To be a spiritual being having a human experience: of the many meanings this carries, the one we will explore together today is the having of difficult conversations.
Just for strangers to meet and begin a conversation–for the timing to be just right–this is already so difficult!
But there is even more difficulty—unique difficulty—when you perceive hurtfulness in another’s behavior, or when another perceives hurtfulness in something you have done, and it feels like something must be said.
No one likes to hear that they’ve said or done something hurtful.
So, if a conversation like this happens—and that’s a big question, IF—well, it’s not going to be an easy one at all.
Consider the hurtfulness of “alternate facts” and baseless conspiracy theories which prevent Americans from uniting together to solve real problems. So, for example, you hear a friend communicating “alternate facts” with conviction–like Trump legitimately won the 2020 election; or that the United States has bioweapons labs in the Ukraine; or that QAnon is telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth about a secret, liberal underground government made up of Satan-worshipping child molesters. You hear your friend swearing “across his heart and hope to die” on such baseless theories, and it is astonishing, but can you reasonably expect that your 30-second burst of reality-based facts will change his mind? Why even try?
It’s a difficult conversation.
What about this scenario? You’re new on the job, and a colleague invites you to go with him to a meeting. He drives. When you get there, he has trouble finding a parking spot, and, when he realizes that you are going to be late, out of desperation he pulls into a handicapped parking spot. As you get out of the car, he turns to you, grins, and starts limping. It’s so outrageous that for a moment you question your senses. Did you really see what you thought you saw? And then, if you did, do you break the silence? What if he responds by dismissing you and says, “You’re overreacting. It was just a joke.” Or maybe he gets defensive, says, “Just what are you accusing me of?” Or, worse, when you all get back to work, he starts talking about you behind your back and poisons the well of your new workplace against you….
Just so difficult!
Then there’s this scenario. Your Unitarian Universalist church is exploring the possibility of adopting an 8thPrinciple to the 7 you have known and valued for decades now. The 8th Principle is: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions. Fact is, you’re not in favor of adopting it, for the simple reason that it is an extremely wordy statement which is out of sync with the other seven, which are all very short and to the point. Together with this lack of parallelism, you also see the proposed 8th Principle as on a different level than the other 7 Principles. The 7 Principles are more general and higher level, whereas the proposed 8th is ground-level and tactical. It’s not so much a Principle as a key strategy for how to implement the 7 Principles. This is what you think. But in your Unitarian Universalist church, you’ve heard the minister speak highly of the 8th Principle. You also know that it’s a sensitive subject and some folks might take immediate offense, say that you are all in your white privilege and you don’t care about racism. If you speak up, maybe you will lose face with your beloved church. Maybe it’s just not worth the trouble, despite what the 5th Principle says about a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
Difficult, difficult, difficult!
Difficult: because to speak up can be to risk unwanted consequences. Maybe you generate defensiveness in the other person and it only entrenches them even further. Maybe you face backlash that’s punishing.
Difficult: because often the thing that happens which is perceived to be hurtful is ambiguous. Confusion about what we’re actually seeing or hearing is a real factor here. As psychologist Catherine Sanderson says, “Social psychologists have consistently found that people are far more willing to take action in the case of a clear emergency than when they find themselves in an ambiguous situation. Is that comment at the office a harmless joke, or is it racist and offensive? Is that spat a minor quarrel, or a serious case of domestic violence? Ambiguous situations like these make it harder for people to step up and act, because we don’t want to appear stupid or overly sensitive.”
Difficult: because when the thing happens which we perceive to be hurtful, it can upset us so much that we go straight into “fight or flight” mode and lose the ability to respond from a more non-reactive, creative place. Usually what this means is that we assume the worst. They said something hurtful, so they must have intended to be hurtful. They must have known, ahead of time, what the full impact of their words and actions would be. How dare they! In “fight or flight” mode, this is exactly where we go: we merge intention and impact; and since intentions matter, we only find ourselves more furious and more outraged than before, with the result that we aggressively strike back at the offender, flame them, humiliate them, eye-for-an-eye and tooth-for-a-tooth-style. Trauma just gets spread around. It’s awful.
