FAIR Consent

Practicing FAIR consent is a powerful tool for reducing unwanted sexual interactions. Practicing consent in everyday life can lead to richer, more rewarding relationships and emotional resilience.

consent only yes is yes
A Tragic She Said/He Said     

The “Why Now?” episode of the podcast Hidden Brain focuses on the social forces that led to the emergence of the #metoo movement. But it also offers a rare glimpse into both sides of a non-consensual sexual encounter that demonstrates the vast gulf between intention and impact.

The “she said” below is an excerpt from a Facebook post. The “he said” is an apology left on the woman’s answering machine when he learned about the post.

She Said

“In the beginning of June I had a meeting with a playwright in my home. He is my senior by several decades. I’ve known him since I was 11, I regarded him as an honorary grandfather. I was going through a tough time, I had just dealt with a couple of deaths and this man offered to help me by gifting me some of his work to produce and act in. I was extremely grateful and excited.

He insisted he come to my apartment for the meeting. The door closed and he held my breasts and said he’s known me since I was so young and can’t believe how large and beautiful they had become. He pulled me onto his lap and licked my lips and tried sticking his tongue in my mouth several times. I felt frozen. I said ‘I have a boyfriend,’ he said ‘So? I have a wife.’ I felt like I was 5 years old. The way I always hoped I’d behave in a situation went right out the window. I needed to get him off me and out of my home, but I also wanted to protect his feelings. I can’t believe to this day that was a concern of mine.”

He Said

“Uh, (Woman’s Name), this is (Playwright’s Name) calling. I’m so upset. I…I don’t know what to say. I had no idea. It’s a terrible, terrible misunderstanding. There’s a terrible missed signal. And I didn’t know you were upset. I love you, (Woman’s Name), and I never, never would hurt you that way. Never, never, never. Please, you’ve gotta believe me. Oh my God, I’m just shaking. Somebody just wrote to me and told me about it. I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry. And I love you. And I would never, never, never hurt you that way. That was such a missed signal and such a…oh my God.”

Terrible Missed Signal

I’m younger than the playwright in the situation above, so I probably received a more comprehensive sex education that he did. My school-sanctioned education was limited to the biology of reproduction and the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. My workplace sexual harassment training preached abstinence from saying or doing anything even remotely suggestive of sex. Other messages I’ve heard over the years have focused on “no means no.”

In the absence of consent training, the way the woman always hoped she’d behave went right out the window. Instead of the man taking anything short of a yes as a no, he took anything short of no as a yes.

A FAIR Approach to Consent

Samantha Hess began leading Consent Workshops in early 2018 and I’ve attended most of them.

Though adapted from the FRIES sexual consent acronym of Planned Parenthood, the exercises for FAIR consent are all non-sexual. Attendees are often eager to share their takeaways with their children or grandchildren.    

Consent is about learning to receive a no without feeling rejected and give a no without feeling guilty.

In order for there to be consent, it has to be FAIR.

Freely given.




Freely Given

The “No, Thank You Exercise” demonstrates that consent isn’t consent if someone can’t say no.

Partners take turns making requests:

“I know we’ve just met, but can I borrow $100?”

“Can my kids borrow your place for a birthday party? I don’t like to clean up the mess.”

The person receiving the request takes time to seriously consider the offer, then respond with some version of “No, thank you.”

The asker then practices sincerely praising the decision.

“Thank you for taking care of yourself.”

“Thank you for allowing me to ask.”

This gives the asker practice at receiving a no and the responder practice at saying no without feeling obligated for offering a reason.


In the “Ask and Wait” exercise partners take turns making requests of each other that they will actually engage in if both parties agree, they then patiently await a response.

“Would you like to shake hands?”

“Would you like to tell me something about your day?”

This gives the asker practice at the risk of receiving a no. It gives the responder practice at checking in with themselves before agreeing to something that they may not want to do. They can then freely give the answer that they choose.


In the “Negotiation Exercise,” partners take turns making requests of each other, clarifying the terms of the request, and practicing “yes and” or “no but” until they come to a consensual agreement.

“Would you like to shake hands?”

“No, but I’ll give you a high five.”

“Yes, and can we use our left hands?”

This gives both parties the opportunity to practice asking for what they want from an agreeable action and declining actions that are disagreeable.


For the “Change Your Mind Exercise,” partners begin by engaging in a mutually agreed upon activity.

After a short time, either partner displays a lack of interest in continuing and the other tries to pick up on the body language or facial cues that indicate they’ve changed their mind.

They then share feedback on the cues given and received and change roles.

