In her book, We Can’t Talk About That at Work!: How to Talk About Race, Religion, Politics, and Other Polarizing Topics, Mary-Frances Winters posits that delving into deep differences is perhaps the most difficult part of having bold, inclusive conversations. “Acknowledging that polarized opinions exist, is the first step.”
Last week, we discussed the role of finding common ground and creating shared meaning in engaging in these conversations. While understanding similarities is certainly a critical middle ground for bold conversations, understanding differences that make a difference is critical to getting to a place of reciprocal understanding. In conversations about race, in particular, there is often time a lot of polarization. Consider these data points, based on a 2016 Pew Research Study on Race in America:
The data shows polarized perspectives on a number of different issues, including how black people are treated by the criminal justice system, in housing, in the workplace, in stores, and in restaurants, and when voting. These conflicting views would obviously make it more difficult to have bold conversations.
Winters proposes several steps when delving into these differences:
- Acknowledge the ‘elephant’ in the room. Polarization exists and acknowledging that is part of the dialogue.
- Distinguish interpretations and clarify definitions. Even “universal” terms and values can be interpreted differently across cultures. What do terms like fairness, safety, and trust mean to those involved in the dialogue? Discuss those differences. Write them down.
- Uncover your different perspectives and listen with an open mind. Tell your story.
- Know when to ‘press pause.’ Set aside time to reflect. Be okay with non-closure.
- Strive for reciprocal empathy. There is no official ‘end game’ in engaging in these conversations. But …
If we can get to the point of reciprocal empathy (i.e., the ability to know what it is like to be the “other”), we increase the likelihood of generating new ways to engage with each other.