Q. How can the Crucial Conversations skills help me be more prepared and less reactive in sharing my thoughts about COVID-19, racial equality, and other intense social topics in moments of friendly fire from peers?
I read a quote by J. Kehaulani Kauanui, professor of American studies and anthropology at Wesleyan University, which said, “Racism is a structure, not an event.” This reminds me of a point and concept that I love, teach, and like to remind myself of when I am ruminating on a challenging situation: crucial conversations may need to happen as a series of conversations. They can take place episodically and we may need to have more than one conversation to expand our understanding, move through our pain with grace, reveal our honest thoughts with vulnerability, and move toward a resolution.
A few weeks ago, I was speaking to a long-time friend in my hometown of Sydney, Australia, and she was expressing her frustration at the recent Black Lives Matter protests, particularly the looting. She mentioned her care for small businesses and how disappointing it was that people would disregard basic respect for one another. She also expressed how as a white woman with green eyes, she had experienced ‘racism’ by People of Color. As I was listening to her, I noticed my thoughts pick up speed, intensity, and polarity to what I was hearing. I felt a tightening in my chest and at the back of my neck and I remembered the pattern of distress I felt in previously contradictory moments; I uphold the peace, and it comes at a cost. I was certainly in the presence of what we trainers affectionately refer to as a crucial moment. An opportunity for growth and practice showed up. As a forever student of the VitalSmarts skills and a practitioner of the work as a Master Trainer, I reminded myself of the mantra I have practiced often lately: “Be gentle with yourself.”
When I’m being gentle with myself, it doesn’t mean that I withhold my thoughts, choose silence, feed my own version of a downward spiral, and suffer by feeling even more helpless because I didn’t share what I was really thinking. When I’m being gentle with myself, I am forced to review my motives for responding or not responding. In this crucial moment, when I was triggered by my friend’s opinions and thoughts, I had to decide whether I was more concerned about staying silent during our interaction or more concerned about sharing my truth based on my personal experiences.
As a facilitator, coach, speaker, and mentor in the Crucial Conversations practice, this truly was a moment to authenticate the power of my vulnerability. So, I could have responded like this, “You know, as I hear you share your thoughts with me, I’m finding my chest and neck tightening and I’m feeling really sad, at times angry, overwhelmed, and helpless for what is happening in our world right now. I’m also noticing that I have a different perspective than you do based on some different experiences. I am wondering whether this is the right moment to share my experiences and perspective with you. Are you open to me sharing my thoughts with you?”
Instead, since I knew my friend and I were due to catch up again at a future time, I chose to just share my overwhelm with her, without a need or request for finding a solution at that point in our conversation. So, I let out a sigh and said, “I hear you. I totally hear you. There is so much going on and there are so many layers to these difficult conversations. I feel the overwhelm and I sometimes don’t even know where to begin talking about the issues that are so present in my daily awareness and thoughts. It’s just a lot.” She said, “Yeah, it is, I just think we can all be kinder to each other.”
And just like that, a moment of healing occurred for both of us. My chest muscles relaxed, my heart softened more, and I was present to a moment of what some may call grace.
Now that I know more about her thoughts and opinions, I am curious. I look forward to what I will discover about her experiences and how they impact me, in our next conversation. I can’t make a promise to myself that I will not be triggered by what she says, and my guess is that I will be frustrated at some point during our conversation. But I can make a promise to myself that I will honor and share what is true for me in the moment. I will be mindful of my thoughts, physical body sensations, and emotional landscape, moment by moment so that I can show up in the arena of Crucial Conversations the way I want to when it matters most. The initial conversation between my friend and I did not become about sharing, proposing, and solving. Rather it was about respectable curious conversation, listening to one another, and simply being present in a learning situation. So, what tips can I share with you as you seek ways to share your truth with friends, family, and your community?
I can only tell you what has helped me:
- Be mindful of your physical reaction to another person’s opinion about crucial topics, such as diversity, economics, health and safety, politics, and even religion. Keep a record of the feelings so you can read them later. Seeing them on paper helps connect the word to the feeling in the moment, so not only can you feel your body’s stress responses, but also so you can articulate the emotion to a feeling and talk yourself down into a reasonable, rationale state of curiosity rather than one of being teacher.
- Have a response statement ready to go. Once you recognize how your body reacts in distress, you will be able to de-escalate more quickly and effectively if you have a go-to phrase that helps you settle into being curious instead of furious. As soon as you feel your body responding, you can focus on your phrase and, when you are calm enough, you can share it. Asking a question also buys you some time to come out of Lizard brain (fight or flight syndrome) and into the land of humanity.
- Remember to listen with respect. Once you ask the question, your job is to listen without interrupting, so that you can digest all the context and meaning. Active listening leaves little room for any other thoughts to go through your head except to analyze those thoughts being shared by the other person. Active listening means you can process, consider, and respond thoughtfully for a more productive conversation where both parties can learn.
My personal experience in having crucial conversations repeatedly allows me opportunities to dig deeper and expand my understanding of the world around me. It has helped me become a better trainer, a better friend, a better community member and citizen, and a better family member. Imagine if everyone could approach the world with a “Start With Heart” attitude and remained curious instead of furious. What a world that would be. You and I have the skills to start the dialogue that can cause a positive ripple in society at large and change the world by changing our own behavior one crucial skill at a time. So, let’s do it together. We got this.