I think a lot of times we’ll have— we all have hidden diversity, right?
AB: So whether that’s diversity we’re connected to, “I have a child with physical disabilities,” “I have an older parent with some symptoms,” “I have a spouse that’s sick,” “I identify racially one way, even though my skin color doesn’t have that.” So we have all these differences that nobody sees. And so a lot of times I think people will think they’re in common company and not understand that those hidden diversities exist. And then they’ll say something and offend a portion or a group of people unknowingly, something that this person never would have said had they known or if somebody had a visible diversity in the room that was like that. So they aren’t going to think about accommodations for people with disabilities. If there’s somebody with a wheelchair in the room, they’re going to frame that conversation very differently.
But if somebody has a kid and you don’t know and you’re going to make a statement— so I think that’s where it comes up more than anything else is, we don’t know where our allies are. Which I think empowers people to be able to have those conversations, because the learning opportunity happens when you say something to me and I have experience that you don’t know about and I can enhance your view of what that looks like. Or how do we use different terminology? Like people will say “you guys” a lot and how that isn’t necessarily inclusive. Or I think, again, it allows us as allies to be protective and defend our friends that experience these diversities, the need for gender-neutral bathrooms.
There are these people that we can stand up for, like you don’t have to be one of to stand with, but you have to know who you’re standing up for. So I feel like that allows us to step in and, again, make that correction of, “I know you probably didn’t mean this, but this is what I heard when you said it. And the reason I hear it that way is this is my lens and you might not know, but my daughter is blah, blah, blah.” “This is how I identify.” Whatever those differences are. So my wife is more feminine looking. So she constantly gets the question of, “Oh, what does your husband do?” Nobody’s ever asked me that in my life. I’ve never had that question. I can say that my burden is everywhere I go people know I’m gay. Her burden is she’s constantly coming out over and over and over again. They’re just different burdens. And what you do with your position—and the opportunities that you’re given to educate—is critical in becoming a leader.
TS: Now, you’ve zeroed in on this idea of courage. And I do think it takes courage to speak up. When you hear a comment and something in you goes off and you think, “Uh-uh, that’s not quite right. This is my moment.” But I think a lot of reason that people don’t speak up is that they don’t feel skilled. They don’t feel like they have quite the right language or path. I want to be skillful. So what would you say are some of the most important tools or techniques that somebody can use so that they are skillful in those situations?
AB: Well, I would say, we think that we have to have this perfect 15-second sound bite that’s going to bring everything together. That all of a sudden everything will change and we’ll walk away and it’s like a drop-the-mic moment, and that’s just not how real moments happen. That we can be engaging. I think if we start with very basic ideas of, “What I heard was,” “When you said whatever, this is how it made me feel,” these almost very therapy-centric ideas of if we do genuinely want to engage.
And there’s moments that are different. In the book I refer to a conversation I had with my friend Amber Hikes, and they speak about this idea of calling people in and calling people out. That we have this opportunity to know should we— calling somebody in is kind of the— if somebody says something and it’s that put your arm around them, kind of take them over to the side, “Hey, you know…” It’s kind of like if they had spinach in their teeth. That you would want to get that out, they would want to know that. And sometimes we use that trait to bring people in. And then calling out is this very definitive, “This is a safe space. This isn’t language that we use here.” Maybe a more protective, isolating idea of bringing attention to it. And both of those are appropriate depending on the situation.
And I think a skillful leader knows when to do both. And the calling in takes a lot more empathy, a lot more patience, a lot more willingness to connect, almost that kind of maternal feeling, which just takes, again, takes a lot more of us to do that, but I think educates people in a much softer way, assuming their intent. Assuming that these are people that we know that want to be good people, and if they had the information that we had, they would act differently. So we share that information, and we have the power and the responsibility to share that information, because we at one point didn’t know that and probably made similar missteps.
TS: Has someone educated you in the last few years on something in some way, and you’re like, “Oh, that was a good moment. Somebody just educated me on something or other [crosstalk]—”
AB: Oh yes, I feel like we’re constantly learning. The daycare where my son goes to school, the patience and intention that the teachers use the language with is unbelievable, how crafted it is, and how, again, intentional the way that they speak to the children are. I think just learning how kids respond and how they view the world. Their kind of understanding of concepts of sharing and when to hit or not use their hands or any of these behaviors that toddlers have that you think isolating and talking to them and rationalizing doesn’t work. So I feel like that kind of practice and patience and playing the long game, I think is huge. They educate constantly, and I think ideally we’re always open to learn in somebody else’s different human experiences of like, “I never thought of that. I never knew what it was like.”
