I believe that brave, honest conversations are how we solve the problems in our lives, organizations, and communities. These hardest of conversations create a path to strengthened relationships, increased connection, improved trust, and deeper understanding. When those things are in place, you can solve any problem.
Fundamental to any brave, honest conversation is a practice of deep inclusion — for the people and also the perspectives that may arise in the course of the discussion. The dictionary definition of inclusion refers to an action or state of being included in a group or structure. In my work, I extend that definition. Included, welcomed, valued, like you matter, like your human struggles and hopes are important, that your messy, human response to difficult topics is OK, and that we are all in this together; that is what inclusion means to me.
When it comes to inclusion in the public arena, where we practice and live out democracy, I see enormous tensions. This quote always echoes in my head when I think about designing and leading brave, honest conversations: “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.” Democracy is messy and complex, and based on the fundamental premise that we deliberate, debate, reason together and decide. It is grounded in the assumption that we listen to each other deeply, weigh all the possible ways to move forward, and make reasoned thoughtful decisions. I imagine that in the best moments of working together to make democracy real, we practice meaningful inclusion, where people feel really, deeply heard in a way that is close to being loved.
Note that I haven’t explained democracy as being about agreeing, or voting yes or no on one thing over another, majority rules, about winners and losers, or about who shouts the loudest about their opinion. Voting was always intended to be an outcome of deliberation, not a replacement for it. Yet, that seems to be the version of democracy we’ve evolved to in many countries around the globe.
What does it really mean to “be heard”? So many of the conversations I witness state that as a goal, but create the opposite effect. Many interpret being heard as the right to voice an opinion without the responsibility to listen. That right to be heard mentality often comes with a righteous indignation and certainty about being right, so that when the speaker voices their views they are often not engaged or questioned, nor do they hear the views of others. They often leave the conversation more confirmed and committed to their original views than before the discussion. That kind of interaction doesn’t result in the feeling of being loved that being deeply heard creates. Sometimes it even sparks a sense of betrayal, where a participant puts themselves out there to express a view but instead of being seen as a human being in struggle are seen as a position or opinion, in a way that dehumanizes everyone in the interaction.
Instead of “being heard”, maybe we could hold a value of “listening together” where being heard equates to generative listening, being seen, being valued, being recognized for our mutual humanity, struggles and hopes. This kind of listening is grounded in deep compassion, human connection, and focused on alignment versus agreement or being right. This kind of listening gets us closer to the original intention of the experiment of democracy than the version we are now living.
This pattern of not listening or hearing each other is a challenge on its own, and also an indicator of the erosion of democracy occurring in nations around the globe. Democracy is not a spectator sport — it is built on the premise that every citizen will participate, take responsibility for their own needs and the needs of others, and deliberate and weigh the important issues with others.
Of the many issues facing us right now, systemic racism is one of the most important, and the most polarizing. Conversations about racism can be challenging, heated, fraught with pain, trauma, history, and fear. White people are afraid to get it wrong, or afraid to be seen to be racist. I imagine that people of colour are tired of explaining things to white people and want to see action. I believe that it is not the job of people of colour to teach white people how to do this work. It is the job of white people to teach other white people to do this work, and I believe that this is work that needs to be shared.
Anti-racism is everyone’s responsibility.
In saying this I am not saying I have the answers about how to proceed, what to do, or that I fully understand the insidious impacts of systemic racism. I am saying that I have questions, am willing to make the commitment to be in it with others looking to educate ourselves, am willing to stay curious, and be part of making change real.
These will be some of the hardest conversations of our times, and they will take all of us talking together about really hard things.
I’ve been watching and witnessing many interactions on this topic lately and I’m noticing a pattern that concerns me. I’m seeing a lot of white people eager to be on the “right” side of this conversation, quick to condemn, marginalize or ostracize other white people who are learning, asking questions, who aren’t using the “right” language or who make a mistake. Let me be clear — this is white people condemning and attacking other white people for not getting it right, as if somehow they suddenly have all the answers, have no bias (unconscious or otherwise), and have always been warriors for anti-racism. It feels like an outrage that is righteous and also borrowed as if by aligning themselves with people of colour they can avoid the shame, guilt, or responsibility of the system we all live in.
How does this allow the work to be shared? How does this allow education, growth, learning, and real, serious change to happen?
We can’t fight oppression with exclusion.
