by Achim Nowak

Courageous Conversations Protocol

June 8, 2020

Having a courageous conversation protocol can be immensely helpful when we wish to discuss difficult topics as work. The events following the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, for example, may have touched some deep personal pain in you. They surely have within me. You are shaken. And you may wonder, how do I talk about this at work? With my colleagues? With my team, my boss?

I find myself thinking of a time when I was trained as a Mediator at The Brooklyn Courts, back in 1992. Besides training school mediators in the New York City Public Schools, I facilitated workshops on Diversity and Inclusion – I confess I don’t much like either of those words – for the Victim Services Agency in Manhattan and the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program. To properly facilitate work around racism and oppression, I had to get clean about my own white privilege and how systemic injustice operates.

These conversations were uncomfortable. Smart as I was, I learned just how much I didn’t know what I didn’t know. How ultimately unconscious I really was.

And these conversations did not always feel safe. Even when there was a courageous conversation protocol, it wasn't always followed or enforced.

Why we need a Courageous Conversations Protocol

Psychological safety, writes Dr. Timothy R. Clark, author of “The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety” (2019), is a condition in which you feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo – all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized or punished in some way.

Does this descriptor remind you of times when you did not feel safe to speak up? It sure reminds me.

Courageous conversations will not happen if you and I do not feel safe. The more difficult the topic, the more our chat will devolve into a series of innocuous platitudes. Therefore, any courageous conversation protocol must start with establishing safety in the conversation.

These keys apply not only to conversations about racism and systemic oppression – they are also crucial to any conversations about systemic workplace dysfunction you may wish to initiate.

Courageous Conversations Protocol:

  1. Focus on YOUR experience.
  2. Community guidelines (I prefer this phrase to “ground rules” – most of us do NOT want more rules!) are critical in establishing a safe space. Have too many, however, and you suddenly curtail the range of possible conversation.

    Here is a fundamental guideline to start with: When you speak, speak of YOUR experience, YOUR feelings, YOUR reactions, YOUR observations. Use language that clearly indicates so: “I get very angry when I see ___,” “I feel very moved when ___,” “I believe that ___.”

    Nobody can dispute your experience. You own it. Stay in that lane. Apply this same approach when you speak about political leaders, the police or protesters. If you are, for example, enraged by a leader’s action, avoid a phrase like “Mr. Trump is ______.” While it may feel good to apply a definitive label, how about “When I keep seeing him do ________, here’s what I feel/what I think of/what it reminds me of.”

    You’re staying honest. And you’re staying in your lane.

  3. Start in pairs or small groups
  4. A potentially difficult conversation is best started in pairs, triads or a very small group. The intimacy of fewer people assures more emotional safety. It helps to warm us up before we bring more vulnerability into a larger circle.

    Have the courage to break a larger group into smaller conversational pods before you bring everyone back together. You can do so as readily in a virtual meeting as you do in-person. It gives space for everyone to speak, not just a few. With this courageous conversation protocol the dialogue will flow.

  5. Don’t assume we speak the same language
  6. This Is an absolutely critical element of a courageous conversations protocol: The moment we get to big words like racism or systemic oppression or white privilege, don’t assume we all have the same understanding of what these words mean. I will bet you a whole lotta money that we don’t. A definition of such pivotal terminology, and the conversation about the meaning of these terms, is essential for any fruitful conversation.

    Since I focus on psychological safety in this article, I provided you with Dr. Clark’s definition. In a conversation that includes a key term like racism, for example, offer a definition to kick-start the conversation (efficient), ask folks to do a quick internet search to generate definitions (takes longer but offers a multitude of nuances), or invite your team to craft its own definitions in mini-groups (takes longer, fosters deeper learning). Do not even think of having a conversation about societal or organizational systems without defining key terms.

    Warning: If you want to help your team excavate unconscious biases, hire a professional facilitator who is skilled at guiding such work. Unconscious inherently means we’re not conscious of it. We will not uncover these biases on our own.

  7. Make it about THEM, not YOU.
  8. You may see yourself as a vulnerable leader. Great. You believe in leading by example. Wonderful. When it comes to creating a safe space for others to talk about difficult emotions and triggers, resist the temptation to lead with YOUR thoughts and feelings. The more you do, the more the conversation becomes about YOUR experience.

    Create context for the conversation and then allow your colleagues and teammates to discover what they need to discover. Give them room to talk. Resist your impulses to overshare. Chime in with your thoughts and experiences later in the conversation to validate the experience of your teammates. When you lead with too much of your experience from the start, your colleagues will be busy validating YOU.

    We have always needed more courageous conversations. The killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery remind us of just how urgently we do.

    We need policy changes to protect lives. We need systemic changes. And we need to continue to talk.

    When we talk, remember that we’re all at different stages in our journey of self-awareness. Accept people wherever they are in theirs. We need to give ourselves and others room to stumble and fail and move forward. Not easy, I know.

    It only happens in a safe space.

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