Few people are willing to start courageous conversations. Now, I am not referring to
the standard “Well, I’m jus’ gonna’ give him a piece of my mind!” Yeah, yeah, those conversations do take courage. But the conversations of which I am writing require a level of relational transparency that is becoming sadly too rare. Let’s be real for a minute, how often is the friend who asks:” “Now, I want your honest opinion, how do I……?” really interested in your honest opinion? My experience is NOT often! That’s why it takes courage to step out from the comforting limb of evasion, of half-truths, or outright lies to share a hard truth. After all, not many of us are able to take critical feedback and not despise the messenger. Ask me how I know.
I can still remember the day, about twenty years ago, when a close friend and mentor told me a hard truth about myself. It was unflattering, hurtful even, and in that moment I did what any self-respecting person would do. I launched a three-pronged counter attack. Ha!! First, I told him something bad about himself too. Then I called him a liar. “Untrue!” I said. Then, I resolved right then and there that the friendship was officially over (smh). Yes! I know, not one of my finest moment! Shucks, I was ashamed, and embarrassed and very, VERY angry with him.
Yet, today, as I stand at the 50th mile mark of my life journey, and I reflect on that moment, I think now about the courage it must have taken for him to begin that conversation and risk my displeasure–to share a truth that was necessary for me to know to continue to improve. (Side note here, in case you are wondering, we are still close friends). Moreover, I now recognize growing in me a fierce determination to also take on courageous conversations.
Just so you know, it is not because I have a secret yearning for martyrdom or a quest to achieve wonder woman status. (Though, her suit is kinda cute, especially the cape. Don’t ya think?) Rather, at this juncture of my life journey, I think of it as a responsibility—a calling if you will to be a truth sayer, to care less about what others think of me, and more about what I think of myself–to walk firmly in my convictions. And even though, I will confess, there are still too many times when confronted with the task of speaking up, that I have hesitated, rethought, analyzed, re-analyzed some more, and eventually simply walked away in silence, each day that I continue to live, I challenge myself to fight against that beguiling sense of comfort.
In an age of “fake news” and insincere “like” clicks or “beautiful” comment posts, I remain convinced of the necessity of courageous conversations.
Courageous Conversations Honor Self: It is easier to advocate for others when such advocacy comes in the form of compliments and glowing letters of recommendations. Everyone loves praise. How, much tougher it is to advocate for others through critical feedback that can be unflattering, or even unwelcome! How very difficult it can be to say “no” in a crowd of “yeses”! To understand that in taking a position, you will perhaps be viewed, as “hard” “inflexible” and even in my case, considered “unchristian”. It is in these moments that I remind myself that advocacy for affirmation is merely self-promotion.
For the many times, I have made the choice to travel the lonely road of “The Voice of the Opposition”, there have been moments of self-doubt and uncertainty. Yet, I remain convinced that the best contributions we can make in this life is to speak and act from the perspective of our deeply held convictions. That being said, we should not do so from a place of brutish recalcitrance. Rather, we should speak from an emerging position that requires us to critically interrogate our views as we continue to become intelligently informed and to listen to perspectives that differ from ours. Even as we stand firm in our truths, it should birth in us the ability to recognize and respect the rights of others to stand in their own truth. In sum, the experiences along our individual life journey is crafting in each of us a perspective that is distinctively our own. When I am true to my convictions, whether right or wrong, I am making a contribution that is branded as uniquely me! To deny that is to live inauthentically and to dishonor the gift of my presence in this world.
Courageous Conversations Advance Others: A few years ago a colleague, who I came to know through my professional circle, came to seek my counsel. She was disappointed that once again she had ben overlooked for a senior level leadership position at her institution. Having observed her for some time though from a distance, I knew exactly what part of the problem was. Though she did possess practical leadership skills, she lacked the professional presence and finesse that could secure her a C-suite position. Yet, in spite of years at her place of employment, and a host of mentors, no one had been courageous enough to have that conversation with her, to provide her with necessary resources for her leadership development. I wondered why. But then again, perhaps they had, and she had not been ready to receive it, or perhaps the timing was bad or the approach was wrong? Though she had come to me looking for comfort, empathy even, I recognized the moment for what it was—an opportunity to start a brave conversation that perhaps she would find embarrassing, and yet it was necessary to advance her along her career path. And though I was fully aware that I was about to make her uncomfortable, to take on the inevitable risk of being disliked, misunderstood, or even unfriended, I chose my tone carefully and began the hard conversation…
Courageous Conversations are Necessary to the Cause: Moving to the United States from the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago, I have come to a new construction of what it means to be a Black person in this context. Existing and working in predominantly White spaces has positioned me and others like me to speak up for issues that often get overlooked, because the context is informed by a predominant majority perspective that threatens to marginalize us. It is a threat that is strengthened when we choose to remain silent. For me then, the iconic presence of Rosa Parks is a commanding symbol of courage—courage that refuses to acquiesce in the face of injustice. “Nah! Not today! I will not give up my seat!”
Whatever the cause, the counterattack begins through opposition. It is the lone voice that shouts aloud about injustices that are whispered in hushed tones; it is the lone voice that is not afraid to ask the uncomfortable questions: “And why were no people of color invited to the event? Recruited for the position? Received the award? Offered a seat at the table? Why are there no women in the top leadership positions? How were candidates recruited, selected? What are we doing to address these inequities? Why? What? How?
Though my cause may be different from yours, the advancement of work against systemic injustices requires a conversation starter. It requires someone who is brave enough to voice the concern that unapologetically challenges the normative–and lets the chips fall where they may.
Now that kind of courage does not come easily. In fact, every time I have started one of these conversations with students, colleagues, relatives, friends or even in my scholarship around the topic of diversity and inclusion, I have done so in spite of my fears. No, it is not easy, but it is indeed necessary. And whether we emerge from such conversations on the winning or losing side is not really the point. The point is: “Am I? Are you courageous enough to walk in your convictions—to make a mark that is distinctively you– to speak your truth even though your voice is quivering?” That is the kind of courage that Harper Lee defines as “real courage” ….It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
So, bring on the courageous conversations! Why? Well, because at 50 and counting I have earned both the right and the responsibility to lead such conversations And come to think of it now, maybe I will get that cape after all…