This gives us practice making others feel safe around us by letting them know that we honor their decision to change their minds.

Practicing Consent

Practicing the principles of FAIR consent in areas other than sex leads to healthier relationships. If we routinely say yes when we mean no, we begin to resent others for asking and ourselves for giving in. Failing to ask for something because we fear rejection may unnecessarily limit our possibilities. If we say yes with the intention of wiggling out later, we become untrustworthy.

FAIR consent isn’t about always getting our way. It’s ultimately about doing what’s best for all parties involved.

Ten Minute Exercise

Two videos (that you can watch in less than ten minutes) help illustrate consent best practices.

When it comes to sex, anything short of a yes is a no. Tea and Consent (2:49).

Outside of sex, overcoming the fear of rejection can lead to an unexpected yes. Ask for Olympic Symbol Doughnuts (5:13).

You May Be Right

“Here lies the body of William Jay,
Who died maintaining his right of way –
He was right, dead right, as he sped along,
But he’s just as dead as if he were wrong.”–Dale Carnegie

Workplace Injustice

Last week I listened to two stories about perceived injustice in the workplace.

In both cases I agreed that the actions described were unskillful because they had created suffering for co-workers. But, as a third party, I couldn’t gauge whether the infliction of suffering was intentional.

How much of the suffering was created by the actions, and how much was created by the perception that the actions had been unfair?

Justice Workplace

At most workplaces, employees share the common goal of making the organization successful.

In competitive sports, one party wins by outperforming the other. It’s the referee’s job to keep things fair.

But in the legal profession, your co-workers are your adversaries, and to succeed you must prove you’re right and they’re wrong.

Problem Solving, Competition, and Perfectionism

Scott Rogers, Director of the Mindfulness in Law program at the University of Miami School of Law discussed occupational hazards on Dan Harris’s 10% Happier podcast.

Lawyers are really good at problem solving. They’re competitive and like to stay on top of their game. They’re perfectionists. These qualities serve their clients well and are assets in doing their job. But, if lawyers can’t turn down the dial on problem solving, they’re constantly looking for the next thing that’s wrong. If they can’t turn down their competitiveness then they see threats everywhere. And perfectionism compels them to review documents again and again for fear of being shamed by a misplaced comma.

As a result, lawyers live with anxiety, depression, and commit suicide, even when they appear to be thriving in the eye of the beholder.

Fundamental Insights

Rogers’s exposure to Transcendental Meditation during his early days in law school fueled his curiosity in introspection. In reading about mindfulness, he sensed that authors like Thich Nhat Hanh and Ram Dass were re-stating basic fundamental insights.

He quotes a talk by Ram Dass: “There’s nothing I’m going to share with you all that you don’t already know. It’s that we tend to forget. So, here we are, we’ve come together to remember.”

Rogers admires Ram Dass for his early work developing a healthy relationship with the voice in his head, and for deepening his connection with the heart. Rogers referred to this as an open-hearted embrace.

Open-Hearted Embrace

An open-hearted embrace is realizing that we’ve got more going on together than we think. We’re not quite the threats that we take each other to be, so we don’t have to be as guarded and stressed about each other.

“Going a little deeper, I think it speaks to this recognition that if we can really tame that voice in our head, not forget it, but really size it up and befriend it, then there’s this letting go of something that was never real in the first place.”

The feeling of connection isn’t touchy-feely, but actually inherent in the system in which we find ourselves. Realizing this is a game changer.

Unbelievably Frustrating

Rogers first practiced this open-hearted embrace during a case from hell.

He was sure he was right, and he was sure the opposing counsel and their client were misrepresenting the facts. It was unbelievably frustrating to feel that he was being treated unfairly, and he was having a difficult time setting the record straight.

In desperation, he performed his mindfulness practice and reached the insight that he was contributing to the suffering. Even though he may have been right, his sense of unfairness wasn’t relieving the stress of the situation, it was contributing to it.

He realized that we’re all in this together.

Uncruel Competition

But how does the viewpoint that we’re all in this together affect your ability to prevail over your adversary?

It doesn’t mean that you don’t forcefully pursue what’s called for in the moment. But it does mean that you’re doing what’s actually called for to be responsive without overdoing it or under doing it.

You can compete with your adversary without losing your sense of connection to them as a human being. Just like you, they are living a life that began, they are going through challenges, and sadness, and celebration. And remember that just like you, their lives will end.

“That’s something you feel, not something you know just in your head.”

