by Dr. Jem Tosh
(content warning: one very brief mention of s*xual assault)
I was having a non-verbal morning in a meeting this week where I felt uncomfortable for many reasons, but mostly because the structure didn't work well with how I communicate (which is fairly typical of my experience in academia), and I had more of these meetings than usual so that discomfort had accumulated. I was put on the spot to speak and I struggled to do so. One participant laughed and commented on how awkward the silence was. It was only seconds of silence, but I noticed long ago that to cross social norms in academic settings takes very little (thanks to my work supporting autistic students at university). I felt embarrassed. I'm comfortable with silence and there are plenty of times where I actually prefer it. It doesn't feel awkward to me, it feels peaceful. I also appreciate that there can be many reasons why a person might take longer than others to begin speaking (such as those who stutter).
I was put on the spot to speak and I struggled to do so. One participant laughed and commented on how awkward the silence was.
This isn't a call-out of that individual, because it's the kind of thing that happens so frequently in these spaces and by so many that the underlying issue is rarely explicitly visible or known. Its so frequent in fact, that I've been thinking for a while that I should write this post. Rather than continue to experience that discomfort in meetings, or disengage and miss out on experiences and opportunities that I want to pursue, I'm learning to sit with the discomfort of asking for what I need instead and advocating on behalf of myself (something I'm generally very good at doing for others).
The meetings this week were outside of the psygentra bubble. It's made the difference between how I run groups and sessions and those that conform to the 'norms' of academia very stark, particularly in terms of accessibility. I found some of these meetings difficult and I didn't engage like my usual very-engaging self. At its worst, I left feeling shame about who I am and how I communicate - despite being a very skilled communicator. Communicating in groups is a big part of my job and has been for sometime. I've spent over two decades developing my ability to speak in front of other people so that I could lecture and present before large audiences with confidence and participate actively in committees, departments, and organisations. I remember after my first book launch someone coming up to tell me that someday they wanted to be able to speak like I did - perhaps not realising just how much I was masking to 'fit in' with academia at the time.
Putting people in a position where they have to choose between being excluded and masking isn't really much of a choice, is it?
This is more than being anxious about public speaking, it's about being neurodivergent* and having to overcome or tolerate ableist norms in academic spaces (that are also often white and colonial norms too). They are structures and expectations that others may not consider or see a problem with, because it's not a problem for them personally. It can be difficult to understand or acknowledge things that are outside of our own experience and context unless we specifically seek that knowledge and understanding.
So, here are some of the ways that I make my meetings more inclusive and accessible. The more of these changes you incorporate into your spaces, the more I can engage with you and the work that you do, and the less I will have to mask and recover from your meeting, workshop, conference, or seminar etc.
1. Non-verbal options
I can't emphasise enough how essential this is for accessibility. Some neurodivergent folks communicate in ways that do not involve verbal language or spoken word. Others speak often but at times 'go non-verbal' or have times when they do not speak aloud.
Requiring folks to speak during meetings or events and providing no alternatives, means that you're either excluding those who are non-speaking or requiring those who need non-verbal options to mask their neurodiversity to participate in your event. Putting people in a position where they have to choose between being excluded and masking isn't really much of a choice, is it?
Examples of non-verbal options: (1) allow people to use online chat to contribute their thoughts, (2) encourage and support hand gestures for people to show how they feel about what is being said (as well as sign language), and (3) offer presenters the option to provide their contribution in advance such as a transcript or a pre-recorded presentation (with captions).
2. Reduce or eliminate turn-taking
This one is important when working towards building a culture of consent - creating norms that have consent at the very foundation of everything that we do. Telling a person to speak or putting them on the spot, means that the individual isn't choosing to speak but is responding to a request and one that typically has some power hierarchies at play (like meeting host or chair and attendees) - and yes that's even if you don't consider yourself to be power-hungry but an anti-oppressive practitioner. It's the position you hold that has power imbalance and we can work to dismantle it, but we can't pretend that structure doesn't exist.
...allow people to not introduce themselves. Go on, add a little mystery to your meetings. The world won't end, I promise.
My 'red flag' or indication that I'm going to find a meeting difficult is the dreaded phrase - 'let's go around and introduce ourselves' (as well as not being allowed to swear!). The phrase involves a number of difficulties for me, such as, I didn't offer to introduce myself and now I have to decide on the spot who this audience is and what I feel comfortable disclosing. Given that there are parts of my identity and experience that can have hostile responses depending on the audience (e.g. being queer and nonbinary) this means that within the space of a few moments (sometimes seconds) I need to evaluate the safety of the situation and come up with a verbal speech to deliver in front of a staring audience (all that eye contact can be a problem for some neurodivergent folks too).
If I have to wait to speak this involves a couple more difficulties. One is needing to speak but being made to wait. For some neurodivergent people (e.g. autistics and tourettics) this can be difficult to the point of distressing, and that distress can increase the likeliness of things like tics and shutdowns. The other is that the individual now needs to process the auditory information being produced by others (something that can be difficult for those with auditory processing difficulties) while at the same time evaluating the safety of the environment and generating an introductory 'speech' to be presented verbally. That's all a bit much really.
Examples of alternatives: (1) Ask participants for a bio and share it with attendees in advance, (2) introduce participants based on a bio they have given you prior to the meeting, or focus on making connections and introduce people like you would at a social gathering (e.g. 'oh hey, you and so-and-so both work on this topic'), (4) allow participants to type their introduction in the chat, and most importantly (5) allow people to not introduce themselves. Go on, add a little mystery to your meetings. The world won't end, I promise.
