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  • Writer's pictureIlsa Govan

Facilitating Conversations About Race

After attending our two-day Train the Trainer workshop, a participant sent me the following questions. I enjoyed responding and Caprice added some ideas as well. We thought others might find these tips useful.

What level of audience do you address your questions for (i.e., aim for the lowest common denominator)?

​I will usually try to meet the group where most of them are at. If I'm using vocabulary​ that I think most know but some don't, I'll ask something like, "Who is familiar with the phrase 'model minority'? What does that mean to you when you hear it?" So they can explain it to each other. Asking open ended questions such as "What does unconscious bias mean to you?" can get at their level of understanding without making people feel like they should know everything about it.​ I don't play 'guess what's in my head' when it comes to questioning, so the answers are based more on personal experience than a correct answer. When I have new info to share, I'll just tell it to folks, rather than asking them about it.

I felt like my nervousness during the role play affected my ability to really listen to what was being said – how do you get over these nerves? Is it just a matter of practice?

Yeah, it really involves practice. I'm still nervous before every workshop, some more than others, but my nerves are definitely better than they used to be. Having something at the beginning that is familiar helps me relax. For example, reciting my poem or going over the norms.

There are some tips for identifying your fears and restructuring self-talk in our book Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Strategies for Facilitating Conversations on Race on page 64-70. I encourage you to do the self-assessment exercises on those pages.​ Also see chapter 4, Increasing your Confidence.

If you find yourself not feeling like you're able to really listen, it is totally fine to say to someone, "I'm not sure I'm understanding what you just said. Could you say that again?" or, "Say more about that." This makes you look like an active listener, even when it is just your nerves. It’s also okay to show up as your authentic self and just say, my apologies, there was a moment when I drifted. There’s a lot on my mind.

What are some tips you have for staying the moment/maintaining calm?

Breathe. If you are having an emotional response to someone, saying it out loud, "I'm having an emotional response to what you just said, did anyone else feel that?" or "I think my response to you just now was because I was feeling triggered by..."

More than one thing or person can become triggering. Taking brief notes so you can listen while folx share can be a way to allow the conversation to flow. Then you come back to key issues you want to bring up rather than responding right away when you are likely to feel emotional in the moment.

Asking, does anyone have a different thought or experience allows for others to engage in the conversation while you facilitate the dialogue. It’s harder to facilitate what’s going on between you and a participant than it is to facilitate between participants.

I do my own self-care, including growing awareness of my triggers outside of the workshop so I'm better prepared during a session. And remember you have a co-facilitator who will likely be

thinking more clearly than you when they are not the one's on the spot. Ask them their thoughts during a tense situation.​

How do I get over my fear of completely offending someone?

​It's great that you've acknowledged this is your fear, as that's the first step. Think about or write about why you fear this. If you offend someone then what? And if that thing happens then what? This is what Kathy Obear calls the "ladder of fear".

Know that you will likely offend someone, so don't spend a lot of time trying to avoid offending people. That doesn't mean don't continue to do your self work or continue trying to understand dynamics of privilege/oppression. But I've offended at least 4 people I know of for sure in the past 2 weeks (and those are just the ones who said something).

Instead, think about how you will respond when you do offend someone. How will you show openness to new learning if you did do something harmful? How will you affirm their perspective without backing down from yours if they're angry about something such as you saying the words "white privilege"?

One of the toughest things when you offend someone is to determine what you have to learn from the interaction and how much of it was about that person and where they were at in their learning. Talk to your co-facilitators to get their feedback on this.

Is there a way to know when to identify when someone is a “lost cause” and stop holding up discussions to win them over?

​This is really just about your feel for when the group needs to move on. Try a couple of different strategies with the person.​

If too many people respond to them, they can feel like they need to save face and therefore will double-down on their opinion. I look to see if they seem to be shifting at all or if they seem willing to show they are really listening to the other people. If they remain argumentative and/or are interrupting and responding quickly, that's usually a time when I'll move on. This work is often about planting seeds rather than moving people rapidly in their growth. They may not move in your workshop, but the next session they are in, they might be more open.​

When/how/why should I interrupt people?

​We've got a chapter on interrupting in our book: Getting Participants Back on Track. There is also a piece about Dominating the Conversation in the section on White Privilege. The basics are: Know yourself--how comfortable are you with interrupting? Know your agenda--what is the goal of the workshop and are these comments taking us there? Know your audience--watch to see people's reactions when someone has been talking for a while. Know how to recognize privilege--is this person dominating the conversation a part of a pattern, i.e., White men?

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