Kwame Christian is a best-selling author, attorney, and mediator, who started his career doing civil rights work and has since shifted to negotiation and conflict resolution. Now that conversations around race and equity have come to the forefront, it's time to have clear guidelines to help navigate these conversations. In this interview, Kwame addresses just that to help leaders and employees alike support conversations about race and equity.
(upbeat music) - We all might agree that conversations around race and equity can be a little bit difficult. And I think it's because these are sensitive topics and they involve all of us. But what if we had some guidelines to really help us navigate these difficult conversations moving forward? Hi, I'm Kelly Ruda with LinkedIn Learning. And today we have Kwame Christian joining us to do just that. He's a bestselling author, an attorney, a mediator, and he started his career in civil rights and has now transitioned into negotiation and specializing in conflict resolution. Kwame, welcome. - Thanks for having me. - So Kwame, I want to start off by talking about these difficult conversations around race and equity. What are some of the barriers that you're seeing to having these conversations? - Well, I think the biggest barrier is the fact that just in general, we're typically not taught how to have difficult conversations. We weren't taught in grade school, high school, and unless you really took specifically focused coursework in college and in grad school, you probably didn't have a negotiation or conflict resolution class. So that's problem number one. But then as it relates to race in particular, this topic is particularly challenging because it triggers deeply held beliefs about the way the world is versus the way it should be. And also it really digs deeply into identity, how we feel about ourselves, how we feel about others. And so having these conversations can feel really risky. And so a lot of times you focus so much on the risk that you miss the payoff on the other side if you have the difficult conversation. So you decide, I'll just play it safe and not have the conversation. - Right, exactly. I've seen that so many times in myself and in other people. So when we talk about that, is there any way to overcome that feeling of risk or threat that we might feel like we're facing in those conversations? - Definitely, it's just not easy. That's the problem. So it takes practice. We need to start to develop a habit of engagement. We need to start having these conversations. A lot of times what happens is we use the discomfort as a trigger to tell us, hey, I'm not going to have this conversation. I should avoid this conversation. When in actuality, that same fear is a sign that this is important, and we should lean in and have the conversation. So we need to develop that habit. And then we also need to develop the skills. We need to start to dig deeply into the conflict resolution skills that have been studied for decades, and recruit those skills for these specific conversations as well. - Yeah, and what are some of the skills that you're talking about? - So my personal favorite is called the compassionate curiosity framework. And it's a simple three-step process. And I wanted to keep it intentionally simple because usually, in the midst of a conflict, you're very emotional, the other side is very emotional, and you're probably not thinking at your best. So I want to keep it very simple and keep it at three. And so step number one is acknowledge and validate emotions. Step number two is get curious with compassion. And step number three is engage in joint problem solving. And as long as you stick really closely to that framework, the conversations that you're going to have, yes, they're still going to be tough, but there'll be a little bit easier. - And is that a good framework for everyone? Or is that something that leaders and managers can teach their employees? - Yeah, this is for everybody. And when I'm teaching attorneys and business negotiators how to negotiate, this is the foundation because it helps you to work through the emotional issues that are inevitable in difficult conversations. When I'm dealing with organizational leaders and teams in general, this is still the framework. Then when I go home and I'm having difficult conversations with my wife or my four-year old, again, this is the framework. It's intentionally flexible, and I think that's what makes it so powerful. - It definitely is powerful, especially the accepting emotions, and how you mentioned earlier, you know, it is about our identity, and there are so many feelings and thoughts around this, so I think that's awesome to start there. Now is this the same online or are there any common mistakes or dos and don'ts that you recommended with that? - It can be the same online if you approach it the right way. And so, as it relates to dos and don'ts, let's think about the discrepancy between whether or not you're calling somebody out and calling somebody in. So if we're calling somebody out, what we're doing is we're essentially publicly shaming them online. And that's problematic because if you approach the conversation that way, you are inviting unnecessary resistance, you're creating a dynamic where they almost are forced to defend their honor publicly, if they realize that you're right. But if we're calling somebody in what we're doing is we're sending them a private message and inviting them to have a dialogue, that's when we can use the framework, and use it exactly the way that I described before. It's possible, it's possible to do it using text, going back and forth, but it's