This month I ran a new training for a repeat client. Break the Stress Cycle: Name and Manage Your Emotions looks at stress management from the standpoint of emotional intelligence. Being able to recognize stress, name the underlying emotion, and shift our emotion to a more positive or productive one is a learnable skill that will help you manage stress for yourself and your team.
During the training, something came up that I did not handle so well, and frankly, it has stressed me out:
When I asked people to name a stressor, someone wrote about how it's stressful to become aware of all the inequalities that have existed for a long time in the U.S. She felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of issues, and also felt stuck, not sure what she could possibly do about them.
Let me first say: The idea of being aware of inequalities as a stressor is, itself, a privilege - clearly, she is not dealing with the life-or-death realities of inequalities. Neither am I.
And, yes, I’m using the word inequalities because that’s what came up in the session. However, I’m going to focus on how to talk about one specific inequality - racism.
This particular participant’s experience is like many other’s during this pandemic: The inequalities that have existed for a long time along race lines have become very real to her.
I did not want to skip over this important point.
Talking about inequities is the first step toward social change. We have to confront racism, whenever and wherever it comes up, in order to end it.
So I tried to open up the conversation. I asked permission: Would people like to take some time to talk about these issues?
I got a few nods and several people whose videos were off turned their cameras on. I took this as a sign of permission, although, with so many people stuck at home and various bandwidth issues, video on/off might not always be a reliable sign of engagement.
So, I offered a few thoughts and asked what people were thinking.
The question fell flat - flatter than day-old seltzer.
So, I moved forward with my prepared training points.
What's the problem here? I missed an important opportunity to help people with a HUGE stressor - the goal of the training - and also move people to act for a more just society - which, frankly, should always be a goal.
It is tempting to come up with excuses as to why the question fell flat and to justify my move back to the prepared training points: It's an online training, people are reluctant to talk about social issues at work, it was an afternoon training so people were tired, maybe no one really wanted to talk about racism...
I'm the facilitator. I asked a question that had three attributes that make it hard to answer: it was very generalized, highly personal, and about a significant, multifaceted, sensitive issue that most people find difficult to talk about. (Well, most white people.)
On one level, as a facilitator, I know there are some simple ways to “fix” the question I asked - and with reflection and discussion with trusted advisors, I know I can do better next time. On another level? The history associated with race in the U.S. - and the apathy of too many white people who may not even realize how much they benefit from racist structures - make it difficult to have candid conversations about racism.
Here are some of the things I will try in the future. I offer them so other facilitators - or anyone leading a group conversation where racism comes up, even if you don’t consider yourself a facilitator or discussion leader - can use them. As a white person, these are written from my point of view, so they may or may not be useful for you, reader, depending on your own race and experiences.
Finally, leading this kind of conversation requires me to acknowledge my privilege in a relevant way and offer ideas and questions about actions.
On acknowledging privilege:
Ideas for action:
Ideas for questions to lead the conversation:
And to bring it back to one of the stress management techniques I train on, naming an emotion helps us shift it - and then take action.
For me now, I feel more confident that I've learned a lesson - one worth relearning as many times as I need to. When I next run a Break the Stress Cycle session, I hope the same big, uncomfortable issue comes up so we can talk about it with better questions and better facilitation.
Special thanks and much love and appreciation to Akua Gyasi-Koduah for her guidance after the training, and to Kelly Snyder for connecting Akua and I!