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Some Conversations Make Us Uncomfortable. How Can We Overcome Fear and Anxiety?

In 2007, a team of researchers published what is now considered a seminal study about diversity. They found Americans generally favor “diversity” as a concept but tend to quickly revert to what the researchers called “happy talk” when pressed: vague, inoffensive dialogue that doesn’t mean anything. The study found that this is true regardless of a person’s race, ethnicity, education, or level of eloquence.

Subsequent studies tell us the reason we fall so quickly into happy talk. It’s simple. We’re all terrified we’ll say the wrong thing and offend someone. 

Ironically, however, researchers have also found that the more someone worries about saying the wrong thing, the more likely it is they’ll do exactly that. If a speaker’s mind is occupied with a taboo topic, it’s sure to make its way into their remarks, even as they try to avoid it. Since worried people are often visibly tense, the people they’re speaking with sense their discomfort and may interpret it to mean that the person doesn’t want to talk to them. 

With this in mind, the most practical way of overcoming these fears is to establish the ground rules for a conversation. For example:

  • The conversation stays in the room. 
  • It’s okay to say you’re nervous about bringing up a topic. Chances are, others are too. 
  • Hurtful comments are not acceptable, but it’s better for people who really want to learn and grow to participate than stay silent out of fear. 
  • If someone does say something inappropriate, they shouldn’t be yelled at or humiliated but told why their comment was out of bounds.  
  • Remember that no one in the room is obligated to explain something they feel they’ve already covered too many times. Respect everyone’s limits.

At Ebony Marketing Systems, we are experts at designing and conducting multicultural research—and turning that research into communication that reaches people in a new way. We develop strategies that meet the needs of the communities you serve and those you want to serve. For more information, call us at (718)742-0006 or send us a message today.

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