I recently attended a training where we talked a lot about micro-aggressions on college campuses (Dela Pena, Travers, Welch, 2017). It was during this training that I first learned of the term micro-affirmations. In the world of Motivational Interviewing (MI) we talk a lot about intentional affirmations as statements highlighting a person’s characteristics, values, and hard work. Unlike these “macro affirmations” offered in MI, micro affirmations are more nuanced and subtle and they aim to validate experiences of others within a power structure. Since attending this training and learning a bit more about micro affirmations and micro aggressions, I think that those of us practicing MI and other helping strategies would do well to consider using some of these ideas in our approaches. In this article I will discuss the idea of micro-aggressions. Then I will focus a bit on what micro-affirmations are and some ways to use them. Finally, I will discuss some ways that these ideas may be included in an MI training.
Why the Social Context of Power is Important
I live in a country which was created by and for people like me – white landowning men. Since this country’s founding, the US has a long history of movement (more or less) towards equality, inclusion, and equity of other groups. Laws have been changed, voting rights have been established, institutional practices have been reformed. Unfortunately the legacy of exclusion and oppression continues to this day but in different forms. School systems, jails, media, government, and other powerful social institutions play a big part in giving power to some and making power harder to come by for others (Johnson, 2006; Mullaly, 2010). For a seemingly benign example of this try doing a google image search for “good worker,” and notice what racial and ethnic identities show up in your search. Now try the word “violence,” and notice what racial and ethnic identities show up. For many of us, we can guess at what the result will be before we type anything into google.
Just as the google seems to think that good workers are mostly white western men, our society also has assumptions about us based on our identities. We know that white western men are just as violent as men who are not white, but the societal assumption is that black and brown men are more likely to be violent. The problem with these assumptions is not just that they are factually incorrect, these assumptions create negative attitudes in the forms of stereotypes, stigmas, prejudice, and implicit bias. We can even measure our implicit bias (unconscious bias that we harbor towards groups unintentionally) online at this website.
Ideas about race, sex, gender, and other societal categories are imbedded into our culture at a very deep level. These ideas and beliefs about groups are “in the air we breathe” so to speak, and this can make it easy for some of us to not think about these ideas and beliefs (how many breaths today have you thought about?). Yet these societal ideas are powerful and shape our individual behaviors, thoughts, and feelings in often hidden ways. One of the more insidious types of harmful behaviors that can result from “breathing this air” is called micro-aggressions.
Micro-aggressions are small things that we do that hurt others, often unintentionally. While behaviors like teasing, shaming, and blaming are more obvious ways in which we disrespect and hurt others, micro-aggressions often fall “under the radar.” Just as a continuous drop of water can eventually bore a hole in rock, these smaller aggressions can have a large impact on a person over time. These small behaviors can be seen as paper cuts; a few cuts might be a little annoying, but hundreds of cuts over time will make it impossible for one to use their hand without severe pain (Rollock, 2012).
The US society is one in which values white bodies over black or brown bodies, masculinity over femininity, heterosexual orientation over same sex orientation, etc. In this society it tends to be the targeted, or the group deemed less valuable by society, who receives the most frequent and harsh expressions of micro-aggressions. A St. Louis black man on his morning walk becomes accustomed to his white neighbors crossing the street as he approaches. A woman doctor is regularly mistaken for a nurse throughout her work day at the local ER. A gay professional is asked repeatedly about his wife by leadership team members during a networking events.
According to the literature on the subject, Micro-aggressions can manifest many forms. Micro-assaults are more conscious and deliberate small attacks on someone based on their identity group. Micro-insults can be less conscious verbal or behavioral acts that devalue one based on their group identity. Micro-invalidations are often unintentional behaviors or language that dismiss or belittle the experiences, thoughts, or feelings of another (Sue, 2008).
For someone like myself who holds many privileged identities (white, heterosexual, cisgender, middle class male), the concept or micro-aggressions may be a bit foreign and can be a hard concept to grapple with. Most of the micro-aggressions that I perpetrate are unintentional and unconscious. It makes me feel bad; it makes me feel powerless and worried about how I may be impacting others. The concept of micro-aggression leaves me wanting to learn some ways to figure out how to best avoid acting out the paper-cut-like actions towards my friends, family and coworkers. This is where micro- affirmations are useful.
Micro-affirmations are defined by Rowe as “small acts, which are often ephemeral and hard-to-see, events that are public and private, often unconscious but very effective, which occur wherever people wish to help others to succeed” (2008). These small acts are more conscious and intentional, they aim to help or validate another. But micro-affirmations are not just acts of “mini-kindness,” they must internally consider and validate differences in perspectives and experiences of the other person. As Powel et. Al writes, “General kindness or empathy does not necessarily appreciate the social context, relationships, and individual characteristics such as social capital, ethnicity, accessibility, and sense of belonging that influence individual perspectives, behaviors, and choices in an environment” (2013). So a skillful micro-affirmation is a behavior delivered with the intention of supporting another person form a place of compassion. A micro-affirmation is a small act of kindness or validation that takes into account the values the perspectives, thoughts, and feelings of the other person within the context of a society that privileges some identities over others (Rowe, 2008).
There are many ways that one might go about taking small steps to validate the experiences, perspectives and realities of others. I have listed 5 types of micro-affirmations below.
