white woman holding sign at black protest silence is compliance

THE STATE OF AMERICA: Having Hard Conversations

Ila Gartin

Recently, the state of America has been chaotic. At least, it’s felt that way to me. Within the perceived chaos of the country is a significant and urgent message that has been simmering for centuries and has finally boiled over once again. Black Lives Matter. 

My tendency is to completely ignore the news. Firstly, I’m skeptical of all sources, as they seem to have some sort of bias, but also, the news, in general, makes me uncomfortable. However, I’ve learned that growth is ONLY derived from discomfort. It is impossible to grow while inside your comfort zone. 

As someone who doesn’t like conflict or controversy, I tend to keep quiet on polarizing issues. My comfort zone is small and I don’t engage often in debate. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about the art of discussion and, because I’ve opened myself up to discussions on hard topics with people I don’t agree with, I have learned so much more about the world.

You see, when we enter a discussion with the goal to expand our understanding, learn more about a topic, or simply view a situation from another’s perspective, we are not entering into conflict. Instead, we are learning. We are practicing empathy. We are bonding. 

Evie and I have had many discussions about the recent protests and riots and the tragic death of George Floyd. These conversations brought us to discussing how to handle a conversation with someone who has a completely different viewpoint regarding a topic that may be controversial or polarizing. If you’re anything like me, you avoid these conversations, but you know that NOT speaking out and NOT taking a stand is also making a decision. As a white, straight woman, I’m realizing more and more that adding my voice to the conversation is important. Because having no response is still a response. 

We want you to be equipped to enter into conversations that may be uncomfortable, but may also expand your understanding and help you better support your fellow human. We want you to feel confident in your stance and in your responses, so here, we present important steps to lead you into the place where discomfort creates growth.

  • Educate yourself.
    • The internet is an amazing resource and it doesn’t get the credit it deserves. You can access almost anything and learn about almost any topic FOR FREE, thanks to the internet. It is not the responsibility of your black friend to educate you on black history and why Black Lives Matter is currently a movement. Your gay friend is not obligated to enlighten you as to why they’ve fought so hard (and shouldn’t have had to) for rights equal to the hetero population. It is not the burden of your family member in the medical field to teach you all about COVID-19. 
    • These are just examples of topics we often think others should teach us. While discussions with these people to ascertain their perspective are encouraged, entering a conversation for the sole purpose of sucking information out of them is not. 
    • Here are several resources to help you get started in educating yourself regarding one of the most important issues of our time, the fight for black equality.
  • Craft your statements.
    • This may seem like a silly step to some, but for someone like me, who is easily flustered by passionate conversation, it’s important to give thought to your beliefs and statements ahead of time. Spend time thinking about 3-5 main issues regarding an issue and decide what you firmly believe about these topics. Ask yourself questions and think about how you would calmly and concisely answer them so as to present your point of view. 
    • Some examples of the questions you may want to answer for yourself include:
      • Do I support the Black Lives Matter movement? Why or why not?
      • What are my opinions on rioting/looting/peaceful protest? (There’s more to this than you realize.)
      • How can I support my friends in the black community? How can I support my friends in law enforcement? Can I explain that these things are not mutually exclusive – that I can support both parties, at the same time, in a peaceful way?
      • Do I understand white privilege? How can I become more aware of this privilege?
      • Do I understand unconscious bias? Have I engaged in unconscious bias recently? What can I do to bring awareness to this bias so it’s no longer unconscious?
  • Set your boundaries.
    • Know ahead of time what actions or topics of conversation will indicate that you’re finished with the discussion. Pay attention and do not cross your pre-set boundaries.
    • Some examples of boundaries during a difficult conversation include:
      • Raised voices. 
      • “What-if” or unlikely/hypothetical scenario questions from the other party.
      • The feeling of panic or strong emotion in yourself.
    • You can kindly, but firmly, redirect the conversation if your boundaries are being threatened. If you’re ready for the conversation to end, it’s 100% okay to say that. You may need to process what you’ve already discussed. Your goal in the conversation is, after all, meaningful action and expanding your own understanding, not educating someone else (see #1) or being subjected to dysregulated emotion.
  • Keep your goal in mind. 
    • Remember that you entered the conversation hoping to gain a better understanding of another’s point of view or to share your own viewpoint with someone who may not agree with you; perhaps, to learn more about a topic or to process various information.
    • Be empathetic during the conversation. Your counterpart may not agree with you and you may not understand that person’s point of view. Imagine (or better yet, ask) what their experiences have been or what they’ve witnessed to bring them to this viewpoint.
  • Don’t try to be perfect.
    • Don’t be afraid to admit that you are/were wrong or that you don’t understand. It’s okay. Don’t worry if you don’t know something that you’re asked – just admit that you don’t know. There is always a way to find the answer. You may need to ask for time to process information, or disclose that you haven’t thought enough about a specific concept to engage in certain conversation. You may feel that you don’t have enough information to have an opinion. It’s okay. You can admit it. 

Ultimately, we hope to facilitate more conversation about the hard things. By doing so, we can all learn more about having a healthy debate and coming away from the conversation feeling uplifted, more intelligent, more cultured. More importantly, we can change and evolve as humans, paying attention to what we learn from our counterparts and expanding our understanding and empathy in the process. 

We invite you to comment, question, converse with each other. Start growing and bonding through hard conversation.

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