four people sitting around a table talking

How would you rate your comfort level with having difficult conversations?

For school leaders, navigating challenging dialogues and discussions are part of your everyday work. Whether within the context of educational practices, performance reviews, student achievement or something else, it is simply part of the job.

However, when it comes to conversations about diversity and inclusion as part of the important work of social justice, I’ve found that administrators and teachers alike can feel scratchy, and sometimes, challenging dialogue is avoided all together.

To create a truly inclusive culture, uncomfortable moments cannot be avoided, especially when the outcome can lead to a better understanding of one another. If any staff member is unwilling or hesitant to raise concerns or express when they have felt like “an outsider,” how can you create an environment where all people are welcomed for being their authentic selves?

Individuals need to know that when they share opinions or perspectives, that their counterparts will listen and engage in a respectful way. To accomplish those objectives, you, your staff and community need to be equipped to navigate difficult conversations. While the journey takes time, I will share ideas in my next few blog posts to help you create what some refer to as a brave space where challenging topics can be explored.

Defining Our Terminology

Before we dive in, I want to take a moment to explain what I mean when I use the phrases: difficult conversations and brave spaces. There are many ways to describe difficult conversations. In the context of inclusivity, they tend to be ones where individuals broach social justice topics, which can stir strong emotions. While the discussions may be scratchy, they help us to examine social, cultural, ethnic or other aspects of our identity and experiences that can foster a greater understanding and respect for our colleagues and school community members.

Healthy and respectful dialogue is vital in creating a brave space where every person actively participates as well as speaks honestly and critically about their experiences. These spaces are marked by courage because the topics are often difficult, require risk taking and may result in discomfort (Arao & Clemens).

Understanding the Norms of a Brave Space

To engage effectively in challenging discussions, most teams set ground rules. And, those norms may look a little different in a brave space than what you are used to.

In their article, Arao & Clemens share some common group norms that you may hear such as “don’t take things personally” and illustrate how difficult subject matter typically has an emotional impact and that is to be expected. Instead of asking individuals to not express when they are hurt by something, Arao & Clemens ask groups in brave spaces to “own your intentions and your impact,” which can contribute to an environment that promotes understanding where feelings and experiences are heard and validated.

There are several examples of common group norms and an opportunity to rethink them to create a truly brave space in Arao and Clemens’ work, and I invite you to read their article to learn more. As you consider your community’s needs and identify the agreements you will put in place to support honest dialogue, I encourage you to start by considering the conditions that allow you to fully and candidly share your perspectives.

Set aside about 20 minutes to reflect on the group norm questions below. You may find it helpful to review your Emergenetics® Profile as well, as it’s likely that your Thinking and Behavioral preferences can provide additional insights into your responses.

  1. How do you demonstrate to others that you have genuine interest in hearing about their experiences?
  2. What circumstances cause your palms to sweat when you are about to share an opinion?
  3. What sort of information or environmental conditions encourage you to feel confident in what you have to say?
  4. What group norms make it easier for you to contribute to challenging discussions?
  5. What situations or actions may hinder your willingness to share your inputs?

Building on Your Preferences

Equipped with your answers, you should have greater clarity about the factors that help you engage in a brave space, and chances are that your team members will have very different answers to these questions.

As one example, just think about your response to the question: “How do you demonstrate to others that you have a genuine interest in hearing about their experiences?” If you have a preference for third-third Expressiveness, Assertiveness and Flexibility, you may nod vigorously, interject an affirmation or ask questions.

Now imagine, you have someone who is in the first-third of Expressiveness, Assertiveness and Flexibility. They will likely sit quietly and show no outward emotion in the same situation. If you aren’t aware of the nuances between your styles and assume that people will behave similarly to you, you may think your colleague is disengaged when in reality they are actively listening. That assumption may cause friction and make it difficult to communicate openly.

Based on the ways we naturally prefer to interact, we may have all sorts of notions about how others are feeling or what norms would be best to create a brave space. And a person’s preferences are just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many elements that come from below the surface.

In my next post, I will explore one of the foundational elements of a brave space: trust. In the meantime, I encourage you to share the five reflection questions around group norms with your colleagues and engage in a dialogue about their responses. You are likely to discover new insights and ideas to set meaningful ground rules to help your community navigate challenging conversations and begin creating an environment where staff are willing and able to communicate courageously.

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