It’s seeing the humanity in your competitors while still competing, and not losing touch with the humanity within yourself, because the two run in tandem together. As you lose sight of it in the other, you’re losing touch with it within yourself, and as you maintain that awareness in the other, you cultivate it more fully in yourself.

Advantages of Embracing Awareness

Acknowledging that your adversary is just like you allows you to be present and alert. You hear what’s actually being said. Letting the person who’s talking finish what they’re saying, no matter how their views differ in terms of the legal matter, avoids notching up the tension in the room.

The ability to clearly distinguish between what’s actually happening and the story you’re telling yourself about what’s happening can help you respond more skillfully to whatever challenge arises.

And that’s a major competitive advantage.

Ten Minute Exercise

Ironically, lawyers, whose success depends on achieving opposing outcomes, have one advantage over co-workers who are pursuing a common goal.

Lawyers have to make the case that their point of view is 100% correct and reasonable.

Chade-Meng Tan, former Google engineer and author of Search Inside Yourself offers this exercise for reducing perceptions of unfairness in the workplace, and in life. (I’ve adapted it so that you can do it in 10 minutes).

1. Gather your writing tools.

2. Set a timer for two minutes.      

3. Think of a difficult situation from your present or past when there was some conflict or disagreement, something real, something that has some meaning and potency for you.

4. Set a timer for four minutes to describe the situation as though you are 100 percent correct and reasonable.

5. Set a timer for four minutes to describe the situation as though the other person is (or the other people are) 100 percent correct and reasonable.

6. When the timer sounds, re-evaluate your sense of unfairness.

Two common challenges for understanding the opposing viewpoint:

Just like you, your co-worker prioritizes certain values based on their life experience.

Just like you, your co-worker sometimes has to act without having all of the relevant information.

According to Meng (what both friends and strangers call him):

“The more often you are able to see how each side in a disagreement is correct and reasonable, the more often you will be able to understand differing perspectives objectively and the more accurate your organizational awareness will become.”

And the less you’ll have to struggle with the additional stress of things being unfair.


It takes work to come to grips with perceived unfairness. These capuchin monkeys show us how hard it is to rationalize: it’s just an experiment.

How to View the Future

A surprising question about the the future got me thinking about problems we can never answer through thought.

future crystal ball
A Surprising Opportunity

The doorbell rang, and when I went to satisfy my curiosity, a pair of gentlemen introduced themselves as Jehovah’s Witnesses. They asked if they could leave a pamphlet with me that included information about their website.

I was scheduled to lead a discussion on the fifth of Frank Ostaseski’s Five Invitations, “Cultivate Don’t Know Mind,” the following week. Frank writes, “Don’t know mind is one characterized by curiosity, surprise, and wonder. It is receptive, ready to meet whatever shows up as it is.”

I was surprised by the opportunity to try this out, curious about what the pamphlet said, and wondered why it was important to these two men.    

How Do You View the Future?

The pamphlet asked, “How do you view the future?”

I confessed that I make predictions with an appalling error rate. Last Thursday, for example, I had RSVP’d a Meetup for 7:30 p.m. that was 1.6 miles from my house. I had planned to walk, but in the morning the air remained smoky due to several local forest fires. The unhealthy air advisory was in effect until noon. It had been extended from noon Wednesday.

Late Thursday afternoon, I went outside and the air was still smoky, so I cancelled my RSVP. There was a wait list for the event, so I wanted someone willing to brave the smoke to have their chance.

Within hours, the sky had cleared.

With the caveat that I don’t believe my own predictions, I looked at the possible answers for the pamphlet’s question.

Will Our Future World Stay the Same?

I felt confident enough to eliminate the first of three possible answers.

At the moment, the world is constantly changing, so even if it stopped changing in the future, that would be a change. I rejected the option that our world would stay the same.

Will Our Future World Get Worse or Get Better?

Both gentlemen said that they thought things would get worse and offered the news as evidence.

I repeated a sentiment by On Being host Krista Tippett: “Journalism, the way it came down to us from the 20th century, is absolutely focused, utterly and completely, on what is catastrophic, corrupt, and failing. It’s not the whole story of us.”

Then there’s the challenge of determining what changes are for the better and which are for the worse.

The Perspective of the Chinese Farmer

British philosopher Alan Watts once told a traditional story about a Chinese farmer.

Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.” The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.” The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbors came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”

The farmer steadfastly refrained from thinking of things in terms of gain or loss, advantage or disadvantage, because one never knows… In fact we never really know whether an event is fortune or misfortune, we only know our ever-changing reactions to ever-changing events.

In March, I broke my foot. I thought that was a change for the worse. In retrospect, what I learned from the experience may far outweigh what I lost.

