What it Takes to Act With Courage

04/21/2015 03:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

Have you ever been bursting at the seams with outrage, knowing that you needed to speak up rather than remain silent? Last week I found myself in one of those moments. Attending a professional ethics seminar on dignity in the realm of psychotherapy, I became stunned when one of the speakers, an expert in his field, told a story about a female colleague who corrected him about something. As the story unfolded he shared that as it turned out she was right, "that bitch." Shocked, then outraged, I heard the woman sitting next to me utter under her breath, "Oh, I really wish he hadn't said that."

I suspect that my "esteemed" colleague thought he was being funny by putting down his colleague for out-performing him. I didn't really care why he said it; all I knew was that it was completely unprofessional, inappropriate and lacking dignity -- the topic of the day!

I couldn't help but think about the subliminal message implied to all women in the room -0 "watch out -- if you speak your mind frankly, you, too might get called a bitch or something equally offensive." Perplexed as to why no one else addressed this blatant act of disrespect, I knew that I had to say something.

When the panel discussion was over and the audience was asked for comments, my hand shot up. I followed their request to stand up and say my name out loud, and said: "At a conference about dignity it is important to recognize that calling any woman a bitch is shaming and always undermines her dignity." Silence filled the room. You could have heard a pin drop. No one made eye contact with me and quickly someone stood up and asked a question that moved the group on to a different topic.

Once the program was over, the woman next to me said, "I'm really sorry that you got a room full of silence." She was clearly embarrassed for her colleagues, as was I. Flabbergasted that no one else said anything about my comment during the 20 minutes of informal talk after the event, I began to wonder what this silence was all about. For members of this professional group, did it reflect a lack of safety to speak up? Did it expose an unspoken rule of acceptance of male privilege to insult women in the service of protecting this man's fragile ego? In 2015, I was shocked by the passivity and bystander behavior of a group of accomplished professionals. It felt as though I was living a modern day version of "the emperor has no clothes" syndrome.

Long ago in graduate school, I learned that the individual speaks for the group as a whole. Whether it be in a work group or a community group, each person's voice represents an expression of what others are not able to say. I learned that the dynamics of power organize to maintain one person's sense of superiority at the expense of another's. And I also learned that when individuals act with courage, they inspire others to act with courage.

I hope Kansas-based clinical psychologist, Dr. Beth McGilley, is correct when she emailed me to say, "I have no doubt your courage ricocheted around that room and that others -- long silenced, but of similar perspective -- will have new license to speak up for themselves."

For more on empowering courage, compassion and a positive inner voice, click here.
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