I think if we identify ourselves in a marginalized group doesn’t make us diversity experts, just makes us experts on being ourselves. We have to be able to reach out and understand other people’s perspective, other people’s experience. Microaggression somebody has experienced that we wouldn’t know because we just don’t have that lens. So I think we’re always, we’re open to that. And open to that, I think we’re vulnerable enough for people to tell us when we’re doing our— trusted folks tell us when we’re doing it wrong and how we can be better. I would never want anybody to not tell me I’ve done something wrong because I just didn’t know any better yet.
TS: The subtitle of Step Up, “How to Live with Courage and Become an Everyday Leader,” what do you mean by using this “leader” word? I think a lot of people are like, “Look, leaders, followers… do I really have to be a leader? I just want to be a good person in the room.”
AB: Sure. And I think that’s what I look at an everyday leader to be, is the good person in the room. That it isn’t— to take it out of this mystique of some org chart based on how many direct reports you have. That everybody in every aspect of their lives can be an everyday leader. That somebody in elementary school in their classroom can be a captain of the soccer team. Somebody at their synagogue. That every day you can exhibit these characteristics of empathy, respect, authenticity, that every day you practice who you are and your ability to act in a way that feels true and honest and in line with your best intentions. Finding the bravery to have those difficult conversations. Ever expanding your learning base. This is something that we do every single day. That the way I am with my son is the way I am with my boss is the way I am with my wife.
That those conversations are the same: who I am and the way I interact is the same regardless of who I’m talking to. And the idea of the everydayness of it is that, is it something that you do— the way that you talk to the barista at the coffee shop, are you actually engaging if that’s something that’s important to you? Do you hold the door when somebody is walking out? Are we mindful of the world around us, and do we use these ideas of empathy as an example of how to live the fullest version of ourselves. And I think that’s what people see. When you see a kind deed done on the street, it inspires you to want to do the same thing.
But we have to see those things over and over, that we have that kind of grace under pressure, that we have this patience of making decisions at the most appropriate times. That we really are intentional with our actions, and that we do that every day regardless of the amount of pressure we’re under, regardless of the circumstances. And the people that see us, who we may never even hear from, that see that example of integrity will be inspired to practice the same thing.
TS: In the book, you describe these eight pillars of everyday leadership, and the first one you start with is empathy. And I wanted to talk a little bit about that, especially in this election year where I know a lot of people have trouble empathizing with different opinions, different political opinions, whether it’s across the red-blue divide or it’s even just within a party. It’s like, “What? How could you believe that? Blah, blah, blah.” And it’s not that easy sometimes to empathize with someone whose views are so different than your own. I’ve heard within families people who aren’t talking to each other. I mean, “You voted for who? No, we’re not— it’s over between us.” It’s over, it’s over, we never talk again. How can we bring empathy to those dialogues?
AB: I think the biggest thing is getting to someone’s “why.” No one is arbitrarily making these significant decisions. If you’re making the decision, especially in this divisive culture, to get behind a specific candidate, there’s a reason that you’re doing that. And it doesn’t even really matter— I think I would get to the point of trying to engage with them on why did they back that candidate. Why is that something that’s important to them? Do they feel this need for safety and security? Do they feel this— [are] health care costs hitting them so hard that that’s their number one issue? Get to the reason they’re getting behind that candidate. And a lot of times it’s a very basic issue, that you’re not voting for someone because of their rhetoric; you’re voting for someone in spite of that because you believe the promises that they’re making.
And if we can get to the root of why we support certain people and get to the fears, you don’t have to change that person’s mind. You just have a better understanding that it isn’t just some arbitrary decision that somebody is making based on a whim decision, that it’s rooted in what they believe and what they want for the future of the country. And most likely we all want the same thing. We want a safe place where everybody can do well and live as fully themselves. And the priorities that certain candidates put on how to get there, I think changes our perspective. But we’re not as divided as I think the candidates in the extremes would want us to believe. We’re all— so many of us are just middle of the road and want the same thing; we just think there’s different ways to get there.
