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How to navigate sensitive conversations on difficult topics

Difficult conversations, such as about racae, require self-examination and exploratory questions before progress can be made.

7 min read


How to navigate sensitive conversations on difficult topics


In the last several weeks, several leaders have reached out and asked me how to hold conversations about racial relations that will deepen understanding without creating offense.

These types of queries are important to consider given the current tensions many are experiencing. Their questions caused me to reflect upon a conversation that I had recently while traveling home.

I had the opportunity to sit next to a gentleman who struck up a conversation about COVID-19 and the challenges it presents. Eventually the conversation turned to the civil unrest and racial tensions within our country.

He told me how one of his daughters had recently approached him to talk about racism. She told her father that she had been yelled at, called names and threatened by a group of young men of color when she was much younger. Recently, when she viewed some of the looting that was portrayed on television, she found herself thinking about those people from the same perspective that she originally formulated.

This father shared with me the difficulty he had in helping her daughter gain a different perspective other than her default assumption that these individuals were violent and not to be trusted. Our conversation then turned to the value of understanding and challenging our perceptions and assumptions, which are often incomplete or inaccurate. This interaction served as a great opportunity for me to reflect on my own experience and the assumptions that I hold. This is an important exercise if we would hope to dialogue and understand each other.  

In order to talk about any sensitive topic, be it racial injustice, LGBTQ rights, political differences or wearing a mask, we must examine our thinking, challenge our perceptions, gain an understanding of others’ perspectives and make a conscious choice about the way we will respond to and treat one another.

Before holding these types of sensitive conversations, each of us must explore our personal mental models and come to understand how our thinking affects our behavior. Only then are we prepared to reach out to others and begin to explore their experiences. Here are some reflection questions to help you do just that.

1. Are you uncomfortable?

We have a tendency to return to what is comfortable. This may mean that we automatically reject any discomfort and flee back to what we know. Discomfort is a great place to begin to explore the potential reasons for your feelings. Examining why you feel uncomfortable is the point of departure for gaining new perspective. Being uncomfortable is probably the first sign that your thinking is being exposed to new light. Taking the opportunity to explore your discomfort is the first step to gaining new insights. 

2. How do you recognize what you think?

Sometimes our lives are analogous to the old adage “Fish discover water last.” Because we are immersed in our thought processes, we never stop and ask ourselves what it is we really think. Aside from becoming conscious about our own thoughts, we also ought to examine our actions and ask ourselves, “What do my actions reveal about my thoughts?”

3. Do you challenge the accuracy of your thinking?

This is not easy to do. Because we think what we think, we naturally have difficulty looking outside the realm of what we perceive to be our reality. The first step to challenging your thoughts is to identify the logical basis for your thinking. Look for concrete evidence and data that serve as the foundation for your thinking. If you cannot find any observable basis for your thinking, then recognize that your thinking likely originates with you or that you are adopting the thinking of others.

The second step toward understanding your thinking will come as you examine the basis of your thinking and ask yourself whether you could draw an entirely different conclusion based on the same set of facts. Either exercise is a great way to expand your perspective to consider other points of view.

4. Can you separate yourself from your feelings?

So much of our dialogue is framed today in the anger, frustration, rancor and animosity of emotion. When people cannot separate emotion from their message, then the emotion becomes the message. This means that the rationality of any message becomes lost in the irrationality of emotion. Being able to share logical and rational perspectives leads to understanding and greater awareness.

5. Do you seek out opportunities to obtain the perspectives of others?

It is easy for us to quickly condemn others who do not think like we do. Gaining understanding requires that we ask questions and explore other perspectives. This does not occur unless we thoughtfully consider the types of questions we should ask to gain the understanding that we seek. Then we must be present and sincerely listen to how people answer.

You cannot do this if you are thinking about what you will say next or how you want to counter or negate their position. Be willing to recognize and suspend your thinking to hear what the other person is saying. Then allow the wonder of curiosity to drive your next question and deepen your understanding.

6. Do you seek first to understand and then to be understood?

Seeking understanding first gives you a real advantage. It allows you to comprehend the reason behind a person’s thinking which not only helps you to identify their experience, but also how they came to hold the position that they do and whether it’s based on fact or emotion. Listen for their experience and facts versus unsubstantiated opinion or platitudes. Once you understand their perspective, you can tailor your response accordingly.

When sharing your perspective, try to use opening questions such as, “Help me understand how you came to your position.” Or, ask, “Can you please give me an example of what led you to believe as you do?” This will help you to increase understanding rather than just pushing back in disagreement.

7. Are you really interested in even understanding or solving the current challenge or problem?

Some people are honestly not interested in understanding the perspective of others. This may be because they are afraid of being wrong or of not getting what they want. They also may not want to get involved, preferring to watch and vocalize from the sidelines, so they adopt a position of defiant rejection or even aggression.

You may honestly seek to explore another’s perspective, but they may still refuse to engage and give you the opportunity to understand their perspective. Such behavior really tells you that they are not interested in understanding your point of view, nor are they interested in solving the problem. You can attempt to engage with people, but their willingness to reciprocate is totally up to them.

Making changes that positively affect everyone begins with understanding yourself and the perspectives, beliefs and assumptions that drive your behavior. Until we are more open and willing to make a sincere attempt to explore our differences and our experiences and to come to common ground regarding what needs to change, we will remain entrenched in our current beliefs without being able to make the positive changes that are needed for a brighter future. 


John R. Stoker is the author of “Overcoming Fake Talk” and the president of DialogueWORKS, Inc. His organization helps clients and their teams improve leadership engagement in order to achieve superior results. He is an expert in the fields of leadership, change, dialogue, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence, and has worked and spoken to such companies as Cox Communications, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell and AbbVie. Connect with him on FacebookLinkedIn, or Twitter.

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