Last month, I introduced the idea of uncomfortable conversations, those hard conversations we must have if we want to work on improving diversity and inclusion. This month, I want to talk to you about goals. More specifically, what do you want to accomplish with your uncomfortable conversation?
One answer I hear frequently is that people want everyone to be heard. They think that hearing each other and engaging with each other is a useful goal. I’ve got bad news for you. If everyone gets to be heard, you aren’t really changing the status quo. The privileged will still get to speak and will still get to speak the most. In order to allow everyone to speak, some have to listen. That means people who aren’t used to listening must listen and not listen to refute or defend but listen deeply to understand. That’s a tall order.
Other people tell me that their goal is to not get hurt. This is a sign that you’ve got some work to do before you try to have that uncomfortable conversation. Ask yourself, what causes me pain? Why does it hurt? People aren’t going to be nice to you just because you’re willing to do something hard. You have to enter the conversation prepared for pain. This is particularly true for people in power positions who aren’t used to experiencing pain in conversations.
Ultimately, the goal of an uncomfortable conversation must be clear because you need a clear goal in order to decide which strategies you will use to navigate the conversation. You want to craft a goal that you can achieve with the person or people you want to talk to. You also want to walk away from the conversation feeling that your needs have been met.
People who use a female communication style already have strategies for dealing with uncomfortable conversations. The female communication style includes learning to look for safe places, choosing your audiences carefully, smiling, complimenting others, and dealing with narcissism. Sometimes their strategies are hard on themselves or others. Standing up for themselves by not letting others interrupt leads to being seen as aggressive. Downplaying skills and opinions to seem less threatening undermines their authority.
As you consider the architecture of your uncomfortable conversation, the one you can plan and prepare for, remember that there are many people who do not get to choose when or where they have uncomfortable conversations. People of color, bicultural people, LGTBQ+, and more live in a world where the next uncomfortable conversation is always just about to happen while the pain of the last one persists. These individuals can seek each other out and share tips and tricks to empower each other, find listeners who will validate their experiences.
The work of uncomfortable conversations is important. We must learn to be in the same room together, coexisting with respect and willing to learn.