So I think we can have these— and again, I think you have to go into that conversation truly, genuinely curious and not wanting to bring that person to your side. If you’re trying to convince them to come over, you’ve already lost the battle. Or if you’re going to categorize them as “uneducated” or “racist” or “elitist” or any of these words that we— you have to gen— and if you don’t actually care why, don’t even have the conversation. You’re wasting everybody’s energy and time. But if you genuinely want to know, you have to sit through some things that you’re probably going to disagree with. Maybe you don’t think the facts are similar. Maybe you think they’re in their own press echo chamber. You don’t necessarily know why, but you have to go in with no intention of changing their mind and genuine curiosity of how they got to where they are, and then we can start to empathize with that.
Again, you don’t have to agree. That’s the best thing about empathy. You don’t have to agree. You just have to understand their perspective, and you can understand anybody’s perspective. You don’t have to agree with it to empathize with it, but you know how they got to where they are. And then you have a little bit of understanding of their history, and it personalizes it.
TS: Now at the end of each one of these chapters that you devote to a pillar, you give people a challenge that they can try this in their life, a Step Up Challenge. What might be one for empathy that people could try, an Empathy Challenge?
AB: And I think this as six months away from another election that you talk to somebody who thinks differently than you do, to go way outside of the party or even within your own party and have a conversation of why they think what they think. Again, just to have a better understanding, what drives them to support the person they support, with no reason to change their mind, just to generally understand that maybe we aren’t that different. Maybe the priorities that someone places on economic well-being or health care issues or immigration or whatever, that it comes from a place of understanding and want for a better world. And so they—or a better country, at least then— and so their understanding got them there, I think, through a process of human experience that’s a very unique human experience.
And so I think that that’s easy. And I think the best way to do that is to have that conversation with somebody that you actually have a relationship with. That you have some sort of professional or personal relationship with, that you’re rooted in some commonality, and somebody who’s also willing to sit down and just have a genuinely curious conversation. And if you can find somebody that’s willing to do that, then I think both minds would be expanded. That we don’t see half of the country as racist, homophobic bigots, or this side of the country as liberal, elite socialists. We’re not putting each other in these categories anymore. That you see an entire swath of the country differently because you have one conversation on one person who just thinks a little bit differently than you do.
TS: All right. A Step Up Empathy Challenge. Now we’re not going to have time to go into all eight of these pillars of everyday leadership, but let’s see if we can touch on a couple more. One that I found interesting was owning our individuality, appreciating our individuality, valuing what makes us different. And I realized for some people what makes us different, what we think is our like “weird thing,” it can be really terrifying. And this is where courage comes in, though it really runs throughout the whole book, to share with people who we really are. I mean, one of the things I’ve recognized in my life is, coming out as gender nonconforming, as a lesbian, all that was easy for me. It’s my own deep kind of spiritual life and relationship to the invisible that I’ve found a lot more terrifying to be public about, because I think I’ll be made fun of. As, “Oh my god, she is really kind of ‘woo woo’ if you get to know her.” Do you know what I mean? “And she’s like way, way out on the fruit tree. Like this is like super fruit over here.” And so I don’t always talk about it. I keep it, but yet it’s the thing I care the most about. It’s my deepest heart. So I wonder if you can talk some to people: How do we come out of our closet, whatever that might be, with our individuality when we’re really afraid of being made fun of basically.
AB: Well, I think we can practice it in safe spaces, right? So we find people that we have these relationships with that we trust will love us regardless of all of our quirks or they’ve heard of some of them or whatever. And we can really practice explaining that. And I think a huge part is to be able to share that intimate part of ourselves, when we share the great things that we’ve learned from that. Because I think what somebody’s response, or the fear of somebody’s response, might be, “Well, she wants me to think that too. She wants to change my mind and make me think differently, to drink the Kool-Aid.”
And so I think if we share these intimate, vulnerable stories about how this particular individual trait has benefited us and made us grow and how we see the world, I think, is just a snippet of a look into our lives of how we feel we’re a better person because of this. Again, with no attachment to anybody following along or agreeing with it, but, “This is how I’ve grown from the thing I’m so—” or “These are the things that I question.” And it’s kind of one of the— we have to keep it in these kind of compact short stories. You’re not going to go on a monologue about it, but when you kind of tiptoe into that with somebody, you can have these very basic conversations. We almost have to go back to when we started to embrace that individual trait, when we started to learn more about that individual trait, and share it from this basic kind of 101 level, I think, allows us to be more forthcoming and that it doesn’t feel like we’re pulling back the curtain so much as we’re just giving people just a little glimpse of what it’s like to be me. Like if you don’t know that about me, then you don’t really know me, and we have a relationship where I want you to know me. So I think it takes a lot of trust, and when we have conversations with people that we do trust and just truly practice coming out over and over again, then we get the words that make sense.
