All sorts of conversations — including the most challenging ones, the ones that will shape the future — are now happening online. These virtual conversations have us speaking and meeting in ways ill-suited to making progress against racism. I’m a mediator. Mediators help people have sometimes-difficult conversations so they can move forward together. Three of our best tricks can help us all have these vital conversations, including conversations about racism, in Zoom meetings.
The most effective physical gesture I’ve ever used is of Middle Eastern origin. My grandparents are Iranian, my father is Israeli, my mom is American, unsurprisingly I became a mediator, and this gesture has gotten me through some tough conversations.
It goes like this (stand up if you’d like to try it now): motion toward nearby seat with upturned palm plus simultaneous blink and sideways bow of the head. It means, “it’s going to be okay, please be comfortable, I will look after us, and here is your nice chair.” I’ve never used it anywhere in the world without success. And success for this gesture means nothing more than being able to continue having the challenging conversation.
I used the gesture in Chicago, in 2012, leading a conversation about racism for a racially diverse group of about 30 adults. Two hours, all of us in a big circle — police officers and activists, construction workers and healthcare workers, teachers and journalists.
Early on the conversation felt warm enough to have some worth. We’d gotten to the place where divergent views fuel the conversation, past safe platitudes and practiced monologues. Real dialogue.
I was tracking it closely now that it had warmed up. As a mediator, I’m aware that a certain amount of heat is productive, illuminating, and even necessary to build and transform relationships. A mediator also knows that a sudden flare can ignite more heat than is helpful. That’s what happened.
I remember the physical events more than the words spoken. A brief exchange between two men — one white and one Black — flared. Now both are on their feet. Their chairs scrape the floor as they stand to face each other in their overheating exchange. Without deciding to I’m standing beside them and through my panic I speak the words my sagely teacher taught me to say in a moment like this. Addressing the group, not the two men, I ask: “Did anyone else notice that it just got a little bit warmer in the room?”
A teetering silence. Some chuckling. And then real laughter. Standing with the two men I initiate a series of nods, careful eye contact, and then bam! I give them the gesture. You guessed it: like a charm.
(If you skipped it earlier you can try it now: motion toward seat w/ upturned palm + simultaneous blink & sideways bow of head.)
We’re all sitting again. Heart still lunging, I check with the group. They’re okay to continue. There’s a new alertness in the room as I rebuild the fire.
The conversation ended respectably, which means it didn’t really end, wasn’t festooned with artificial closure, but left people wondering, less sure, more curious. One participant told me she appreciated that “we actually went there.” I understood her remark to mean that we engaged in dialogue rather than taking turns making monologues.
Videocalls force us to monologue
Today, we are speaking and listening to more monologues than is optimal, especially in our work. Remote work moved all sorts of conversations up onto platforms, and as that word suggests, we are holding forth from atop these platforms rather than getting into messy, complicated, transformative conversations.
At least when it comes to having meaningful conversations that sustain teams and enable them to contend with complex issues, these platforms we’re using for virtual meetings are holding us back more than we think.
We’ve always spoken one at a time, hopefully interrupting sparingly and artfully, but on videocalls when someone is speaking they become the exclusive focal point. You pipe up in an online meeting and suddenly it’s just you up there on stage, with a spotlight burning down on you, and it’s monologue time.
Being in a dark theater would actually be easier in this moment, but instead you have pixelated faces glaring blankly at you, the uncertainty of whether anyone’s internet connection at any point in time will mutilate what you’re trying to say, and the show must go on. It can be distracting, uncomfortable, and hard to express our best ideas clearly.
All the organic matter of real conversation — the welcome interjections, the perfectly timed affirmations, the helpful embellishments, the verbal and nonverbal expressions of surprise, gladness, agreement — all gone. It’s just you. Talking.
And when you stop talking, you disappear. The friendly video call service you use knows that once someone else starts their monologue the spotlight lurches to zero in on them, and then it’s your turn to nod, stare, and be a decent audience member. More than ever before, we are speaking, meeting, and working in monologue.
The Monologue-Dialogue Spectrum
I help people have big conversations. Sometimes I do that as a mediator, someone who helps people in conflict come to an agreement. One way I track progress in a mediation is by gauging where we are on the spectrum between monologue and dialogue.
In the beginning of a mediation, I structure the process heavily; I insist on monologue. Especially if things are hot or tense, I impose rules to enable steady progress and prevent explosivity. Later on, if we’re successful, the rigidity of the taking-turns-speaking rule can relax. Eventually, I encourage direct dialogue and try to foster one that’s fluid, focused on problem-solving, and resembles functional human conversation.
When this happens — when parties to a mediation can engage directly and naturally with one another — it’s evidence that they’ve triumphed over most of their conflict, or certainly enough of it that there’s good reason to hope and persist. The back and forth, the rhythm, the trust of the verbal dance — that all happens on the dialogue end of the spectrum. Dialogue is how we get things done.
So the global workforce monologuing endlessly on video calls is concerning. Dialogue, which is creative, which solves problems, which sparks connection, which builds relationships, is harder to come by these days. Monologue, which can’t do those things well, is more prevalent than ever.
