We speak to Ray Arata, founder of the Better Man Conference, about his work with men & how he supports transformation among male leaders in re-shaping masculinity
Ray Arata, founder of the Better Man Conference, engages in what he calls “deep inclusion work” with men. A lawyer by education, he has been at this work with corporate and private sector white-collar men for the past seven years. In this interview, he discusses how he supports transformation among male leaders in re-shaping masculinity, how it can help reduce polarization around the #MeToo movement, and what it means to be a “successful man” professionally.
Breaking Down How Western Men Are Socialized
Arata advances the term “healthy masculinity” in this work with men. The term starts with redefining how men are socialized in the United States and other Western countries. Because men historically were never taught “emotional literacy, or the ability to have a conscious relationship with our emotions,” men — including Arata himself — were taught that “vulnerability and feeling our feelings” are negative, he says.
Arata describes how he works with men on health masculinity is to start with highlighting the opposite — toxic masculinity, including where it shows up and the impact it has. From there, he introduces the “possibility of healthy masculinity for leaders to consider in their actions.” To illustrate, Arata described his recent work on a four-part “healthy masculinity” webinar series with one of the largest professional services firms in the world. The company hired Arata to develop content for their series for its middle managers and leaders to help introduce these “health masculinity” leadership concepts and institutionalize them within the culture because of the type of firm they are.
Arata also uses the term “emotional literacy” as a phrase that is easier for men in the corporate space to hear. Most men will shy away from suggestions that they should “feel your feelings” or “have a relationship with your emotions,” he explains.
He does not work around the “heart stuff,” Arata says. Rather, he is overt about it and has found that people “are hungry for the heart stuff.” He routinely gets positioned as the “heart guy” and to break down barriers, using his own privilege and vulnerability “to go first” and make it possible for other men to do the same. Arata’s experience varies from boardrooms, to men’s retreats, to maximum security prisons — yet, his process does not change.
“A man is generally unaware that this whole area of his body below his chin is where his ability lies to feel fear, sadness, grief, shame, and joy,” Arata adds. “Unless a man is able to be aware of that, he is going to shut that down and try to figure everything out in his head, especially at work during times of stress.”
During moments of high stress, men often communicate and relate to other people by showing anger. “Anger is a violent outward reaction to underlying feelings of sadness, fear, or grief and loss,” says Arata, adding that unfortunately for most men in the corporate space, this idea in regarded as silly and rejected. Arata says he is trying to support men in being more human with a fuller range of emotions.
To open up that conversation, Arata indicates that he tries to question what is really going on. “When I ask men, ‘What’s true about your anger? Are you afraid? Are you sad? Are you experiencing some grief?’ they will tell me the truth pretty quickly,” he says. “Right there in that instant, an ‘a-ha’ moment transpires that allows us to get closer to what is really going on for them.” From there, Arata begins the journey of helping men become more responsible for how they act and help them understand how their behavior impacts other people around them.
Making the Connection to Leadership and Inclusion at Work
Today’s leaders, particularly men, still hold much of the power, and “have a responsibility to use their position and power and privilege to encourage and make room for other voices and perspectives,” Arata says. Indeed, the old patriarchal model of leadership of command and control is outdated; and the fact that men were socialized to regard vulnerability as a weakness and emotions as soft is at the core of the issue for leadership today.
Today’s leaders, particularly men, still hold much of the power, and have a responsibility to use their position and power and privilege to encourage and make room for other voices and perspectives.
To be an “inclusive leader” any person “has to have a conscious relationship between his head and his heart,” says Arata, adding that without it, “men push our emotions down,” and “anger is the only permissible and familiar emotion”. Or worse yet, no emotion at all.
In our modern society where the employee experience is a huge focus, most people want to experience a sense of belonging and desire to be seen, appreciated, respected, and valued. An inclusionary leader that can offer that is going to get the best out of his people. Because men are in the majority of leadership positions, men have to be included in all diversity and inclusion conversations. Too often the efforts to be inclusive in the workplace actually exclude men, Arata observes, leaving many men to wonder what role they have in supporting diversity and inclusion efforts — when in fact, men have a large role to play in inclusion.
Reducing Polarization Around #MeToo
Arata offers a two-pronged approach to diffuse the tension around the #MeToo movement and its revelation of bad behavior among male leaders. First, he encourages men “to take responsibility and accountability to transcend our relationship with fear, use it as a messenger, and ask ourselves: ‘What kind of men and leaders do we want to be? Do we want to be the type of men who are afraid when we observe bad behavior and chose to not say something or do something? Or do we want to be the kind of leader that acknowledges the fear but moves on and does what is right?’”
Arata also observes that women are in the “call out” phase with very little room for forgiveness and redemption when men admit they have made [non law-breaking] mistakes. He further offers this question to women — ‘How is the call-out phase working in terms of getting what you want, which is men taking authentic responsibility and accountability when they have made mistakes?’ Currently, it appears that the “call out” phase is producing more polarization, he suggests.
Women should invite and create space for men to join in the actions of “calling in” men when its appropriate, Arata says, adding that this evolution is necessary for men and women to “be better together”. The vision he holds is one where both men and women are calling in men to collaborate and build a movement.
Arata says he sees the Better Man Conference, which calls in men to change their behavior without shame or blame and to use their voices to speak out against toxic masculine behavior, as a step toward being better together.