Embracing Difficult Conversations About Race — How You Can Start Making a Difference

The best things in life are on the other side of difficult conversations. That is my guiding principle, and I think in this situation, this truth couldn’t be more clear.

Today, more than ever, we’re all having to engage in emotional, personal, and impassioned conversations about race and justice in our society.

This is why we are inspired to empower others with the confidence and practical tools to handle difficult conversations about race through our diversity and inclusion trainings and free resources because you can’t solve problems if you can’t talk about it.

In recent features by CNBC, Forbes, and USA Today, I talk about how the recent social unrest sparked by George Floyd’s murder has forced us to examine how are we getting involved in these important dialogues, and how they impact diversity and inclusion both in the workplace and the community.

There is no question that Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd were brutally murdered. Having seen the videos of these tragic incidents, society is in turmoil as we process this and as we decide how we move forward to deal with another murder of a Black individual under conditions that perpetrators appear to believe are sanctioned by law.

For many of us, these conversations are challenging not only because of the painful subject matter but also because we’ve experienced it all before. We’re at a loss for words but desperately want to talk about the situation. What should we say?

My goal here is to help to make these difficult conversations a little bit easier by giving you some simple and actionable tips that you can use to start having these conversations and avoid some critical mistakes.

By the end of this article, you’ll know what to say, how to say it, and when to say it in order to maximize its impact while minimizing the risk of destructive dialogue.

What’s Your Goal in the Conversation?

Before we even start to talk about what you should or shouldn’t do, we need to talk about our goals. If we don’t, it’s almost like asking for directions without a clear destination.

This might seem trivial, but I think it’s important. Sometimes when I hear some of the things people say to each other in these conversations, I ask myself, “What is their goal”? It’s not clear to me.

When somebody tries to have an emotional conversation without a clear goal, the person on the other side of the conversation can be left feeling frustrated, confused, and possibly offended. We need to have more clear goals so that we can be more targeted with our message.

This is a very important point: Sometimes the goal is just to be heard, or to express some emotions so that the person can just understand, accept, and acknowledge how you feel.

That is a valid goal.

It just helps if you make your goal clear to the other person.

In other conversations, you may actually want to persuade them to change their perspective or their behavior in order to make a positive change in society. In his bestselling books Influence and Pre-Suasion, Robert Cialdini explained the 6 different persuasion strategies that you may adopt so people will really embrace your ideas:

At the American Negotiation Institute (ANI), we have developed a training on Persuasion and Influence For Leaders, which can be requested here.

You can also find relevant discussions on this topic in podcast episodes of Negotiate Anything, a top negotiation podcast that I’m hosting, and Ask With Confidence, which is hosted by our COO, Katherine Knapke.

As an additional resource, the tools in the rest of this article will be very helpful for you.

The Compassionate Curiosity Framework Makes Difficult Conversations Easier

We need some kind of framework that we can use to be effective in these conversations. In my book on negotiation and conflict resolution called ‘Finding Confidence in Conflict: How to Negotiate Anything and Live Your Best Life’, I outline a simple framework that we can use in all of our difficult conversations. It’s called the ‘Compassionate Curiosity Framework’.

This 3-step framework is designed to be universally applicable. It’s something that you can use when having any difficult conversation. This is the foundation I teach in trainings at large corporations and small nonprofits because it’s universally applicable.

The range of emotions individuals are experiencing is vast. People are feeling hurt, sad, annoyed, disappointed, angry, or ashamed. These emotions are being felt by people all around the country, and if you don’t take the time to acknowledge them during the conversation, you’re going to struggle.

With this framework, the rule of thumb is that whenever you see this specter of problematic emotions, you acknowledge it.

How do you acknowledge emotions? Say things like “it seems like,” “it sounds like,” etc. For example, “It sounds like the situation has had a serious impact on you.”

In this part of the framework, we ask open-ended questions with the goal of learning more about the other side. A simple question that we can ask if we have a friend who is in serious emotional distress about the issue is: “What can I do to help?”

We want to stick to questions that start with who, what, where, when, and how in order to open up the discussion and encourage the other side to share. Did you notice that we avoided “why”? Questions that start with why are often interpreted as judgemental and can trigger a defensive response.

