Difficult Conversations About Race

The word Race in Scrabble tiles

Due to the tumultuous year of police violence and social unrest, racial consciousness is high. This new level of awareness gives us a unique opportunity to address what we can do as a society to make things better. 

Our motto at the American Negotiation Institute is that ‘the best things in life are on the other side of difficult conversations.’ My goal in this article is to make these difficult conversations easier. 

As humans, we’re always trying to figure out why someone said what they said or did what they did. The problem is that in these difficult conversations, searching for intent often leads to unproductive dialogue. 

For example, they may have caused racial harm out of ignorance but you accuse them of acting with malicious intent. This leads to a predictably defensive response, which makes it difficult to get to the substance of the discussion. 

Instead, give them the benefit of the doubt. It costs you nothing but means everything to them. When they can converse without the fear of vilification, they are more willing to engage, accept responsibility, and change their behavior. 

Remember, we’re not giving them a pass. We are still holding them accountable. We free ourselves from the need to be the mind-police so we can focus on the actions that were taken and the impact that those actions had. Ultimately what we want to do is change behavior. So let’s focus on that behavior, and in turn, make it a lot easier to have a productive dialogue.

When we are talking about race, emotions are inevitable. We cannot eliminate emotions from these conversations, but we can manage them by using The Compassionate Curiosity Framework from my book, Finding Confidence in Conflict: How to Negotiate Anything and Live Your Best Life

The steps are as follows: 

  1. Acknowledge and validate emotions. 
  2. Get curious with compassion. 
  3. Joint problem-solving. 

Step 1

Acknowledging and validating emotions is the most important part because it helps us to overcome emotional barriers. 

Labeling emotions is one of the most powerful ways to move people toward emotional stability in difficult conversations by diminishing the negative impact of problematic emotions. 

We want to use the following terms to label emotions: 

  • It sounds like… 
  • It seems like… 

For example: 

“It sounds like this is an important issue for you.” 

“It seems like you want to make sure that people are treated fairly.” 

With the step of validation, we’re not necessarily agreeing with them but we’re letting them know that based on their perspective, we can understand where they’re coming from.

We can’t talk about the substance until we address the emotions. 

Step 2:

Your secret weapon in these difficult conversations is curiosity. Make sure your questions are both compassionate and open-ended. Focus on questions that start with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” and “how.” 

Use the word “why” with caution because it is often associated with judgment and often triggers a defensive response. 

The reason the word compassion is included in this step is because we need to be mindful of our tone. If we use the wrong tone, they are likely to have a negative emotional response.

Step 3:

In joint problem solving, we’re inviting others into the process. We’re acknowledging that both parties have something valuable to contribute to the resolution. If you do this the right way, it feels like a brainstorming session: you both give ideas and suggest solutions. 

Collaboration builds commitment. If each person feels like they had a part in the process, it is more likely that they’re going to commit to a plan for the long term. 

What we’re doing here is creating a system of thoughtful, compassionate, and respectful responses, which helps to ensure that when we are faced with difficult conversations about race, we respond appropriately.

Remember this  — conflict is an opportunity.

Let’s bring civility back to these conversations and use this model to turn these discussions into opportunities to deepen our relationships, improve mutual understanding, and create the world we want and deserve. 

About Us:

At the American Negotiation Institute, we conduct negotiation and conflict resolution trainings that make difficult conversations easier.

Please reach out to our Chief Operating Officer, Katherine Knapke, if you’re interested in a customized training for your team and check out our website, www.americannegotiationinstitute.com to learn more!

Shout out to our intern, Nandini Malhotra, for doing the heavy lifting with this article. Make sure to connect with her!

Related post