A Real World Koan

The concept of “don’t know mind” comes from the world of Zen. It’s a paradoxical anecdote or riddle used to  demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke greater insight into the nature of reality.

“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

“When you can do nothing, what can you do?”

When it comes to the pamphlet question, we might ask, “What is always coming, but never arrives?”

The Eternal Now

“Eternity isn’t some later time,” said Joseph Campbell on the PBS TV series The Power of Myth. “Eternity isn’t a long time. Eternity has nothing to do with time. Eternity is that dimension of here and now which thinking and time cuts out…the experience of eternity right here and now is the function of life.”

Thinking Versus Understanding

Apart from compulsive thinking about our past and future causing depression, it limits our ability to understand the present.

There’s a world of difference between what we think and what we know.

As Alan Watts put it, “You can only think of one thing at a time. But that’s too slow for understanding anything at all. Much too slow. And our sensory input is much more than any kind of one thing at a time. And we respond with a certain aspect of our minds to the total sensory input that’s coming in, only we’re not consciously aware of it.”

“Trying to understand the world purely by thinking about it is as clumsy a process as trying to drink the Pacific Ocean out of a pint beer mug.”

How to View the Present

While we have the luxury of thinking about the future, we have to live in the present.

But if we don’t know what to do, Watts argues, it’s important to know how to observe: not just what’s happening in our outer world, but in our inner world as well. We can learn to view our ever-changing thoughts, emotions, and fears as if they were clouds passing overhead.

“We observe life until we can transform ourselves into it,” said Watts. “We stop thinking and codifying life, and finally, we live it.”

Ten Minute Exercise

Alan Watts leads a ten minute guided exercise on YouTube to  help Awaken the Mind and reduce ruminative thinking.

Here’s a cheat sheet:

1. Find a place where you won’t be interrupted for ten minutes.

2. Set a timer to remind you when you’re done.

3. Close your eyes.

4. Listen to the general hum and buzz of the world as if you were listening to music, without trying to identify or judge any particular sound.

5. Notice that you identify the sounds and continue to think automatically.

6. Listen to those thoughts as if they were part of the overall noise of the world.

7. Notice that both the outer sounds and inner thoughts are just happening.

8. While you are listening, notice that you are also breathing.

9. Whether you think about your breath or not, it still happens.

10. Notice that without making any effort you can breathe more and more deeply.

11. Be entirely content to be aware of what is happening.

12. When the timer sounds, take a moment to notice how your mind and body feel before continuing with your day.

Learning to Stumble Less

Learning to walk was a trial and error affair. I fell down a lot, watched what the grown-ups did, and gradually learned to stumble less: sort of the way I learned to process my emotions. But what if the grown-ups I learned from were doing it wrong?   

learning to walk
Learning to Walk

The physical therapist watched with concern as I walked up and down the hallway. She said that my right leg was doing most of the work and my left hip was just along for the ride.

I said that was how I had always walked.

She said that it might well be, but it could lead to problems down the road.

I confessed that I was self-taught.

We both laughed. I realized that her job was to teach grown-ups the right way to do things they’d been doing wrong all their lives.

She gave me an exercise to strengthen my left quadriceps so that I could learn to walk correctly.

Healing the Body, Not the Behavior

Because the fussy type of fracture I had sustained through a stumble, my primary care physician had referred me to a podiatrist instead of a sports therapist to oversee the bone’s mending. I didn’t think about the implication this had for regaining my mobility.

The podiatrist’s specialty was to restore the foot. The sports therapist’s specialty was to restore how I used it.

As the physical therapist I was referred to after the bone had healed intently scrutinized my gait, I thought about how this echoed depression treatment.

Keeping weight off the foot was sufficient to heal the bone. Taking an antidepressant was sufficient to regulate the brain’s chemical imbalance.

But I’d sustained my initial fracture by stumbling with my feet. And I’d sustained my initial depression by stumbling with my brain.

By analyzing how I used my foot or brain, the therapist’s job was to show me how to stumble less.

Learning Through Treats

At my age, it’s a little embarrassing to admit that in order for me to learn something I still need treats.

In behavioral science (B.S. for short), the acknowledged path to learning a new habit is:




The physical therapist addressed my foot’s swelling at our first appointment by giving me a Manual Lymph Drainage massage. This meant gently stroking the sides and back of the knee and gliding her fingertips over the calf in an upward direction, finally moving down to the ankle in gentle circles.

I noted that it would be easy to remember to do this at home because it felt good.

Trigger: Waking up in the morning.

