Conversations about race, social justice, culture, or other highly-charged topics can become heated fast. But acrimony and resentment can quickly derail the discussion and are counter-productive. For authentic, effective conversations on sensitive topics, here are our do’s and don’ts.
DO: Put Aside Your Preconceptions.
If you’re talking about a sensitive subject such as race or social justice, check your preconceptions at the door. Whether we admit it or not, we all have biases and tend to make quick presumptions about others. While discussing a complicated topic such as race, notice moments where one of your preconceived notions about a person or group is being nudged or tested. Instead of becoming defensive and clinging to your old idea, make a conscious effort to open your mind to the uncomfortable possibility of being wrong.
DON’T: Dismiss or Minimize the Experience and Feelings of Others.
Everyone’s life experience is unique. If someone is sharing and you find that your experience has been different, or that you’ve had a similar experience but felt differently about it, realize that your reality is not more legitimate or valid. When someone tells you what their experience has been, and what it means to them, accept it as genuine and appreciate the diversity of human existence—and don’t try to argue with them.
DO: Manage your Emotions.
Make a conscious effort to keep your temper in check and your tone respectful throughout the discussion. If you begin to feel emotional, don’t speak. Instead, take a few slow, deep breaths before responding. You may be tired of hearing this adage, but science really does show that deep breathing helps control the nervous system and lower stress.
Conversations about sensitive topics become especially charged when people interrupt each other. Interruptions lead to raised voices and frustration as each person tries to talk over everyone else. Keep a notebook or piece of paper handy so you can jot down notes when someone makes a comment that you want to respond to, then wait for your turn to respond.
DO: Come Prepared.
If the conversation is planned—as a scheduled roundtable at work, for example, prepare for the exchange ahead of time. Do some reading or watch a film on the topic slated for discussion. Look for something that gives you a new perspective or fills in gaps in your knowledge. When you encounter ideas that test your preconceived notions, consciously reflect on that information rather than push it aside.
DON’T: Expect Perfection.
We’re all human. We’re all prone to mistakes and, hopefully, we’re all constantly learning from them. In a sensitive or controversial discussion, someone is bound to use a poor choice of words, get their facts wrong, or say something that triggers angry or painful emotions. When possible, give the person the benefit of the doubt. Think about where that person is coming from and gently offer a different perspective instead of lashing out or playing tone police.
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