going to be a lot easier if you can make that conversation a little bit more personal, maybe make it a call, maybe make it a Zoom video chat. But it's going to be more difficult if you're just engaging using your fingers. - Yeah, I absolutely agree. Especially when we're thinking about the human element of it, it's hard to express, hey, I accept your emotions, and hey, I'm actually really curious about this via text, or via email, or via online postings, right? - Absolutely, because the thing is, people can read whatever tone they want into the text. And so, especially if they're in a heightened emotional state, it's more likely for them to interpret whatever you say negatively. And so when you start to make that conversation a little bit more personal, it makes it more difficult for them to misinterpret the tone with the words that you're saying. - Right, now even at this phase, where I feel like you've given us some really solid guidelines to figure out how to have these conversations. If it's still intimidating, I want to talk about what's at stake if we don't have these conversations. - Well, if we don't have these conversations, then nothing's going to change. All that the status quo needs in order to maintain its place is nothing, right? And that's what most people do, which is why things don't change as quickly as we would want them to. And so if you truly want to create a more equitable society, most likely it's going to start with the difficult conversations. And so my motto is that the best things in life are on the other side of difficult conversations. If you really want to make change, you have to lean into them. - Definitely, leaning in is where it's at. So when we think about the future, what do you foresee? Do you hope these conversations will become more of the norm within organizations? - I definitely hope, definitely hope that they will. Whether or not it will happen is really up to the individuals and up to the companies. And so earlier I mentioned the habit of engagement, and I think individuals need to start to develop that habit of engaging in these difficult conversations. But similarly companies have habits, and we also as companies need to start encouraging these conversations. So within the company, we start to develop that overall habit of engagement. And I think if we can create that as the industry norm, then I think we're going to see progress happening a lot faster, but it's going to take a lot of work. - Yeah, are there any companies that you work with or I've seen that are really doing a good job at this? - Well, I'd say the American Negotiation Institute, it's doing pretty well. It's tough to say. But I will say this, a lot of companies are genuinely trying. And I think now in 2020, it's harder to ignore. Because a lot of times people use the ostrich technique, where they just put their head in the sand and hope that you can just avoid and ignore the realities of the situation. And now it's becoming harder and harder to do. And so a lot of companies are recognizing, hey, we need to do something. Our obligation isn't just to our shareholders. There's a position within society that we have that comes with responsibility. And that responsibility is to move our company and our community towards equity. And that's really reassuring to see. And so, without being specific about specific companies doing specific things, I will say though, that it seems as though the industry as a whole, just the business industry in our country is moving in the right direction, which is very good to see. - Certainly is. So, as we think about these conversations and we have these guidelines from you, do you foresee these becoming the norm in the future? In the sense of, in the past maybe we avoided these conversations because we weren't really sure how to navigate them. Do you think this is going to become more of a workplace cultural norm? - I hope so, I hope so. The way I think about it is in terms of habits. Individuals have habits and organizations have habits. And so on an individual level, I think we all need to work on getting the habit of engagement, in difficult conversations in general, but especially as it relates to equity, we have to engage in these conversations. Similarly, it would be great if we can get to a point where these organizations say, "Listen, whenever something comes up, we're going to have these conversations." And if we can get that to the point where this is the industry standard, that will be fantastic. And I think we're really crawling in the right direction now, because right now after everything that happened in 2020, issues about race are right at the height of human consciousness. Everybody's thinking about it. And a lot of people are talking about it. So let's use this momentum and create some positive change out of it. - I love it, that's a great way to phrase it and sum it up. Kwame, thank you so much for sharing your insights and sharing ideas and guidelines, and really giving us that positive outlook on this. - My pleasure, thanks for having me. - Now to hear more from Kwame, you can look for his book called "Finding Confidence in Conflict: How to Negotiate Anything and Live Your Best Life." You can also check out his podcast called Negotiate Anything. If you'd like more resources or you'd like to get in touch with him, head over to his website, or you can connect with him on LinkedIn. And be sure to look for his courses right here on LinkedIn Learning. Thanks so much for joining us today as we consider how to have these difficult conversations as we reinvent what's next in this new world of work.
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