I was out for dinner with a friend a few weeks ago and as we were walking back to his house he said “I think this is the best, most productive conversation about race that I’ve ever had”. Now whether or not that was true or just the “I love you man” statement after a few drinks, it got me thinking about how often we really feel like the conversations we have about race really turn out to be productive, valuable, or uplifting. So many of us have had the best intentions of entering this topic, but were chewed up and spit out and left vowing never to express our opinions again. So now it looks like we add race to the list of politics and religion as the things we just can’t talk about.

So for you, why can’t we just talk about all this?

Why does it seem like any toe in the water of these topics leaves you getting shoved all the way into the pool (with your cell phone still in your pocket at that)?

Now in the case of my friend and I talking we had a couple of things making it easy on us.  

  • We’ve got a lot of history with one another and really trust that the other is seeking virtuous ends.  
  • Neither of us was looking for a fight.
  • We were face to face and not separated by screens and social media platforms.  
  • We are both coming from pretty much the same experience.  We are both white, male, 34 years old, married with kids, middle class, homeowners, we grew up in similar neighborhoods, and we come from the same religious background.

We shared so much in common that you might just be able to replace one of us with the other and it would take a few days for anyone to notice. If you’re going to have a conversation about something controversial or sensitive, we basically were set up to agree on most things. However, when talking about the racial issues that our society is finally working through, we didn’t agree on everything.  

I know, however, when talking through these issues, we’re not always set up with such agreeable circumstances. Sometimes if you change just one thing on that list of things that made it easy for my friend and I to talk, you find yourself in the middle of a fight you never asked for.

Instead of retreating back into the comfort of the company of people that only agree with us, we need to figure out how to productively engage over these difficult topics with people who are different than ourselves.

So for conversations like this, what makes them work (difficult) and what makes them work (productive). I’d encourage you to identify in the list below, one thing you are naturally good at and one trap you fall into.  We need to begin to change how we are talking about these things, because our bull horns can not hear each other.

What makes them work (difficult)

  1. Most people don’t come to these conversations looking to have their mind changed

Know that you will disagree on some things and that you will not be able to change their mind on everything (at least not in your 30 minute conversation) and that’s ok.

2.  Most people have had a personal negative experience that is the basis for their tinderbox of emotion

Know that you must first connect with their experience and honor what happened to them or around them before they will let you access their decision making. If people are believing the worst in everything you are saying it is probably because you have not significantly acknowledged their pain or the pain of others.

3. Those that have not had a personal, negative experience will often ignore the very real emotional side of this conversation

Know that if someone is looking at logic and statistics and problem solving they are probably missing the fact that the people side of this makes it much more complicated. Resist your right to take what they say personally and begin to humanize and personalize the statistics with real life stories.

What makes them work (productive)

  1. Instead of playing offence or defense play the referee or the coach. Someone can not offend you.  You are the one taking offence. They do not have control over your emotions, you do.
  2. Don’t feel like you need to be the expert on everything- ask questions. If you have not said “I don’t know” in the conversation you have not been honest. Realize you don’t know the full story. And if you feel yourself getting significantly emotional, ask a question rather than laying into them.
  3. Believe the best in them. Even if the best you can believe in them is that they are ignorant.  You will have a very different response if you believe that they just “don’t know” as opposed to them being hate-filled.


What do you think? Is there something that should be on these lists that I missed?