The First Time My Self-Concept Got Rocked


  • My sub-conscious defense mechanisms kept people at a distance
  • I was largely unaware of how I was affecting people
  • Openness is the greatest simplifier – when I am open the Human Element way

I took Human Element (HE) in 2009, when I was 3 years into my NASA career as an organizational psychologist. I came into it feeling pretty good about myself. By the end of it, I felt shaken, wobbly, and the least confident I have ever felt. And it was the most profound experience I had ever had, and one that would put me on a new trajectory that has since shaped everything about my life.

I took the class with a few people from my immediate work group, including one of my best friends, a great mentor, a protégé, and well…then there was Robert. Robert was the one I had known the longest – he was in my office when I was hired, and at one point there were only 4 of us in that group! He always performed a different function than I did; I focused on coaching and organization development (OD), and he had a more technical role focused on the learning management system. Recently though, he was joining in the OD group meetings. But only sometimes. And when he was there, he either barely participated or would say things that were irrelevant. His schedule was really difficult to work around, because he still had other responsibilities. More and more, he was driving me crazy. And if I didn’t realize it before, it was becoming clear to me that I drove him crazy as well.

On day one of this workshop, we were asked to line up in order of how dominant we are – most dominant against this wall, and least dominant against that wall. Certainly – you can imagine how crazy that can get already – asking the people who are most dominant to be dominant in claiming their spot! And then, the facilitator said, “Ok, now look around and if you see somebody who isn’t in the right spot, move them to the appropriate place in this dominance line.” I had thought of myself as dominant, but had chosen to stay out of the (playful) physical dominance game emerging at the front of the line. Robert approached me with great intention, grabbed me by the shoulders, and pulled me to the front of the line. I remember feeling surprised, then confused. It didn’t feel like a friendly gesture, and I think I even sensed some anger as he “put” me in my place in the line.

On the third day, we had just broken out into groups. This was the day of training that went into the evening and a couple people were asking about tracking time. Robert, knowing training policy, announced that Civil Servants are not allowed to track extra time when they are in training. I, also knowing training policy, knew that “credit hours” can be earned in training (overtime and comp time cannot), so I announced the “correct” information. I didn’t see anything wrong with this, in fact – who wouldn’t want to know that credit hours are an option?? But Robert looked over at me with a look of disgust and said, “Here we go again, it’s the Laura show!” I immediately felt defensive, and completely confused by that comment. “It’s the Laura show, what the hell does that even mean??” I thought to myself. I just didn’t want him confusing people. “I guess this is that dominance thing he was implying,” I thought. I later learned about defenses, and that one sign that somebody is using “the critic” as a defense mechanism is if you add, “you dummy” to the end of your sentence, does it fit (given tone, etc.)? I’m embarrassed to admit that when I corrected Robert, I most certainly could have added “you dummy” and it probably would have seemed redundant given the tone I used. What was that about? Why did I use that tone? Unfortunately, I had too much insecurity to apologize in the moment (not that I realized it was insecurity at the time), and Robert didn’t apologize either. This was getting awkward.

As we neared the end of the workshop, we began conducting the compatibility exercise in our work groups. This is where two people sit knee to knee, with an audience, and have an open conversation about how well they do (or do not) work together. Doing this with anybody made me nervous. Even one of my best friends in the class had told me earlier in the week that he thinks people are less open with me than I want them to be, so I had fear racing through my body. What were people going to say to me? In what ways would I be surprised?

Compatibility exercises went well on day 4, and I found myself getting emotional from the deep, wonderful, touching things people were saying, not only to me, but also to each other. And then there was day 5. I hadn’t done this compatibility exercise with Robert yet. I came into the workshop feeling some bad heartburn and acid reflux, and I commented to my mentor that I’m not sure what I ate, but I wasn’t feeling well. He nodded in sympathy and didn’t say much else. The time came for me to sit knee to knee with Robert. I sat in the chair facing him, and I felt my heart pounding in my chest. I felt my face get hot, and I could tell my voice would be shaky as soon as I would start to speak.

We began to go through the questions together – do we bring out the best in each other? Are we completely open and honest with each other? And with the coaching of the facilitators and our teammates, each of us explored true openness as we answered the questions. The tears I cried that day were from a combination of regret, happiness, and relief. In fact, when we finished, the facilitator asked me how I felt. “Relieved!” I said with a sigh. Then she asked Robert how he felt. He cocked his head as he looked at me and said, “This may sound strange, but…..affection. I feel a lot of affection for you.” I couldn’t believe how this conversation transformed not just our behavior toward each other but our feelings toward and about one another. It was incredible. After I joined the group, my mentor asked how my heartburn was doing. “Oh!” I exclaimed. “It’s all gone, I don’t feel it anymore.” He raised his eyebrows a bit, smiled a kind smile and leaned back in his chair. “Oh…how about that,” he said. Hmmm….

Back to where I started. I felt shaken, wobbly, and the least confident I have ever felt.

These conversations were so powerful, but I felt so raw, and it felt so clear to me that I wanted to live my life differently. When the course wrapped up, I approached one of the facilitators. One of the core lessons of the workshop was that openness is the greatest simplifier. I still had it in my head that I already was really open, but I still got feedback that people were holding back from me. I explained this to him and he looked at me and said, “I only have a short time to address this question, but perhaps you aren’t being open in the right way.” My head was spinning. What did that mean??

Well, I had never realized the difference between openness as I thought of it and openness as defined by the Human Element. I had always expressed my opinion, and didn’t shy away from confrontation, so I always thought of myself as very open. But openness, as defined by the Human Element, is being open about yourself.

This is what was so different about the conversation that Robert and I had in the compatibility exercise. We had talked before about the tension between us, but we hadn’t gotten anywhere because we were only open on levels 1, 2 and 3 (which is outwardly focused) It isn’t until level 4 that true vulnerability comes out, and people begin to drop their guards and then conflict dissolves. Openness isn’t openness until I am being open about myself. Level 4 and 5 of openness are about our own feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and very likely, fears.

Every day on this earth is part of my journey to continue to be open as defined by Human Element. I’ve never seen anything so powerful in transforming communication and relationships as the power of openness.

Now, I’m a Licensed Human Element Practitioner myself, and I am so excited to share and create these experiences for others.