Sometimes it’s HOW to have a crucial conversation that takes more work than the actual content of the conversation itself.
Do you struggle with getting defensive and wanting to be understood?
Is it easier to argue your point versus listen to their point?
Or do you get angry when the person you are talking with takes the topic down a completely different path?
Do you find yourself flustered when you feel like you can’t articulate what you want to say?
How about that feeling of embarrassment when you think you’ve said the wrong thing and then try to back peddle or explain what you really meant?
It makes sense why it’s easy to want to avoid challenging conversations. But you also know that avoiding these crucial conversations is perpetuating a culture of whiteness, a fear of diversity, and keeps oppression alive and well.
Oh hell no! We are brave and the courage is within us to disrupt, dismantle and call forth a new way of being in the world. For all people.
That means that even when were are angry, scared, embarrassed and whatever else…we are committed to the movement, we are dedicated to stepping up and continuing the crucial conversation that lead to imperative action.
Knowing how to engage effectively can make conversations that feel challenging, less painful. I have gathered some conversation guidelines for you to use on your own as you engage in these important conversations or you can share them with someone that you plan on talking with or you can share them with a group. Please use and share these guidelines, however, feels helpful for you in your world.
Reactive or Receptive
If someone is reactive, it will be hard to engage effectively. Sometimes it is better to wait until the person you are talking with is receptive. You can ask, “It seems like you are reactive to this conversation? Is this a good time or should we table it for another day?” That gives the person an opportunity to look at how they are being perceived (you didn’t say they ‘were being’ reactive…you said it seems like. Big difference) and gives them a choice to talk later.
Body Language and Agenda
Watch yourself for tense shoulders, clasped hands, nervous hair playing, butterflies in your stomach. When you are aware of your own reaction to how a conversation is going and where the fear, anxiety or stress shows up in your body, it is easier to address it and remind yourself that you are safe and loved. You are showing up and stepping up because you care and want a better world for everyone. This might seem scary or hard, but you also have a lot of privilege to bank on and there is always space for making mistakes and making amends if you are willing to practice, learn and be humble.
Be aware of the other person’s body language. Once you notice their stress or anxiety in the way their body reacts, you can step back and create some space. Perhaps soften your voice, take a pause, or take a minute to acknowledge that the desired outcome is greater understanding and let them know you appreciate their willingness to engage with you. Consider reminding the other person that you aren’t trying to win a debate, or prove that you are right and they are wrong, or show them how smart you are, you want to know more about their thoughts and you want to best articulate your own thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
Consider the relationship and the power dynamics
Not all relationships are the same. This we all agree on. And not all conversations will be executed the same or handled the same because of that very important distinction.
I’m going to engage with my husband differently then I will with a co-worker. And I will certainly use different conversation tools when talking with a client vs my teenager. The power dynmics must be acknowledged. I might find more courage to question the beliefs of my cousin then my grandfather. Not all people are the same. Not all relationships are the same. Your safety is crucial. Trust yourself to know when you need to discontinue a conversation and then question your decision later. Make sure you acknowledge when you are looking for an easy way out so you can challenge yourself better next time and also celebrate when you handle something better than you would have in the past.
The power of reflecting
This is practice and taking the time to reflect on what you didn’t say, what you wish you would have said, or maybe what you said that caused negative impact helps you learn and be better. Taking the time to reflect on the fact that you noticed you missed an opportunity and you promise to do better next time is worth celebrating too. There were years that went by when you didn’t even notice you had an opportunity to do better and the only way to can be better is by noticing where and how and committing to try.
Master your story
Know what stories share the beliefs you want to have conversations about. It might be your story or someone you know. It’s a story and people can’t argue with your story or your feelings. If you can tell a story that illustrates what you are trying to convey, it is a powerful way to connect.
Drop your agenda. If you have an agenda, name it so both people are on the same page but better yet, drop it. When you try and control an outcome of a conversation it is hard to stay open and actively listening. Allow the conversation to go where it will go, while staying on the topic. If you are willing to stay open, you may end up learning more about how you think, feel and the beliefs you were raised with as well as the other persons. If you have an agenda the focus might be so laser focused that you may miss an opportunity for growth and learning.
Use “I” statements. Don’t speak for another person or for an entire group of people. Focus on your own experiences.
“In my experience…”
“My parents taught me…”
“When this happened to me…”
“I think…” “I feel…” “I believe…”
Be honest and be willing to share and be vulnerable. No one is expecting you to know everything.
“I don’t know the statistics but I remember reading…” It’s okay not to know details, don’t let that make you insecure. It’s powerful to be confident in what you feel strongly about, whether you have data stored in your mind or not.
“It might not make sense to you, but it’s incredibly important to me.” This shows that you aren’t trying to convince them that what is important to you should be important to them. You are letting it be okay for them not to understand and you still want them to know that you understand what’s important to you and you want them to see that and acknowledge that.
Be brief. The pause can create a powerful moment and create space for both people to breathe and slow it down. You can always come back to the conversation at a later time too. Or start to get comfortable with longer pauses. Sometimes you can even say, “Hold on, I want to think about this for a minute.”
“Can we rewind, I said something that is bothering me.” Or “You said something a while ago that is bothering me, can we revisit it?” this can happen within the conversation or the next day. It is never too late to revisit a conversation.
Watch for detours and try to stay on topic.
“I hear what you are saying, but can we stick to the topic please?”
“Let’s talk about that another time…I want to go back to what I had originally said.”
“Whether she broke the law or not, she didn’t deserve to be shot and killed. I’d like to go back to talking about police brutality.”
Listen with curiosity and suspend judgement. Be willing to learn.
“That’s interesting. I don’t think like that. Thank you for sharing that with me.” This is an example of acknowledging you can hear them without needing to agree with them. If you can authentically be curious, you will avoid being judgemental. People can sense judgment and be more guarded if they feel you are judging them.
Resist the desire to interrupt. This is challenging. Resist it! IF you do it, acknowledge it, apologize and give the floor back to the other person.
Try not to take comments personally. Ask for clarification. Assume positive intent. You can feel strongly about something and not take it personal. It doesn’t mean you are a cold person, it simply means you are compassionate person who trusts in your own way of being. Also, it’s hard. I get it. Sometimes we will take something personal and it’s not the end of the world. Be easy on yourself. If someone says something offensive and you don’t think they meant it but you want them to know it isn’t okay, try this, “Ouch. Did you mean to say that?”
“That doesn’t land well with me. Do you want to know what I hear you saying?”
Or get bold and say, “Seriously? Did you just say that?”
Expect and accept unfinished business. We can’t figure it all out in one conversation. In fact, making the person you are talking to aware that you don’t have any expectation of figuring it out might create more space for open conversation to explore.
Create safety. By sharing your own stories when you noticed your biases, or said something that caused harm, you are creating a safety zone for others to not be perfect too. This is not about being perfect, this is about engaging in effective conversations. Making people feel comfortable is an important step.
The question behind the question. Reply to someone’s comment with a question like, “What do you mean by that?”
“Can you explain further?”
“I’m not sure I understand the intention of your statement. Help me understand.”
Or ask them if they want to say that again differently. An example is if someone tells me to “Man up.” I might say, “Hmmm, that doesn’t land well with me, do you want to try again?”
These are all helpful tips to start practicing. You may use many of them already and some of them may be new. The more you know yourself and how you think and what your natural tendancies are around conflict, the better you will be able to engage effectively in crucial conversations.