The key thing to remember is that your tone matters. Simply keeping the phrase “Compassionate Curiosity” in your mind during these conversations will help you to be more effective and avoid hostility.

This TED Talk on Finding Confidence in Conflict highlights how Compassionate Curiosity “fosters a genuine desire to understand, that is tempered with empathy and respect.”

The final thing we need is simply a collaborative negotiation. Essentially, we are working with this person in the form of a collaborative brainstorming session to figure out what can be done to improve the situation.

Again, knowing what to say and when is one of the learning objectives of the How To Have Difficult Conversations About Race training.

Another important training that’s important for collaborative negotiation is Implicit Bias For Effective Communication.

Can Shaming Someone Drive the Message Forward?

The next thing we need to consider is the concept of shame. Brene Brown is the one who popularized this in recent times with her work on shame and vulnerability.

We want to make sure that what we do and say are calibrated to meet our goals. Sometimes the way that we approach it might trigger shame, and shame can be problematic.

Shame is a risky strategy because it often leads to the opposite of what we are trying to accomplish. Shame can lead people to recoil or pull back, which is often the opposite of what we want people to do. The goal here is to be open and to be more inclusive.

Now let’s play devil’s advocate: what about the people who should be ashamed about their behavior? Are we letting them off the hook?

When people do something or say something that is wrong, they should be held accountable for what they did. Shame is not a requisite part of that equation.

Here are some questions to consider:

We have to consider the real possibility of significant collateral damage. Sometimes we feel so strongly about something and we are so upset about something that while trying to tear down the system, we tear down our friends, family, and colleagues who are close to us in the process.

Words are powerful and we have a very powerful message in our hands. We need to harness the power responsibly and target it at the right place. The fact is that if we manage to target our message appropriately, we can have a much greater impact.

Next point:

I’m not Black but I see the injustice. I see the pain that my Black friends are feeling.

But I don’t know what to say.

First of all, let me commend you for feeling that way because it tells me that your heart is in the right place. You recognize when there’s a problem. You recognize that there’s something you should do, but you don’t know what to do.

In negotiation, sometimes the most powerful thing we can do is state the obvious.

That’s what you can do here.

If you want to be supportive to your friends who are Black and you don’t know what to say, try this:

That perfectly encapsulates how you’re feeling, and it’s in line with the Compassionate Curiosity Framework.

This is a very simple way to open the dialogue. Then, if your friend is open to it, you can transition to joint problem-solving and come up with solutions for how you can effectuate change.

Emotional Motivation Vs. Commitment

Studies have found that oftentimes when people hear motivational speeches, they become inspired to act in the moment, but the change doesn’t last for long.

This is because the desire to change was built upon a shaky foundation — emotions.

Emotions are incredibly powerful, but they fade.

They eventually disappear, and if the persuasive conversation was rooted in emotion alone, once that emotion disappears, so does the desire to change.

So what should we do instead?


we’re looking for. We need to close the deal.

Think about the hardest things you’ve accomplished in your life — going to school, getting a degree, starting a business, whatever it might be for you. You didn’t always want to do what you had to do but you did it because you were committed.

So in these conversations that we’re having, if we want to make real change, we can’t just get people to say that they will do things when they are emotional. We need to get true commitment.

The question is, how do we do that?

If we are making statements that are meant to target a large number of people, this is like marketing, which is important, and a powerful way of getting messages across. However, we now need this to transition this into a personal commitment.

My Challenge to You

My challenge to you is to get someone to commit to doing something tangible that starts to chip away at the power structures that create these horrendous outcomes.

Persuasion is most powerful when it’s targeted at an individual.

You want to target the individual in order to avoid diffusion of responsibility. This is an important psychological term that essentially means that if a persuasive message is sent to many people, those people assume that someone else will take on the responsibility to act. When they think this way, it becomes less likely that anyone will do anything.

When you narrow your focus to a specific person, it’s harder for them to assume (or hope) that somebody else will probably take action.

So here’s an example of how you can start to utilize commitment. In his book Influence, Robert Cialdini talked about how powerful commitment can be. Let’s blend the power of commitment with avoiding diffusion of responsibility to create a persuasive strategy that packs a punch.

