Practice being present

Photo credit: AOP Photography

Photo credit: AOP Photography


Facilitating dialogue about race is a strange job to have. It’s not at all what I thought my professional life would look like. And yet, the deeper I go, the more grateful I become that my life hasn’t unfolded in the ways I’d planned. 

You see, doing this work forces me to be present. When I’m coaching my clients, when I’m facilitating a dialogue, when I’m leading a workshop or speaking. For that moment in time, I choose to set aside the worries and fears that threaten to permanently burrow themselves into the fabric of my being, and listen

Because in order to do this work, I need to see you. Your perspective isn’t of secondary importance when I’m facilitating a dialogue. It’s primary. Genuine conversation and connection can’t unfold when my primary purpose is forcing you to hear me. Or when I’m focused on fixing you. Or when I’m so preoccupied with the way I think things should be that I can’t hear you. 

I’m sharing this with you, because I want you to know that my human and your human are both human. It is a struggle learning how to navigate the race conversation. A struggle that is unpredictable, and often shockingly surprising in its layers.

But there is one thing we all can do that has the power to make a tremendous difference in how our conversations about race unfold. 

Practice being present. Instead of hearing the words we think someone is going to say, begin to hear the words that are actually being said. Instead of concluding that we already know how the conversation is going to go, take a deep breath and let the possibility of the moment unfold. 

Being present in conversations about race gives us the chance to begin to truly see each other.

And seeing each other, really seeing each other, has the power to change everything. 


Lost your way in a difficult conversation?

Photo credit: AOP Photography

Photo credit: AOP Photography


When you feel as if you’ve lost your way in a difficult conversation, resist the urge to shut down. Instead, take your frustration and transform it into an invitation.

An invitation to get curious. An invitation to be just a bit more honest with yourself. An invitation to learn how to move through difficult conversations by actually being in difficult conversations.

You can always pause. Admit that you're not sure what to say next. Ask if you can circle back after you’ve taken some time to intentionally read, research, and reflect.

Losing your way doesn’t mean that the dialogue is hopeless. Sometimes, losing our way is what we experience when we’re on our way to discovering something new.


Don't be afraid to feel when you talk about race

Photo credit: AOP Photography

Photo credit: AOP Photography


There are conversations in our culture that occupy special pockets. You know, those conversations that are reserved for special occasions when we’re prepared to hash out a perfect solution in one fell swoop (or limit ourselves tip-toeing around the edges). The race conversation is one of those conversations.

We head into conversations about race filled with dread, worry, fear, and heightened stress. Then we judge ourselves (and each other) for feeling what we’re feeling, presume that there’s something wrong with us for feeling what we’re feeling, and then try to find the words to communicate what we need to communicate in the midst of all of the feelings we’re ashamed about.

We often try to cope with this by pretending that there’s no place for feelings in conversations about race. We intellectualize human stories so much that the realities of the ways we experience race become abstract and seemingly detached from the everyday lives we lead.

And in the process, we sacrifice our ability to connect.

Productive conversations about race don’t happen because we’ve parsed out feeling from fact, history, context, research, and personal experience.

Productive conversations about race happen as we learn how to make room for feeling as we awkwardly stumble through unrehearsed dialogue about fact, history, context, research, and personal experience.

That’s how we begin to see each other.

Having feelings doesn’t mean you’re incapable of learning how to talk about race. Having feelings is part of being human. And real dialogue about race inevitably involves palpable and nuanced discussions about real human experiences.

So don’t be afraid to feel when you talk about race. Pay attention to your feelings. Take care of your own feelings. Feeling is part of the process of learning how to move through the dialogue with honesty and openness instead of putting on the show that we think is supposed to transpire.

And that’s a big part of how we inch a little bit closer to creating connection in everyday dialogue about race - instead of treating the conversation like it belongs in a special pocket.


Carve out space to be with your own thoughts

Photo credit: AOP Photography

Photo credit: AOP Photography


We place a premium on the big moments. On being able to tell our friends and loved ones that we’ve achieved a monumental goal. But the moments that add up to create change don’t happen in the spotlight.

