When Communicating Tough or Divisive Topics, Employ a Little Finesse

For weeks I’ve been trying to figure out a theme with which to resurrect my YouTube channel. I’ve literally been gone since November – the last time I posted a video – and it’s ridiculous. I’m in the content creation business, and video is huge. I’m seriously missing the boat.

It’s likely I’m overthinking the entire business, and what I need to kick start things could be right in front of my face. But as I’ve noodled over potential topics I’ve wrestled with how far down the race rabbit hole I want to go.

I certainly want the freedom to discuss race, gender and other dimensions of diversity because I want any content that I produce to promote a more positive and peaceful state of being. But race and gender are divisive topics. They are not usually – as a rule – in the same zip code as the concept of peace, especially these days. They should be, but I live in the world, and trust me, they’re not.

Also, I go back and forth on whether talking about certain things is actually good or not. On the one hand, of course it is. Talking about tough topics brings awareness. There is a greater potential to sway an opinion or change behavior if people have all of the information. We are more likely to win if people understand the full picture and are receptive to what they see and hear, and then learn from it.

But I also think, yeah. We’ve been talking about certain things for decades, and things are changing – thank goodness – but it’s happening slower than molasses can drip.

Maybe, when it comes to talking about those tough topics like race and gender and equal pay and the like, we need to adopt a different strategy. I read an article today that made me think that what could facilitate our ability to communicate with one another – whoever it is on whatever topic it is – is if we speak in a truthful and respectful way, but cleverly avoid those triggers that spark defensive and excessive emotion.

You might be saying, well, what’s wrong with emotion, Kellye? You’ve blogged before that people – women in particular – shouldn’t be penalized for showing it. I have indeed, and I still believe that. But in the context of expressing emotion at work or in business, I was thinking more of an occasional thing, or not penalizing someone for crying or otherwise behaving like a human with empathy and/or sympathy for other humans.

When it comes to big picture issues, like persuading someone to act or behave a certain way at work or in business, emotion is often not as helpful as its absence. It’s like Gary Vaynerchuk said in a recent Instagram post, there’s no room for emotion in the big leagues. Passion, yes. But you can’t let emotion get the best of you. You can’t be clouded by insecurities because they become a huge vulnerability that other people will exploit. And any message you may be trying to convey, any call to action you are trying to deliver, will likely be lost.

For example, that article I mentioned earlier referenced a speech given by Sen. Cory Booker. It theorized that “it’s precisely because racial resentments are such a powerful motivating force in American politics that dwelling on racial division inherently benefits the white people’s party.” I have a small beef with that white people’s party verbiage, but we’ll move on.

So, somehow, by focusing on racism, by calling that particular spade a spade, we’re actually giving the wrong side ammunition to use against our efforts to eliminate that which we hate. Instead, we might do better to go at the problem in a more race-blind way. I dunno if I agree with that completely, but I definitely see the point.

I’ve personally adopted a hybrid approach to discussing race in various communications, a kind of truth-telling humor that I believe helps to normalize things and remove the stigma and discomfort that often comes when talking about race. It’s not dissimilar to Booker’s habit of addressing issues that disproportionately impact black and Latino workers, for example, without actually mentioning race. “It’s not an explicitly racial issue, so Booker” doesn’t racialize it, author Matthew Yglesias said in the article.

My preferred way to communicate, that part humor, part truth telling style, works because it’s authentic, because I’ve established relationships, and because I adapt it to different situations. Meaning, I may dial down the humor and/or truth telling to suit my audience, my narrative, my message, and my goals.

For instance, let’s say you work for an advertising agency. You’re prepping for a client presentation on a product that is missing a good chunk of readily available dollars in the marketplace because it does not currently appeal to a diverse audience – even though it could. You’re not going to go into the client meeting saying, “you people aren’t running ads in outlets that reach black and Latino people.”

Yeah. No.

Instead, you come in with data that shows how much buying power certain demographics have, that they do indeed buy products like the one your client makes. Perhaps you’ll show how much money competitors are making selling similar products to those exact same people. You could indicate how big the market is, and then you launch into how the client can appeal to specific groups, through which channels, etc. There are no accusations, no patronization, no “you missed the boat because you’re stupid, racist” or anything else. It’s simply, here’s the problem, here’s a solution. Even though both problem and solution prominently feature racial topics, those things become third-party factors to the rewards.

It’s not Cory Booker or Democrats emphasizing “cross-racial shared economic interests,” but the communication style in the aforementioned example is quite similar. Think of it is as pragmatic persuasion, or what I like to call, finessing. Full disclosure, I didn’t make up that word. I heard it somewhere, but it works beautifully.

Whether you’re a woman, a man, black or white, a leader who dwells on the executive floor, or a worker who spends most of his or her time on a factory floor, communicating in a way that appeals to diverse people is important for your success. To communicate effectively you must:

  • Consider your audience. What are their motivations? What do they need? How does what you’re saying affect them? People will almost always act in their own self-interest. Appeal to that, and you win.
  • Consider your delivery method. Is it via social media or video? Is it in person or via written word? Your delivery method dictates your approach. Use each platform as intended to maximize the strength and impact of your message.
  • Consider the timing. If you’re trying to persuade someone to do something, change something, or buy something, persuade them when they’re able to listen, and when they want to listen. For instance, you shouldn’t ask your boss for a raise when he or she is rushing to a meeting with his boss to deliver bad news. Pick the right time to deliver a message, and you increase the odds that it will be well received.

However you deliver your message, or whatever that message is, you likely won’t go wrong if you’re authentic, consistent, funny and supportive. If you’re not sure how to communicate a message in the most effective way, try a few different things, and see what works best. If you don’t want to take a chance, hire an expert to guide you. *points at own chest and smiles*

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