Debra Allcock Tyler: 'We cannot let our fear of embarrassment or causing offence stop us speaking out'

In our sector, the price of us staying shtum is beneficiaries being denied the support they need, writes our columnist

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

I recently encountered one of those "Very British Problems" (Twitter: @SoVeryBritish). I was walking my dog, Mabel, who is a rather chubby elderly lady; my plan was a short walk to the gate separating two fields near my house, then an about-turn and home again. Then – horror of horrors – I saw in the distance a couple with their dog approaching the gate from the other side. Our paths were clearly going to converge at the gate. My heart started to race; my palms were sweating; my mouth went dry. Meeting at the gate meant that, if I kept to my original plan and turned back the way we came, I would face that horribly awkward situation of walking alongside them. If I waited at the gate until they'd walked on a bit and then followed them, they might think I was stalking them or, worse, that I was being rude by deliberately avoiding them.

Reader, I have to confess I panicked. The desire to avoid embarrassment overcame my common sense. So Mabel and I ended up changing our entire route, which added half an hour to our walk. On top of that, we got caught in a sudden downpour, which we would have avoided had I kept to the original plan. We arrived home soaking wet, knackered, cross (in my case) and a bit confused (in hers).

How often does the fear of embarrassment or failure freeze our brains and prevent us from thinking coherently and in the best interests of our beneficiaries? The fear of a bad news story; the fear of taking a risk and losing funding; the fear of speaking out and being shouted down; the fear of looking stupid in front of our colleagues and peers; the fear of admitting mistakes and failures?

There are some people who disagree with what I say, and that's fine. There are others who apparently really dislike me. Generally, I don't know who the latter are, because they tend to hide behind anonymous, often rude, online comments. For me, there is a difference between speaking truth to power and hurling personal abuse. Mostly I find those who do the latter to be ridiculous and occasionally hurtful (especially as my mother gets terribly upset). Nonetheless, I don't let them stop me saying what I believe. And neither should you. Frankly, I enjoy open debate with people who disagree with me – especially if they use their real names.

I recently shared a platform with the redoubtable Dame Hilary Blume, who says she has no embarrassment gene. She always speaks her mind, and sometimes she offends folk with her frank ideas and views. But she doesn't think that the avoidance of offence is more important than expressing her beliefs in the furtherance of her causes. And she wouldn't dream of doing so anonymously – which, for me, is not only cowardly but also ineffective. Does anyone care what "anonymous" thinks?

The point is that no one knows our beneficiaries better than we do, and if we don't speak out on their behalf, who will? We simply cannot afford to let our fear of being embarrassed or causing offence get in our way. In our sector, the price of us staying shtum is not just a severe wetting, but whole communities being denied the support they need.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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