Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Are we all mask wearers?

The short answer is "Yes!".

You don't need to be a rocket scientist to answer this simple question. So, why am I writing about something that is so obvious? Well, it's because it struck close to home for me today.

A few of my colleagues and I attended an all day personal development course organized by our Human Resources Department. The topic was "Delivering Extraordinary Outcomes during Times of Change". In short, it was a course of effective communication and also recognizing factors that hinder your ability to be a better person in all aspects of your life.

We were all nominated by our managers to attend this course. Perhaps, they thought we needed an upgrade in our relational skills. My colleague commented, "Maybe we communicate so badly that we are in real need for such lessons!" I like to think our managers see that each of us has the potential to deliver extraordinary outcomes. All it takes is some guidance and this course is a good pointer in the right direction.

However, as the entire course is focused on each of us sharing our personal stories on situations that we are currently stuck in, we can only receive the maximum benefit of the course when we share honestly and openly without holding anything back.

As you can guess, since this is a work setup and the people attending this course are those we work with, a lot of us are hesitant to share openly and honestly. Some of the situations we're stuck in may actually involve the person sitting opposite you in the room!

Hence, all of us wore masks. We hid our true selves and feelings. We shared stories which were "safe" in that it wouldn't hurt us if the stories went outisde the four walls of the conference room nor would it hurt the people we spoke about.

I shared about a real ongoing work issue but it involved my counterparts located in other parts of the world. That's "safe" enough as I don't think what I shared will be heard by them. Even if they found out what I said, they wouldn't be hurt as I shared the issues objectively and focused on how I can make things better instead of what they can do better.

Did I really learn a lot from this course? In all honesty, no. I learnt some new ideas and approaches to communication but I didn't receive the in depth benefits as I wore a "safe" mask. I didn't lie but I didn't openly share all my inner thoughts, concerns and worries. As a result, by holding back, the solutions that we brainstormed about in a team or on a one to one basis were not that effective or dynamic. Sure, they solved the issues at hand but these issues were not the ones that I am really troubled with in my life.

I started to think about various scenarios where we often hold ourselves back by wearing masks. We wear a confident 'I'm fine, we don't have to talk about this" mask in front of our spouses when addressing difficult issues, especially when we want to avoid a confrontation. We wear a "Yes, I can handle this. My family will understand" mask when we are given more work responsibilities when in reality, our act of juggling work and family hangs on a precarious balance. We wear a happy go lucky "Let's have fun" mask when we're with our friends because we don't want to show them that we are having heart-wrenching personal problems. We wear a comforting "You will be alright" mask when we talk to our children about their life threatening illnesses. We wear a faithful "God will provide" mask in church despite feeling lost and not hearing anything from God.

Are wearing masks wrong then? Should we all drop our masks and let the world see us for who we truly are? Are we ourselves prepared to see ourselves for who we are? I can't answer these questions with a confident "yes" or a resounding "no". All I can say is that I am now more aware of my own personal masks. I want to find the courage to tear away all my masks when I am with those who truly matter to me. I pray that I will never need to wear any "safe" masks with them and they will love me for who I truly am.

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