3. Normalise interruptions
Yeah, they're not rude or disrespectful. That's just how some of us communicate and it can be an indication that (a) you're expecting that person to wait too long to contribute to the conversation and/or (b) they are super excited about what you're saying and have loads of things they want to share about it. Don't kill that passion by shutting them down over BS constructions like 'politeness'.
Examples of normalising interruptions: (1) Don't require people to be on mute when one speaker is talking, and (2) don't require people to raise their hand and wait for 'permission' to contribute (see also above re: power hierarchies and a culture of consent). Think these changes will make your meetings impossible? Maybe they're too big and a smaller group size is what is needed to make the space more accessible. That won't work? Then a rethink of the structure itself is probably needed because no one said dismantling ableism would be easy.
4. Fewer faces
For those who struggle with eye contact, facial recognition, and find looking into a sea of staring faces overwhelming and visually overstimulating, groups on zoom can be a nightmare. It can take so much energy just to process the visual information that it can be difficult to absorb and engage with the actual content of the meeting.
Examples of alternatives: (1) smaller meeting sizes are really the main way to counter this issue, but you could also try to (2) make it an option that participants can ask other attendees to turn off their cameras while they are speaking. Another potentially obvious example (or maybe it's not) is, (3) normalise people not making eye contact - such as folks contributing to a discussion without looking at their camera or screen (this will require more auditory cues and descriptions, such as 'I've put the document on the screen and I will read the section aloud' and 'Jon has said something interesting in the chat, it reads...').
5. Don't assume everyone has the same experience
This isn't necessarily a neurodivergent thing, it's just good advice and a more trauma-centred way of working. I've sat through too many meetings where comments were made generally to the group that assumed everyone was going home to see family at the holidays (excluding and potentially upsetting folks who are estranged from family, immigrants who can't travel to see their family, those who have lost family members, or have been rejected by them) and that everyone drinks (excluding those in recovery and potentially upsetting those who have trauma regarding alcohol, such as drug-facilitated s*xual assault). There are plenty more examples I could list, but the bottom line is, don't make generalised statements. Those who have painful experiences with family are unlikely to interrupt your formal and polite meeting to disclose that - they're much more likely to leave the meeting feeling like shit.
Examples of alternatives: (1) contextualise your comments, if you're looking forward to seeing your family, or you like to have a drink after work, say it in those terms, and (2) avoid making general statements (e.g. 'well women do...' 'everyone likes...' 'people are just...' and so on).
6. Reduce rigidity
Yeah, lose the super rigid structure with timings. Need to cut people off because they've gone over their time? Try soft start and end times - it's more accessible and brings a fluidity to the timing that means people can choose when to arrive and when to leave. It's their choice to miss content and it's their choice if they don't want to participate for the entire event. This can also be helpful for disabled and chronically ill folks who have a flare up before or during a meeting - they can take the additional time to care for themselves before joining, or they can leave to give themselves the care they need, rather than staying until 'the end' in discomfort or pain.***
Worried that if you allow for longer discussions you will have someone who enjoys their platform and privilege just a little too much? Try discussing with them before the event about the importance of centering other voices and time boundaries (which are not the same as time limits). If they have a problem with sharing that time and space with more marginalised voices, *ahem*, uninvite them.
My meetings generally last about 3 hours each and folks are typically sad to leave. Ever been sad to leave a departmental team meeting in academia? I doubt it. It doesn't have to be that way.
For those who struggle knowing when to stop talking or are right in the middle of an awesome special interest info-dump during your event - consider (1) letting them share that interesting information, (2) interrupting at some point (but don't cut them off or shut them down) to thank them for the information and providing them with an additional space to share more (such as writing a blog post for your organisation, collating resources to be shared with members, doing a presentation on it, continuing the discussion in the organisation forum and so on). It can also be helpful to share in advance the general expectations and boundaries around content, or allow for meetings to be more organic and develop in the direction the conversation flows.****
If you have tried to cram too much into the time available due to an underlying fear of that dreaded silence of no-one participating, when you create smaller and more accessible spaces, you actually increase the organic engagement and deep and meaningful dialogue. My meetings generally last about 3 hours each and folks are typically sad to leave. Ever been sad to leave a departmental team meeting in academia? I doubt it. It doesn't have to be that way.
A big part of this is making these spaces more flexible, because if you want a more diverse group of contributors, then why impose a 'one size fits all' structure? The greater the flexibility of the space, the more people who can access it, and the more diverse engagement you will get. Wonder why your meetings are filled with cis-het, white/settler, non-disabled, neurotypical people? It's probably the way you're running it. It can initially feel uncomfortable to have such a lack of structure because at the centre this is about giving up power and control of a meeting - and that's why it's a good thing. That's how you really begin to dismantle that power hierarchy.
* I define this as having a neurological structure that differs from the constructed 'norm'.
** Others will benefit from these changes too, and some will want different types of structures to fit their needs. I recommend engaging with those who attend your meetings and learning what works best for them.
*** It can also be helpful to welcome folks when they do arrive, e.g. 'Hey Krista, we just talked about [x] and [y], and we're about to talk about [z]. We're glad you're here.'
**** Worried you don't have the time because you've got a deadline to meet? Consider incorporating slow scholarship and crip time into your way of working too. Also, slow down your decision making process. Try not to make decisions on the spot, or to jump ahead on a decision when not everyone has had the chance to think about the options/proposal and reflect on it. Defer it until the next meeting. Asking folks on the spot encourages people-pleasing and puts those who struggle to process information and organise their thoughts quickly at a disadvantage. It also gives you less time to consider the potential problems and pitfalls before implementing the idea.