Guernsey Press

The benefits of a thin skin

People say you need to have a thick skin to be a politician, but Hayley North says she’d rather be represented by someone who feels things deeply and cares about what they are doing

Hayley North. (32778353)

I KNOW I was not alone squealing in frustration while listening to the debate on the vote of no confidence in the Policy & Resources Committee the other day. Few can believe the fate of the committee still hangs in the balance with many more speeches to go – it feels like such a terrible waste of time.

I get it. Taking responsibility for making a decision that will not just impact you but the entire island is tough. It feels personal. Yet this comes with the role of deputy and is why the role does not suit many. At least, not many can tolerate it enough to stay for the longer term. It is different to making a decision in relation to your own life. At least then only you are to blame and only you suffer if you make the wrong call. You won’t have people yelling at you in the supermarket while you throw Brussels sprouts into your basket.

There has been much suggestion this week that one of the key requirements for becoming a deputy should be ‘having a thick skin’. As someone whose brain interprets things literally, this expression gives me the creeps, and it’s also nonsense.

I want to be represented by people with very thin skins. I want my deputies to feel things deeply, to care about what they are doing and to find it easy to put themselves in others’ shoes. I want deputies who get upset when someone is exceptionally rude or impatient with them. I want deputies who apologise and put things right. I want deputies who are human.

Our world is full of unfeeling auto-responses these days. We’re so afraid of being vulnerable and expressing our concerns and fears that we end up fighting rather than coming to a healthy compromise. Or in this case, clinging on to a role to try to save face rather than appreciating that none of us get it right all the time and just stepping aside, at least for now. We’re all so worried about how everyone perceives us, we dare not make a decision to get something done – rather we talk and talk to create enough of a smokescreen that no one really has any idea what we really think.

One huge learning experience for me was a recent diagnosis. I was diagnosed as autistic at the age of 47. My head almost exploded – figuratively, of course. It has been a very steep learning curve but also the most liberating experience of my life. I declare my autism whenever it starts to impact a situation in a way that might not make sense to someone else. I am honest about both my skills (for example, my near photographic memory in many situations) and my weaknesses (my inability to self-regulate my emotions if I become frustrated that I am not being understood, for instance). This requires me to be vulnerable in the extreme, particularly in a professional setting.

Seeing how little things impact me can and does encourage people to behave differently. Often it is very small changes that can have the most impact and if I just pretended everything was alright or avoided a situation instead of facing it head on and asking for help, an opportunity would be missed. It is not easy to be that open and I hate asking for help or declaring that I just cannot or do not want to do something, but I am getting better at it.

It is easy to dismiss an autistic person’s need for more subdued lighting, email rather than phone contact, detailed and clear instructions or time on their own to recover from social interaction as childish or silly requests but to us these are fundamental things that matter to us and we’re already working twice as hard as many people just to keep up. A small effort from someone else and a little understanding can go a long way to enabling us to have an easier time of it.

If it doesn’t hurt to change your approach and it impacts someone else positively, why not do it? It is not just the autistic community who would benefit from this change in mindset.

When deputies announced publicly in the States the other day that they had both experienced and witnessed unacceptable and unpleasant behaviour from other deputies, some called them weak. Others bemoaned the fact that they did not in fact have thicker skins or chastised them for not following formal internal processes. Yet being vulnerable in this way, opening themselves up to abuse and criticism in order to try to force change was an act of strength on their part and one that is long overdue. Their own experiences or their sensitivity to others’ bad experiences had not been ignored or forgotten. They were clear that this was the time to start the process of change.

Why does this matter and what does this have to do with efficient decision-making?

We want the States to represent the island and to do so it needs to be composed not just of those who brush off abuse or bullying or ignore it but those who stand up to it, call it out and pave the way for making our parliament a much healthier place to be and to work.

Those accused of bullying may well not see it this way, but by being open and curious as to why someone else might feel that way, they might find there is, in fact, another option. We can’t effect change just by pushing people forward – we have to inspire change and to do that we have to create a safe environment first.

Do not underestimate how important the ability to be able to truly be yourself is in being able to make the right decisions quickly for a more efficient and decisive form of government.

When we all start to be more open about our values, fears, weaknesses and strengths and what behaviours we will and will not tolerate, making decisions about whether leaders are doing a good job or need to move on will not be heavy decisions that require days of debate.

The sooner Guernsey politics stops being a dangerous game of trying to please everyone and starts being the sum of many different, honest and open parts, the better.