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Although the risks are real, the rewards are worth it. What if I told you that having difficult conversations when artfully done, can bring you closer — not further — to your colleagues, friends and family?
You don’t have to be a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) consultant like me to have meaningful and constructive conversations about “hot” topics. All that’s required is a bit of control in managing your emotions, good listening and speaking skills and an open mind. When I host DEI workshops and sessions with clients, I use simple techniques to empower them to have these conversations in their own institutions. Here are my top three recommended techniques that help my clients have very difficult discussions with the best possible outcomes for all involved.
Create community agreements
The suggestion to create guidelines and agreements at the outset of a conversation may sound a bit stale, but trust me, it’s a powerful tool. Community agreements used deliberately and respectfully in group conversations can set the tone for behavioral expectations and allow everyone to buy into a set of principles that will help keep the conversation cordial and kind.
I usually present a suggested list of community agreements at the beginning of the conversation and invite attendees to add or remove items. Then, after the agreements have been solidified, we all agree to adhere to them. Some of my favorite community agreements include:
- Listen to learn, not react.
- Expect and accept non-closure.
- Name what you need to feel safe.
- Stay engaged throughout.
- See this as a brave space.
These community agreements, once agreed upon, can help ensure the conversation is kind, thoughtful and conducted with an open mind by all.
Manage your emotions
Discussing difficult topics like faith and politics can stir up a plethora of emotions from pride to shame and countless others in between. But why do conversations like this cause such an emotional reaction? Well, it’s partly because faith and politics are incredibly close to our hearts, personal values and way of living.
It can feel offensive to hear someone completely dismiss our way of life or speak in a way that conflicts with our values. But the country, and the world for that matter, are diverse places and we have to be able to regulate our emotions if we wish to engage with others who may have different opinions.
In my DEI workshops, I encourage attendees to, first, recognize their emotions. Are they feeling sad? Confused? Delighted? Upset? I advise them to notice — without judgment — what emotions are coming up for them. Simply recognizing the onset of feelings is the first step.
Next, I teach the person to practice self-regulation techniques. This can look like breathing techniques that calm the nervous system such as deep inhales and exhales. It can also look like stepping away to drink some water or take a break from the conversation or even the room, not to disengage, but simply to reset emotionally. Either way, learning to regulate one’s emotions when they are in a highly emotional state can truly keep the conversation cordial and on track.
I also encourage clients to stay focused on the issue. One person’s opinion about a topic isn’t an attack on your personal values or beliefs. Instead of giving in to the reflex to react defensively, simply focus on what’s being said. What is the person on the other side of the issue trying to communicate? What are their values? What is the topic at hand? Focusing on the issue can help you feel less like the person is attacking you, and more like the person is merely expressing their opinion on the topic — which is almost certainly what they are doing.
Finally, it’s important to know your triggers. What stressful events from your past are resurfacing in the conversation? What’s making your blood boil or giving you a shiver? Unresolved triggers can inspire heated emotions in the moment that other attendees may not understand. Feeling triggered and not being able to control your emotions can derail an otherwise meaningful and enlightening conversation. Knowing your triggers can allow you to step away from a conversation when the time is right. The result is more control over your emotions, a better-executed conversation, and perhaps mutual understanding.
Practice active, empathetic listening
In the moments when the last thing we want to hear is an opinion that confronts our own, the most skillful choice is to practice active listening. People are often confused about what “active” means. In this context, active listening means leaning in and truly engaging with what the other person has to say without interruption. It means giving them your full attention and practicing supportive non-verbal body language like making eye contact, nodding your head or sitting in a restful and relaxed position.
Active listening when paired with empathy can be an amazing combination when discussing controversial topics. Empathy is an essential part of DEI and can give you the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see an issue from their perspective. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything they say, but it does mean you are making an effort to understand where they’re coming from and striving to keep an open mind.
Empathetic, active listening can look like reflecting on what someone has said and then paraphrasing to check for understanding. It can include asking clarifying questions that aren’t disguised attacks but rather demonstrate a genuine interest to further your knowledge about a person’s position or ideology. Most importantly, it looks like suspending judgment. This is the part that some people take years to master. However, it’s worth practicing. Once you have the mental and emotional control to listen to another person’s perspective and remove judgment about their character or humanity, then you will have mastered the art of having difficult conversations.
Now more than ever, our divided society has a yearning to come together. From our faith, sexual orientation, political orientation or race, there is a connection void that’s ever-widening yet we share a desire to close it. I think the solution to bridging the gap and rebuilding a more cohesive and compassionate society is by engaging in difficult conversations with empathy and mindfulness. That starts with wanting to engage in these conversations, building emotional control, setting boundaries and truly listening to those on the other side of an issue. Most disagreements can often be boiled down to misunderstandings. People aren’t listening fully to one another and they can misinterpret what’s being said. To help us all become more compassionate and kind members of society, we must truly listen to the perspectives of those around us and seek to understand, not judge, their way of life and thinking.