How to facilitate a difficult conversation
May 15, 2018 8:36 PM   Subscribe

I'm a director of an all-volunteer organization. Last night, one of my fellow directors talked about a conflict with a couple of senior volunteers. I think we need to fix this.

We'll call my fellow director Alice, and the volunteers she's having a problem with Betty and Carol. Betty did once say something racially tone-deaf to Alice (Alice is black, Betty is white). But more importantly, Alice feels that Betty and Carol will ignore her and talk over her during meetings. I did notice at our last meeting that Alice sat off to the side and pointedly didn't participate. Alice admitted she has considered resigning over the matter, which I wouldn't want. Although I haven't talked with Betty or Carol yet, I suspect they think Alice isn't pulling her weight.

I think we need to clear the air and have everyone raise whatever grievances they have in order to move on. By disposition, I am probably not the ideal person to facilitate this conversation (and maybe I'm wrong about the whole idea), but if there are techniques for making this work better, I'm all ears.
posted by adamrice to Human Relations (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've been the director in one educational setting, and one of a small team of non hierarchical staff in another educational setting. In both settings we did lots of conflict resolution, mediation, and conscious/compassionate communication practices. My experience with serious staff a/o volunteer conflicts is that you should not try to mediate them internally. Find someone who does this for a living, or who has lots of experience with mediating conflicts in your sort of setting. Ideally someone who has experience with recognizing what's happening when white folks, for example, talk over POC, and someone who is good at calling folks on that sort of behavior and getting them to recognize when they're doing it.

The other thing I'd mention is that we always gave folks the option of bringing an ally into the room with them, during a contentious conversation, and that seems especially important in a situation in which it's a conflict between one person and a group of people.

A couple things stood out to me by their absence in your description -- your race, Carol's race, whether Alice wants to clear the air, what the standing is of volunteers vs. directors (is the director a person who is answerable to the rest of the staff, or a person who is expected to set the tone and make the decisions for the group, to what extent is it appropriate for even senior volunteers to air grievances at one of the directors), does the organization have established communication agreements (we do not interrupt each other, we do our best to leave space for everyone to contribute,etc)). I'd encourage you to consider the answers to those questions and how they might affect the situation and your perception of the situation, as part of finding someone to facilitate the conversation.
posted by eafm at 10:09 PM on May 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

I'm not qualified to give you any advice here, I just want to point out that you sound skeptical that Betty and Carol ignore or talk over Alice in meetings.

But the odds are really, really high that Alice is right. Black women get condescended to and disrespected by white people in professional situations all the time (note the Twitter hashtag for more stories) and you already have evidence that one of the parties involved is racially insensitive.

So odds are, you have one person with a legitimate complaint and two people with vague subconscious racism they don't even recognize in themselves, and could certainly never acknowledge, and if you have an airing of grievances it's going to be like the principal who suspends both the bully and the kid who was bullied. It won't be fair, and Alice will resign.
posted by mrmurbles at 10:30 PM on May 15, 2018 [17 favorites]

I think we need to clear the air and have everyone raise whatever grievances

This sounds like you want to get all parties together to discuss the issues. What you would actually be doing is having B & C gang up on A, and by facilitating this you'd effectively be ganging up on A also. Echoing the above: "It won't be fair, and Alice will resign."
posted by EndsOfInvention at 5:11 AM on May 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Betty and Carol seem like they are not in any particular distress or facing any structural barriers.

This would be hard for me to feel that I was doing correctly. I would start by talking to Alice - let her know that you've noticed how Betty and Carol seem to talk over her and that you've heard or heard about the remark and ask her how she's doing. If it was me, I'd say that I was troubled by the remark, that I did not want our org to be one where people just pop out with stuff like that and that I actively wanted to support her - I feel like you need to frame this as "I see this as racist, and I don't like that", not "so, Alice, as the sole Black person here [which is what this sounds like], do you want to rock the boat and call out racism". I mean, you don't want people in an all-white room to make racist remarks - the problem is the racism, not merely that Alice has encountered it.

TBH, if Alice is a director and Betty and Carol are volunteers, I think it might fall on you to have a talk with them, because it seems like a director-level problem. I just...I'm not totally sure what mediation is going to do here - the problem isn't that there's a disagreement, the problem is that the volunteers are treating a director with disrespect, probably because of her race. The main thing they need is to have their behavior brought to their attention so that they can stop it.

If you think it's unconscious and they basically like Alice, you can have a gentle talk with them, maybe individually, like, "I don't know if you've noticed, but you sometimes...." and "Betty, I know you wouldn't want it to be understood this way, but when you say [remark]..." It could be that these women will actively feel bad and fix their behavior and want to apologize to Alice.