Because if it’s a trusted friend, and we’re going on and they kind of start to roll their eyes or kind of [glaze] over a little bit, then we know, all right, we’ve gone a little bit too far. We need these safe environments to kind of practice this coming out, because it is a fundamental part of us, and so we want to be able to encapsulate what this individuality means to us and how it has served us. Again, with no intention of changing what everybody thinks, but just to get to know us a little bit better. So it only makes sense to do that with people that we want to know us a little bit better.
TS: Now, let’s say we want to get to know other people better. Are there conversation starters that might help us get to know that hidden uniqueness in someone that perhaps they’ve been shy to share?
AB: Sure. I think the easiest way to do that is start with our own vulnerability. You never feel safer than when somebody divulges something. When you— it’s like when we were kids having sleepovers and somebody would share their secret, and then you would be more empowered to share your next secret. And so this is just the easier way of— and I think a lot of times that comes from pain or challenging experiences. And so our ability to kind of go there and share that, I think, is more likely to draw that out of somebody else. And maybe there’s reciprocity, maybe it isn’t, but you understand that this relationship has been a safe space to be able to share those… maybe our less stellar moments that we’ve had or pain that we don’t share with a lot of other people.
And then we just kind of opened that door, and again, somebody— they might not reciprocate that immediately, or maybe it’s down the road, or maybe it’s years down the road, or maybe it never happens. But I think that we’re creating a better relationship if they know us a little bit better, knowing that they’ve got a safety net to share as well. So it’s hard to go in and ask somebody about their individuality directly. But if you build a relationship that’s based on trust that isn’t around those sensitive issues, it kind of opens the door to be able to talk about those things that are a little bit more personal.
TS: Even though you call yourself an “accidental activist,” I think, Ash, you’re an educator. You really are, you’re an educator. And interestingly, throughout the book Step Up, you weave in a lot of brain science about how if we can understand particularly what’s happening physiologically in our nervous system when we’re afraid, that will help us understand how we can act gracefully and skillfully in situations. Talk some about the brain science that you’ve learned that’s really influenced your view of acting courageously and skillfully.
AB: And so I think it goes— the basic concept is that we have all sorts of hormones flying around in our brain. And the two main ones in this kind of fear scenario [are] adrenaline and cortisol, so those like fight, flight, freeze hormones. And then also serotonin, so the ones that make us empathetic and compassionate, kind of the rational part. And the biggest issue— I mean, there’s kind of three advantages that the stress hormones have. One, we come out with those fears. We come out with the fear of falling. Or the response to putting our hand near a flame, and we pull it back. There’s these very visceral kind of reptilian responses. We develop the rational part of our brain over time. And then the second one is, is that the actual distance that the signal travels to release the hormones is shorter.
So if you think of somebody in front of you that’s going to pop a balloon, even if you know they’re going to pop it, it happens and you still jump. You rationalize that it was just a balloon, but that split second is the kind of advance that the stress hormones have. So again, we’re trying to teach ourselves that these situations that are uncomfortable, that we’re fearful of, or that we don’t want to start that conversation, that’s a very natural response. And our object is not to— our objective is not to overcome, is not to eliminate that fear; we’ll always be fearful, there’ll always be that kind of anxiety pit in our stomach feeling. It’s how do we recognize that, know that that means we’re pushing our limits, which is actually a good thing, and then make a conscious decision to act in opposition to that.
So when our body— we have to rely on those gut instincts to a certain amount, but the chemicals in our body don’t know if that fear is real or perceived. Am I being chased by a grizzly bear, or do I just not want to have an uncomfortable conversation with my boss? So inside our body it doesn’t know the difference, so we have to give that rational part of our brain time to catch up to be able to make the right decision, not that gut decision. And we’re so accustomed to getting out of fearful situations as quickly as possible. We want those hormones to stop flowing in our body. So the way that I do it a lot is if you cross your arms, and then sit back and cross your arms the other way, it feels very uncomfortable.
