Have you ever had a conversation with someone you don’t respect? Have you ever had a conversation with someone who doesn’t respect you?
How are those conversations different from when you give and are given respect? How willing are you to listen to the other person’s point of view? How easy is it for you to share your point of view? How do you leave the conversation? Happy? Frustrated? Annoyed? How willing are you to follow up on tasks that were discussed during the conversation? How willing are you to have another conversation with that person?
All of these questions are difficult enough on their own, but when you add race to the equation, the situation becomes that much more fraught. In the United States especially, conversations around and about race have become so polarizing that many choose not to speak about it at all. “Oh, not this again!” “Why can’t I just do my work?” “America is not a racist country!” “Why does it matter?”
It matters because we’ve stopped communicating with each other and even if you don’t care about what that’s doing to our country, think about what it’s doing to the places we work. The pandemic has forced many organizations to rethink the way they do business. Initially, there was a strong push to “get back to normal”, but employees found that normal wasn’t all that great. Many of us found that if we had the space and privilege to do so, working remotely was, by far, the better choice.
For people of color, it wasn’t just that it was more comfortable, it was simply safer. The micro- and macroaggressions faced by the BIPOC community before, during and after work, were a lot easier to negotiate when we could decide when and for what purpose we had to leave our homes. Not only that, but if we were experiencing inequity in the workplace, it was easier to recover when we were in a community that could support us through difficult situations.
If you accept that our workplaces are built on fundamentally racist structures (the research is there, the books have been written, and the documentaries have been made), it begins to shine a light on the long road we need to construct before we can expect the system to pave the way toward equity. Not just for the BIPOC community, but for everyone. But if the respect isn’t there, that conversation will never start.
How then, can conversational leadership change an entire system? Expecting the system to change itself is folly. Those who benefit from it are rarely able to recognize inequity, because for them, the system works and places them in positions of power. And power relinquishes power rarely and grudgingly.
Conversational leadership (CL) is about creating conversations that benefit self and community. It’s about creating respect for yourself so that you can offer it to others. It’s about recognizing the need for the conversation that’s not taking place and leveraging yourself and the CL tools to make sure it does. Conversational leadership is knowing when to stay quiet and when to intervene. CL is about knowing yourself well enough that you can work past your discomfort if it means finding a better path forward.
In the CL work I’ve done with my colleagues, we’ve all been thrown out of our comfort zones. We’ve had some thorny conversations about power and inequity. We’re still grappling with race and how it shows up in the workplace and even in our little community. But because of the respect we hold for each other, we listen, we learn, and we are delighted to be in conversation with each other. Conversations outside of our group have also changed, because once you’ve experienced the kind of connection that CL can bring about, you strive to replicate it at every opportunity. Imagine if we could say that about every meeting, gathering or conference in which we find ourselves. That’s how CL can transform an entire system. By building relationships that are filled with so much trust, connection and respect that we can’t help but be in conversation with each other.
Are you ready to build your own Conversational Leadership skills?
Leverage the power of conversation to unlock creative thinking, innovation and continuous self-improvement for you, your organization, and the broader community. Learn how through our upcoming professional short course, Conversational Leadership, which starts on May 9, 2022.
Author: Donita Volkwijn