Let’s say you made a post talking about the murder of George Floyd, and it got 100 likes. That’s great. Your marketing campaign was successful.

Now, what do we do to take it to the next level?

Reach out to a few of the people who you believe are uniquely situated to do something in this battle against institutional racism. For example, you could say, “Thank you for liking the post. I appreciate it. It shows me that you really care about the situation.”

Then you say, “I wanted to ask you, what kinds of things do you think could be done to address the issue of systemic inequality in our country?”

Think about what we did there with those few sentences: we acknowledged emotion, we reminded them of their commitment to a position, and now we’re gathering information by getting curious with compassion.

And then in the next few sentences after they give a response, we could ask them what they are personally planning on doing to make a difference. This is where we get them to truly commit to action in the joint problem-solving phase.

High-Level Cognition Fuels a High-Level Conversation

One of my good Black male friends was in a meeting recently. There were also two white women, both married to police officers in the call.

They were having a conversation with each other, talking about how difficult this situation is for their husbands and how it seems as though the protesters are just stir-crazy because they’ve been in their houses for too long and they’re making a big deal out of the situation.

My friend was livid.

Then after talking about this amongst themselves for a while, they said, “John, what do you think about the situation?”

And his response was, “For the sake of the meeting, I think it’s best that I don’t say anything right now.”

That was the best thing for him to say.

Sometimes you are not in an emotional state where you can have the conversation you need to have, and that is completely okay.

One of my favorite sayings is, ‘You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube’.

What this means is that once you say certain things, you can’t take them back and the damage is already done. It’s better to wait until you are not in such an emotional state and are able to respond appropriately.

You may feel compelled to respond, you might feel as though you need to have that conversation; but you need to have a high-level conversation. In order to have a high-level conversation, you have to have high-level cognition.

When you are highly emotional it’s unlikely that you will be functioning at your highest level.

It’s okay to take a break. It’s okay to postpone the conversation if you genuinely believe that you’re not in an emotional state where you can handle it.

There’s no shame in that.

In my presentations, I often talk about the concept of micro negotiations. With micro negotiations, what we do is we recognize in the middle of a negotiation that we might not be able to get a deal. We might not be able to accomplish what we came to accomplish in this conversation, and that’s okay.

Sometimes the conversation is more difficult than we anticipated and we realize that if we push too hard right then we could lose the deal completely. If we are in this situation, what we should do is continue to use the framework, but instead of pushing for a commitment, we accept the gains that we’ve accomplished during the conversation and we come back at another time to finish it.

Essentially, what we’re doing is acknowledging emotions and getting curious with compassion and pausing before or during joint problem-solving.

Important: this is not an excuse to avoid having the conversation.

What I would suggest is that if you decide to turn the conversation into a micro negotiation, schedule the follow-up conversation.

Be Part of the Conversation

These are going to be some of the most difficult conversations you will ever have, and at the same time, they are some of the most important conversations that you will ever have. They are important to you, they are important to the other person, and they are of critical importance to our nation.

The only way that we can create the just and equitable society that we want to see is through seeking change with discussion, action and commitment.

It doesn’t take much to make a positive change, but it does take something.

Don’t feel as though the problem is too big and your contribution is meaningless — because it’s not.

If your goal is to personally end racism and experience perfect equity, you are going to live your life frustrated and disappointed. That constant level of frustration and disappointment will lead you to burn out.

Now we’ve lost another valuable asset to the cause.

I’m not asking you to settle — I’m asking you to adjust your expectations.

Ask yourself this question:

What is something small and realistic that I can do today to make positive change?

If you keep on asking yourself that question every day, every week, every month, every year, you’re going to look back on your life and say, “I made a difference.”

You will be fueled by those daily, weekly and monthly wins, and that will create more positive momentum for you. This will create momentum for the movement at large.

I hope this gave you some more tools to be able to engage wholeheartedly in these conversations.

We need you to be a part of this.

For more on the topic of how to have difficult conversations about race, check out this interview by Dr. Lara Spence for an episode of Spartan Up!