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.


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.


Feel like trying something new?

Photo credit: AOP Photography

Photo credit: AOP Photography


It might be just me, but sometimes trying something new feels a lot like making the choice to forget.

Forgetting in the sense of having familiarity with an experience but choosing to leave room for new discoveries anyway.

Since life isn’t a sci-fi movie, the likelihood that all of our memories will be wiped clean with a single swipe seems pretty low. But we might be craving a fresh start anyway - especially when we’re tackling hard conversations.

But how do we get a fresh start? Especially when we’re having a conversation that’s incredibly familiar (and that everyone seems to be having in one particular way)?

I wrestled with this as I was writing The Brave Educator. (I mean, really wrestled.)

How on earth am I supposed to write a book about navigating conversations about race in the classroom that feels like an invitation instead of a lecture?

How can I be practical, conversational, and inclusive without tip-toeing around pain?

I didn’t have clear-cut answers to these questions, so I had a choice:

Either I was going to try something new, or I wasn’t.

Which brought me to the real issue I was dealing with:

Was I willing to risk failing (in public) because I wasn’t sticking to the well-worn path?

If you’re anything like me, this fear might be beneath your resistance towards trying a new path in a difficult conversation too.

Failure is something we’ve managed to vilify as a culture - but I’m finding more and more that learning how to cope with failure (and the risk of failure) is an important step in find our way towards connection in difficult conversations.

We’ve got to be willing to forget how the conversation’s supposed to go so we can discover new ways it can go.

It might work. We might fail miserably. But either way we’ll learn something new - something we couldn’t have discovered any other way - because we were willing to wander down an unfamiliar path.


Three Scripts for Cringeworthy Moments

Photo credit: AOP Photography

Photo credit: AOP Photography


You sigh. It’s happening. Here I am (AGAIN) in a conversation where I literally cannot believe the words I’m hearing. Your shoulder blades slowly move towards each other and your breath gets just a little quicker, a bit more shallow.

It’s The Cringe. That moment when we’re stuck between speaking up or thinking things through, and neither option looks good. When our eyes want to roll all the way back, but we know that we’ve got to stay engaged if we want to have any chance at actually understanding what’s going on so we can figure out what to do next.

The Cringe can be incredibly uncomfortable to navigate. It can leave us feeling torn. But what are we supposed to do when we’re in a conversation and someone says something that insults, demeans, or dismisses a human being?

In the moment it can be difficult to think. To sort through all of the competing priorities, practice healthy boundaries, and decide what to do next.

One way to cut through all the pressure is to carve out 10 minutes in our everyday lives to identify ways we can respond the next time The Cringe starts. Here are three (3) scripts to help you get rolling.

Script #1

Take a deep breath (to give ourselves a moment to process), and then say: I’m worried that the way we’re having this conversation is causing us to dismiss real human stories and ignore real human pain. Let’s pause for a second and then try again.

Script #2

Look someone in the eye and say: Your perspective is important to me, and I’m not interested in living life stuck in my assumptions. So I need to ask you a question about what you just said to make sure I’m understanding you clearly.

Script #3

Practice healthy boundaries and say: Having this conversation in this way doesn’t help me understand you. And it makes it harder for us to relate to human experiences that we haven’t lived. I’m interested in creating connection in hard conversations. So either we need to change our approach, or we’ll need to revisit this conversation at another point in time.

Being in a difficult spot in a challenging conversation isn’t an easy path to walk, but we are capable of finding a way through it. One that upholds human dignity and healthy boundaries.

Take 10 minutes today to think through ways you’d like to respond the next time you find yourself in a Cringe moment. Preparing to respond with intention and clarity in advance can help us feel more prepared (and less blindsided).

Because the truth is that when The Cringe begins we still have the power to make a choice about what to do next.


How to transform disappointing conversations into invitations

Photo credit: AOP Photography

Photo credit: AOP Photography


When we’re disappointed by how a conversation unfolds, it’s easy to reach for conclusions.

I knew that was going to happen!

Our conversations always go that way.

There’s no point in trying to have this conversation again.

But the ending of one conversation can be the beginning of a fresh approach.

The beginning of getting honest about what we need.

The beginning of taking a look at our expectations.

The beginning of a discussion about how we want our conversations to go.

When we allow our disappointment to permanently shut down the flow of communication, we miss our opportunity to discover new ways to begin. To transform disappointing conversations into invitations, start by remembering that even endings that go haywire can be the beginning of something new.