The Courage to Have Human Conversations

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Context: We currently live in a highly sensitized time in history.

With #TimesUp, #MeToo and racial tensions throughout our country we see the potential for polarization in our communities and workplaces almost daily, through the news, social media and political spectrum.  

Most of us have to work for a living and that often means sharing space with people that have diverse backgrounds, from other countries, different skin color, sexual orientation, generations, and beliefs. With all of this comes varying perspectives, ways of communicating, and more. Underneath is a range of things we share, the desire to be seen, heard, valued, respected, acknowledged, (dare I say loved!), for who we are.

We all want to be included, yet by the overt or unconscious acts of others, the experience of being excluded or having to cover one’s true identity is just as real for many.

As a white male heterosexual man, I am clearly in the dominant group. If I don't stay awake to the reality that I have bias and privilege, it’s likely that my words and actions will have an adverse impact on people that belong to marginalized groups. I could easily judge myself, retract, not be responsible and create a wake of disconnection. That’s not the person I want to be. Personally, I like the feeling of being included and have also felt the hurt of being excluded (although still recognizing that my exclusion is not as impactful of other marginalized groups). It’s an easy choice for me to use my privilege and focus on helping others be included.

Being human can be hard sometimes. People make mistakes. We say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Our words and actions can have an adverse impact on other people. And, while we may have had the best of intentions, the reality for the other person, especially if they belong to a marginalized group, is that once again, they have experienced an inequity that can make it difficult to bring their whole self forward. In most instances like these, there is no conversation. It ends with one party offended and potentially resentful, and the person who said or did the offensive act has no idea of the impact their words or actions.

There is a different way. Held under the context of Being Human, that we all have the potential to foster connection, collaboration, improved relationships, that can result in better team performance and a positive culture where everyone feels like they can bring their whole self to work. The way I am referring to is that of the Ally’s Journey. It requires a conscious choice to put oneself on the path of becoming an ally, which can shift the context from having hard conversations to being courageous enough to be human and have conversations that connect us. Anyone can be an ally to anybody. For me, it’s as simple as reminding myself to treat others the way I want to be treated. It’s the essence of what being an ally is about.

The first and necessary step of being an ally is to acknowledge that I as a person have both bias and privilege.  The existence of another person only means that I am human and that by being conscious of the people around me, it makes it possible for me to be more aware of what influences my thinking, communicating and acting around others. To deny the existence of other people only sets me up for the likely possibility that my bias and privilege can take over and have an adverse impact on others around me.

The second step of the ally’s journey is to take responsibility for the impact of my bias and privilege on others, and whenever possible, to take the steps necessary to clean things up. This is where remembering we are human and that we will make mistakes.  Knowing this comes in handy. Having the courage to continue on the journey will keep you moving along the path of being an ally. Consider the alternative; denying the impact of your words or action on another which simply breeds distrust and disconnection.

Why are these conversations difficult to have?

The third step of the Ally’s Journey is to listen from a place of empathy and compassion. The Latin root of courage is Cor, which means to “To speak one's mind by telling all one's heart.” This part of the process applies to both listening to ourselves and to the people around us.

One reason these conversations are difficult to have is that they require introspection and vulnerability. Introspection is a big part of how I stay awake. For so many people, old playbook conventional thinking would have us believe that vulnerability is bad, that it’s a sign of weakness. I’ve found that admitting that I’ve made a mistake and taking responsibility for the potential impact it may have on someone else can be awkward. When I reflect on it though, I realize it's my ego that doesn't want to admit I’m flawed. It’s taken time, but I’ve learned that being vulnerable actually engenders trust. Opening yourself up to being an ally to another person is the ultimate expression of being human. In order to be that person, sometimes difficult conversations or “hard conversations” need to occur. Putting it all into action requires a willingness to”go first”.

The fourth step of the Ally’s Journey is to commit to new practices. I’ve learned over time that stretching into a new behavior is the best way to continue on my path as an ally. When I am in a meeting, I pay MORE attention to how much I, as well as the other men in the room, are talking. I look for opportunities to invite the women and people of color in the room to contribute if that is not happening. One area that I am doing more work on is my own racism. I believe that knowledge is power and that comes through learning.   Reading about topics within this journey, like White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, allows me to become more aware of how inequality, racism, and injustice shows up and impacts others. Then from my learning, I continue to reach out to those I know that are marginalized, looking for validation on what I am learning. It can be uncomfortable at times but that, tying back into being vulnerable, is how we grow as an Ally.

I invite you to join me on the path of becoming an ally. It’s rewarding work and will most certainly support you in having human conversations. It’s worth it!

Ray Arata