Difficult: because, finally and above all, to remain silent is to allow what appears and may very well be wrong to prevail. “We must always take sides,” says writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” And then there is Dr. King, who says, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” A man dies,” says Dr. King, “when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.”
So, yes, conversations in which we confront hurtfulness are difficult—but so very important. Courageously, we must commit ourselves to them.
Courageously, we must.
The good news is that we can develop attitudes and skills that make them less difficult, and more productive. We really can.
There is good news here.
One attitude that’s key is suggested by a quote we heard a moment ago, from Dr. King, where he says that “A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right.” In the face of perceived injustice, which may very well be real injustice—whether it be fake news or a microaggression or something else—we need to stop pressuring ourselves to change other people or change the world. Such pressure only leads to despair, and a sense of futility, and therefore nonaction. The goal of speaking up of course is to create a tiny ripple effect of goodwill, and who knows where that may lead. But the undeniable and inescapable reason is that if you do nothing and say nothing, your own soul withers. You are the one found wanting, in a moment that needed you to speak out. “I am not bound to win,” Abraham Lincoln once said, “but I’m bound to be true. I’m not bound to succeed, but I’m bound to live up to what light I have.”
This attitude is key: faithfulness to the light that is ours.
This little light of mine
I’m gonna let it shine.
But if we don’t let it shine, it dims. May the light that is ours never dim.
From this attitude of faithfulness comes everything. If we are coming from a place of light and love, then our act of breaking the silence must never be for the purpose of vengeance, or to trap a person in their offence and freeze them in time. It must also never be ego-centric, in that we want to signal our virtue to the other folks in the room and prove one’s wokeness. Gross. Instead, it’s got to be about speaking the truth as you best know it in love, which means that your difficult conversation—the one you are going to commit to—won’t be the last you’ll have with that person but only the start of something ongoing. As David Blankenhorn says, in his excellent article “The Seven Habits of Highly Depolarizing People,” “At the very heart of democratic civil society is the idea that we don’t stop talking to one another, even when—perhaps especially when—the conversation is frustrating and seems futile. Why? Because ending the conversation is tantamount to ending the relationship, and when the relationship ends, everything hardens, polarization reigns, and your opponents turn into your enemies. When we end a conversation, we typically fill the void with accusations, name-calling, exaggeration, and the striking of poses.” That’s from David Blankenhorn. Speaking the truth in love is about deepening relationships and having conversations that continue, not end with rancor and “the striking of poses.”
So how do we do this, exactly? What are the skills?
In a word: “justice-heartedness.” But let me break it down:
Skill #1: Humility. Know that difficult conversations are indeed difficult. Know that sometimes appearance is not reality. Know that when emotions are high it is so easy to assume the worst and equate intention and impact and therefore attack. Know that ambiguity really is a factor—that if the offense were 100% obvious and clear, things wouldn’t be that difficult after all.
Know all of this, and, when mistakes are made, ring the bell. Ring it in all humility. Find ways to apologize. Say I’m sorry, and can we try again? Say that you value the relationship too much to throw it all away because of one blow up.
Ring the bell.
Skill #2: Self-soothing. Don’t forget that you are a holistic being of mind and body shaped thoroughly by evolution. You are primed to react to anything that appears to be a threat to your wellbeing like difficult conversations, so it is imperative that you prepare by soothing yourself out of “fight or flight” mode. You can’t think your way there. The body needs to be met in bodily ways. One way is to breathe in deeply and then breathe out and let your outbreath last just a bit longer than the inbreath. This is just one technique that brings your parasympathetic system on line, to calm you down. Others include taking a walk in nature, playing with a child, meditating on a mantra word like “peace,” or prayer.
