Navigating Difficult Conversations About Race and Injustice

Tips to help you have productive and calm discussions with your loved ones.

Oliver Rossi/ Getty Images
Oliver Rossi/ Getty Images

Right now, many of us may be having difficult conversations with people close to us, whether it’s challenging a loved one’s use of “All Lives Matter,” digging deep into the realities of systematic racial injustice in our country, or discussing policy changes to address inequity. These conversations — even with those we love — are often tough, but they are necessary to promote a shift in our culture. As Thrive founder and CEO Arianna Huffington wrote in her newsletter this week, “A change in our laws and policies has to come hand in hand with a change in our hearts.” 

We asked our Thrive community to share the conversation advice they’ve used to successfully encourage someone to rethink race and racial equity. Which of these strategies will you try?

Come from a place of compassion

“I find that coming from a place of compassion is powerful and key — something I learned from taking an allyship course last week, run by anti racism educator and TED speaker Nova Reid. When we, as white allies, can drop the need to be right and the desire to shame others, focusing instead on mutual transformation and reducing harm, we can truly sow the seeds of change in those we seek to convince to change their views. Facing up to our own guilt and shame comes first. Only then can we come from a place of love and compassion and work towards healing on a wider scale.”

—Rebecca Caution, life and business coach, London, UK

Listen first

“As an ally, my job is to listen. My job is not to be an investigative journalist, or to share my own sexist or racist experience to counter theirs. My job is not to provide solutions, to brainstorm, or to offer an action plan. My job is to listen, and to listen to their truth. My job as an ally is to accept what they are telling me to be true. Listening comes in all forms. It’s not my Black friend’s burden to continuously educate me, reliving the trauma of their daily experience. It is my job as an ally to commit to educating myself.”

—Mita Mallick, head of diversity, Jersey City, NJ

Make the person feel heard

“Ultimately, people want to know they are being heard. The more they feel they are heard, the more they tend to share. When you don’t feel like someone is listening to you, it tends to make you feel invisible. Allow them the space to talk and share without interjecting with your own experience. Do not ‘one up’ them. You know every time you share something, the other person is always more stressed, or more sick. Just focus on the words they are saying without thinking about what you want to say next — that is just mental multitasking.”

—Lori Milner, author, speaker, and trainer, Johannesburg, South Africa

Point out your shared values

“My most successful conversations with racist people have been with those with whom I share a future: neighbors, work colleagues, and family. I begin by framing our shared values, such as the right to human dignity, equal treatment under the law, and community well-being. I recently said to a neighbor, ‘We have been getting along together as neighbors, helping each other out, and I want that to continue. You can’t use demeaning terms about African Americans, or anyone, around me. I have people of color visiting my home and I have told them that we have a welcoming community.’ He looked me in the eye and said, ‘You’re the first person who didn’t join in with me or laugh.’ And that started a discussion about the sources of his prejudice.”

—Diane Gillespie, emerita professor, Seattle, WA

Tap into their perspective first

“As a brand strategist and storyteller, I know getting someone to rethink anything can be challenging. And as a Black man in corporate America, I can empathize that getting someone to rethink race and racial equity can feel like an insurmountable feat. I suggest approaching the situation with empathy, and that starts with doing a bit of planning. Narrow your focus on the person you’re talking to. Who are they? What are your perceptions of their view of the world? How can you remove barriers to vulnerability and reduce defensiveness? Stating barriers to believing upfront shows you understand, and are there to understand more. By modeling care and open-mindedness, they mirror it back when it becomes your turn to share your perspective. When you present yourself as a friend, it becomes difficult for your thoughts and words to be perceived as originating from an enemy.”

—Michael Tennant, brand strategist and storyteller, New York, NY

Don’t avoid the topic at work

“My grandfather was killed by a white cop when my mother was only 13 years old. It’s difficult to translate the impact that has on a family and the family’s trust in the judicial system or police force. Now, I live in the same city where Walter Scott was killed, still trying to understand why Black people still have to fight so hard to end the inequities of this system. When I share my story or experiences with white friends or colleagues within my field, it’s glossed over. I am one of a handful of Black professional women working in a manufacturing company where the entire leadership consists of older white men. Yet the vast majority of our production employees are Black.

We lead with saying our organization is family. Staying neutral as human resources professionals and leaders in environments like this makes us feel invisible. Staying neutral says that we are family so long as you don’t bring up the issues facing the Black workforce when they leave the premises. Equally disheartening and disappointing is reading the comments from my white industry colleagues who choose to believe that we’re not being targeted or we did something wrong. I’m challenging anyone in H.R. with the title of diversity and inclusion and chooses to stay neutral to have a conversation with their Black employees.”

—Nesha V. Frazier, H.R. business partner, Charleston, SC

Acknowledge their feelings with empathy

“I find that when dealing with difficult people in conversation, it’s important to acknowledge their feelings with empathy. Simply acknowledge the feelings that they are expressing or, equally, not sharing. ‘That must make you feel really anxious.’ ‘I’m sure you must feel really helpless if your kids are far away.’ A great quote I heard was, We are all in different boats but all in the same storm.’ At this point in quarantine, we have no idea how some people have been affected mentally, financially, and emotionally. Just put yourself in their shoes and imagine how it must be for them. That is the only way we can have these conversations with sincerity and kindness.”

—Lori Milner, author, speaker, and trainer, Johannesburg, South Africa

Don’t be afraid to tell your story

“Not only has George Floyd’s death caused me to recall a personal traumatic event, but I have found myself repeatedly telling that story to many of my friends who are white. The incident involved police abuse of power and left me forever wounded. I recently shared my story with Chuck, a friend of over twenty years. Chuck listened, then thanked me, and shared that he had been trying to find the best ways to educate himself. He told me that hearing stories like mine helped him better understand what people of color have been enduring. Chuck thanked me for telling my story, and informed me that he had begun his journey to better understanding racism with the hope that he will effect change someday. I thanked Chuck for his courage and honesty, and for choosing to know, see, and do better. His actions have warmed my heart and helped me change my feelings from rage to a more cool-headed state of mind.”

—Marcia Jules Hylton, corporate marketing manager, El Paso, TX

Do you have a certain tip that helps you navigate difficult conversations with loved ones? Share it with us in the comments. 

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