On Friday, July 19, six days after the Zimmerman verdict came out, President Obama gave an unannounced response in the White House briefing room. (Here’s the transcript and the video.) Whatever your thoughts or feelings about the verdict, whatever your views on race in this country, I would hope we can agree that, as a leader, the President stepped into that room facing some fairly daunting challenges. Whatever fraught conversations your organization is having, striving to have, or trying to avoid, I think it’s fair to say they are not likely any more loaded than the topic of race in the US. And, as a bi-racial man, and this country’s first Black president, Mr. Obama was both poised to speak with “authority” on the subject and set-up to be seen as biased.
With all of that “in the room,” the President, in my opinion, used the moment, ultimately, to attempt to convene—or at least promote—a conversation on race in this country. (Though many are accusing him of saying too little too late and many others of dividing instead of uniting us.) I think there are a few things he did well that we as leaders could learn from as we find our own courage to convene difficult and important conversations. I think he:
1. Gave context, as a way of explaining/showing understanding of differences;
2. Advocated without shame, supporting one party without making the “other side” bad; and
3. Showed steps forward, helping others identify and take productive next steps
Let’s take a look at each:
Give Context: I think Obama did this when he talked about how common the experience is for African American males to be followed when shopping and when he described racial disparities in our country’s application of criminal laws (for which there is ample supporting data—here are just three recent findings).
I think all human beings have a basic need to be understood—notice I’m not saying to be agreed with, but to have someone say, “It makes sense that you would feel the way you do, given your experience.” By giving context—accounting for history and people’s experience—we, as leaders can aim to meet that need. Given that acknowledgment, people generally breathe easier; denied it, people feel frustrated.
Advocate without Shame: I think this is something skilled facilitators and mediators do all the time. Noticing where support or resources are needed and advocating that the party in need receive those—and to do this without making the other party “bad.”
I think Obama did this when he asked if there was “...more that we can do to give [African American boys] the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?” No insinuation, no finger pointing, no shame or blame; just naming what support could look like.
Show Steps Forward: Challenging, polarized, complex conversations can often leave us feeling bogged down and hopeless, wondering if we’re spinning our wheels, making matters worse, and what we could actually do to make progress.
Conveners of such conversations have to balance two basic needs of the group: connection/learning and contribution/achievement. Groups need both dialog without prescribed outcomes, the freedom to explore the topic deeply. They also need to sense they’re making a difference and moving forward somehow. The former requires us as leaders to hold back and allow for the “messiness” of robust, though unresolved conversation. The latter requires that we provide—or, better yet, help the group develop—one or more concrete next steps.
Next steps can be as simple as saying when the meeting notes will be sent out and who will take charge of arranging the next meeting. What’s important is that it be realistic and that you deliver on your promises—and insure others do, as well.
By offering, before he closed, five ideas of things we can do, ranging from a federal training program to questioning current laws to personal soul-searching, Obama offered us all some way to express our agency in what might feel like an overwhelmingly complex and polarized conversation.
Whether in our families, our communities, our workplaces, or our “souls,” many of us are having, trying to have, or avoiding(!) challenging conversations—ones that are taut with delicate dynamics, politicized posturing, historically-loaded emotions or multiple stakeholder interests. Engaging in such conversations takes courage. Convening them takes courage and dexterity.
My wish is that we all keep reaching for our courage, and learning—and sharing— what works (and what doesn’t) as leaders bringing together diverse voices in dialog.