7 agreements for productive conversations during difficult times


tied-up-1792237_1280Hi everyone. It’s been a really rough week for many of us due to the election results. For me, I also had an 8-month-old baby who was sick and who stayed up all night for three nights crying and projectile-vomiting on everything. It was seriously like The Exorcist. But cuter. Luckily, just when things were getting bleak…my wife also got sick with fever, chills, and other less pleasant symptoms. During one of these sleepless nights, I hallucinated that the election results weren’t the way they were, and we all woke up to a bright and sunny morning where the world is the way we hope it would be, and everyone is happy and inclusive, and my favorite brand of soy ice cream is on sale. And I have six-pack abs.

Unfortunately, that is not our reality. Many of us in the sector are still going through the stages of denial, anger, and sadness. Everyone is on edge, and it’s been manifesting in various ways. Luckily, I’ve been seeing an increase of support and community, with many colleagues checking in with one another, validating feelings, and creating space to process.

Unfortunately, I’ve also been seeing an increase in hurtful and divisive interactions between colleagues who are on the same side. Normally collegial conversations become heated. People become defensive and accusatory. Emotions are intense. I’m not immune to it myself. I got feedback from a colleague that my post last Wednesday was uninspiring and possibly even making things worse. And I thought, “WTF! Oh hell no you didn’t just email me that! Someone hold my sick baby!”

It will take us a while to understand what happened and what we need to do. We are not going to be able to agree on everything. So, until things settle down and we can think on how to face this terrifying reality with renewed strength and determination, can we agree to a few things? Here are seven agreements I’d love for us all to think about as we navigate through these difficult next few weeks:

1: Let’s give one another a break: Many of us are heartbroken and tired. I have run into colleagues who have literally been crying for days. When emotions are this high, we are more likely to be less patient with one another, less forgiving. Everything sets us off. This is not the ideal environment to discuss heavy topics like racism, classism, urban/rural dynamics, etc. It is important that we reflect on these issues so we can better strategize, but let’s remember that many of us are still in shock and fear.

2: Let’s provide feedback on actions and opinions, not motivation or character: In this sort of environment, it is easy to lose focus on ideas and actions; instead, we start questioning people’s motivations and attacking their character. Instead of “I disagree with you on blah blah,” it becomes “You only say blah blah because you’re blah blah and you want blah blah because all you blah blahs are so-and-so!” Let’s check ourselves when we do that. It never does any good. People never respond well when their character or motivations are being questioned. It shuts down conversations, or worse, generates in-kind retaliation and perpetuates a vicious cycle.

3: Let’s assume the best intentions, but also address impact: Most of us try our best to be helpful during difficult times. But often, the intention ends up causing more harm. For example, imagine if you met someone who lost a loved one; trying to be supportive, you say, “I know how you feel. Hang in there; time heals all.” Though you mean well, that is the last thing someone grieving wants to hear. In trying to be helpful, many of us say and do things that may not end up very helpful. Let’s assume everyone means well and let’s be patient with one another. But that does not override the fact that our well-intentioned actions may be hurtful to others. When our actions are damaging, we must address them, whether or not they were well-intended.

4. Let’s not assume we completely understand one another’s reality: Right now, many communities are hurting. Latino kids are getting “Build that wall!” chanted at them. Women wearing hijabs are attacked, or threatened to be set on fire. Black university students are getting pictures of lynchings texted to them. Many of people from marginalized communities don’t feel safe anymore, and some of us are not sure we will ever be able to. If we do not come from these communities, let’s not assume there is an equivalence with our own background. Let’s not assume we know what another person is going through. I’ve seen too many conversations where people are dismissive of one another’s experiences. Let’s agree not to do that. 

5: Let’s be gracious in accepting difficult feedback: When someone gives us feedback, especially those who come from backgrounds completely different from ours, it is a valuable gift. And it often comes with a price for the person giving the feedback, as they frequently must share vulnerable personal information in order to bring some “credibility” to their feedback. This year I got uncomfortable feedback from people with disabilities as well as well as from advocates from the trans community (blog posts from these experiences will likely come later). It is easy to be defensive. It is far harder to accept that we made a mistake, or that our well-intentioned actions may have negatively affected someone. Let’s give ourselves the grace to be imperfect humans.

6: Let’s forgive ourselves and one another: We’re all going to make mistakes, as I mentioned earlier in “Hey, you got a little racism stuck in your teeth.” The world is so complex that it is impossible to avoid screwing up from time to time. Yet so many of us are terrified that making a mistake means we are a racist, or sexist, or ableist, or transphobe, or ageist. In this field, being called those things when many of us are actively fighting for social justice cuts at the core of our identities. Even the thought of anyone even suspecting us to be any of those things hurts deeply. When someone makes a mistake, it does not mean they’re a bad person. We have to forgive ourselves when we make mistakes, and we must try to forgive others.  

7: Let’s not give up on one another: I’ve seen too many people leave discussion groups and online communities because the conversations get too intense. I know it is difficult to stay. But we cannot build a strong community if we cannot converse with one another, have hard conversations, disagree once a while, and learn from one another. Yes, this does mean that occasionally we feel uncomfortable and riled up. But so much of the situation our country is currently in may be because so many people in our society refuse to talk to people who hold differing views. Let’s not give up on one another. Let’s stay and let’s talk through the hard stuff. And if we do need to take a break, that’s understandable, but let’s leave the door open to come back.

Thanks, everyone. The days—and years—ahead are likely going to be difficult. Let us, through our actions and interactions, build the kind of community we hope to see.

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