Coaching managers on having compassionate conversations about race 

Use this framework for talking about tough identity issues.

“I have a question. Why ‘compassionate conversations’ and not something like candid or courageous conversations?” asked Khalilah. I was showing her my new framework and asking her to consider using it during a workshop on racial equity for managers we would be leading together the following week. Khalilah is a former DEIB leader at Discover Financial Services, fellow facilitator, and sister-friend, with a real knack for getting to the heart of racial insecurity and division. The pressure was on me to give the most honest and thorough answer I could. 

Unlike candor or courage, compassion is never grasping, self-interested or aloof. In a Compassionate Conversation, there are no winners or losers; instead, you commit to a process of moving from “me against you” to “we and us.” 

What I love about compassion is that it’s opposed to making adversaries out of people, regardless of what they think or believe. Instead, it focuses on service and support rooted in the best of us, the parts of ourselves that are loving, kind and giving. So, to have a Compassionate Conversation is to seek out what brings us together and connects us, to listen closely enough to be changed by what we hear, to commit to coming from a place of love even when we experience fear and defensiveness. 

Of course, having this sort of conversation sounds easier in theory than it is in practice. It requires us to continuously manage our emotions, stifle intrusive thoughts, suspend judgment and reject hierarchies that we may not even know we are holding onto subconsciously. If solidarity were so easy, we wouldn’t hear calls for acting in solidarity every day. We’d just be doing it.

Plus, there aren’t really guidelines for managers on how solidarity works in reporting relationships. In fact, there’s a real dearth of information on how to deal with race at all for managers, to begin with, which means many talent leaders are left to fill in the gaps on top of everything else in their day-to-day roles. So, what to do? 

The compassionate conversations framework

The reality is, you cannot sit with managers every time they have hard conversations; nor can you control the current climate of racial reckoning, civil unrest and changing employee sentiment around organizational responses to race. What you can do is teach your managers to fish. Rather than solving their problems for them, teach them a framework for how to manage situations as they arise. 

Technically, the compassionate conversations framework applies to all social identities; but, in my work as a facilitator, I’ve found it especially useful when talking candidly about race. 

The framework is a simple five-part method designed to leverage both the psychological and social benefits of compassionate empathy and being in service of others. It’s a cheat sheet for how to regulate yourself emotionally while also being able to talk to others, especially those you don’t agree with, in a way that is caring, open and dedicated to achieving mutually beneficial outcomes. 

Step 1: Check in

Every Compassionate Conversation starts by checking in on the emotional state of the person or people you want to talk to and determining if now is the appropriate time to initiate a deeper dialogue. If either one of you is too distracted, emotionally hijacked, unwilling to engage in a process, or averse to sharing their feelings and reactions, a Compassionate Conversation will not be possible. 

Checking in applies even if you’ve already gotten into the thick of an issue; just because you’re in a conversation doesn’t mean you’re in a Compassionate Conversation. If you decide you are all in the right psychological frame of mind to engage, you will use the information you gleaned to structure your approach. 

One strategy for helping managers adopt the art of the check in is to conduct this same practice with them and then have them reflect on how it makes them feel. Adult learners respond well to modelling and examples as teaching tools. 

Step 2: Ask broad, non-leading questions

Introduce exploratory questions that don’t presume an answer or orientation, but instead are open-ended and allow for the other person to help steer the conversation, too. These questions are asked for the purpose of better understanding another person, not collecting information to help you “win” the conversation. 

What if your managers don’t know if a question is broad enough and doesn’t presume an answer? They can check to make sure it passes the open ending test. Are there more than two answers a person could logically provide to the question? Is there room for the manager to be surprised by what they say? Is the question a probe seeking meaning? Could the manager have their mind changed by the answer? 

That last point is especially important. If the manager is framing their questions with clauses like, “Wouldn’t you agree,” “don’t you think,” or “shouldn’t you,” they are presuming an answer and guiding them towards it. Better questions tend to start with “why,” “how,” and “what” respectively. 

Step 3: Validate without agreeing

In leading healing sessions over the last decade, the most important lesson I’ve learned is how important it is to people to be believed, especially when talking about racial experiences. The nature of microaggressions is to dismiss the real lived experiences of people and make them question whether their feelings, perceptions and responses are valid. 

To achieve common ground, managers must be willing to validate their employees’ lived experiences while still maintaining their own interpretation. Maybe the manager didn’t experience the situation in the same way their employee did; that’s to be expected. Coach them that they can acknowledge something is true for their employee even if it is not true for them. 

Some of my favorite validating statements are: 

  • I hear you 
  • I believe you 
  • I can see how this might impact you 
  • I can understand how this affects you 
  • Here’s what I am gathering (with a statement of what you heard)
  • It sounds like (with a statement of what you heard)
  • Thank you for being willing to tell me 
  • It makes sense you would (a verb like feel/react/respond) that way
  • That must have been (an adjective like difficult/frustrating/hard/gratifying/important) for you

Step 4: Share your perspective

I am frequently confronted with people who learn the Compassionate Conversations framework and really believe it stops at step three. But managers should never feel they are leading a therapy session. Their role is not to only reflectively listen; it’s to present their own thoughts and opinions faithfully and helpfully. After saying something like, “I can see how this might impact you,” they absolutely have a right (and in this framework, a mandate) to follow up with, “this is how it impacted me.” 

As a talent leader outside of the manager/employee dynamic, you can emphasize that sharing your perspective is valuable; it’s just important that managers speak for themselves and only for themselves. That means using “I statements” and refraining from bringing other people’s opinions, views or feelings into the conversation if they are not there to share them. Since the goal of a Compassionate Conversation is a constructive and caring solution, this step is also an opportunity to acknowledge points of mutuality or connection from the other person’s perspective when expressing their own. 

Step 5: Close with care

Compassionate Conversations are intense and sometimes tiring. Closing with care involves offering gratitude for the other’s participation in the conversation, aligning on clearly defined next steps, checking out by sharing the state you are leaving the conversation in, and if applicable, setting a time to reconnect soon. 

Here’s an example of what a manager might say when closing with care after a tough conversation about race. 

I really appreciate you taking the time to unpack this issue with me. I wasn’t aware of the ways in which anti-Asian microaggressions could show up on this team and I am grateful for your honesty and willingness to share. Based on this conversation, we will set clear guidelines for inclusive language with the rest of the team during our next department meeting. We will meet ahead of time to align on who will say what so you don’t feel you have to carry this all on your own. Personally, I am leaving this conversation feeling hopeful, if not a little wiped out. If it’s okay with you, can we touch base tomorrow morning to see how we’re both feeling after we’ve had time to process this conversation? 

Adopting the practice

As you help managers engage in dialogues around thorny social identity issues, especially ones rooted in race, you may notice it’s a time-consuming, slow-moving process. Our workplace cultures are going through a major sea change. Until very recently, the norms were colorblindness and avoiding topics like race, politics and religion. Now all these topics are becoming staples of company conversations. 

Effective talent leaders understand the value of practice and roleplay. If you notice strong hesitation from your managers around using a model like Compassionate Conversations, schedule a few “clinics.” Clinics are safe spaces for mistakes – folks in the same boat struggling with similar issues come together with an expert facilitator – which may be you or someone else – to practice having the conversations they are afraid to have. They receive honest, thoughtful feedback as they go through their roleplays, ultimately feeling better prepared and more confident to talk with their direct reports and teams afterwards.