But otherwise it seems like you just need to lay it out - you don't talk over the director in meetings, you don't make racially charged remarks, we appreciate your labor but this is not in keeping with our mission.

If Alice feels like this is all some kind of misunderstanding and having a big conversation would clear the air, that's different - she's the best judge of just how upsetting/annoying this is. If that's the case, a profession mediator would be a good idea.

In most of the white-led left organizations I've been part of, it has been hard for POC to stay active because of microaggressions like this. I've seen it a number of times and IME the best thing to do is to make it clear that you see what's going on, it's not okay with you and you're willing to take steps to make it stop.
posted by Frowner at 5:29 AM on May 16, 2018 [12 favorites]

You don't mention your race, but I'm guessing, based on how you present this, that you're white. The reason I'm guessing that is that you don't sound like you give Alice's perspective much credence, but, as others have commented, it is very likely that her perception of how Betty and Carol are treating her is accurate.

If you have a conflict resolution process where you treat everyone's complaints as equally valid, you're already taking a position: that Alice's expectation that she will be listened to and treated with respect is on par with whatever issues Betty or Carol *think* they have with her. And I bet you dollars to donuts Betty and Carol don't think there's anything having to do with race in how they treat Alice, but come on. None of us get out of this shitshow without racism embedded to our core, even if we're not doling it out "on purpose".

You should get some external assistance in moving through this, ideally from someone(s) who are experts in organizational dynamics AND racial dynamics in an organization.
posted by spindrifter at 5:34 AM on May 16, 2018 [7 favorites]

But more importantly, Alice feels that Betty and Carol will ignore her and talk over her during meetings.

If they are talking over Alice, they need to stop it immediately. I think they should be stopped in the moment and told to let her finish. Same with anyone else they are talking over. Meetings where two people keep talking and interrupting turn off everyone in the group. Whoever is chairing the meetings, or has the most seniority if there is no chair, needs to step in. I promise you there are other people sitting there wondering who the hell is driving this bus. Those people will leave eventually, and the ones who stay will not be the ones you want.

Also, as suggested above, I think some re-framing is called for. One of those people made a racially insensitive remark. I wouldn't put this as, well, granted they made this remark the one time. They made this remark, full stop. Has anything happened to suggest they have improved their attitude? Maybe you don't need this person.
posted by BibiRose at 7:46 AM on May 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

This is not a time for an airing of grievances/constructive communication/sharing and caring session, this is time to decide whoever talks over the director will be told clearly and in the moment to stop, and that whoever makes a racist remark will be asked to leave (or whatever consequence you and Alice decide is fair.)
posted by kapers at 8:00 AM on May 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

I think we need to clear the air and have everyone raise whatever grievances they have in order to move on.

Yeah not to pile on but this is not a situation where there is a list of grievances. You've been given specific examples of two inappropriate actions - a racist remark and talking over someone at meeting - and one disengaged action, not participating.

I sometimes talk over people; it's a really, really bad habit. I am actively working on it all the time and have it worked out for meetings but in one-on-ones when I get excited I still do. I therefore have received both professional and personal feedback to stop talking over people at meetings and it's helpful and necessary. It would not be helpful or necessary to have the other person there trying to sort out grievances, because this is a bad habit that I do wrong, not something the other people need to explain or defend.

So, ask Betty and Alice to cut it out and chair the meetings more effectively, as a first step. See if that helps address Alice's concerns and if not, it might be time for some training around building inclusive organizations.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:40 AM on May 16, 2018

As a fellow director, I think you can achieve a more positive result by validating Alice's experience, making sure people don't talk over her or interrupt her at meetings, and publicly demonstrating she has your respect and support.

I would start by having a follow-up conversation with Alice and asking, "How can I best support you?" Listen to what she says, agree on a strategy, and carry it out.

Here is a strategy I use to stop people from interrupting and/or talking over people in meetings - i.e. saying something like, "I don't think Alice was quite done yet. Alice, what were your other thoughts?" Or if she says something great, and someone else starts to steal credit for it, weigh in, saying, "To Alice's original point - great idea, Alice! - I would like to add ...."
posted by dancing_angel at 10:32 AM on May 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

It occurs to me belatedly that if Betty and Carol’s complaint is that Alice isnt pulling her weight, that's actually more evidence of subconscious racism — “black people are lazy” is one of the oldest racist tropes in the book.

I mean, you don’t think she’s lazy, right? Otherwise you wouldn’t care if she resigns.

And I hope you recognize that declining to participate in a meeting is a totally normal, rational response to a situation in which your contributions are ignored or disputed.
posted by mrmurbles at 3:32 PM on May 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

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