Skill #3: Love yourself out of a shame spiral. This is for when someone comes to you with feedback about something you did or said. If you overreact, you won’t be able to validate their feelings, and this will only make the situation worse. But overreaction is easy in a situation where someone comes to you and says you did something hurtful, because it takes you immediately to a place of shame. You feel so bad. The bad feeling can feel so shattering that the only way you know to save yourself is to strike out at the other person in angry defensiveness. You are caught in a shame spiral, and it’s terrible for you and for that other person who gave you feedback. So, name what’s happening for yourself: shame. And love yourself out of it. Tell yourself you are ok, and that you will get a reality check on what happened later. In the moment, return to your body. Take a deep breath. Move around a little. Small actions like this will help to dislodge you from the grip of shame, which feels like you are being crushed in a vise. Does this “ring any bells”? Ever felt caught in a shame spiral?
Shame awareness and skills for the healing of shame are crucial for managing difficult conversations.
Skill #4: Share your discomfort in clear but nonaccusatory ways. Tell the person how the thing they said or did made you feel without implying that they are a bad person or their intent was malicious. You could say: “I know it wasn’t your intent, but that made me uncomfortable.” Or, “I know you’re a good person and you wouldn’t say anything to hurt me, but here’s how I perceived what you said and why it really upset me.” When you go on to explain why it felt bad to you, make a personal connection if you can. Such as, “A close friend of mine was sexually assaulted in high school, so jokes about rape make me feel uncomfortable.” Or, “I was raised by two dads, so your comment about family is hard to hear.” If you can share your experience of what was said or done like this, there’s a greater chance that you will be responded to with a sincere apology and that the person in question will have learned something.
Share your discomfort in clear but nonaccusatory ways.
Skill #5: Ask questions. This can apply across the board, whether with someone who’s caught up in a universe of alternate facts, or with someone who’s said or done something insulting and offensive. Listen to how Vanessa Bhimanprommachak did this, with a college roommate who said, when they were going out to eat at a Chinese restaurant with friends, “Do they serve dogs at dim sum?” Vanessa says, [About a week later,] I asked if she would be open to chatting with me about what happened. I told her it had brought up a few things for me that I wanted to talk to her about in person. We sat down in the living room, and I began by asking what she meant when she asked, “Do they serve dogs at dim sum?” At first, she was taken aback by my question. She explained that it was her first time at dim sum and she was genuinely curious. As is the case with so many microaggressions, ignorance was the root of her words. “I know you’re a good person and you wouldn’t say anything to hurt me,” I said, “but here’s how I perceived what you said and why it really upset me.” When I made the conversation about my experience as opposed to her character, her defenses came down. She was extremely apologetic and explained that she had not realized how what she said negatively impacted me and wanted to commit to doing better.
A simple “what did you mean by that?” can help start a truly productive dialogue. So can something West Shore member Cil Knutsen likes to say when facing stereotypes about race or class or any other social identity: “Huh, that’s not been my experience. Tell me your experience.”
Listen to Abraham Lincoln, again: “I am not bound to win, but I’m bound to be true. I’m not bound to succeed, but I’m bound to live up to what light I have.” These skills I am sharing are about living into the light of connection and healing, not further dissension and discord. Remember, in speaking up, your job is to start a conversation that ideally continues. It will happen, when people feel respected despite whatever stupid or ignorant thing they might have said.
Finally, skill #6, the last one: this skill is a thinking skill. I’m bringing it up in connection with our 8th Principle conversations. The skill is to break out of binary thinking, as in, “You’re either for the 8th Principle and all that it stands for, or you’re against it (and all that it stands for).” This is lazy thinking, which can make enemies out of friends. People really can all be on the same page about wanting to eradicate racism and other systemic oppressions and, at the same time, disagree about how to do that—disagree on tactics. When we reflect on the 8th Principle, where it talks about systemic oppression, we must acknowledge that one of the major causes of oppression in this world is the mental habit of polarization; the mental habit of insisting that it must be exclusively “either/or” and never “both/and.” The mental habit inexorably leads to social division, social castes of all kinds.
We must do better. Not either/or. Both/and.
Difficult conversations are just that: difficult. But we can make them less difficult. And we want to do that, for the sake of our souls and also for the sake of community.
For the sake of friendship.
For the sake of healing and wholeness.
For the sake of ignorance replaced with wisdom.
For the sake of a world that we can make better, together.
[Ring the bell]