On a flight to Denver to visit my best friend, I start reading Driven by Difference by David Livermore. After the first few chapters, I was ravenous. It clearly articulated how I wanted to frame my D&I pilot program for my design agency. I decided to take a break and listen to an episode of “Change Agent,” the New York Times podcast. I highly recommend it if you haven’t heard, the TL:DR: The creators apply an entirely different problem-solving technique from one situation to another. In this episode, a young man is having trouble confronting his friend on the off-hand racist remarks he is saying. He’s just moved to a new town and wants to keep the friendship feeling that this person is really a ‘good’ guy despite his comments. I was interested to see how this would play out. My first reaction is he should abandon this friendship. If any of my close friends used the n-word regularly, there would be a major problem. Then I took a step back and realized this was a better way: How can we change the minds of people and remain close to them?
The episode takes a turn to introduce Steven Hassan, a former cult member and mental health professional. He uses a very simple structure to help those still in cults. The talk was then handed off to the young man mentioned above:
The confrontation was very successful, you can listen to it yourself. I immediately scribbled the talk structure into the book I had been annotating. I whispered “yes!” excitedly out loud and the two gentlemen next to me looked up from their Round Rock donuts they had bought on the plane.
I had a conference I was gearing up for with my podcast partner, Melanie, around the same time I discovered the talk structure. Our presentation was “Having the Tough Conversation: Advocating for Yourself to Break Toxic Workplace Cycles” for Women’s Community Center of Central Texas. I decided to add the talk structure and together, we expanded on the steps to tailor it for addressing microaggressions in the workplace.
Validation: Lay Foundation for Mutual Respect
Get Curious: Ask Open-Ended Questions
Personal Stories: Sharing the Impact
I also gave a 5-minute version of this talk a few weeks ago at an Austin Design Week event. I had some great questions which lead me to develop a few more tactics around having “the talk.” When should you have this talk? I told the room it depends. If you had an upsetting emotional reaction, you might want to wait to gather your thoughts. However, I would not wait more than 24 hours because it should be fresh in that person’s mind. Also, when you wait too long, it might not have the same impact to the person. They may get even more defensive in the confrontation that you’ve been upset with them for an extended period of time.
It’s best to do it in private. While it’s difficult to confront someone, remember that it’s difficult to be the receiving end as well. It’s helpful to remember MRI — most respectful interpretation. Give the person the benefit of the doubt because it’s most likely the intent of their action does not correlate with the impact it had.
Let’s bring this back around to the young man featured in the podcast. looked down upon the young man who wanted to remain friends with someone I would put in a reject bucket. But the young man didn’t want to ignore it or walk away from it, he wanted to change the mind and behavior of someone close to him. The man being confronted did have redeeming qualities and he took the confrontation very well. While he mentioned he would never say racial slurs in front of someone non-white, he was able to realize that he’s propagating harmful behaviors and thought patterns when he used them in general.
While this is an extreme example, we all have those people in our circles whose minds we’d like to open up. In this divisive political climate, I’ve walked away from conversations from those who don’t align with me and THAT IS PRIVILEGE. Just look back to the facts from my anecdote above: I was a white woman traveling to Denver (white liberal echo-chamber) from Austin (white liberal echo-chamber) listening to a New York Times podcast and snacking on a $3 protein bar. I have no shortage of those who think like me. I have a personal responsibility to use my privilege to confront to keep those around me to keep us all accountable. There are so many “good” people in this world who behave in a way that unintentionally harms others. I’d compare microaggressions to the term death by a thousand paper cuts. I’d also compare confronting them to laying bricks of the road in the pursuit of equity, empathy, and compassion.