Making Space for Difficult Conversations

There’s no denying the recent U.S. election has had an impact. Donald Trump was elected by polarizing voters into “Us vs. Them” camps and focusing on fears.

Now the genie is out of the bottle: certain groups and individuals have become emboldened, saying and acting however they choose towards others.  Trump’s ascendancy to the White House has not only divided the country, it has created friction in families and among friendships.

At the best of times the workplace is a petri dish where the complexity of human differences come together; where we  spend more time with other people than with our families. The effects of Trump Trauma has the potential to make the workplace toxic for some workers.

Conversations about differences in race, religion, gender, class – everything that makes us different from one another – were already difficult. Now, in the polarized atmosphere of Trump (North) America, it has become more volatile because we have one side of that conversation saying “We won, you lost.”  Now organizational leaders need, more than ever, to figure out how to have difficult conversations in the workplace.

How does an organization manage this?

Discussions about differences that matter, whether they be race, gender, sexual orientation, can be fierce conversations and there will be discomfort. To avoid discomfort or confrontation some organizations choose not to go down this road. But it’s better to be in control of the flow than to deal with the fall-out.

Obviously, you can’t ban uncomfortable discussions because employees will have them when out for lunch, at a social gathering, or at the water cooler. So how do you, as an organizational leader or manager, create an environment to have difficult conversations in a civil, safe and productive way that’s beneficial to the organization?

Even at the best of times we are not very good at having conversations.

Celeste Headlee, former reporter with National Public Radio offers some useful suggestions about how to have better conversations.

Here’s How to Create An Environment For Difficult Conversations

Be clear about why it’s important.

Organizations don’t exist in a bubble. People bring their whole selves to the workplace. This is where organizational culture and the individual’s personal or national culture intersect – the conversations can’t be avoided. Let your people know not only why they should have the conversation instead of sweeping it under the rug, but that it should be held in a way that is not toxic.

Connect to the core values of the organization.

Many organizations talk about creating an inclusive environment but often fail to do so. Inclusion is the most difficult part of the diversity-and-inclusion paradigm because inclusion demands a change in how “things are done around here. Revisit the organization’s values on diversity and connect the difficult conversation to those values by saying, “we want to have this conversation because as an organization we believe X, Y, Z.”

Encourage it to happen in a respectful way.

People don’t want to feel singled out or othered. Encourage and demand a respectful approach in day-to-day interactions. But those interactions and conversations can also be more formal. Perhaps your diversity committee could organize a lunch ‘n learn with a special guest, or bring an expert in to moderate a group conversation or have a special event and include  a panel discussion on a controversial subject on current issues.

It’s important people aren’t made to feel stupid or sexist or racist, or whatever. Positive and constructive discussions are fuelled by thoughtful, open-ended, exploratory questions.
Create a culture of global thinking.

Develop a global or intercultural mindset. Remind your people to be empathetic by looking at the world through the eyes of their co-workers, neighbour or a stranger. Ask them, for example, to consider the woman who was assailed with racist comments while waiting in line at a Toronto bank.

Consider things from her perspective instead of dismissing it as her being too thin-skinned or overly sensitive . If this had happened in your workplace, how would you have handled it? What more should the bank do in responding to this incident to assist employees and customers?

Here are a few exercises to help develop intercultural competence.

Do it regularly

The most important thing is to make it part of your organization’s culture, not just a one-time conversation inspired by extraordinary events. Make it a regular occurrence. After a while, employees will come to expect these occasions to share and learn. If you haven’t done so already, now may be a good time to establish a diversity committee or diversity and inclusion council.

Following these steps won’t stop difficult conversations from taking place but they will help to create brave and  safe spaces to encourage and nurture these conversations. In addition they will help in the development of your organization’s capacity to navigate the sometimes rocky shoals of cultural differences.

If you want to have better conversations about difficult topics, let’s talk  [email protected]

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