Facilitating Courageous Conversations

The following toolkit is intended to support parks/programs/teams in having the conversations necessary to make progress on difficult subjects such as racism, sexism, ableism, as well as other forms of oppression and privilege with staff.

In our second century, The National Park Service must reckon with the ways our internal organization, systems, and cultures may be perpetuating racial and other forms of bias and barriers to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Open, honest conversations about inequality are an important step in cultivating the conditions for change, including a growth mindset that is a prerequisite to systemic shifts.

Conversations about inequality may raise feelings of indifference, guilt, shame, mistrust, and fear of saying something wrong. These feelings are valid and expected, but they often result in avoiding important discussions that must occur before inequity can be addressed. We need to accept that we have those feelings and be brave enough to have these conversations. This guidance is offered to those leading conversations to help ensure they are meaningful and productive.

Preparing for the Conversation

  • Schedule at least 60-90 minutes for the conversation
  • Let employees know that everyone is encouraged to join and participate
  • Plan a setting, whether in-person or virtual, that provides a safe and confidential space for those involved (e.g., an office or conference room with a closed door, an invite-only video call where participants are asked to be in a private space)
  • Be explicit about the focus, purpose, and goals of the conversation and communicate them
    clearly to attendees. The following are example statements that you may use and adapt as

Focus – The focus of this discussion will be on issues of equity and inclusion related to race, culture, ethnicity, sex, gender, and/or disability status in our organization.
Purpose – Provide everyone an opportunity to share experiences, questions, and concerns about how bias and discrimination manifest in our organization and to ask for support.
Goals – To deepen the group’s collective understanding while broadening each individual’s perspective regarding equity and inclusion within our [park/program/team/organization]. With ongoing dialogue over time, our goal is to create an environment conducive to engaging in honest and candid conversations and to work together to create actionable solutions to equity and inclusion issues in our [park/program/team/organization].

Opening the Conversation

Start the session with introductions if necessary, followed by stating the focus, purpose, and goals, and agreeing to group norms/ground rules. Keep in mind that your role in leading the discussion is to keep the conversation aligned with the focus, purpose, and goals.

Ask participants to honor and practice the Four Agreements of Courageous Conversations (Singleton & Linton, 2006). These agreements help support and sustain difficult dialogue.

The Four Agreements of Courageous Conversations

  1. Stay engaged: Staying engaged means remaining morally, emotionally, intellectually, and socially involved in the dialogue
  2. Experience discomfort: Acknowledge that discomfort is inevitable, especially, in dialogue about race, and that participants make a commitment to bring issues into the open. It is not talking about these issues that create divisiveness. The divisiveness already exists in the society and in our organization. It is through dialogue, even when uncomfortable, that healing and change begin.
  3. Speak your truth: This means being open about thoughts and feelings and not just saying what you think others want to hear.
  4. Expect and accept non-closure: This agreement asks participants to “hang out in uncertainty” and not rush to quick solutions, especially in relation to racial understanding, which requires ongoing dialogue.

Additional ground rules help ensure a secure, respectful space for all participants. It is good practice to read the ground rules aloud and ask for everyone’s agreement to abide by them. It is also a good idea to see if the group wishes to suggest any additional ground rules.

Leading the Conversation

  • Set the tone by opening with some personal truth and vulnerability. Participants will determine how safe the space is by the openness and honesty of the leader.
  • Acknowledge that the National Park Service is far from where we need to be on diversity and inclusion. Leaders should be upfront about where they’ve fallen short and take responsibility for failures.
  • Start with an icebreaker that is appropriate for this type of discussion, e.g., everyone shares one word on how they are feeling going into this discussion or ask everyone to write down initial thoughts and feelings and share if comfortable.

Simple prompts/questions to start discussions:

  • Check in with each other
    • How are you experiencing what’s happening?
    • What are you confused about?
    • How can we support each other?
    • How does bias and discrimination manifest in our park/program/team/organization?
    • Describe a time you witnessed discrimination
    • How can we promote acceptance of differences?
    • How might you personally combat bias or discrimination?
  • What you might notice if the conversation is going well:
    • Each person is attentively listening to the speaker
    • Everyone feels safe to be a part of the conversation
    • Participants are asking respectful and insightful questions
    • People are engaged, and the ideas flow consistently

Well-intended workplace conversations about combating racism have plenty of opportunity to go awry. They can inadvertently become a platform for leaders to handle things awkwardly, for employees to espouse prejudiced views, or to further entrench perceptions that there is a fundamental disconnect between our stated values and actions. Don’t ignore these or other messy challenges; work to resolve them as a group or bring in appropriate experts to help. There are times when you may need to end a conversation and pick up at a later time with
additional support.

The following are some signs that a conversation is no longer beneficial, and you need to end it:

  • Energy is diverted to blaming
  • Barriers to understanding and cooperation are created
  • Perceptions of stereotypes and biases are reinforced
  • There is fear of being open and honest
  • The conversation begins to increase polarizing behaviors
  • Attempts to prove the other person wrong or continuous focus on the past, with no forward movement in thought or dialogue

Closing the Conversation

When wrapping up the session, be sure to:

  • Explore future levels of commitment to continue the conversation
  • Thank the individuals/group for participating
  • Establish a protocol for follow up discussions and points of action
  • Examine if the meeting successfully met or worked toward the identified goal(s)
  • Conduct an exit exercise that ensures everyone feels comfortable to return to future meetings

For further conversations, we recommend incorporating exercises that help individuals understand and acknowledge how much of their life is impacted by race, gender, sexual orientation, a disability, economic status, and other factors (e.g, the Understanding Privilege [p.27] exercise in the Continuing Courageous Conversations Toolkit).

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