Five Ways to Have Better Conversations Across Difference

It's not easy, but we can find common ground in difficult conversations.

Courtesy of Stock Rocket / Shutterstock
Courtesy of Stock Rocket / Shutterstock

It’s hard to talk across differences in race, class, gender, political affiliation, sexual orientation, age, religion, ability, or any other kind of identity. We often lack the tools to help us graciously navigate conversations like these — and so we avoid having them. We just don’t talk, even though research shows diverse groups are more innovative, better at problem solving, more open to alternative viewpoints, and better off in the long run. (And it also turns out that avoiding these conversations can be toxic to our brains.)

As a diversity facilitator and former director of inclusivity at Colorado Academy (a pre-K–12 independent school), I’ve helped students, teachers, and parents find ways to enter these difficult yet critical discussions in all kinds of settings — at diversity conferences, through teaching an anti-bias social justice curriculum, and during professional development retreats.

Now, in my role as director of school engagement at Project Wayfinder — an organization focused on helping students develop a sense of identity and purpose — I continue to help schools thoughtfully navigate difficult conversations. These conversations invite students to reflect on who they are, what society expects of them, and how their identity informs their purpose. Here are five guiding perspectives I’ve learned from this work to make these difficult conversations just a little easier.

1. Listen to their story

Sometimes we just don’t know what we don’t know. Meeting someone where they are means truly hearing, recognizing, and honoring that person’s journey.

If you take the time to understand your conversation partner’s background, you’ll have a better idea if this person is even ready to have this kind of conversation. Maybe you’ll realize that first you need to build a relationship that fosters trust. Rather than jumping straight into a conversation about racism, for example, you might start by sharing where you first learned about your race and how you understand this part of your identity.

2. Try not to take anything personally

This one can be the most challenging. We aren’t robots. Feeling attacked for who we are can trigger anger, defensiveness, and other negative emotions. You may even write the person off, vowing to never talk to them again.

If disengaging entirely is what you need to do, then that’s what you need to do; racism and other forms of prejudice are real, and sometimes you need to protect yourself instead of trying to help another person grow. But, depending on the situation, there are other kinds of responses you might consider. What if you asked them to clarify? You could say something like, “Tell me more,” or “That’s interesting; what makes you say that?”

Questions like these are buffers against impulsive, negative reactions. More importantly, they give your conversation partner the chance to reflect on why they used the language they did. Through this reflection, they may realize that it didn’t come out the way they intended and decide they want to rephrase their thought. When having difficult conversations, it’s essential to try to have grace, giving others the room to be messy and offering the chance to recalibrate. 

3. Be a bridge, not a barrier

Often we don’t know how profoundly the things we say and do affect others. Making a joke, asking a question, or even giving a compliment can come across as offensive, whether we intend it to be or not. Learning more about our hidden biases and assumptions, as revealed by others’ reactions to our words, can yield great insight and self-awareness. From there, we can become more conscious of appropriate ways to interact with those who have different identities than we do.

Start by taking an honest inventory of why you avoid certain conversations—and yes, making jokes can be a way of avoiding them. Then, analyze what you typically do when someone points out something you did that was offensive or unkind. The ultimate goal is to be receptive and not defensive—a bridge, not a barrier. The more we open up, listen, and hear stories and perspectives of other incredible humans, the more likely it is that we’ll learn powerful lessons and give others permission to be their authentic selves.

4. Lean into discomfort

We all like comfort, and we all fall into the habit of avoiding situations that create negative emotion. But when we push ourselves to our edges and make ourselves stand in the fire, we grow and learn. Leaning into discomfort means saying, “This is difficult for me, but I’m going to continue nonetheless.”

The most powerful way to lean into discomfort is to stay present. Being present in a conversation is about really listening to what others have to say. That means allowing someone to finish their whole story or point before you share yours. It’s about more than not interrupting; active listening means making a sincere effort to understand what someone is trying to tell you and taking it in completely before sharing your part.

The second strategy to help you stay present is to notice your body — when does your heart beat faster and your breath shorten? Are your muscles tensing? Noting these physical cues can help us ease out of fight-or-flight mode and return to the moment.

Also try to notice and label your emotions. Saying to yourself, “I’m feeling offended/impatient/triggered right now” can help you create a little breathing room for yourself in tense moments and then keep going.

5. Set norms to create a safe and brave container

Agreements, or norms, are agreed-upon behaviors or guidelines that help build trust and community. Having a group set norms before a meeting or discussion helps everyone understand what’s expected of participants. Norms are useful to return to as reminders if the conversation stays off-topic or gets tense. Best viewed as a living document, they can always be changed, replaced, erased, and put up for discussion.

Here are some community agreements you might propose to create a safe and brave container:

  • We agree to be fully present
  • We accept the candidness of others as a gift
  • We accept conflict as a catalyst for change
  • We take risks
  • We speak from the “I” perspective
  • We respond rather than react
  • We honor confidentiality

No matter where we fall on an issue, if we’re willing to engage with people who have different backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences than we do, there’s hope for common ground…even between those with identities that seem impossible to reconcile, like Black Lives Matter activists and Trump supporters. With work and care and the suspension of judgment, it’s possible to locate shared humanity. And when we do that, we help each other become the best versions of ourselves.

Originally published in Greater Good Magazine.

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