Response: Doing the Manual Lymph Drainage massage.

Reward: It felt good.

Learning Through Tricks

The two exercises, soleus stretch on the wall (for ankle, calf, and thigh stretches) and standing heel raises (for strengthening ankle and calf) weren’t painful, but weren’t naturally pleasant.

I’d have to trick myself to do them by linking them to the preexisting trigger. My morning sit-ups aren’t pleasant either, but I’ve managed to stick with them long enough to enjoy the deferred gratification of a flatter, firmer stomach. I could anticipate the deferred reward of the stretching and lifting would be walking with greater ease.

I enjoy my walks.

Learning Through Fun

At my second visit, we dispensed with my need for treats or tricks by tapping into one of my passions.

Instead of exercising my muscles, we began exercising my brain!

Like the exercises to move from depression to well-being, the instructions were simple, but the work wasn’t easy.

To do single leg balance – foot behind, all I had to do was stand with my arms at my side and lift my uninjured right foot behind me.

My calf and ankle muscles began shooting confusing instructions to my brain:

Pull to the left, no, to the right, too far, no left, now forward, no backward!

I couldn’t keep my right foot aloft for more than a few seconds.

The therapist reassured me that this was a little tricky at first, but I loved this challenge from the moment the muscle twitches began.

Mindfulness of the Body

A popular (simple but not easy) method for training mindfulness of the body is to begin at the top of the head or tips of the toes and slowly direct attention upward or downward until the entire body is scanned.

A challenge I’ve always had with the body scan is that while I could imagine where, say, my spleen was located, I could never detect how it talked to my brain.

The nerve endings and muscles in my left foot and lower leg chattered in rapid-fire conversation about how to keep me from stumbling, and I could hear it loud and clear. This was a response I was happy to develop a number of triggers for (any time I took a break from writing, went to the bathroom, stood in a line). The reward was the opportunity to practice training my brain with some tangible real-time biofeedback!

We also added seated ankle alphabet: slowly tracing the letters of the alphabet with the toe of the recovering foot. I realize that this might not sound as fun to you as it did to me, but, as a practical way to demonstrate how to use one’s attention to retrain the brain, this was exciting stuff.

Intrinsically Rewarding Well-Being Exercise

I told the therapist how well these exercises corollated with my depression to well-being work and she confessed that she’d never been able to meditate.

I offered her a mental well-being habit with a variable trigger and a guaranteed reward that I love to do.

Trigger: Notice when you experience a moment of pleasure, like I did when I discovered how much fun I could have with the balancing exercise.

Response: Pay full attention to the pleasure for as long as it lasts or your attention is called to something else.

Reward: Paying attention to pleasure is its own reward no matter what the pleasure is: your first sip of coffee in the morning, feeling warmth of sunshine on your face, smell of fresh-baked bread, sight of a close friend arriving from the airport to pay you a visit, sound of a timer reminding you that it’s time to take a break.

Learning to Motivate

In the time that I spent in the waiting room before sessions, I observed people who faced much more debilitating mobility challenges than I did, and whose recovery would involve working through pain.

I asked the physical therapist a question about a problem we had in common. Like the physical therapy exercises, the mental well-being exercises only work if someone does them.

She told me that motivation was a large part of her training. She used motivational interviewing to help patients discover the discrepancy between the thing they wanted to do, and their current physical status or behavior.

For example, if I had been resistant to the Manual Lymphatic Drainage massage, we might have explored how my swollen foot made it impossible for me to wear my shoe properly. This threw off my gait and caused blisters, which hampered my healing and made walking painful.

If I had resisted the balance exercises, she might have taken the bad cop approach and pointed out poor balance increased my chances of re-injuring my foot and landing me back on crutches. On the good cop side, the weather was getting nicer and I wanted to get back to hiking my favorite forest and mountain trails. I needed to improve my balance to climb hills and negotiate rocky terrain.

She said that if the patient was motivated to achieve their goal, the physical therapist was there to offer them techniques that they could try.

If the patient wasn’t willing, all she could do was tell them to come back when they were ready.

Whether exercising to recover from a fractured foot or depression, learning to stumble less required some effort. As she put it, “Magic is in short supply around here.”

Ten Minute Exercise

One of my favorite lessons on learning to stumble less is Portia Nelson’s autobiography. Don’t worry. You can read it in less than ten minutes.

Autobiography in Five Chapters

by Portia Nelson


I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost…
I am hopeless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.


I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I’m in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.


I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in…it’s a habit
My eyes are open; I know where I am;
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.


I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.


I walk down another street.