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A Guide to the Discussion You Are Scared to Have Right Now

A Guide to the Discussion You Are Scared to Have Right Now

If you are currently having to pretend like its “business as usual” this week, I’m sure you realize it already: we need to talk.

Everyone is a swirl of anxiety, sorrow, frustration, anger, hope, questions, stress…pretty much any feeling you can name right now. (I certainly am.)

Trying to get tasks done when it feels like the world is ending and your leaders don’t care about you, your family, your community or the nation is virtually impossible.

I know you probably don’t want to have a tough conversation, that you’re very likely scared that you or someone else will say something wrong, mess it up or cause more pain.

Those are reasonable concerns, but they’re ones you need to take on if you, your team, and your company are going to be able to move forward in the middle of our current 3 or 4 national crises (on top of that teeny global pandemic that is also still going on.) 

So here’s what to do: talk about it. Together. Now.

And guess what? It will help. A lot.

I know it will because we just had this discussion twice this morning, once with our Management Team and then with the entire company. The benefits reported by employees were huge. 

Folks shared their feelings of relief and said talking to their peers helped them feel less alone. One man learned that even people who look different from him shared the same fears. Another woman said her family discussions were so charged, it was a relief to get to share her feelings calmly. Many parents talked about the hopes and fears they have for their children and the tough dinner table discussions they'd been having.

Opening up the conversation validated people's feelings, gave a new and psychologically safe outlet and helped us feel cared for.

So here’s a quick guide to how to set up what might feel like a tough discussion. It works best if the whole company participates, but even talking at your team level can help.

How to lead tough office conversations 

1. Set your intentions clearly

The goal is to provide a secure space for every person to share their experience, whatever it is, not to fix or solve anything. All feelings, concerns, hopes or anxieties are welcome. This is a time to share questions and concerns and to provide an opportunity for everyone to ask for support.

2. Create a container

Set up dedicated time, at least 60-90 minutes, to have this talk. Make sure everyone is expected to join and participate. If you’re a leader, express how important this conversation is and support your team to clear their calendars. This works great on video conferencing technology to ensure everyone is physically safe. 

3. Prepare facilitators & groups 

You’re going to start all together and then break up into groups of about 6-8 to have the conversation, so prepare your breakout groups carefully. If you have a high-trust environment where employees can have respectful conversations about tough topics, then less structure is probably needed.

If your organization has low trust; if COVID, race or politics are charged topics for you; or if there is a wide variety of thought, feeling and opinion across your business, more facilitation and organization may be needed to create a positive experience.

The goal is to ensure that each person feels able to share freely without judgment or criticism, even when individuals may disagree. Designate a facilitator who can manage that kind of discussion for each group.

4. Set it up

Start your meeting together, with a senior leader sharing the intentions and ground rules with everyone. Focus on whichever of your company values is appropriate to this discussion (for example Care and Be Curious are two of our Great Place to Work values most appropriate to this experience.)

Encourage everyone to keep the specifics of who said what confidential—we can share generally, but it’s better not to quote others to avoid misrepresenting them.

Then split into your groups. Our Chief Diversity & Innovation Officer Tony Bond created these simple discussion questions to get us started:

  • Check in with each other
  • How are you experiencing what's happening?
  • What are you confused about?
  • How can I support you/How can we support each other?
  • How do you find hope to keep going?

5. Open with vulnerability

Each facilitator should set the tone by opening with some personal truth and vulnerability. Participants will take their lead and determine how safe the space is by the openness and honesty of the leader.

6. Have the discussion

Keep the focus on sharing personal stories and feelings. Ensure that each person gets an opportunity to speak at least once if they want one. Help curb interruption and cross-talk to give open air time to all.
And if folks hold differing opinions, that’s ok, but do not allow anyone to debate or negate another person’s personal experience.

When speaking about race, gender, religion, or any other demographic, do not ask a person to speak on behalf of a group they may belong to. For example, do not ask black people or people of color to explain racism, “tell me how I can help” or share a list of resources to educate anyone else.

While strong feelings are welcome, including tears, there should never be an expectation that anyone in the group has to make another feel better.

7. Come back together and close

Come back together and close with a few voluntary comments if anybody would like to share about their experience. The senior leader should close with gratitude for everyone's participation and explain any personal resources available for folks that want them.

8. Support each other

If specific requests for support have been expressed, do whatever you can as an organization to deliver those. If a conversation went sideways in a breakout, the facilitator needs to call in your HR leaders, their people leader(s) and figure out how to work it out or resolve it. Don’t ignore a messy problem; it’s better to get in there and at least try to make it right.

9. Keep it going

This is not a one and done situation. Most likely we will all need to keep having discussions about the state of the world for the immediate future. If this format works, great!  If not, fine--find or use whatever already fits your culture.

Moving forward

Speaking personally, I didn’t want to have this conversation on Friday—it felt hard and frustrating. But after having it, I feel clearer, calmer and more secure knowing it’s okay for me to be a real human and bring my whole self to work.

I know that my leaders and co-workers all care about me and my experience and I got to tell them that I care about theirs. I built relationships with people I don’t know very well and was able to share some vulnerability and build trust.

Plus, if those valuable outcomes aren’t enough for you, productivity is just the cherry on the top. I was able to go get back to work and focus in a way that certainly wouldn’t have happened without the discussion.

So be brave and go for it.

Tell us how your discussions went and what other resources you need. Great Place to Work® is here to help you create a great workplace For All


Julie Musilek