Have you ever been working as part of a team, or in a small group during a class or a training, and one person in the group begins making racially coded, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise triggering comments?

And you’re left stunned, taken aback, and unsure of what to say next.

For example, what if someone said something like, “Those Black people are always causing trouble in my neighborhood, and the police should really do something about them.”

How would you respond to this in a relational way that still meets your needs for integrity?

1. Begin by making the implicit explicit.

“It sounds like you’re wishing for protection from the police and also making some very generalized racial assumptions about people in your neighborhood. Is that true?”

“It sounds like you believe only Black people cause trouble, is that true?”

“It sounds like you’re assuming that I would agree with you that Black people cause trouble, is that true?”

“It seems like you don’t realize how that statement sounds. Is that true?”

Whatever it is that you think they are saying, put it in stronger terms and offer it back to them to see what sticks. You can’t discuss something that isn’t being said outright, because someone might just claim that you are misunderstanding them. So, start by making what you think they are saying explici and then move on to the next steps.

2. Decide if you want to use a soft touch or a heavy touch.

This will depending upon the context and relational conditions:

  • A soft touch is more relational and helps the other person save face. It’s about seeing their best intentions and inviting them into their highest selves and using gentle confrontation.

  • A heavy touch is about direct confrontation and limit-setting. It’s about letting them know more about where you stand than about caring for where they are coming from.

Either can be relational depending upon how you deliver the comment.

For example, a soft touch question might sound like, “I’m guessing you don’t really mean to sound so racist right now, do you?”

A strong touch question might sound like, “Do you realize how racist you sound right now?” or “Do you enjoy making racist comments like that to provoke people?”

3. Help them get more connected to their own humanity by offering empathy.

If you’re up for it, you can offer empathy to them – not to their beliefs.

With any triggering content, you can practice making your default response an opportunity to practice surfacing this person’s feelings and needs. You’d practice getting them out of their head and back into their heart. You might offer one of these:

  • Are you feeling angry and wanting justice in the world?

  • Are you’re feeling vulnerable and needing to trust that you can protect yourself and others?

  • Are you feeling grief and sadness and needing more peaceful communities?

The goal here is not to normalize harmful behaviors, but rather to help one another stay connected to their deeper feelings and needs and to stay as much as possible in a place of shared humanity even when we disagree with one another.

4. You can reveal yourself.

You can use this as an opportunity to share your own feelings, thoughts, needs and requests with compassion:

  • When I hear you say that, I notice I start to feel tense and afraid, because I value finding nonviolent and peaceful solutions to issues to like…

  • I notice I feel vulnerable because I have a need for more safety and shared reality in this conversation.

  • I notice I feel confused because I have a need for understanding/growth/mattering of all people.

In summary:

  1. Make the implicit explicit.

  2. Calibrate between soft and heavy touch.

  3. Stay connected to their humanity by focusing on their feelings and needs instead of their beliefs.

  4. Reveal your subjectivity and the impact these things have on you by sharing your own feelings, needs, values, beliefs, and requests.

Without these four tools, most people’s default is tends to alternate between getting flooded and frozen, staying silent and not speaking up, or moving into debate, aggression, and force. Each of those old behaviors actually just keeps the status quo entrenched. Let’s change the conversations, show up in our full humanity, maintain our commitment to increasing consciousness and compassion, and cultivate creative new conversations that move things forward.

I’d love to hear from you. What scripts and strategies have you found useful as you’ve navigated triggering, loaded conversations in these times? Leave a comment below.


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