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. 


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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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.


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.


3 ways to cope with the fear of saying the wrong thing

Photo credit: AOP Photography

Photo credit: AOP Photography


Difficult conversations are hard enough to face without feeling the pressure of the entire universe sitting on our lips.

You are not the only person struggling with the fear of saying the wrong thing in a conversation about race.

But that knowledge doesn’t change the reality that the fear of saying the wrong thing can grow so great that opening our mouths feels like an insurmountable obstacle.

So here are 3 concrete ways to cope with the fear of saying the wrong thing (because you’re not the only one):

  1. Give yourself permission to be completely wrong. Before your next conversation about race, I challenge you to let go of the pressure to convince everyone around you that you already know everything there is to know. Instead, show up to the conversation ready to share + discover.

  2. Let something something else become more important than your fear. When difficult conversations come up, instead of focusing on how afraid you are that you’ll say something ridiculous, focus on the fact that you’re connecting with unfamiliar experiences and perspectives, making the choice to invest your energy in a conversation with deep meaning and real-world impact, or giving yourself the opportunity to overcome your fear by taking conscious action. Focus on your choices more than your anxiety.

  3. Remember that learning demands engagement. When we convince ourselves that not knowing equals failure, we increase the pressure on ourselves and (almost inevitably) disengage. We feel embarrassed, foolish, and ashamed for even trying. But the truth is that the only way we can learn how to navigate difficult conversations is by actually navigating difficult conversations. So stay informed, give yourself healthy boundaries, and reach towards discovering what you don’t know.

Overcoming our fear and finding the strength to speak doesn’t begin with having the perfect words. Finding the strength to speak begins with giving ourselves permission to stay in the process as we learn how to find our voice.


Difference is an invitation to look closer

Photo credit: AOP Photography

Photo credit: AOP Photography


Difference is an invitation to look closer. To get curious. To make the choice to see before we decide.

And seeing takes work. It takes stepping outside of our expectations so we can begin to grapple with stories that are not our own. It means taking time to think about how to create meaningful connection that expands the the circle of belonging instead of shrinking it.

Before we can see one another, we need to be willing to hear one another. To listen. To ask questions rooted in reality - questions that lead us to look for answers we might not otherwise discover.

Difference doesn’t have to function as a barrier. Difference can lead us down paths that lead to real and growing connection.

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This simple tool has the power to transform your conversations

Photo credit: AOP Photography

Photo credit: AOP Photography


Trying to have a productive conversation about a difficult topic can feel like trying to perform a magic act without a wand. It could work, but either way it would at least be helpful to have the right equipment.

Not having the right tools to navigate difficult conversations can turn an already precarious endeavor into an exercise in consistent frustration.

Listening has the power to shift that. More often than I can count, when I’ve found myself in a conversation that’s going in circles, and then magically things take a turn for the better, the thing shifted involved listening. One of us (and if we’re fortunate, more than one person) started connecting to the words that were actually coming out of someone else’s mouth instead of clinging to our assumptions about what we thought the other person was going to say.

When we choose to breathe, still our racing thoughts, come into this present moment, and pay really close attention to the words another human is speaking, we start to connect-the-dots. Areas of agreement begin to appear, the reasons driving why we disagree start to rise to the surface (and we can start addressing them in ways that build forward momentum), and the immediate choices we need to make become more apparent.

The next time you find yourself in a difficult conversation, try listening. Really listening. And then choose what you want to say next.

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