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6 Skills to Facilitate Conversations of Race and Inequality

Like everyone else, I have seen with horror what has been happening over the last several days. With the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, here we are, once again, convulsing as a nation because of unnecessary racial violence and police brutality against our African American community — violence against African Americans that should not have happened in 2020 or at any time, to be clear.

 I'm not going to attempt to explain away all the reasons that brought us to this point, nor am I here to preach or tell people what they should do vs. not. I'm here, as Brené Brown usually says, to “dare greatly” and share with you some skills based on my experience as an HR professional and trained coach — skills you can use today to address and facilitate these difficult conversations at work and beyond. 

Before we dive in, I want to remind you, now is the time to practice and demonstrate:

  • Compassion, including self-compassion.

  • Grace, with yourself and others.

  • Bold and courageous conversations: saying something is better than keeping silent.

Skill # 1: Empathy   Empathy, not sympathy. According to Encyclopedia of Social and Psychology, Empathy is defined as “Understanding another person’s experience by imagining oneself in that other person’s situation: One understands the other person’s experience as if it were being experienced by the self, but without the self actually experiencing it. A distinction is maintained between self and other. Sympathy, in contrast, involves the experience of being moved by, or responding in tone with, another person.”

Right now our African-American colleagues and friends need us to be there for them. This means reaching out to him/ her in private, to offer a shoulder to lean on or space they need. Be mindful of inserting yourself into the story and not allowing them to be listened to and understood. Which leads me to the next skill.

Skill #2: Active Listening This is defined by the ability to focus completely on what the other person is saying and not saying. It is to understand the meaning of what is said in the context of the person’s inner desires, feelings, and self-expression. For this, we must make sure we are completely present for the other person. Allow them to finish their thoughts without interrupting them.

Remember to pause, mirror, and paraphrase: 

  • Let me see if I understand you correctly. What you just said is ____. Did I hear that right? How does that resonate with you?

Skill #3: Acknowledging  This one is key, and it is one of the most powerful forms of communication that we can offer. It is by acknowledging that we let the person know we really heard what they said. We let them know we sincerely care. It also signals empathy and respect. A warning here. Don't confuse acknowledging with sympathizing or agreeing. You are just making sure the other person knows they have been heard.

  • It’s understandable that you feel___.

  • Of course, you feel___.

  • It is completely reasonable that you feel____.

Skill #4: Validating  This skill goes hand in hand with the previous one, and it’s simply validating the feeling that was expressed by the person. When you validate, the person on the other side feels heard, respected, and understood. This is how you build trust and connection. You can use expressions like:

  • It’s completely understandable that you feel that way given ___.

  • It makes perfect sense you feel ___ because of___.

Skill #5: Be Curious At iPEC (The Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching), I learned this amazing principle: “Everyone is our teacher and our student.” There is no better time than now to share this principle with all of you. Be the student and the teacher. Ask questions such as:

  • How can I learn more?

  • What are the biggest roadblocks and what can help remove them?

  • How can I support you?

  • What perspective is missing from this conversation?

  • How can I help amplify your voice?

Skill #6: Design the Action Just get going. Remember that small steps lead to big actions, but nothing gets done if we are paralyzed by fear. In coaching school and HR, we learned the SMART framework for goal setting as a way to make sure our clients are clear on what the next action looks like and to see if that action is actually doable. You can apply this framework as you are looking at your teams and creating organization-wide Diversity and Inclusion initiatives.

Specific — What is the very first step or action?

Measurable — What will the measure of success be?

Achievable —Is the goal possible to achieve?

Reasonable — How reasonable is what we are committing to do? Can it be done now or on _ time frame?

Time-oriented — By when exactly?

As Lao Tzu said, “the journey of a thousand miles starts with one step.” Seize this moment to be vulnerable, have courageous conversations, and dare to lead, starting with one baby step at a time.


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