Difficult Dialogues with Curiosity and Intention

We live in a time when remaining silent on critical issues is no longer possible. Even if we have been living lives of relative comfort—the lives of our friends, families, and neighbors are at stake.

You know that you need to have more honest, transparent, and authentic conversations with donors, volunteers, and colleagues on race, bias, power, and white privilege, supremacy, and fragility. But you may be wondering how.

Thinking back on my years of facilitating intercultural trainings, this article hones in on those particular insights that have resonated most with participants—the “aha moments” people had and the insights that really helped change their perspectives and behaviors.

Stop downplaying differences

The first step in any conversation is to acknowledge difference. Downplaying differences is one of the biggest hurdles that prevents us from having meaningful and productive conversations about equity. It manifests in a variety of ways: the desire to swiftly “look for similarities, not differences,” the belief that we can all get along if we “focus on our shared humanity,” or to resolve any conflict we just need to “find common ground.” Although these statements are meant to inspire closeness, they go a long way in minimizing important differences that need to be acknowledged for us to better understand one another. Discomfort with noticing and acknowledging differences is what inspires this rush to identify with and cling to similarities that are often superficial (“we both like gardening”) and hyper-generalized (“we all want love and companionship”).

Friend and author Dr. Anu Taranath explains why acknowledging differences is so critical in her book, Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World (read it now, if you haven’t already). While we can “downplay our differences” in a conversation, we actually can’t downplay differences in our daily lives. In our daily lives, we do experience the world differently based on our skin color, age, gender, presentation, and abilities. 

“We have been socialized to remain silent, anxious, and sometimes unaware of how our identities have been constructed in relation to other people’s identities…” Taranath wrote. “If our differences actually could be downplayed, why aren’t they in society?… Because our differences continue to matter greatly in a world that is hierarchical and structurally unequal, we need to get better at addressing them” (2019, p. 12).

You job now is to not downplay differences in identity and experience anymore. Stop using the vague concept of “shared humanity” to suggest that we are all experiencing the world in a similar way—we are not. And if you are in conversation with donors or colleagues who rush to “look for similarities” before trying to fully understand a group or individual they don’t really know,  kindly explain that the more difficult task at hand is look for differences—and then to look at them, boldly, and with openness and honesty.

The conversation is the relationship

If we truly want to develop deep, meaningful relationships with donors, colleagues, and volunteers, we have to be willing to have difficult conversations. We have to have the conversation because if there is no conversation, there is no relationship.

The title of this section comes from the book Fierce Conversations, in which Susan Scott recounts a story from Yorkshire poet David Whyte. He complained that his wife would bring up the same topics over and over again. After two decades of marriage, a thought occurred to him: “This ongoing conversation I have been having with my wife is not about the relationship,” he said. “The conversation is the relationship.”

Scott elaborated on this by saying:

“If we add another topic to the list of things we just can’t talk about because it would wreck another meeting, another weekend, all of the possibilities for the relationship become smaller and the possibilities for the individuals in the relationship become smaller as well” (2017, p. 5).

We don’t want to limit the possibilities for our relationship to our donors, colleagues, and volunteers – we want to expand them. Begin thinking about the list of things “you are not supposed to talk about” and critically examine the reasons why not. Know which areas to focus on and get support from your leadership to have these conversations.

You can either be heard or be understood

We can’t demand others understand us if we are unwilling to understand them. This is truly the difference between being heard and being understood. Being heard means that people listened to what you said or read something you wrote. Perhaps they were paid to hear you, as they would be if you were a boss calling a mandatory employee meeting. Perhaps they paid to hear you, as they would be if you were speaking on a stage at a conference. Some will walk away agreeing with what you said, some will disagree, and some will have not been paying enough attention to form an opinion either way. This does not make you understood.

In a conversation, the way to be heard is to spend a long time stating your talking points while the other person sits in silence. The way to be heard is to interrupt them so you have more time to speak. The way to be heard is to defend your points and arguments at the first sign of discomfort or disagreement. This is how to be heard, without being understood.

In a conversation, the way for you to be understood is for you to ask questions and listen to the answers. Being understood involves a sincere attempt to understand the other person—whether or not you agree with their perspective—before you attempt to influence or persuade them. By shifting the spotlight off of you—your beliefs, values, stories, feelings—and on to the other person, your direct questions, and the space you provide for their answers can help prompt that person into deeper thinking and reflection that can actually guide them to the very insights you wanted to share all along.

This kind of facilitation is a skill and art that involves specialized training and only comes naturally to very few. While I can’t provide all the guidance to you in such a short article, the main thing I want to stress is that at any opportunity where you would normally make a statement, try asking a question instead.

Don’t judge yourself for silently judging others

One common piece of bad advice we receive is not to judge others. A judgment could take many forms, but usually the judgments we scold ourselves about are negative. While I believe it is important to keep our judgmental thoughts to ourselves and not purposely say anything that would harm another person, I cannot condone the limiting and censoring of our own thoughts.

Judgmental thoughts are manifestations of deeper values and beliefs that we may be taking for granted. These values and beliefs may be shaped by white supremacy, racist, ableist, and heteronormative ideologies, and we cannot explore those concepts with curiosity and courage if we are suppressing our own thoughts at their inception.

When we are told flat-out to “not judge,” what ends up happening is this:

  1. We still judge—because it is human and inevitable, and these ideologies run deep.
  2. We see the judgment as bad and immediately try to repress it.
  3. We begin internally withdrawing from the conversion to repurpose energy toward repressing the judgment—a very energy-intense endeavor!
  4. We feel internal shame for thinking the judgmental thought and later invest more energy into forgetting it occurred.

The far better approach is to follow these steps.

When a judgment arises:

  1. Notice it internally.
  2. Name it—to yourself, call it a judgment.
  3. Put the judgment in your mental “back pocket” for later examination.
  4. Continue the conversation, stay present and responsive to your conversation partner, and do not act on the judgment or redirect the conversation in an attempt to unpack your judgement verbally in that moment.
  5. At a later time, on your own, ask yourself the following:
    1. What values or beliefs did the judgment reveal?
    2. How you did you come to acquire those values or beliefs?
    3. What discrepancies exist between what you say you believe in and what the judgment revealed?
    4. How do the values this judgment exemplifies affect your ability to be a good ally to those with different identities and experiences?
  6. Only once you have answered these questions internally are you ready to have a conversation with someone else about them.

This is an important process of self-reflection and learning that is completely abandoned when we attempt to refrain from judgment or repress it altogether. Our silent judgments are important signals and symbols of deeper values systems that have been ingrained in us over the course of our lives. Spending the time to internally reflect on our silent judgments prevents those silent judgments from growing into harmful actions (like calling the police on a Black man birdwatching) that put peoples’ very lives at risk.

We owe it to ourselves and others not to repress these important signals but to learn from them to be better allies.


Never miss a post! Subscribe now: