I have always been a lover of language and a lifelong student of communication. This past year, especially has brought me an appreciation of communication (and many other things) in a whole new way as we navigated through a world-wide pandemic and political and social events that affect our entire future as a species and a nation. The way information and experiences are communicated and received has taken on a whole new light.
“Are you okay if I go to John’s house for a few hours?” It was a seemingly simple request from my husband earlier this year that led me to add a new “love language” to my repertoire, one that I both seek to offer others and to receive myself. I call it “informed consent”. This is, in a nutshell, the act of giving and receiving information which allows an individual to make an empowered and informed choice.
With more quiet time at home in 2020, I found myself often contemplating how we relate and communicate with one another; thinking about my exposure to language through literature, poetry and creative writing at a young age, and later, about how to use journalism, debate and professional and interpersonal communication styles and techniques such as Non-Violent Communication and the concept of “Love Languages.” My thoughts turned to how language and communication can both facilitate and hinder human relationships. Learning different approaches, styles and techniques gives one the ability to be understood, heard and seen and the potential to offer that to others. As an empath and nurturer by nature, I have come to think of all compassionate attempts to communicate as “love language.”
This basic question from my husband got me to thinking deeply about what kind of information we offer other people when we make decisions with them. I began to see that many interpersonal situations where informed consent would be incredibly important and could lead to either rich and fulfilling interactions or vast pitfalls in unfulfilled expectations, misunderstandings, or, at worst, an experience of betrayal or abuse. When we ask the folk in our sphere simple questions, I have come to believe that applying the concept of informed consent is critical to creating, cultivating, and maintaining good relationships.
Informed consent has become an intentional personal practice of sharing as much information as possible about a proposed situation involving others, empowering and allowing them to choose for themselves what action is in alignment with their beliefs, values and current comfort levels. Informed consent involves the distinct absence of assumptions. Assuming that the other person thinks or feels the same way I do or is in the same emotional or mental space as me is wrong.
While consent should have long been a factor of consideration in relating to and interacting with other people, this past year has brought us all to a new realm where it is vital to consider consent in the most basic of daily interactions. We have all had to learn new ways of communicating with one another and adopted new thresholds for how and when we communicate. Furthermore, making assumptions about how someone else feels or where they stand on any of these factors can lead us into a minefield of potential problems. “Meeting up” with someone has taken on a whole new dimension: Are we meeting in-person, via zoom or other type of video call? Is it safe?
Embracing this practice has led me to internal clarity about my own motivations. Being honest about my expectations, I am able to make requests of someone else. Focusing on offering the information that is needed to reach informed consent has also made me aware of the fact that I can offer the same to myself. Now when a request is made of me, it means giving myself time to consider the request rather than immediately accepting or rejecting it and asking questions so that I can be as clear as possible that I understand what’s being asked of me.
For instance, if someone asks if I’d like to attend a gathering or get involved in a project, I ask questions about what it involves: How much of a time commitment is expected? What is their vision of results? How large of a group will be present? These questions allow me to consider my own needs and show up fully present if I agree.
Unlearning Oppression Lesson 22: With your Accountability Group, family and friends, formulate a set of questions that will help each person gain clarity when making decisions that impacts the community and use during important discussions.
Conversely, if I’m asking for help from someone on a project or for accountability to a commitment, I try to be specific about what needs and expectations I have so that they can truly consider whether or not they have the bandwidth to accept. If I am inviting someone to show up physically, I am clear about what that entails, my recent proximity to other people and who else they can expect to be there. While I may be very comfortable with certain circumstances, I’m allowing them to decide for themselves what they are comfortable with.
It may sound like a lot of work, but I’m finding that informed consent requires just a bit of consideration, reflection, a dash of objectivity and very little extra time. By adopting this practice, I have experienced a deeper sense of peace, an ability to give my full presence and far less disappointment in myself and others. For me, that is a gift I am feeling deeply grateful for. What do you think you might gain by incorporating the practice of informed consent into your communication?