The spotlight highlights whether or not we’re prepared. Which means that the moment of achieving the big goal isn’t where the real work lies.

The work that leads up to the achievement is in the innumerable moments that have come before the big moment. In carving out space to be with our own thoughts. In our willingness to examine our priorities and choices to determine whether they align with what we really value. In our ability to pause, stop, think, and reach out to ask for what we need instead of sticking to the script of what we think we’re supposed to say.

These are real skills. Skills that we often overlook, but that remain essential and invaluable if we want to make choices that help us connect-the-dots between where we are and where we want to go.

Maybe instead of placing such a premium on making big leaps forward, we need to place more value in the everyday steps we take. To learn something new instead of sitting in the comfort of what we know. To participate in that conversation instead of using comparison to silence our voices. To slice through the noise of what we thought we were supposed to do or be and instead make the decision to show up.

Progress happens in many incremental steps that add up to form the change we want to create. We need to take time and space to be with our own thoughts, so we can make sure that the choices we make are pointing us in the direction of the goals we want to achieve.


Take the pressure off

Photo credit: AOP Photography

Photo credit: AOP Photography


So much of the way we communicate today is filled with pressure.

Pressure to appear a certain way, pressure to measure up. (To what? No one knows.) Pressure to seem to be something we’re not. 

And we all give in at one point or another. Because let’s be real - it’s hard to resist the pull of pressure that tells us that conforming is the right choice if we want to belong. 

But what if the most important person we can belong to is ourselves? What if the antidote to the pressure to look a certain way is to accept ourselves where we are, as we are, and then move intentionally through the distraction of comparison towards growth? 

The pressure to measure up or appear a certain way can never deliver what we’re actually looking for. Connection. Knowing that we’re heard. Listening that transforms. Support that isn’t conditioned on our willingness to pretend that everything is OK all the time. This kind of acceptance doesn’t flow from pressure. It’s nurtured by the incremental choices we make to:

Pay attention instead of judge.

Share our thoughts instead of hold back.

Give our energy to the things we want to create and see grow

So let’s resist the urge to pile on the pressure today. Instead, let’s communicate from a place of intentional, conscious choice. 


When it's time to make a change

Photo credit: AOP Photography

Photo credit: AOP Photography


It happens to us all. The moment when it’s time to make a different decision.

When we think about change, so often we conceptualize it as happening all in one fell swoop. One moment we see the world like this, and in the next moment, everything is different. At least, that’s how I used to think about change. But the seasons of life I’ve lived over the last decade or so have made it so that I see change as more of a process than a moment.

It’s the accumulation of moments that pile into tiny shifts that slowly point us in a new direction. It’s the tweaks in perspective that open our eyes to realities that are right here but which we could not see before. It’s the choice to step forward or pull back when we thought that all we could do was what we’d done before.

It’s in the sussing out of expectations. Which belong to us, which do not, and figuring out which ones matter at the end of it all. Change is not an on/off switch.

When it’s time to make a change, it’s important that we not discount the work that led us to the place where we accept that the way things are isn’t the way things will be. Instead of seeing change as the destination, let’s view it as one more shift. A shift that helps us move closer to who we want to be and what we want to create in the world.


Life is happening now

Photo credit: AOP Photography

Photo credit: AOP Photography


As a child, I remember thinking, When I grow up, I’ll understand everything. How everything works. How everything is supposed to be. I thought being an adult meant knowing all the answers to all the questions all the time.

What I didn’t realize was that looking at adulthood this way was the equivalent of dropping an anvil of pressure on my shoulders. Because instead of wandering through the rolling seasons aware that the hills are just as much a part of the journey as the plains, the sandy ocean on the beach, and the canyons that fall into deep, deep crevices, I spent my energy trying to wrestle each day into my expectations of the way I thought life would - and should - be.

But the experiences of life constantly remind us that life is happening now. In this very conversation. In that decision that’s so easy to overlook.

Life doesn’t begin in the moment when we suddenly discover that we’re adults holding all the answers. And becoming an adult doesn’t really have anything to do with having all the answers.

