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Trainer QA

Crucial Conversations Tips for Managing Friendly Fire

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:

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Talk About Racism

Dear Maria,

I have never actually had a vulnerable conversation on racism with someone of another race than me. The conversation seems scary and awkward, but with everything going on, I’d like to reach out to my friends and colleagues of a different race so I can learn and better understand their perspective. Any advice for how to start a dialogue on race with someone who is, in fact, a different race than me? What should I say? What should I not say? It can feel a bit like a minefield at the moment, but I don’t want to let that stop me from trying.

Eager but Scared

Dear Eager,

First, I would like to commend you for even wanting to start a conversation with your friends on racism and racial inequality! In our current climate, it is so important to stay connected to, learn from, and support others. While these conversations are important to have, you made a great point about them often being scary and possibly awkward. So, what do we do to make these scary conversations a place of open dialogue and learning?

Start with Heart
For starters, be clear about your motives. Engaging in conversations about racism with someone of a different race, who likely has a very different perspective than you do, can be challenging for a number of reasons. You might be worried about using the wrong words or phrases and unintentionally offending the other person. You might be worried about sounding ignorant or uniformed. Both parties might be feeling emotional. You might just not even know where to begin. But consider that beginning is easier when your heart is in the right place.

At the onset, be clear about what the goal of the conversation really is. Are you trying to learn something? Strengthen a relationship? Having an internal dialogue about what you REALLY want for yourself and for the other person can lay a foundation for the conversation that allows you to reset anytime you notice things getting off track. Think of it as your dialogue “true north.” Clarify your motive and be laser focused on it throughout the conversation in order to make sure you are able to talk out your thoughts and concerns, instead of acting them out.

Contrast to Prevent Misunderstandings
One of the most powerful tools we have to create a safe space for dialogue is the ability to clarify our intentions with others. Begin the conversation with a contrasting statement that will clarify what you intend to accomplish as well as what you want to avoid. This contrasting statement will help you communicate your intentions upfront and is also a statement you can return to throughout the dialogue to really let your friends and colleagues know your intent. There is an old saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” In opening your conversation with your contrasting statement, address your intentions for the conversation AND your care and concern for the individuals participating in it.

Saying something like, “Listen, I am not sure of how to say this or if the words will even come out right and I apologize in advance if I mess it up. My goal is to learn more about the experience of a person of color in this country and I would love to get that knowledge from you. Would that be okay?” Or, “My goal is not to offend you or say anything out of ignorance that would be offensive. I just really want to try to understand some things I have seen and heard recently that I don’t fully understand. Is this okay with you?”

As far as what to say and what not to say, my advice is to speak your truth while being as confident and as curious as you can. Like so many of the most important conversations we have in life, there is no script. I would love to be able tell you, “Say this . . . ” and “Don’t say that . . . ” And yet, one of the most powerful things about even attempting these conversations is that each time we step up to them, we get better and better at what to say and how to say it.

And if you’re still feeling nervous, consider that the risks inherent in a conversation about racism are well worth the rewards that come from our growth and learning when they go well. Going into these conversations with a clear motive and skills to clarify our intentions can go a long way, even if we don’t say everything in exactly the “right way”!

I wish everyone was as eager as you are to begin learning and understanding more about racism. Doing so is as simple as having a conversation with someone who is different than you. It’s these crucial conversations that will begin to help us change the world.

I’ve shared other tips for engaging in conversations around racism, equality, and inclusion. They may be useful as you step up to these conversations yourself. Check them out.

Best of luck,

How Do I Say That Category

Taking About Racism: It’s All About Safety

Maria Moss, a VitalSmarts Certified Trainer, shares a Crucial Conversations tip for creating dialogue safety around inclusion and racial equality.