We need to have honest and transformative conversations that challenge racism and other oppression systems. We need to have these conversations everywhere, including in our work. Can we have them — and have them well — over Zoom?
Communicating remotely doesn’t mean you have to settle for monologue. Here are three strategies mediators use to create dialogue that you can put to immediate use in your most important conversations online.
1. Talk to the person you’re talking to
A perennial dynamic in mediation is captured by Fisher and Ury in Getting to Yes. Parties in a mediation, they observe, often direct their comments to the mediator: “Rather than trying to talk their negotiating partner into a more constructive step, they try to talk the spectators into taking sides.”
This is happening in our remote meetings, too. Maybe you’ve seen it, maybe you’ve done it — no matter, here’s an opportunity to create dialogue instead of “playing to the gallery.”
The next time you think you can improve something in your work, or need something, or want to try something new, engage directly the people who can ultimately make that change possible. In other words, talk to the person you’re really talking to. Maybe that means speaking with them before or after the meeting, or addressing them directly in the meeting. Either of those approaches will start an actual conversation, which is a better bet than delivering a generalized monologue to the group that’s vague, irrelevant, or downright baffling.
This “playing to the gallery” stifles dialogue. Who feels inspired to jump in when the comment being addressed to everyone is obviously meant for a specific person or a small group? Dialogue can happen before, during, or after group calls, but only when we engage people directly.
In a series of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion conversations I facilitated recently, two co-workers plainly needed to say some things to each other. Throughout a large group conversation they used broad statements to address one another without ever explicitly addressing one another. I suggested they connect offline before the next group meeting “to share what’s on your minds” and I provided some support for that chat; on the next full group call they were a formidable duo in driving the conversation in a specific and actionable direction.
2. Invite people to the meeting
Everyone gets the calendar invite, but what happens when people know why and how they are essential to a conversation? How do they show up then?
If you need to lead a big conversation, try this reckless expenditure of your time: talk to each and every person who’ll be in that conversation ahead of time. Hear them out, listen all the way, and thank them for sharing their thoughts. No promises, no decisions, no assurances. Just listening.
If you’re rightly observing that this is going to take a lot of time and a good deal of energy, consider the alternative: convening a big conversation, one that deals with racial equity, for example, with no one clear on the purpose or what’s expected of them. In this scenario, folks enter feeling uncertain, unheard, and unseen. They are in no condition to have a big conversation, let alone to have it well.
Mediators make sure parties know their participation is valuable and will be appreciated. Before a mediation, I connect with everyone individually to make sure they know how essential they are, how truly irreplaceable they are in the process. Without you we can’t go forward, I remind them. Your concerns — along with those of the others — hold all of the answers. If you don’t show up, we’re toast. If you show up halfway, we’re half a piece of toast.
When people feel genuinely invited to a conversation, and essential to it, the quality of their participation rises to the occasion. They listen more deeply, speak more authentically, compromise more readily.
The calendar invite says: You will be expected to listen and speak in monologues at this day and time. Your personal invitation says: We’re going to try having a real conversation. Remember those? But we can’t do it without you.
3. Find your gesture
Motion toward nearby seat with upturned palm plus simultaneous blink and sideways bow of the head.
My fail-safe gesture — the maneuver that has enabled conversations to continue after an explosion, or to prevent explosions, and that helps people enter the space of true dialogue, effective problem-solving, and transformative relationship-building — that gesture won’t work on videocalls.
Which has taught me that it was never really about the gesture itself, obviously, but about speaking to people directly at a crucial moment (#1), and strenuously inviting people to be in and stay in the conversation (#2).
My gesture set a tone, it encouraged, it promised my care. It got people to sit back down.
What conversation does your team really need to have? What gets in the way of having that conversation? And if you were to customize a gesture for your particular group, what would it need to say to enable them to talk, to listen, and to keep listening?
If a gesture is a physical expression of a message, we must choose words even more carefully in our age of remote communication.
In an unproductive conversation where two or three people are monologuing and the rest are waiting it out, fuming, or baffled: This is a good team. If we hear from everyone I really think we can figure this out.
Addressing someone who’s resistant to an idea, whose colleagues are getting frustrated, with time running out: What’s the most important thing we need to know about where your concern is coming from?
For a group in which the more dominant voices suggest racism and bias are more prevalent outside their organization than inside it, ask everyone to answer: What seems like it’s most important to our organization — diversity, equity, or inclusion? Why? And which is most important to you? Why?
During the Chicago conversation about racism a woman commented on the conversation itself before it had ended. Her point was that in our day to day lives we don’t talk in ways that warm up enough to be worthwhile. Sometimes people try, but the shallow, chilly exchanges are so unsatisfying or destructive that people cool to the idea of more talking.
This one got hot, she said. If only we could talk like this more, we’d have a better chance at moving forward.
We may not be able to sit in the same room or use a gesture to connect, inspire, or persuade, but we can still move from monologue to dialogue. We may hear people claim to “not see color” like swimmers climbing out of a pool claiming not to be wet. Some will feel pain. Some will feel discomfort. Some will be asked to comfort people whose lives have been made comfortable at the expense of others. We will be confused, angry, and hopeless.
But did anyone else notice that it just got a little bit warmer in the room?