Life is happening now. In this very breath.


Stay open

Photo credit: AOP Photography

Photo credit: AOP Photography


There are moments when opportunity walks through the door. When the chance to do something we may have always dreamed of presents itself in a moment we completely did not expect.

It might be a conversation with a loved one we hoped for but never thought would happen. It might be a decision to shift something in our lives that we thought might never change. It could be opening up and saying hello to someone we never thought we’d have the opportunity to build a relationship with.

Stay open. Stay open to what might be. Stay open to what could become. Even in the midst of your disappointment and the ebbs and flows of life so that you can respond with conscious choice when the moment arrives and the door slips open.

It’s alright to face the disappointment. It’s human to feel. But in the midst of it all, we can choose to stay in the process and remain open to what might be.


What we wish people understood about us

Photo credit: AOP Photography

Photo credit: AOP Photography


Hypothetically speaking (of course), it would be wonderful if people understood everything about us before we spoke a word. We’d walk into a room, and the nuances of our hopes, dreams, pains, and desires would be simultaneously clearly apparent yet so obviously private that would could partake in beautiful, smoothly flowing conversation without ever ruffling a single feather.

Unfortunately (fortunately?) that’s not the reality of what interactive conversations are like in real life.

They involve us choosing how much to reveal, and how much to conceal. How much to share, and how much to observe. How much to respond, and how much to react. How much to give of who we are, and how much to hold back.

The realities of daily conversation are far more complicated than we’d like them to be, and yet that doesn’t change the fact that we so deeply desire to be seen. To be understood.

Apparently, we’re facing a real conundrum.

How are we supposed to cut through the push and pull of hesitation, and fear of rejection so that we can start building real relationships? Where on earth are we supposed to begin?

You’re not going to like my answer. Quite frankly, I don’t like it either.

We begin by getting uncomfortable. Uncomfortable with the status quo. Uncomfortable with hiding behind our assumptions. Uncomfortable with standing afar off and passing judgment. Uncomfortable with resting in the refuge of lounging in what we think we know.

When we get uncomfortable with these things, we begin to open up. We catch a glimmer of the stories we’ve missed. We witness a snapshot of the pain we’ve overlooked. We start to see how our choices are contributing to the pain that sits between us. Or not. And we start to recognize that the good stuff, the places where difference can sit beside discovery, are hiding underneath.

It’s simply not the case that the nuances of what we wish people understood about our lives or our experiences will be magically transmitted via osmosis through the air. But it is true that we get a bit closer to beginning to grasp the corners of the spaces where we’ve missed each other when we’re willing to sit down together and learn how to share in ways that help us understand and be understood.


The magic is in the pivot


There’s a story that goes something like this: In order to stay safe we need to keep things the same. Sounds rational, clear-headed and calm doesn’t it? Well I sure wanted to believe it. So much so that it became one of the guiding principles of my life for a long long time. 

Don’t change your major from being pre-med. You’re three years into a microbiology and cell science major and you’re already taking practice MCAT’s. 

Don’t move towns, yet again. It’s just too hard to build relationships from scratch. The vulnerability involved is entirely too risky. 

Don’t have conversations with people you don’t know about race. Absolutely not. No you may not accept that invitation to do a public town-hall style speaking event where people can walk up to a mic and ask anything. Are you insane??? Sit down. In fact, take several seats. 

And then came the pivot. The not going to med school. Building relationships in a new place. Having the impossible conversation. 

Each time, it felt like making a hard left when instead I should have followed the gentle natural bend in the road and drifted right. It felt like violating unspoken expectations, crossing the lines that secured my ability to belong. Like choosing to go for a walk in the rain while a warm fire burns in the living room. 

But it was out in the wet that I discovered how much I love the gray of constitutional law. In the high wind was where I learnt that relationships aren’t dependent on location; they’re built on mutual respect and genuine love unmoored from the condition of convenience. And it was the driving rain that pushes soaks through everything that taught me how connection changes everything. 

The magic is in the pivot. In deciding to go without knowing what’s next. Reaching out for connection and risking rejection. Taking the leap after failing time and time again.

