A child, adopted at birth, looks nothing like the family he’s been raised around. He loves them, but sometimes feels sad about looking so different. When a relative makes a comment about physical traits that have been passed down through the family, the boy feel defensive. He thinks to speak up and say something that was passed down to him, but decides not too because, after all, work ethic isn’t the same thing as blue eyes. Instead, he quietly sits and feels sadness.

On the opposite side of the city, a young mom sits with her family. She begins to tear up and her children ask her what’s wrong. They don’t know that, unexpectedly, a memory crossed her mind and she now thinks of the daughter she placed for adoption many years before. She takes a deep breath, smiles, and says, “Nothing. I’m good. Now let’s play this game! Who’s ready?!” 

Very far from both of those situations, a mother goes to the bank to make a money transfer. In one quick phone call, they learned a birth mother was due any day and she had chosen them to be her baby’s parents. Overwhelmed and excited, she begins to take care of the list of items on her to-do list, including sending that sacred money they had saved for so long, just for this adoption. The bank teller, upon seeing where the money was to be sent, congratulates the mother on the upcoming adoption. She then proceeds to tell the adoptive mom, “My best friend adopted three children. But she has open adoptions and I’m not a fan of that. I think it’s too confusing for the kids and is too complicated. It’s just wrong.” The mother, having adopted two children previously, favors their open adoptions. Shocked, she quickly thinks of how to respond, but instead decides to stay quiet. After all, she won’t see this bank teller again most likely. The mother leaves the bank feeling uneasy.

These are all situations when VOICE was necessary. Voice would have been helpful and could have changed the individual outcomes of the scenarios. Amy Edmonson gave a TED Talk on how to create psychologically safe workplaces. The beauty of the talk was that, though workplace-specific, her talk could easily apply to every real world situation in life that I can think of. As a writer for Adoption.com, my thoughts, however, go directly to open adoptions. You see, though we as a society and world have come a long way in creating better adoption situations—and by that I mean respecting the needs of birth mothers, adoptees, and adoptive families, including the physical, emotional, and psychological development and healing of all involved— progress still needs to be made. I presume that it will forever be needful that we make changes and improvements in our approach to adoption, simply because we are human beings who are constantly learning. And just because we learn something doesn’t mean we’re good at it.

Studies show that open adoptions are healthier for all involved. For countless people touched by adoption throughout the world, personal experience probably also shows that open adoptions are healthier for all involved. So why are our voices shut down from time to time? I would simply state that ignorance plays a big role in it. But the good news about ignorance is that it can be reversed. We can reverse open adoption ignorance by opening our mouths, using our voices. The question is, how often do you open your mouth?

Take a moment and reflect. Is this you?

When you have said something in the past, has it been shut down?

When you have tried to offer an opinion, have you been told why it’s wrong?

When you have stood up for what you felt was right, were you told why it wasn’t?

When you have called someone to action, did someone personally insult you and your desire for change?

There are plenty of other situations that I could put out there, but I think you understand. Perhaps if you receive a negative response to something you try to do or say, it may be able to roll off your back. But when it happens again, and again, and again . . . we go into protective mode. We don’t ask questions. We don’t admit weakness or mistakes. We don’t offer ideas. And we don’t criticize the status quo. We learn to do this at a very young age. By the time we’re in elementary school, between friends, teachers, parents, and others we come in contact with, we have learned how to shut down and turn our voice off in order to protect ourselves.

Psychologists call this Impression Management. And we become very good at managing, building walls, and keeping quiet. Amy Edmondson states, however, what is so crucial for us to understand about this type of management when she says, “[…] every time we withhold, we rob ourselves and our colleagues of small moments of learning, and we don’t innovate. We don’t come up with new ideas. We are so busy, unconsciously for the most part, managing impressions, that we don’t contribute to create a better organization.”

But guess what? Not ALL people experience life this way. Not ALL open adoptions are like this. There are open adoptions where there is open discussion, where people work together to create a better environment, where birth mothers feel like they can openly say, “I’d like to be able to spend more time with my son,” or an adoptive mom can tell her son’s birth mother, “I’m worried about you. Can we talk?” Ms. Edmondson shares an experience she had, about observing teams who were making many mistakes. The interesting point she made, which was shocking to her, was that the teams that made more mistakes actually were more successful. Why? They were more willing and able to find the best way. That meant a lot of sorting and discussing. It meant constant re-evaulation. It meant listening to one another. It meant establishing a very open climate so that everyone can work together, and work together well.

So, how did they do it? And how do we do it? She offers three ideas, and I will tailor them to creating a psychologically safe open adoption.

  1. Frame the work as a learning problem, not as an execution problem. Guess what? Even if you’ve had an open adoption before, you haven’t had an open adoption before with these same people. So enter with a learning mind and open heart. Go in with the understanding that you will be learning together, step by step. No one is above one another; you are a team creating something great. No one can succeed unless all of you are working together . . . all your heads, hearts, and voices working together.
  2. Acknowledge your own fallibility. You know you aren’t perfect. Don’t worry, because everyone else knows you’re not perfect either. Go into your open adoption with the expectation that you will do your best, and let everyone understand and know that too. You may make mistakes but you will be willing to fix them.
  3. Model Curiosity. Ask questions. I have found that in the beginning phases after being matched, it’s helpful to have the caseworker’s support in navigating some questions. But as she backs out and birth family and adoptive family create their own open adoption culture, the freedom to ask questions and offer opinions is important. As an adoptive mother, I can take the lead and ask questions, showing our son’s birth mother that she too is free to ask questions. I have taken it a step further and plainly told her that she can ask us anything, anytime. I found it very comforting when our birth mother took the lead, and began asking questions. I felt a relief almost, like the window had been opened and the breeze drifted in, allowing this freedom to ask questions, talk, and come to an understanding. The funny thing is, most all the time we had the same opinions, we just needed someone to start with asking. What’s even more important to this modeling, not just for one another, but for the child who will grow up with his mothers being able to talk and work things out. This modeling is crucial for a developing child who we only hope will one day feel that freedom to use his own voice.

For some, creating a psychologically safe workplace, home, or open adoption will take a lot of work. We may need to change patterns that are imprinted in our brains because perhaps we’ve been managing impressions our entire life. Luckily it’s never too late to start, and these three steps are the perfect way to begin, and maintain, a healthy environment for all involved.

Watch this video for more detailed information and to hear Amy Edmondson share her Ted Talk. It’s worth the 11 minutes.