Terrified of Saying the Wrong Thing? Try These Practical Tips for Approaching Difficult Conversations

July 02, 2023

I might make mistakes, and that’s okay.’“Sometimes we enter into these conversations with a kind of nameless dread. But we don’t think they’re really that hard, if you focus on four elements: recognition, responsibility, remorse, and redress. “Our advice is to do what philosopher Kristie Dotson suggests, which is to go into these conversations as if you’re going to a nuclear physicist seminar and are not a nuclear physicist. Very little, actually—you don’t need to have read tons of work by feminist icons in order to do that. “When someone says ‘I don’t have time—do I really need to read all these books?’ I’m sympathetic to that.

The concern: You’re afraid of being ‘canceled,’ causing offense, or otherwise getting something wrong. The approach: Build resilience by cultivating a growth mindset. Practice ‘naming and reframing’ your emotions. Accept that you’ll make mistakes, and learn how to apologize.

“We put a chapter on building resilience early in the book because we think learning how to manage the emotional discomfort associated with these conversations is a critical foundational skill,” Glasgow says. “The psychologist Carol Dweck is famous for popularizing the distinction between a fixed and a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is when I think that my skills, attributes, and talents are innate, so if I’m not good at something, I'm probably never going to be good at something. A growth mindset is the idea that I can cultivate those skills and talents through practice and effort. And Dweck’s research shows that if you’re learning a language or an instrument, a growth mindset is much healthier—it allows you to bounce back from mistakes a lot more easily and perform at a higher level as well. 

“Our wonderful NYU colleague Dolly Chugh, a social psychologist at Stern, points out that in the domain of diversity and inclusion, we often get stuck in a fixed mindset because the consequences of failure just seem so catastrophic. The thinking is that if I make a mistake while I’m playing the piano, it doesn't turn me into a bad person, whereas if I make a mistake by using some sort of terminology that was out of date and offensive, I’m a racist or a bad person. So one of the strategies from Chugh’s work that we are drawing on is to carry over the growth mindset you have in other areas of your life and bring it into this domain. 

“One way that you can do that is just by attaching the word ‘yet’ to the end of negative self-talk. If you find yourself thinking something like ‘I don’t understand all these gender pronouns,’ try something like this instead: ‘I don’t know all these gender pronouns yet, but if I learn and practice, I’m sure I’ll get better. I might make mistakes, and that’s okay.’

“Sometimes we enter into these conversations with a kind of nameless dread. But an important part of building resilience is learning to take a moment and pause to name the emotion that you’re feeling. Is it anger? Guilt? Just identifying it can reduce the sting of the emotion, and also helps you to reframe it. If it’s fear of cancellation that you’re feeling, a way to reframe your self-talk is to say, ‘I’m going to do my best to share my viewpoints respectfully, and if people criticize me, I can handle it.’

“A lot of people also find our chapter on apologies helpful because that’s often where things get tangled up—apologies can seem so hard to get right. But we don’t think they’re really that hard, if you focus on four elements: recognition, responsibility, remorse, and redress. If I’ve made a mistake, I need to recognize the harm I’ve caused, take responsibility for causing it, express that I’m genuinely sorry, and then take tangible steps to repair the harm by making my actions match my words.”

The concern: You want to help, but tend to freeze up when you witness non-inclusive behavior. The approach: Extend allyship to both the person affected by the behavior and its source. 

“We encourage you to think about allyship as more like a triangular relationship. If you’re going to be an effective ally, you need to think about being an ally both to the person who was targeted by the non-inclusive behavior, and also to the actual source of that not inclusive behavior. 

“As an ally of the affected person, it’s important to help as they want to be helped rather than imposing your own preferences and expectations. So there are two basic questions: one is ‘does this person want my help?’ and then the other is ‘does this person want the specific form of help that I’m thinking of offering them?’

“And then on the other side of the triangle, it can be counterintuitive or in some cases controversial to say you should also be an ally to the source of the non-inclusive behavior. But the reason that we hold that view pretty firmly—unless someone’s behavior is egregious or they’ve repeatedly rebuffed your attempts at allyship and are really not interested in learning—is that so many of the mistakes that people make in this domain are not malicious. They're due to a lack of awareness, and they could be coached to improve for next time. If you just cancel them, they can’t learn from that. It’s indiscriminately punitive. It doesn't give them any tools for growth. So what we want to do is kind of shift away from a cancel culture approach to a coaching culture approach. Instead of giving the ‘you’re a terrible person’ response, the ally might approach and say something more like ‘hey, that comment you made didn’t land well on me, and here’s why. Let me help you—here are my thoughts about how you might want to do better next time.’ 