There wasn’t really safety to be found in keeping everything the same. There was the security of hiding. Of remaining unseen. Of not needing to learn how to tend to my fears and ask for help. Because it wasn’t really about staying safe at all. It was about being afraid to fail. 

But maybe failure isn’t what we think it is. Maybe failure is the fulcrum of the pivot. Maybe failure is the driving wind and rain sent not to knock us down, but to nourish us and moisten the dry cracked earth of fear. So that our roots can grow deeper as our arms reach out and towards each other. 

And slowly, we realize, we never really were in it by ourselves. 


Our feelings don't need to be fixed

Photo credit: AOP photography

Photo credit: AOP photography


Our feelings are an important part of the experience of being present in the race conversation…But our feelings don’t need to be fixed.

One of the hardest things to do in a conversation about race is to resist the urge to fix the feelings of people around us. We can fixate so much on what we think someone is feeling, and what we wish they felt, or on the fact that we somehow feel responsible for what they’re feeling, that we lose sight of why we’re in the conversation in the first place.

And when we care deeply about the conversation we’re in, it’s easy to take this approach towards our own feelings too. Judging ourselves for having feelings. Comparing our feelings to the feelings of people around us. And wondering whether it’s OK to have the feelings we’re feeling as we attempt to have the race conversation.

It’s not our responsibility to fix feelings - anyone’s feelings. We witness feelings, respond to feelings, and experience feelings. Educators aren’t fixers. We can create boundaries to help everyone in our classroom learn how to respond to feelings in healthy ways. We can make room for feelings and self-expression in the learning process. We can acknowledge feelings and treat them with dignity and respect. We don’t fix them. We don’t pretend they’re not there. We don’t ignore them, bury them, or brush by them. Feelings and learning aren’t archenemies. Responding responsibly to the feelings we find pleasant and the ones that are more difficult to deal with without spewing them all over each other, without turning our feelings into an excuse to ignore the challenging parts of the learning process, is a skill - one that takes time and practice to learn.

- excerpt from The Brave Educator, Honest Conversations about Navigating Race in the Classroom

Our feelings are an important part of the experience of being present in the race conversation. We are certainly responsible for the ways we respond to our feelings.

But our feelings don’t need to be fixed.


3 Tips for Connecting in Hard Conversations


When a hard conversation breaks down, it can be difficult to find our way back. After all, it took so much courage to attempt to have the conversation in the first place, and it hurts to have tried, only to find ourselves in an awkward position where we feel disconnected.

Choosing not to connect can be a completely valid (and healthy) choice.

But when we are interested in connecting, it’s helpful to have some tools that help us bridge the gap. Here are three tips to help you connect in a hard conversation (even when things seem to be falling apart):

Tip #1: Take boundaries seriously (including your own).

Often, in hard conversations, we assume that boundaries go out the window. (i.e. This topic is so difficult to navigate that of course, we all know that we’ve got to do whatever it takes to make this work.) This might sound good in theory, but the reality is: We all have feelings. Emotions. Needs. When we insist on pretending that navigating a hard conversations is a one-dimensional experience, we can end up distanced and perplexed.

Tip #2: Prioritize mutual understanding over perpetual comfort.

Respecting boundaries doesn’t mean we’ll all be comfy and cozy 100% of the time. Respecting boundaries means we’ll choose to engage in ways that bring us closer together rather than driving each other further apart. It means that we’re deciding to value mutual understanding more than proving our point.

But that doesn’t mean that the process will be comfortable.

Tip #3: Know when to circle back.

Hard conversations don’t have to happen all in one sitting or never (ever) again. There are times when it’s appropriate to chip away at a difficult dialogue. Moments when it’s necessary to bring in a facilitator.

Sometimes, we need to agree to do some reading, listening, and research so we can come back to the conversation more informed and better prepared to engage.

The reality that a conversation is difficult to have doesn’t mean we have to choose between raging at each other, or ignoring needs in an attempt to come to a consensus. It does mean that we need to practice responding in purposeful ways so that we can keep inching closer towards mutual understanding.

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