I think of Alice Walker’s quote; “Healing begins where the wound was made.” I have this creeping feeling that those white folks who are outraged at other white folks might be perpetuating systemic racism by soaking up all the air time, attention and focus away from people of colour. I wonder if these white people are perpetuating the tools of oppression by dominating the conversation and seeking to shift blame and shame on to other white people? Isn’t knowledge related to systems of power and these people are presenting themselves as holders of knowledge? Perhaps these white folks positioning themselves as the experts on eradicating systemic racism are in fact supporting those systems by placing themselves on the “right” side of the equation and taking up space, energy and power away from those who have been harmed. I’m not saying white people shouldn’t be part of the conversation — this work is shared work. I don’t think white people should be using up the air time, attacking and marginalizing other white people who are legitimately trying to learn. (And just to state the obvious, I think racism needs to be eradicated. Just in case that wasn’t clear.) An example of this in action is happening at raceconversations.org where they host conversations for white people new to talking about racism, to explore and learn together. Supporting people to learn and change is always more effective than shaming and blaming them to be different.
We need to move to responsibility in ways that require us to bring more than our “rightness” or sides to the conversation. We need to bring relentlessly open hearts where all people — especially people of colour — are heard in a way that makes them feel loved. When we feel loved we are open, expansive, and able to contribute to making change real. When we feel attacked, marginalized, or “wrong” we are more likely to retreat or defend ourselves. This isn’t a colour thing, it's a human thing. A recent conversation about racial inequality at LinkedIn highlights how challenging these conversations can be, and how crucially important it is to design structure that allows people to explore the issues safely and constructively, where growth, learning, and deeper understanding are the aim.
If we can create space for conversations where all are welcomed, inclusion is more than a word. We need to be on watch for the conversations we are shutting down, marginalizing or judging and pull back from that brink. We need to understand that this exclusion in the name of inclusion harms our democracy. Recently a group of well-respected writers came together to publish an Open Letter on Justice and Open Debate in Harpers. In this declaration they called out the tendency to condemn views and perspectives that do not support the “right” side. In the letter, they state; “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.” They also made this point; “The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other.” (Unfortunately, to make their point for them, many of the signatories to the letter were attacked for stating those views.)
Now all of this is so much easier said than done. In principle, inclusion is important, but sometimes the journey to that place can be really challenging, especially when it becomes personal. I recently had a conversation with a family member where things did not go at all well. There was emotional shrapnel flying all over the place, impacting the conversation and the relationship, bombs being dropped from both sides. I was triggered and angry, speaking from a place of frustration, partly trying to talk my conversational partner into agreeing with my views and partly trying to ask questions and extend the conversation. My family member was pretty focused on being right, certain that offering random facts, examples and unrelated situations would win out his position in the end. He seemed far more motivated by being right and winning than being the conversation. At one point in the conversation he said something like, “So now white people should apologize for being white?” and “The looters and pillagers need to be stopped.” and I lost any last bit of calm I might have had. It was not one of my finer moments.
The conversation ended with me saying I wasn’t interested in being part of a conversation where the goal was winning, versus the goal being curiosity, learning, or sharing. I was talking about my family member, but at that point, that statement was true for me too. After some cooling down, we were talking again, both stating that our relationship was important.
Here’s an insight a couple of weeks out; life is full of conflict. It is natural, normal, and unavoidable. Relationships go through phases of harmony, and then disruption but the most important step comes after disruption; in repair. If you can’t talk about the conflict, repair the disruption to the relationship and strengthen connection, understanding and trust then over time the bond of harmony weakens and the threads begin to fray. We must be willing to look at our own role, frailties, and contributions to the disruption in order to create a strong repair. If I’m certain I’m right then no repair will happen. This applies to personal relationships, professional relationships, and in the public arena. In my commitment to my beliefs about inclusion, I left no space for my family member to think or feel differently. I don’t know if he has had the same reflections or insights; I think it's likely he hasn’t had these thoughts. But then that’s my assumption and judgment, isn’t it?
In hindsight, another insight about this conversation revolves around emotions. Fear of difference and the other are powerful motivators, creating disconnection separating us from each other. Fear is often connected to certainty, where we seek to protect ourselves, our identities, and our views. Being wrong, or being on the opposite side of new perspectives can be scary and unfamiliar. Shame and guilt often play out in our toughest conversations, and in my experience shame sometimes flips to grandiosity because it feels better to be righteously and explosively certain and committed to your position than it does to feel bad about yourself. There is a power in grandiosity, and a helplessness in shame. I see this flip playing out in conversations in the public arena regularly, and in the practice of exclusion in the name of inclusion.
The system that needs to be dismantled has people at its core, and ideally, most of those people will be part of dismantling that system and creating something new. The reality is that it probably won’t be all people, but if it is many of us, then change and action are possible. We need to take everyone who is in the conversation on this journey. We need to repair the disruption with new, stronger threads so what we build into the future is better, fairer, more equitable and brings everyone with us. We need to be open and committed to the messiness of all views being aired and all people being valued, otherwise, we support democracy only for people who think like us.
What are you standing for? What are you contributing to? Who are you inviting to the conversation and who are you judging and leaving behind?