Too afraid to think

During a recent workshop I approached one of the participants and asked them what they thought of something that had just happened or been said. They stared blankly at me and then began to look scared. I tried asking the question again in a more oblique way but they still looked like a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights. I eventually had to give up, apologise, and move on.

This wasn’t some youngster or someone out of their normal environment. It was a man in his mid-50s, clearly quite senior and in a familiar work environment. Given that I believe that we won’t sort the world’s problems until we achieve networks of autonomous individuals thinking for themselves, speaking up for themselves, and connecting with others doing the same thing this was deeply troubling.

How did we ever let ourselves get into this situation? And I do mean “ourselves”. We have all had a part to play in allowing the workplace to become so frightening and disabling that this grown man could not bring himself to say what he thought in front of others.

9 thoughts on “Too afraid to think”

  1. What is the answer? I mean, seriously, if people are too afraid to speak their minds, even in this sort of situation, how will we ever get to truth? And do you really think this is completely common? I’m asking what may seem really ludicrous questions, but in all seriousness don’t have an answer to myself. What creates the fear you saw? Are YOU scary? Are YOU intimidating? (I don’t think so) I would love to know what you think could ease this and make it possible for people to speak their minds.


  2. Hi Euan. It may have been fear. Or perhaps your workshop participant was not listening to what had just happened or been said, and his mind was elsewhere for the moment. Which of us hasn’t done that? He may just have been too embarrassed to admit it.The presentation/discussion you were hosting may have stimulated a series of thoughts that quickly took him onto other more loosely-related ideas in his ‘hyperlinking mind’ so that when you requested his opinion he was jolted back from where he had moved on to in his thoughts. Who knows? We’re beautifully complex creatures. But that does touch on another workplace challenge – learning to listen well to one another!


  3. I think that workplaces and their power structures exacerbate fears and inhibitions that start way back. Undoing early years programming is not easy.I am thinking about a lovely man, who could not be more approachable. I was much lower than him in the pecking order when we worked at the same place. We meet from time to time and I come over all awkward in his presence. I still respond to his previous status. Like your man, I am also in my early 50s. And yet, I have no problem with director-level clients.


  4. I still get that way with the kids headmistress Anne Marie! I appreciate folks wanting more context on this story but to do so would risk compromising its anonymity. Yes there could theoretically be all sorts of easons for the response I got but trust me. The same thing, to varying degrees, happens often enough for me to be confident in my assumptions about what was going on.


  5. I know you know this, but most of us have been rewarded in all sorts of ways for being right or appearing to be right or know something when we’re asked a question. Relatively few are comfortable with saying "I don’t know" or "I don’t quite understand", and he may just be one of those.You’re right, we (or those still entangled in the employment relationship) all acceded to this. Virtually all forms of organizations are not remotely democratic, and there are layers and layers and layers of the conditioning over several generations that must be undine or dissolve to get to relatively open spaces.Just think, it’s probably only two generations ago that most men took up their father’s occupations and women did not work and may or may not have been able to vote. Our western societies are in some (but not all) ways less autocratic today, but only in degrees … and our relationship with employment and employers is not more advanced than other parts of our societies.


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