There are some days when a conversation can be lifesaving. The connections we form with one another as human beings often centre around interactions that leaves us with a warm feeling of being welcomed in. When perfect words are spoken when we most need to hear them, they can work like a soothing balm to frayed nerves and jangling emotions.
What about when that conversation isn’t successful? What about when words feel barbed, sensitive and more like being handed a grenade with the pin pulled out? The political landscape of the past half dozen or so years has created a situation in which conversation can be fraught with potential conflict. Rather than leaning into important discussions that need to happen in order to build a safer space for all, people increasingly feel at war.
This came to mind recently when interviewing Kristabel Plummer for my most recent podcast episode. The interview grows in warmth and honesty as the pair of us settle in and together we create a place where frank discussion is valued. However, both during the interview and in post editing, I was struck by the number of times both Kristabel and I pause, reconsider, and apologise for the terminology that we were using. In a conversation about the importance of visibility and the experiences we live every day, a gay woman and a black woman struggled to feel ownership over words concerning their own identity. It’s troubled me ever since.
The conversation required a lot of vulnerability and we knew what could go wrong. How many of us are healing wounds from fraught conversations with family and friends over news stories or vote outcomes? Increasingly, being torn down for raising your voice is an almost daily occurrence online and evidence of conflict is everywhere. The statistics for the online trolling of women is depressing and troubling to say the least. However, I don’t want to fuel an idea that we need to hold our tongue for fear of confrontation. Far from it, I want us to step in.
Of course, this is where the word safety must be inserted. Circling back to Kristabel and I’s conversation, it was 50 minutes of us gently trialing and confirming, supporting and clarifying our positions. Sometimes we need to make mistakes in a place that is not potentially harmful before we are able to talk at all. Coming face-to-face with your own limitations is never a pleasant experience and often, it’s where we see the biggest fallout I suspect. By shaping a space in which we can hold that discomfort long enough to see what other emotions might show up is a footstep into better understanding. Otherwise, left unchallenged, words others speak continue to suffocate and oppress entire groups of people.
If we back away from these conversations, if we fear the potential for conflict, how will we create a future in which my daughter doesn’t have to answer prying questions about growing up an all-female family? How do we make it safer for teenagers, frightened for their lives, to step into an arena of debate about a future that is, by all rights, theirs to shape? What’s more, I don’t want to wait for this feeling of safety in the future. I want it now, for all of us who have ever felt silenced, unheard or hurt by our lack of inclusion in common debate. When I am told my conversation is too much, I hear the hushing sounds of masking something structural and suffocating.
Yes, it is uncomfortable to hold these discussions and the shame response that people feel can so easily lead to conflict. However, each of us needs to try if we are going to create safer spaces for all. There are many of us who are happy to take those risks, perhaps because we acutely feel that right now there are far too many others who are more than happy to assert their power and dominate conversations. I’ve often said that if I’m not talking to my daughter about topics that are difficult to discuss, then who is?
It is not conversation that should be feared. To me, the most abhorrent situation would be one in which we are silenced by the fear of making a mistake and as a result, nothing changed. What is needed is a daily commitment to create a space in which a conversation can safely happen. A simple question might be enough and holding tight as the discomfort enters. Sit with it because it seems to me that we need a great deal of change right now. How will you be a part of that process?