This week as leaders, many of us are trying to figure out how to address the issue of racism in America. Some of us are avoiding the conversation because we feel ill-equipped to have it. For others, it feels too painful to talk about. Still, others are thinking it is not their issue to address. They are hoping the CEO message about how they stand for diversity will be enough. In my view, it is the job of each leader to notice what is called for in the moment, to dig deep within ourselves to find how we can be purposeful and respond appropriately. For me, this started with authentic listening conversations with my African American friends. One friend courageously agreed to share this conversation with others. The podcast link to this unfiltered conversation is below.
For us to create real positive change toward equality, we must be willing to share our stories. Our hearts must be moved. We must find ourselves in “the other”. We must feel the pain of the other and connect it with our own. The cultures, structures, and institutions we have created can only be re-imagined when we are moved in terms of our mindsets and emotions.
My guest on the podcast is Vernice Jones. Vernice wears many hats as part of her identity. She’s the mother of two African American boys. She is a master certified coach and faculty for Georgetown’s Institute for Transformational Leadership. She is passionate about helping people to grow and lead. She’s also a close friend.
In this courageous conversation, she opened up about how hard it is to talk about race “outside the family”. She shared how the death of George Floyd and other blatant acts of racism have opened wounds of generations of unspoken trauma. She shared how this is hard to talk about because there is so much pain. When I first reached out to her, she said she wanted to wait to talk. To have words, we must have made sense of our experience. Sense-making is hard when there is so much emotion.
As Vernice shared at the start of the podcast, this was a conversation at a unique point in time among individuals with unique experiences that shaped our perspectives. Your conversations will likely be different. I hope our conversation will help you have an authentic, trust-building, bias-shifting courageous conversation with another person. Here is what I learned.
Bring your most compassionate and vulnerable self to the conversation. Be ready to acknowledge that these conversations are hard for each person involved. There has been a collective unspoken agreement in our culture to not have dialogue because it is hard and messy. Sharing experiences of racism is painful. We also don’t want to offend others or make them uncomfortable. We don’t want to be emotional and raw. Yet, in order for us to understand each other and be moved toward authentic action, we have to be willing to have these conversations. Let go of the desire for a perfect conversation. Let go of the desire to control the conversation. Be willing to enter another person’s world with curiosity. This takes courage.
Be ready to listen and find the hero in the other person. In my conversation with Vernice, it was easy to find the hero in her. We are close friends and both respect and care for each other. In my book Wired for Disruption, one of the most important accelerators of our agility is the ability to listen deeply to see the world from another person’s perspective. In this case, proactively choose to shift your mindset to finding the hero in the other person. Stretch to make sense of how this person’s experiences have shaped their mindset. While you can’t plan the conversation, plan to come away with a deeper appreciation of them as individuals who are trying their best. Choose to see them as heroes of their stories. Plan to learn something new.
Connect to the emotional experience of another person. Empathy is about feeling the pain of another person. It deepens connection. Vernice shared about her fear for her two sons. They can be mouthy teenagers she said: “You don’t have the luxury to be stupid and mouthy cause you could get killed.” She shared her experience of talking with other African American moms: “I haven’t talked to any mothers who haven’t had this experience of imagining people telling me that my child was just killed. What would I do? I went through that for both of my children, like over and over and over and over again. That was painful.” As a mother, I connected with the pain and burden of what it would be like to worry about your child, to prepare yourself for that moment you hear of their death. I also connected with my privilege that this is something that I don’t have to worry about.
Our job is to dig deep to understand the values important to us and connect them with the needs of the moment. This is what leaders do. As Vernice eloquently shares, there is no recipe for the right action. Each person will need to find their own inspiration, outrage, sadness, or any other emotion that moves them to create an authentic action. Albert Einstein famously said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Unless we change our minds and hearts, one person at a time and take action, the institution of racism will have prevailed. As long as there is inequality there will be no peace.
This is far from a comprehensive take on this issue. In truth, I am still reflecting from our podcast interview. There are many experts to learn from. There are many books to read and many lists that you can find, about what to do. I suggest you start with one authentic conversation. To truly step into another person’s perspective will help you be a better leader and a better human being. The two are inseparable.
A version of this post first appeared in my Forbes leadership blog.