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'Inclusive Conversation Tip #1: Open the Door Mindfully' from Fierro Consulting: Inspiring People. Growing Organizations. Strengthening Communities.'s Blog

Inclusive Conversation Tip #1: Open the Door Mindfully

Oct 27, 2015
Category: Group dynamics  Racism  Power Dynamics  Antiracism  Inclusive Conversations  Tips for inclusive conversations 
Author: Rita Fierro, Ph.D.

Tip #1. Open the door mindfully.

How a conversation begins is everything. It’s like not knowing what’s behind a door, so we have to be careful of how we open it. I’ve learned that to have an inclusive conversation, I have to be mindful of how I open the door to the conversation. I pay attention to what I say and the impact of my words and actions.

Door Mindfully

(Happy Halloween, folks!)

I used to just run people down with my knowledge to stay true to myself. I believed in calling people out, by any means necessary. The result? Many dinner parties became arguments and I went home feeling hurt, alone, and isolated. I was hurting myself and I was missing great opportunities for learning. My closest friends stopped talking to me about race. When Obama was elected, the group of friends that knew me from this phase of my life never talked with me about the elections. I've changed a lot over the years, but many haven't noticed.

While calling out is still a value for me, I can now see that there are different ways to do it. There is power in opening a door without knowing what's on the other side. The way you start a conversation can open it up, shut it down, or make it explode. I now strategize to maximize the impact and decide ahead of time how much I'm willing to expose myself. I decide how important it is for me to call out this particular circumstance and how safe I feel or not.

Many times my intention is to plant seeds for questions and reflection. It's to start a conversation, not end it. It isn’t always easy or effective. Here's an example of a time that worked particularly well.

It was early this spring; I was camping with 2-3 friends and a larger group of people I had just met. I was up on a hill, sitting under a tree, waiting for folks to get and finish their ice cream. I'm lactose intolerant. It is hard to watch others eat and resist the temptation, but the sun was bright on a cloudless day and the sun is a blessing.

 Camping Trip

One of the guys came back from getting ice cream quite irritated and vented.


“This woman in front of me was so rude. She was deaf and she was trying out all these flavors, then letting the person she was with try them too, they were both deaf, and it took forever. She’d ask the woman and the woman wouldn’t understand, then the woman would answer and she wouldn’t understand. There weren't that many people in line, but she just took forever. Plus...they're everywhere today. What is it, a deaf convention or something? Not that I have a problem with deaf people...she was just so rude. I mean, If you have a communication challenge, try one flavor, not five."

There was a dense pause. I was holding back.

Then one woman said, "I disagree."

"I do too," I quickly supported her.

"I mean, it just took forever, come on!!!...." The guy continued, ignoring our disagreement.

Neither of us pressed to give our opinion. 

After a few minutes of him venting again, another person spoke up. "It sounded like someone else had another opinion, I wonder what that was about...."

The dude started talking again. No one answered. But then, he stopped himself. He got curious.

"You disagree? I'm curious to hear your perspective."

"Well, just because someone is deaf, that doesn't mean they should hold back from trying ice cream. It's bad enough to be deaf, why give up on other pleasures too?" said the other woman.

"And," I added, "there may be a different perception of time in deaf culture, or simply in the experience of being deaf. It may be a slower-paced culture. So from her perspective, it is your impatience that is rude."

"I never thought about that,” he said.

We all kept talking and there was an openness to interrogate that wasn't there before. This conversation was no doubt a group effort. Here are the things I think worked well:

  • Disagreement was initially voiced concisely, without an argument, creating curiosity.
  • Two people supported each other in their dissent, one person was not alone.
  • One person gave the stage to the disagreeing party.
  • The disagreers did not force the conversation nor try to "win" the argument, they simply voiced their dissent.
  • The main person got curious about another perspective on the issue.
  • The person in question had a chance to vent, before he welcomed another perspective.

Together, the above team scored a touchdown in the camp of overcoming resistance and helping the conversation move to place of exploration and openness. It’s worth mentioning, that the above interaction wasn't planned, yet I would not have experienced it with my old strategy of running down the enemy with all my knowledge.

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