Communicating about important topics, such as racism or privilege, requires practice, courage, and skill. Regardless of our intersectional identities, these conversations can be difficult, but they are necessary to create a more open and inclusive work environment at UBC. The more you practice difficult conversations, the more you’ll be able to manage the discomfort.
Start by knowing where you’re coming from
It is normal to feel discomfort as you reflect on your own experience with racial inequality or deepen your understanding of racism. Assess your comfort level and evaluate your source of discomfort. Do you feel unequipped to talk about race and racism? If so, educate yourself by studying history, following current events, and brushing up on anti-racism work. Do you worry about your ability to answer questions about race and racism? If so, learn to accept that you don’t have all the answers and let this be an opportunity to become better informed!
Dr. Tanya Sharpe and Dr. Geoff Greif demonstrate their approach to having difficult conversations
4 steps to navigating difficult conversations
There are many ways to have difficult conversations. A simplified approach developed by Dr. Tanya Sharpe and Dr. Geoff Greif, from The University of Maryland School of Social Work uses only four steps and can help you have something to lean on if you become uncomfortable:
Try to have an attitude of discovery and curiosity. Narrow your focus to the person you’re speaking with. Start by asking open questions (those are questions that can’t easily be answered with just yes or no), for example: Who are they? What are they trying to discuss? How did their experiences and the belief systems they grew up with shape their point-of-view?
It’s important to know that acknowledging their personal experience is not the same as agreeing. We can make others feel heard by acknowledging their experience without agreeing with everything they say. Allow space for them to share without interrupting to add your own experience. The goal is to have a constructive conversation and help each other learn.
3. Widen the discussion
The next step is to widen the discussion by incorporating wider perspectives into the conversation. A good conversation can happen when it is open-ended and people express and learn from one another’s experiences and perspectives. What can you see from your perspective that they may have missed? Is there something you can learn?
4. Problem solving approach
Now you’re ready to begin building solutions together. How can we move forward from here? It is important to remember that the goal of these conversations isn’t to solve racism, but to better equip ourselves and those around us in the ongoing fight against injustice.
Getting better starts with practice
The conversations may not necessarily get easier, but your ability to have more meaningful and productive conversations will grow. With a willingness to listen and acceptance that learning can be uncomfortable, these conversations will serve as the vital step towards fostering a more open and welcoming workplace.
If you’re interested in further developing your skills in navigating difficult conversations, here are some helpful resources:
- TEDx talk by Jay Smooth: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race
- Video by Jay Smooth: How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist
- Teaching Tolerance: Let’s Talk! Discussing Race Racism and Other Difficult Topics with Students
- Offices of Minority and Women Inclusion (OMWI): Navigation Guide for Difficult Conversations about Race in Troubling Times