Healing Conversations About Racism
It’s 12:39 a.m. and I was awaken by a disturbing dream. I recognize that there are possible post-traumatic stress symptoms from my experience with the protest July 8, 2016 in Dallas, Texas. The protest was in honor for change and healing as the result of the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile (and many others). Intellectually, I recognize that there is emotional and mental healing needed.
As a therapist, I attend trainings to assist with helping my clients and sometimes myself. Over the last several days, the contentious social media discussions and news outlets have seem to be more of individuals talking at each other and not listening, more specifically, hearing. Some of the recent trainings have offered me ideas and concepts that may assist with having Healing Conversations About Racism.
This blog is about three of them.
The day after the protest and murders of the 5 Dallas Police officers, [Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa] in the line duty, I was exhausted; yet, I committed to attend the Safe Conversations workshop who was facilitated by my dear friend and colleague. The goal of the workshop is teach individuals how to have healthy and productive communication.
This training emphasized something different for me. The difference, in this training, was the focus was not simply on the logistics or mechanics of the conversation; the focus was the emotional and mental relationship between the sender and receiver of the information. For both, the sender and receiver, positive regard, empathy, and congruence facilitates safe conversations. These principles are pulled from Rogerian Theory. Carl Rogers is a pioneering therapist and researcher, who offered the mental health profession, client-centered therapy. The elements for the therapist that are important for the client-therapist relationship are positive regard, authenticity or congruence, and empathy. As a clinician, I align with Rogerian theory because I recognize that the client’s success is contingent upon the belief that the therapist’s cares. The facilitators discussed the three individual commitments that need to be made by the sender and listener to assist with safe conversations:
Learn One Idea: Childhood influences on your marriage/partnership
Learn One Skill: Safe Conversations
Make One Decision: take Zero Negativity Pledge
Secondly, I am participating in another online training with Ester Perel and Terry Real. Thus far, both of the classes have been led by Terry Real. The class is dedicated to providing therapeutic skills to clinicians who work with clients/couples that are healing from infidelity or betrayal within the marriage. Terry discussed the different types of listening: empathetic listening, problem-solving listening, and sharing listening. With each listening style, the receiver of the information needs to be aware of what the sender of the information is needing. In Terry’s experience, when the listener does not offer what the sender is needing, the conflict arises. For example, if a partner is sharing about a concern within the marriage and hurt feelings. And the partner that is sharing, wants an empathetic ear; yet, the listener may offer a problem-solving ear which focuses on the fixing the situation versus affirming and expressing understanding of partner’s feelings. I believe it was this same online training that Terry discussed in every complaint expressed by a person is the hurt or change that is needed. It falls to the listener to not personalize the complaint and listen for the hurt feelings or change needed.
Lastly, I conduct Consent and Negotiation workshops for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom. Within these workshops, we discussed the skills of negotiation and the concept of enthusiastic consent. These workshops focus on healthy sexual practices that aim to alleviate or prevent violation of an individual’s boundaries. In my workshop, I discuss the skills of negotiation. The aim negotiation, as it pertains to my training, is both parties getting exactly what they want and how they facilitate this happening. This is contrary to compromise when one or both parties give something they desire up. This is more about working through expectations and creating safe space for honesty, alleviate power differentials, assess for realistic outcomes, establish time frames for action, and to visually and auditorily observe for hesitation when someone is uncomfortable with the process and the activity needs to stop. Within these negotiations, both negotiators are responsible to themselves for advocating for themselves and accountable to the other person to identify and recognize when there is wavering or coercion to enthusiastic consent. The most important aspect of the process is to gain shared meaning on what is being negotiated. The problem lies when the end goals and concepts are conflictual.
My thoughts are that many of aforementioned concepts and tools can aid with more healthy and productive conversations about racial injustice, oppression, and discrimination. With the safe conversations, this allows for history of all groups (white, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Jewish persons, Muslims, Puerto Ricans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Native Americans, and more) to be considered versus dismissed or discounted. However, it’s premise is that each group participating develops positive regard, congruence (actions align with words), and empathy (understanding). Many times the perpetual problem is that historically marginalized and oppressed groups’ history is devalued, “You need to stop whining. You are just playing the victim.” How can productive dialogue come from this regard and lack of empathy? The dialogue becomes a monologue when other receiver is not listening.
The relationship between black Americans and white Americans has a history and presence of betrayal. Rather one agrees or not, there is betrayal. Learning to listen with empathy, learning to recognize when a listener holds space for the sharing is what is needed, and learning when advice is being solicited to solve a problem is invaluable. Through my life, I have heard from oppressed groups – “Just Listen,” “Are you listening to me?” “You are not hearing me.” “You are worried about defending yourself versus listening to me.” - countless times, I have read, heard, or witness these roadblocks to productive conversations. Over the last several weeks, I have heard and read these words, over, and over, and over. How can we expect empathetic and sharing listeners without positive regard, empathy, and authenticity? The incongruence of “All lives Matter” and “Black Lives Matter” has history, betrayal, and disregard attached. Conversations shut down.
I have been interviewed over the last few days by news outlets, Vice News and Politiken, and the reporters asked me the most difficult question – “what’s the solution?” My response is more conversations and elect officials into office who create the policies that are empathetic to marginalized groups and recognize that this is a problem. This is part of the negotiation process where the shared goal, meaning of the negotiation, empathy, positive regard, and congruence come into play. For example, how can these policy makers negotiate policy when it’s possibly quid pro quo scenario, “If I give you this, then I lose. What’s in it for me?” Some other examples, how can leaders negotiate for policies that eradicate discrimination are the same meaning for all? How can we negotiate when the time frames for some are immediate and the time frame for others are the next week?
The struggle of living in a world where someone wins and someone loses does not leave room for equitable, equal, and reconcilable resolution. Hopefully, if we take the time to acknowledge the pain, distrust, and hurt from each other, rather than coming in with defensiveness, contempt, and criticism, we could reach a less reactive and more responsive dialogue.