Learning to listen to and deal with the pain of conversational partners
I think we are starting to get comfortable with talking about uncomfortable conversations. Last month, I wrote about the importance of deciding on a goal for your uncomfortable conversation. Today, I want to talk to you about the importance of reflection.
We’re going to start with a hard question. When you’re facing the prospect of an uncomfortable conversation about racism, ask yourself first, “what does my discomfort say about me?”
You see, the feeling of discomfort comes from want to avoid something that makes us uncomfortable. What is about the situation or the topic is making you uncomfortable? Is it your own privilege or ignorance? Do you have more power than you are used to? Less? Are you afraid of something? What are you afraid of? These are not easy questions to ask or answer, but this is the work that must be done.
What often happens is that people direct their discomfort at others instead of reflecting on their own feelings. In my work, this often takes the form of audience members asking questions that are aggressive in tone or that make demands of the speaker. In my work as a diversity facilitator, it’s my responsibility not to defend my work at this moment, but to examine the moment for the benefit of myself and all attendees.
The attendee is often a person who is used to being in power. More often then not, they are white, often male, and usually older. Possibly unfamiliar with discomfort and use their “question” in an attempt to restore a power structure that is more comfortable to them, one in which they decide the terms of the conversation.
They want to silence me. I reject that.
For people who are used to being in power, sometimes, the hardest thing about an uncomfortable conversation is the realization that their job in that conversation is to listen and not talk. Their job in that conversation might be to deal with their own discomfort and not expect others to adjust for them.
On the flip side, if you are a person who isn’t usually in a power position. If you are BIPOC or a member of a marginalized group, your job may be to allow the other person to feel their discomfort. Your work may be to arrive at the point where you can say to them, “I’m going to take away your right to make me feel like I am less because I do not accept that.”
Deep reflection on power and uncomfortable conversation can help you prepare yourself for the discomfort you are going to feel. If you’re used to a power position, you will likely feel bad about yourself at some point as you realize the mistakes you have made in the past. You may have to readdress the way you deal with other people’s boundaries. You may have to deal with your interlocuter’s pain and live with the fact that you caused it.
If you are a person of color or otherwise marginalized, you may have to reflect on how you want to exercise your power in a conversation. You may have to realize that you are under no obligation to answer questions if you do not want to. You may have to think about whether you need self-care before, during, or after the conversation and how you are going to manage that self-care. You may have to consider what you need to feel safer or restore you feelings of safety. You may have to learn to set your boundaries and maintain them.
Your choices in all of these matters will depend on the goal you have set for your uncomfortable conversation. With clear goals, you can effectively reflect on what you will need for the conversation you are planning to have.
If you’re looking for more information about how to set goals and reflect prior to an uncomfortable conversation, you might want to consider joining Seyda’s intervision group. There are separate groups for BIPOC and white professionals who want to grow and do this vital work. Email Seyda for more information.