“I need tools,” she said. Several heads in the group of 70 White antiracists nodded. “I’ve realized I can’t ignore it or stay quiet any longer. I really need to start some conversations with people about racism, and Trump, and what’s happening. Especially my family. But I don’t know how.”
I nodded too. Even though I was a participant in the group, and not its facilitator, I wanted to help her. I also understood her frustration and confusion. Even after three decades of learning and applying multiple communication tools to my own scary conversations (and helping others do the same), I’ve been getting stuck lately. The old tools don’t seem to be working the way they once did. Listening to the group, I thought perhaps it isn’t new tools we need, but a new mindset. We yearn not just to do things differently, but to be different.
Being different and creating a new world requires more than putting new words and pictures inside the old frames. Here’s a new frame for scary conversations: mindset and “heartset” are often more important than skillset. Lack of an effective mindset or aligned heartset can derail or dilute the best scripts and carefully pre-planned words. Mindset and heartset are the new-school skillset that equips us to be creative and generate the “right” words in the moment – allowing room for imperfection and inevitable mistakes. The 6 C’s are a guide to getting the right mindset and heartset so we can have scary conversations with improved confidence and effectiveness.
1. Courage – tolerate the fear of having the conversation, and take the risk anyway. Courage isn’t a feeling or lack of feeling. It’s acting in spite of fear. Taking action when you’re not afraid can be effective, but it’s not courageous – neither is numbing or stuffing fear. Acting out of recklessness or ignorance can also be effective, but not courageous. In Game of Thrones, Jorah compliments Thoros for his legendary prowess in battle years before, saying “you were the bravest man I ever saw.” Thoros reveals he wasn’t the bravest man, just the drunkest – so drunk that his comrades had to tell him about his heroics next day. Conversations are scary when there are high stakes, meaning you may lose something valuable. You may risk losing the relationship, your cool, your authority, your identity, or even your physical safety. Courage is necessary to acknowledge the risks, feel the fear, and take action anyway. How to grow Courage: Figure out what makes the risk worth it to you, or the conversation necessary despite the outcome. Be committed to your purpose and values, but not attached to outcomes. Through therapy, coaching, meditation or some other practice, build your self-trust and confidence, learn to let go of control, and learn to not fear your emotions.
2. Consciousness – gain honest self-awareness of your goals for the scary conversation. Is your goal to understand the other person? Get them to understand you? Persuade them to think or do something? Set a boundary with them? Knowing your goal lets you assess if a conversation is appropriate to begin with. Not all problems are solved with talking – sometimes what’s called for is for you to make an independent decision about a relationship or activity you’re involved in. Knowing your goal helps you decide whether it’s achievable or not. If your honest goal is to convince someone to change, and they’ve provided you with years of data about their unwillingness or inability to change, a conversation won’t achieve your goal (you might be the one who needs to make a change). Knowing your goal also allows you to align your impact with your intent, and your behaviors with your values. If your honest goal is to persuade someone to think differently, this will come through even if you pretend you’re only interested in understanding. How to grow Consciousness: Take some alone time, free of distractions or pressures, to think or journal about your goals. Perhaps talk it through with a close, trusted ally. Ponder the question: in the best possible scenario for this conversation, what would be different afterwards?
3. Curiosity – be interested in the other person and open to a new experience. Curiosity is a childlike sense of not knowing but dying to know. Remember the first time you heard a now-beloved story and didn’t know the ending but couldn’t wait to find out? Isn’t it interesting how kids can retain their sense of wonder (AKA curiosity) even after hearing the same story 57 times? Curiosity is allowing our eye or ear to be caught on something that grabs our attention, and being open to what’s possible. It’s a sense of delight, being available to “wow!” and whimsy. Curiosity requires letting go of knowing the answer (unless you really do know and you’re kidding yourself), or letting go of knowing all the answers, as well as the sense of comfort and competence that accompanies that knowing. How to grow Curiosity: Spend time with curious humans (of all ages) – observe and imitate how they interact with the world. Allow yourself to spend a day, or an hour each day for a week, just noticing what draws your attention (a tree, sign, odd sound, someone’s shoes, certain colors or words, etc.). Notice how you feel when you get curious. Observe what happens next when you get curious. Get curious (ha!) about why those things got you curious. Journal, create a selfie video or talk with a trusted ally about what you learned.
4. Compassion – have empathy and a sense of loving kindness for the other person. When the stakes are high, trust has been broken, and we feel unsafe, compassion can seem impossible. However, it’s necessary for our own effectiveness and sense of power. Compassion does not mean we trust someone who has proven themselves untrustworthy or injured us. Compassion does not require that we approve of a person’s behavior or don’t hold them responsible for their actions. Compassion can co-exist with other emotions and doesn’t require letting go of fear or anger. Compassion simply means we connect at a heart level with the person’s soul, spirit, or humanity. We imagine what it must like to be them and feel what they feel, and allow tenderness to emerge. Compassion reminds us they are human, and that they are not more powerful than we are. If you can’t access empathy or find a way to connect this way with someone, don’t try to have a scary conversation that requires building understanding or trust. How to grow Compassion: Access your resources (therapy, coaching, meditation, journaling, a trusted ally, spiritual practice, etc.) to build compassion for yourself, examine your blocks to compassion for others, and try on the other person’s shoes. I have a frequent bedtime practice when I direct love to every person who hurt or angered me that day – even political figures. It’s been profound in getting me unstuck from negative emotions, reminding me of my power, and keeping me creative and focused on making the world work better for everyone.
5. (Self) Control – during the conversation, notice and acknowledge your emotions and sensations to make conscious choices about your behavior. Your emotions (heart feelings) and sensations (body feelings) are a valuable source of information about your experience. They are 100% real and valid, but they are neither permanent, nor the entire truth. Learn to view them as such. Use the skill of Consciousness to build ongoing awareness of both, and Curiosity to notice where they’re coming from and what they’re pointing to. This wisdom will equip you to choose actions and words more mindfully. Hold your emotions and sensations as you would a hummingbird in your hand – providing a firm but gentle container and focused attention, not rigid, authoritarian or oppressive “control.” How to grow (self) Control: Access your resources to improve your body awareness, emotional intelligence and self-regulation. Consider trying a new modality like Somatic Experiencing or Neuro-Emotional Technique.
6. Changeability – during the conversation, be internally flexible and nimble in adapting to whatever shows up. Building mindset and heartset through the first five C’s allows you to more easily relinquish control, be open and curious, and make conscious choices that respond to what emerges in you and the other person. How to grow changeability: Practicing Courage, Consciousness, Curiosity, Compassion and (self) Control will increase your Changeability.
As with any skill you once struggled to learn, trying on a new mindset and heartset can be frightening, frustrating or discouraging. Just like those once-arduous skills now come naturally, competence in The 6 C’s will also come with practice. Nothing less than a new way to be together, and a world that works better for more of us, is the promise that awaits.