It is July 2016. Temperatures, across the country, flirt with and cross into triple digits. Some enjoyed the fireworks of the 4th of July. Others soak in music festivals. Teens, tweens, and kids of all ages, create the memories of camp, of the beach, of funny stories shared with fast friends they will cherish for a lifetime. In many ways, this summer is very much like summers before it.
At the same time, this summer seems decidedly and tragically different than many others. As our nation processes more videos of police officers using deadly force, as we are assaulted by deadly attacks on police officers in Dallas and now, Baton Rouge, there may be and perhaps, should be moments when, our desire to be “strictly professional” collides with the reality that “business as usual”, is simply not an option.
So, how do we engage in difficult conversations on difficult topics, areas where we may disagree profoundly? How, when emotions run high, can we engage our colleagues, while remaining collegial?
How do we, in short, work through and work past stances or statements that offend us?
While our execution will always be a work in progress, there are guidelines we can follow to give ourselves the best chance at the best outcomes in these difficult moments in difficult dialogues: The 3 C’s.
“Jeff” is an African-American in the medical field and relayed a story from his days as a hospital volunteer:
As a volunteer, it was my job to clean the rooms. Basic stuff, usually. Empty wastebaskets, whatever. Well, I went into a patient’s room and said, “Hello”. Nothing. Now, I’m looking at this young white guy, with his shaved head, staring straight ahead, ignoring me, and thinking, “Oh. I see. I’m just here to clean up after him. He doesn’t have to acknowledge me”. So, a little later, I’m still salty and turn to the nurse at the nurses station, “What’s up with that dude in 302?” “Oh, him”, the nurse started from behind the counter, “he had a bad accident. Head injury. Can’t speak.”
Ever since that day, I use the Nurses Station Rule: Before filling in the story myself, I ask questions.
In most conversations, but particularly when dealing with the high stakes of high emotion, we’d all be wise to employ our own versions of the “Nurses Station Rule”.
Ask questions. Clarify. Explore. Remember the old maxim about assuming and avoid it.
When we ask questions in these moments, we replace judgement with curiosity, entrenchment with openness. The key is to listen. Once we ask our questions, we need to listen to the answers. We must truly listen as others speak, rather than focusing on calculating our response.
It may be that the troubling stance or personally offensive statement was exactly what we thought or landed as intended. To say that we need to listen is not to say that we must agree, that we abandon our convictions. That is not the point at all. The truth is quite the contrary, actually.
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
“Convert” is not one of The 3 C’s. It is possible that at the end of a given difficult conversation, that we might shift, change, or complete reverse our stance. However, that is, in no way, required to be true to this first “C”. Simply collect information from others in the conversation.
Mutual respect is a foundational element of effective communication around difficult topics.
Never read the comments.
Social Media “Rule”
Our social media platforms are littered with dialogues that derail before they have the slightest chance of getting started. Comments and Tweets about complex sociopolitical issues often devolve quickly into ad hominem attacks, “verbal” bloodsport with sides chosen, before anyone has had an opportunity to learn anything.
And thus, the “joke”: Why, oh why, did I read the comments?
Like all jokes, there is truth to the despair in the question.
That dynamic points us toward the power of the second “C”: Connect. To connect personally is not necessarily to focus on “common ground”. While often well-intentioned, a singular focus on commonality can be experienced as a dismissal of personal and cultural differences that some might feel are critical, whether to the topic, their identity or both.
Instead, the goal here is to understand the other person(s) in the conversation as best we can. And even if we are unable to walk a mile in their shoes, we can strive to appreciate that their relationship to shoes might be different than our own.
If you grew up with holes
in your zapatos
the minute you was havin dough…
Jay Z, “99 Problems”
Jay Z’s defense of the materialism of which he is accused, points us toward the basic reality that our views, our opinions, and our deeply held beliefs are shaped by our experiences. When we learn about, consider, and respect the experiences our colleagues bring to the table and/or share, we not only honor their views, opinions, and beliefs, but also their very humanity, their right to be who they are.
From that place, we are best positioned to address actions or statements we have found problematic. From that place, we are most likely to impactfully…
Correct The Offense
This is the “C” we see most often, unfortunately, whether in our organizations, our nation, or the world, at large. Too many of us are in a hurry to “win” the conversation, losing sight of the fact that we need to be on the same team. We are happy to correct others.
In too many cases, though, we correct without collecting information or connecting personally, allowing our correction to land as (or actually be) an attack. The anger, the pain, the hurt that are at play when we deal with issues like police brutality, race, and violence against the police, lead us to make statements and choices that are more likely to do harm than good.
A colleague shared a story of facilitating a Diversity & Inclusion seminar:
We were all having a good time. They [the participants] were teasing me, giving me a hard time, and as we laughed, I said, “You guys are treating me like a redheaded stepchild”. Well, at the break, a woman came to me, upset. “I have stepchildren. And I couldn’t love them more. I’m insulted when people use ‘stepchild’ that way.” She was really upset. I apologized. I’ll never say that, that way again.
While the issue, in this case, was more personal than political, the power of employing The 3 C’s is evident. The woman had time to experience this person who had said this offensive thing. She’d learned from him. She’d connected with him. Her correction, then, was delivered in that context and spirit.
Through one difficult conversation, our corrected colleague, not having to defend himself from attack, was able to learn a lesson. He knew better and was positioned to do better. That had everything to do with the approach of that courageous, loving stepmom.
When we collect information and connect personally, we, on some level, earn the right to correct… and we leave room for our colleague to stand corrected.
The Kaleidoscope Group