My kids went to the park at the weekend with my brother in law. Predictably they played football with the random selection of kids of all ages who gravitate towards the park. Or so I thought.
When they came home it turned out that there had been an incident – one which I and they are particularly sensitive to just now. Some other children had arrived and asked to join the football game. They were told that there was no room. The game was full. The fact that these four children were black is the thing.
I tried to imagine how they must have felt. Nothing overtly racist about that on the surface as there were lots of children playing in a limited space but everything about it felt wrong. In our local, predominantly white, community park where everyone joins in the football (even me sometimes) how could this be acceptable – and especially now?
My children are nine. Their uncle didn’t speak up because he didn’t want to start a row. He was incensed and at the same time didn’t feel he could say anything. There were parents there. Parents who stood by and apparently let this happen. Certainly, by not saying anything were they complicit?
These situations are so difficult. We don’t know where to start and so we avoid the confrontation and nothing changes. How do we find the right way to speak up when that moment comes, the moment we become aware of our privilege or of subtle discrimination whether it be in the playground, in the office or in any public place? How do we do this without raging or getting angry, without accusation, judgement or recrimination? How do we speak up so that we are heard and so that change starts to happen?
I chatted to my children about this on our way to the park the following day – it’s our daily ritual since lockdown. I asked them what had happened, what they had seen, how it had felt to them and if they were happy to talk about it. Immediately, they asked if it was racist. “What do you think?” I replied. They shared their views and then I ventured: What do you think you would do if it happened again? My son who is football-obsessed said: “I could swap out with one of them”.
In that moment, I knew that he understood, that the way to address some of the issues facing us is to educate our kids not only in the conventional history lesson sense but also in doing the right thing. Actions again speaking much louder than words. He was making, for him, the biggest sacrifice imaginable, and yet he had found a way to say something much more powerful than words.
Then it occurred to me that we had just had a powerful coaching conversation. And that’s what we need more of – not just with our kids but in so many areas of our lives.
Ethically, of course, coaching our kids, without them knowing breaks the standards set in the coaching world – you can only coach with permission. In reality, as parents we do this to a greater or lesser extent every single day with our children.
And often in my coaching practice, people ask about raising sensitive topics with others – at work or at home. So, here is my preferred process for doing this – the one I used with my son – and one that we could have used in the playground that day.
- Start by bringing up the topic, neutrally and without emotion – never accuse or blame, never use “you”. Assume good intent at all times.
- Invite participation and buy-in to the conversation
- Find a shared perspective – re-frame the topic together and come up with a shared perspective
- Problem solve together – keep an open mind and listen with empathy
- Commit to taking action
Of course, this is in essence exactly what coaching is about. It is about people finding their own answers to life’s challenges. The coach does not provide you with a selection of tried and tested or proven ways forward. Good coaches are brilliant at eliciting the answers from their clients by using tools and techniques that tap into values, generate perspectives and allow emotional shifts to take place.
If my children can come up with such a solution, I feel sure that the rest of us can too. And this approach can be used by adults too. Rather than raging, or blaming, or accusing or ignoring let us find the way to surface the difficult conversations in a way that is both safe and constructive. It is only by doing this, by sitting in the discomfort that we will see change.