AB: You put the other hand on top, but if you did that over and over, it would feel just as comfortable. We have to be able to sit in that awkward feeling and almost just see what happens, because we so often want to run the other way. We don’t want to feel that discomfort or that anxiety or that uncertainty of what the outcome is going to be, but that’s where the growth is really happening. So it’s more about recognizing that we’re not trying to eliminate that response. Our goal is to never get to the point of not being afraid. It’s to be able to handle that emotion and move forward anyway.
TS: The courage to be an everyday leader. The last chapter of Step Up is on authenticity, and you make a connection between authenticity and alignment. What’s the connection there?
AB: I mean, for me it’s just I guess I’m very visual. So if you think of kind of the person that we are, how we see ourselves, who we want to be. In our best moments in our brain, if we could script ourselves perfectly, this is who we want to be. And then we have our actions in real life. I would want to have compassionate, empathetic conversations with every person I ran into that had a question about my gender expression. That’s who I want to be in the world. That is not the life that I live. Not every opportunity do I have the ability to engage with everyone. Certain situations are too loaded, doesn’t feel comfortable, I feel like I have too much at risk, I feel too vulnerable in my surroundings to be able to have that conversation.
There are certain things where I can’t live up to that expectation of myself. So we have this inner self, and then the outer self is how we actually… our actions in the world. And when those things are in line, when who I want to be and who I am is the same, that’s just that feeling of being in a groove that’s you on your best day. You never second-guess what you’re doing. You have no regrets of the things that you’ve done. You’re in a flow, and we know when we’re not; we know when we wish we would have said something but didn’t. We know what it feels like to be out of alignment. So our goal is to be in alignment, and we can always do two things.
Authenticity doesn’t always mean being the best version of yourself; it means being the truest version of yourself. So you can either change your expectations of who you are or change how you act. Those are two things, and either of those will bring you into alignment. In most scenarios, we want to aspire to be this best version of ourselves, so that that feeling of who I want to be and how I am acting is exactly the same— to me, feels like our easiest way to kind of go through life, because you don’t have to make a decision of which version of yourself you want to be. It’s the same. That decision satisfies both who you want to be and how you are able to act.
TS: And do you have a suggestion for a Step Up Authenticity Challenge people could take?
AB: I think an Authenticity Challenge would be to kind of to stay in that awkward, when you— the next time you have an experience where you want to say something, but you’re not sure if you have the right words, or you’re in a position of power where you should speak, or whatever is holding you back would be— Again, if you don’t have the perfect sound bite to say, just say something, just have some sort of interaction, just do something differently than you would have done it in the past. That’s growth.
If you decide in your mind that you want to be somebody that has more empathetic interactions, if you decide you want to be somebody who is an everyday leader, that you want to change your behaviors to be more in line with this more engaged version of yourself within the world, then you have to make a decision to do something differently than you would have done it yesterday. And then that’s how we’re moving forward. And then we become more brave, and we have that positive reinforcement, and then the next day that decision becomes easier until it becomes just who we are.
TS: Finally, Ash, do you have a vision of what the fruit of your everyday leadership work might look like when it comes to lots and lots of allies around people’s gender identity choices, around how we speak to each other? Do you have some fruitional vision of what it will be like as more and more of us speak up and out and have the courage to do so?
AB: I think the goal would be many of us, I would say, probably wish we would have been able to speak more genuinely and more authentically when we were younger. If we would have had the same wisdom, the same insight, the same courage, the same confidence when we were younger, our path would have been maybe not necessarily easier, but we would have been more effective in the people we could communicate with. We would have been more influential in what we did. So I guess my hope would be that there would be kids that would read this book, that it wouldn’t take so long for them to get that sense of self, to be OK with who they were. And then also I think everybody is at a point of moving forward, and if anybody that read the book could change their behavior patterns just slightly, I think the level of influence, the level of interactivity, the level of genuine connection that they can have with the world is better. And that gives us a better world.
That genuine human-to-human connection of understanding people that are not like us differently, and to be able to stand up for them and speak out on behalf of them, and give them a safe place to land when things are tough. I think that’s what we want; that we want a more interconnected society makes a safer society. And I think that would be a hope.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Ash Beckham. She’s the author of the new book, Step Up: How to Live with Courage and Become an Everyday Leader. Thank you, Ash, you inspire me. Thank you.
AB: Thanks, Tami. Same.
TS: What a radiant being you are.
AB: Thank you.
TS: Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com\podcast. And if you’re interested, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app. And also, if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe, we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.