“Breaking the Silence Habit A Practical Guide to Uncomfortable Conversations in the #MeToo Workplace” by Sarah Beaulieu
Mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, friends — and, of course, human beings. Women have the potential to place themselves in any or all of these roles, as per the dictates of modern Western society. They are also, however, something else in daily life — they are colleagues, or “co-workers,” to use perhaps a folksier term. What has been revealed often over the past half-decade is just how much harassment women have been subjected to in the workplace — particularly that of a sexual nature. In this time of showbiz court trials that involve comedian Bill Cosby and film producer Harvey Weinstein and the firing of TV icons like Matt Lauer or Charlie Rose or CBS titan Les Moonves, the #MeToo movement has done much to uncover the embarrassment of such unconscionable behavior by so many. What is made most clear, though, by Sarah Beaulieu in her new book, Breaking the Silence Habit (Berrett-Koehler), is the fact that #MeToo has only been a first shot across the sky of equal rights among the adults in our society — and this is a crucial and helpful point made abundantly clear by Beaulieu in her important new book. Only through acknowledgment of systemic wrongdoing can true growth and repair take place — and while the key focus in Beaulieu’s book is on the workplace, these are viable life lessons that can serve everyone exceedingly well at this tough and continually confusing time in our culture.
While it might not fit too readily into the reading list of the general reader, Breaking the Silence Habit stands as the definitive playbook for those readers — human resources experts and laypersons alike — who may seek and require a solid skills-based approach to addressing sexual harassment prevention and response in the workplace. By addressing the proverbial elephant in the room — which is that discussions of sexual harassment, and violence, make most people uncomfortable — Beaulieu reinvents the paradigm right off by explaining that this discomfort is a necessary first step in moving the discussion forward. Again, this may not be what some people want to read about as they binge-watch any number of streaming service series and try not to think about pandemics or unemployment. From Beaulieu’s perspective, however — informed by the fact that she herself has suffered sexual abuse, both from her grandparents at an early age and then a fellow college student who raped her — this world of ours will not evolve and grow until the netherworld of denial and lies that surrounds sexual harassment is obliterated in order to make way for a far better world of responsibility and truth.
Through use of what Beaulieu maintains is our culture’s vastly underdeveloped skills like empathy, situational awareness, boundary setting, and intervention, Breaking the Silence Habit outlines a five-part framework for having these pivotal conversations about sexual harassment. She outlines the steps as follows: Know the Facts; Get Uncomfortable; Pause the Reaction; Embrace Practical Questions; and See the Whole Picture. This is not the crux of the book, however: for any of what needs to happen to work, readers really need to embrace and absorb what Beaulieu does throughout the entire book. She has clearly done her homework, providing her audiences with dozens of real-life scenarios and doing so in a tone that is both strong in voice and even stronger in sense of mission. Having already put thought into action in 2013 by founding The Enliven Project (a campaign to bring sexual violence out of the closet while lifting survivors to their full potential), and then creating The Uncomfortable Conversation, Inc. in 2018 — a nonprofit organization dedicated to normalizing conversations about sexual violence, especially among young men — in 2018, Beaulieu’s book does much to extend its hand towards the male audience. Beaulieu is to be commended for positing the next stages in our post-#MeToo world, corporate and beyond, more firmly in the realm of harmony as the way out of an especially malignant discord.
As further extension of Beaulieu’s theme that the #MeToo world will only move forward with both sides of the female/male equation invited to the conversation, the book’s Foreword comes from Baker Foundation Professor at Harvard Business School, Len Schlesinger. Perhaps he captures this book’s intrinsic worth best when he says to the reader, “Whether you are simply trying to build your own capabilities in holding ‘uncomfortable conversations’ or you lead or support an organization trying to build these competencies on a broader scale, Sarah [Beaulieu] has provided you with a valuable guide to the work that you have before you.” At a time when the specter of sexual harassment in the workplace is finally being pulled out of the shadows and placed into the light, Sarah Beaulieu’s Breaking the Silence Habit emerges as both quintessential learning tool of the political moment — and a much-needed push in a positive direction.