The first step in affirming another is to genuinely listen, and listen with the understanding that micro-aggressions do occur and these aggressions do hurt. Once a woman with whom I am very close shared her experiences of being treated differently by a teacher who I respected a great deal. My first instinct was to explain his actions because I could not bear to think that this person I respected might have engaged in a micro-aggression towards a woman who I cared about. It can be hard to truly hear others describe experiences with micro-aggressions without trying to fix it. When we act on our “righting reflex” to try to explain away the problem we invalidate the experience of the other person. For this reason I believe the most important (and also sometimes the most challenging) micro-affirmation is authentically listening to another from a place of compassion with an understating that micro-aggressions and other forms of oppression are very real and can be extremely powerful.
The language that we use is important and the types of words we use impact others. Even though we may not always know the right terms for race, pronouns for genders, or terms for folks who are differently abled, we can seek to educate ourselves about these terms. When we are confused or notice that we are making mistakes in our word choices, we can ask in a compassionate way about what words others prefer. Being intentional and changing our language choice requires a strong dose of humility and a mentality of ongoing learning. This humility is not motivated by one’s quest to be “politically correct,” rather it is motivated by compassion with the intention of seeking to make connections with others.
How we communicate with others is important. Noticing who is not part of the conversation and inviting their voice is a good start. Smaller behaviors like acknowledging contributions of others, thanking others, giving credit whenever possible, and apologizing when we make mistakes can be some addition ways to affirm others. In Motivational Interviewing we tend to see a conversation as a dance, so a good question we might ask is “are there folks leaning against the wall?” and “what can I do or say to help them feel comfortable coming out to the dance floor?”
Our bodies can often give stronger communication cues than our words. Eye contact, body positioning, open body language are all ways that can covertly communicate our feelings about others. We can use these subtle cues to affirm others if we bring awareness and intentionality to our body gestures. Doing things like being sure there is enough space for others at the table and addressing any power differences in the way a group is physically positioned within a space can make a big difference in affirming others. Smiles are a small but important part of affirming others. Body language can be a culturally bound method of communication and there is no “one size fits all” way of doing it right, but these 6 universal facial expressions could be a good guide.
Environments can also have the effect of affirming others. Bentham’s Panopticon is an example of how great an impact environments can have on others. We can affirm people of many identities and backgrounds by structuring the environment in a manner that is assessable by sitting, rolling, walking, touching, seeking, hearing, reading, etc. Accessibility and universal design can help affirm folks of many ability statuses. It can also be helpful to be mindful of what types of posters, artwork and décor we have in a given space – what identities are represented in our artwork? What does our décor say to people of different identities, how might it be interpreted?
The images, sounds and videos that we use when teaching or helping others are not neutral. All media comes from a certain background, culture, and perspective. We can find ways to affirm in our media choices by critically examining our media choices. Are all of the pictures in our PowerPoint of white men? What types of names are we using in fictional case studies that we present? What type of demographic typically consumes the types of videos, music, or cultural examples that we use? Once we have critically examined the media that we are using, we can begin to be intentional about choosing media that includes a variety of identities and backgrounds.
Applications to Motivational Interviewing
Affirmations make up a key component of MI; they are framed in MI as both a “way of being” (or MI Spirit) with someone else, and an intentional action (or MI Skill). Miller and Rolnick define an affirmation as “one of four aspects of acceptance as a component of MI spirit, by which the counselor accentuates the positive, seeking and acknowledging a person’s strengths and effort’’ (2013, p.1). Micro-affirmations take the notion of affirming one step further by acknowledging, affirming, and addressing the larger system of power, privilege, and oppression.
In MI we know that the primary step of a helper is to develop trust and rapport with the person we are helping though compassion and acceptance. It seems to me that a few micro-affirmations can go a long way to help build this trust, especially in a world where one is experiencing daily micro-aggression paper cuts.
MI trainers can incorporate some of these concepts into their teaching by noticing who is and is not participating and taking action to attempt to be inclusive in their verbal and nonverbal language, PowerPoints, examples, and videos. Trainers can intentionally seek out viewpoints, media and stories from other perspectives. As MI trainers, we can stop and acknowledge or apologize when we make the mistake of committing a micro-aggression. Micro-affirmations can be also taught as a skill that compliments the traditional “macro-aggressions” taught in MI.
Using micro-affirmations skillfully is like using any other skill - it takes intention and practice. For me, the starting place is critical self-reflection based on my own position within society as a person who holds a lot of unearned privilege. With that foundation I hope to use some of these ideas in my trainings and in my everyday life.
Dela Pena, E., Shawn Travers, S. & Welch, E. (Training on November, 2017) Facilitating Difficult Dialogues: Working Together for Student Success. Washington University in St. Louis.
Johnson, A.G. (2006). Power, privilege, and difference. Boston :McGraw-Hill.
Miller, R. M. & Rolnick, S. (2013). Glossary of motivational interviewing terms. NY: Gilford Press.
Mullaly, B. (2010). Challenging oppression: A critical social work approach. Don Mills, Ont: Oxford University Press.
Powell, C., Demetriou, C. & Fisher, A. (2013). Micro-affirmations in academic advising: Small acts, big impact. Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal . Oct 2013, p1-1. 1p.
Rollock, N. (2011). Unspoken rules of engagement: Navigating racial microaggressions in the academic terrain. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. 25(5), 517–532.
Rowe, M. (2008). Micro-affirmations and micro-inequities. Journal of the International Ombudsman 1(1), 45–48.
Sue, D., et.al. 2007. Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271–286.
Jesse Jonesberg (Berg) is a mental health professional, field instructor, trainer, and MINT member. He is passionate about issues of mental health, cultural humility, compassion, and motivational interviewing.
Jesse Jonesberg (Berg) is a member of the MINT network and active member of the MINT IDAC.
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