It’s easy to shy away from difficult conversations about race. But there’s one crucial reason to have them

It’s easy to shy away from difficult conversations about race. But there’s one crucial reason to have them

Most of us shy away from difficult conversations. And there are lots of reasons to steer away from conversations where race is a factor. They have all the appeal of touching a hot stove – and should we accidentally get scorched, we will remember it for a long time.

Kwame Christian, a negotiation expert who is Black, says there is one main reason to hold such conversations: Care. In any relationship, people need to know you care about them. And the best way to do that is to talk to them about things that are important to them.

“Your workplace consists of a system of interconnected relationships. We have difficult conversations at work, whether about race or anything else, because we care about those relationships,” he writes in How to Have Difficult Conversations about Race.

But it goes beyond that. It also shows you care about fairness and progress, and aren’t ignoring a possible elephant in the room. “You can’t have a meaningful conversation with someone while denying an integral part of their identity,” he says. Who we are is made up of a collection of life experiences, which will usually include race, ethnicity and culture. You need to recognize, understand and, obviously, accept those differences.

That starts by changing how you think of such conversations – from a source perhaps of past trauma and potentially future trauma to an opportunity for progress. The discussion may involve conflict, but it should not be combat. It’s a chance to understand the emotional and other challenges that have been faced by your conversational partner and share your own.

Such conversations can be transformational. Sometimes that’s in a small way, but it’s still important. Showing you care and are willing to listen is powerful.

Binary thinking is dangerous. Mr. Christian notes that mindset “can lead us to believe that anyone who demonstrates any level of resistance or disagreement with our position can and should be labelled as racist, naive, prejudiced, ‘too woke,’ a lost cause, evil or worse. Thinking that way is what makes it easy to conflate conflict with combat. The person we are speaking with is perceived as an enemy combatant.”

He warns that a common challenge in conversations about race is that one of the parties involved might not even realize race is a factor. But even when you don’t see a situation you are discussing as having a racial component, if the other person thinks it’s about race then it is, he says. It helps if you begin to ask yourself about touchy situations: How could race have played a part?

The fear you will make a mistake hangs over such conversations. Consider offering a disclaimer, like “we have different backgrounds and different life experiences. It’s likely that, as we work together, there will be some miscommunications, and it’s possible that I will say or do something offensive. I care about making sure we have a great working relationship and I want you to feel comfortable letting me know when that occurs so I can be a better colleague to you.”

He outlines a compassionate-curiosity framework for these conversations, based on three steps:

  • Acknowledge and validate emotions: You need to understand your own emotions to be able to converse properly, and that is best done by being open to and accepting of them. He suggests you view yourself as two different people: Your strategic self, focused on satisfying your desires for the long term, and your emotional self, focused on satisfying your desires in the moment. Emotions can overwhelm the rational part of your brain, of course, and you lose control. In his case, his strategic self wants to achieve the objective at hand and his emotional self wants to do things that make him feel good or better. “Although both versions of yourself are important, the strategic self must be the one leading the way. Compassionate curiosity helps you make sure that’s the case,” he writes.
  • Get curious with compassion: It’s not only important to know how you feel but also why. This requires persistence, to identify all emotions and then trace where they stem from. Perhaps you are feeling uncomfortable. Why? It may be because you care for the racialized friend you are talking with. Why does that bother you? Perhaps because you feel you should have learned more in the past about their situation and feel embarrassed you didn’t. Why? Keep asking why until you have a good handle on it.
  • Use joint problem solving: Together with the other person, you must find a pathway to satisfying your emotional and substantive needs. That may involve pushing past a bias you now recognize has crept into your thinking.

To keep his cool, whenever he starts to feel emotional in such conversations, he repeats the mantra “compassionate curiosity” to himself to get back on path. He also aims for slow, deep breaths during tense moments and takes notes because writing can help process emotions. The conversations can be challenging, but they can also be rewarding.


  • Team huddles are helpful for co-ordinating and bringing people up-to-date, but you may want to reflect on the timing. Fast Company’s Stephanie Vozza points to a survey suggesting the traditional start-of-the-day slot can be disruptive to the two-thirds of people who consider themselves morning people. It might be wise to let them get on with their individual work and huddle later in the day.
  • PayPal executive Kausik Rajgopal recommends making sure everyone speaks at least once during meetings before others get a second chance: “Nobody speaks twice until everybody speaks once.”
  • Leadership coach Stephen McGarvey notes that some people are motivated by “away from” – what they can avoid, prevent or eliminate. They tend to move away from what they don’t want to have happen in their lives. In comparison, others are motivated by moving “toward” things they want to achieve, accomplish or attain. Which are you? Which are your teammates?

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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