“We do make an exception for this around activism—when you might deliberately be stoking conflict because you’re trying to achieve some systemic change. So we don’t think that if someone is a leader, like a CEO of a company or a politician, that your obligation is always to have a friendly, civil conversation with that person. But if it’s your friend or family member or colleague, you’re very well-positioned in that relationship to be the friendly coach to help them do better, and they’ll be more likely to listen. You’re not leaving them to stew alone without the tools they need to grow, and you’re certainly not leaving it to the person affected and hurt by the non-inclusive person to have to be their coach.”  

The concern: Information overload—it’s too difficult to keep up with changing norms, ideas, and news about identity issues. The approach: Be curious. Make Google your friend. ‘Speak in drafts.’ Scale the scope of your research to the task at hand. 

“We have a whole chapter in the book on curiosity, and realizing that there are going to be lots of things in these conversations that you don’t know—and also areas where you don’t even know what you don’t know,” Glasgow says. “Sometimes, for example, people think they know what transgender means, but don’t realize that you can be transgender even if you haven’t undergone gender confirmation surgery or aren’t on hormones—there’s a mismatch between what people perceive they understand and what they actually do. 

“Our advice is to do what philosopher Kristie Dotson suggests, which is to go into these conversations as if you’re going to a nuclear physicist seminar and are not a nuclear physicist. So you approach with a radical sense of humility, ask a lot of questions, listen generously, and share your perspective tentatively rather than going out with total certainty. 

“You don’t always have to read a 300-page book on an issue—sometimes you can just read a Wikipedia entry or something, depending on what it is that you’re trying to understand. How much do I need to know in order to be able to speak up at the dinner table when someone makes a sexist comment? Very little, actually—you don’t need to have read tons of work by feminist icons in order to do that. But if you’re wanting to organize a Women’s History Month event at your school or update the policies in your workplace with a gender equity lens, then in that case you actually do need to invest some time and learning to make sure you know what you’re talking about. 

“When someone says ‘I don’t have time—do I really need to read all these books?’ I’m sympathetic to that. But on the other hand, if you really want to be an ally, you actually do need to put in some effort. It’s a bit like saying ‘I want to learn German, but I don’t want to ever actually have to read it or listen to it.’”

The concern: Backlash—personal, political, or both. You’re feeling discouraged by a climate—or even specific laws and policies, depending on where you live and work—hostile to conversations about diversity, identity, and justice. The approach: Celebrate progress. Get comfortable with disagreement. Resist the urge to run away.

“First, I think it’s a testament to how successful a lot of this diversity, equity, and inclusion work has been that it has generated such a strong backlash,” Glasgow says. “You don’t get that unless the forces on the other side perceive what you’re doing as a serious thing. There’s that saying, ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win.’ If you look at the history of diversity, equity, and inclusion, there was definitely the phase of them ignoring and the phase of them laughing and thinking, ‘oh, this is a fringe thing.’ We’re very much not in the phase anymore—we’re into the ‘fight’ phase because we’ve had some successes. I think that's very encouraging for people who work in this area to just remember that it's been successful in a lot of ways. 

“Second, it’s really important for DEI advocates to recognize that respectful disagreement is okay and to welcome it. In the book we offer some tools for how to do that, including the importance of looking for what the philosopher Daniel Dennett calls ‘uncommon commonalities’—areas where you unexpectedly agree or share deeper values with the person you’re disagreeing with. The conversation goes more smoothly once you realize that you’re not adamantly opposed to each other on every single point. We also cite research by behavioral scientist Xuan Zhao showing that saying ‘Thank you, because…’ is more effective than other expressions commonly used in disagreements, such as ‘I hear that.’ With ‘thank you, because…’ you’re suggesting to the other person that you’ve learned from them—that something they have shared has influenced your own thinking. When they feel more respected and understood, they’re then going to be able to engage more productively with you.

“If there’s one thing I’d hope for people to stop doing, it’s just hiding under their desk every time a conversation about these issues comes up. In the book we have a chapter about four common conversational traps that come up, and avoidance is by far the most common of those. Of course it's not always the case that you need to just throw yourself into every conversation that is in front of you. Sometimes for the sake of preserving a relationship, or because you need to reflect on something more deeply first, you might want to put a pause on a conversation rather than jumping right in. That’s reflective behavior—not really avoidance. But the reflexive response is often ‘Oh, my, gosh! I feel so uncomfortable with this that I'm just going to run away screaming from the conversation.’ That’s avoidance—the kind of emotionally driven reactivity that we want to move beyond.  

“A big reason we wrote this book is that we wanted to give people tools to help them overcome that fear so that they can engage. So I think next time someone is feeling the urge to avoid, I would really encourage them to resist that, and to think ‘You know what? Why don't I actually speak up in this moment? What's the worst that could happen?’”

The source of this news is from New York University

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