7 agreements for productive conversations during difficult times


tied-up-1792237_1280Hi everyone. It’s been a really rough week for many of us due to the election results. For me, I also had an 8-month-old baby who was sick and who stayed up all night for three nights crying and projectile-vomiting on everything. It was seriously like The Exorcist. But cuter. Luckily, just when things were getting bleak…my wife also got sick with fever, chills, and other less pleasant symptoms. During one of these sleepless nights, I hallucinated that the election results weren’t the way they were, and we all woke up to a bright and sunny morning where the world is the way we hope it would be, and everyone is happy and inclusive, and my favorite brand of soy ice cream is on sale. And I have six-pack abs.

Unfortunately, that is not our reality. Many of us in the sector are still going through the stages of denial, anger, and sadness. Everyone is on edge, and it’s been manifesting in various ways. Luckily, I’ve been seeing an increase of support and community, with many colleagues checking in with one another, validating feelings, and creating space to process.

Unfortunately, I’ve also been seeing an increase in hurtful and divisive interactions between colleagues who are on the same side. Normally collegial conversations become heated. People become defensive and accusatory. Emotions are intense. I’m not immune to it myself. I got feedback from a colleague that my post last Wednesday was uninspiring and possibly even making things worse. And I thought, “WTF! Oh hell no you didn’t just email me that! Someone hold my sick baby!”

It will take us a while to understand what happened and what we need to do. We are not going to be able to agree on everything. So, until things settle down and we can think on how to face this terrifying reality with renewed strength and determination, can we agree to a few things? Here are seven agreements I’d love for us all to think about as we navigate through these difficult next few weeks:

1: Let’s give one another a break: Many of us are heartbroken and tired. I have run into colleagues who have literally been crying for days. When emotions are this high, we are more likely to be less patient with one another, less forgiving. Everything sets us off. This is not the ideal environment to discuss heavy topics like racism, classism, urban/rural dynamics, etc. It is important that we reflect on these issues so we can better strategize, but let’s remember that many of us are still in shock and fear.

2: Let’s provide feedback on actions and opinions, not motivation or character: In this sort of environment, it is easy to lose focus on ideas and actions; instead, we start questioning people’s motivations and attacking their character. Instead of “I disagree with you on blah blah,” it becomes “You only say blah blah because you’re blah blah and you want blah blah because all you blah blahs are so-and-so!” Let’s check ourselves when we do that. It never does any good. People never respond well when their character or motivations are being questioned. It shuts down conversations, or worse, generates in-kind retaliation and perpetuates a vicious cycle.

3: Let’s assume the best intentions, but also address impact: Most of us try our best to be helpful during difficult times. But often, the intention ends up causing more harm. For example, imagine if you met someone who lost a loved one; trying to be supportive, you say, “I know how you feel. Hang in there; time heals all.” Though you mean well, that is the last thing someone grieving wants to hear. In trying to be helpful, many of us say and do things that may not end up very helpful. Let’s assume everyone means well and let’s be patient with one another. But that does not override the fact that our well-intentioned actions may be hurtful to others. When our actions are damaging, we must address them, whether or not they were well-intended.

4. Let’s not assume we completely understand one another’s reality: Right now, many communities are hurting. Latino kids are getting “Build that wall!” chanted at them. Women wearing hijabs are attacked, or threatened to be set on fire. Black university students are getting pictures of lynchings texted to them. Many of people from marginalized communities don’t feel safe anymore, and some of us are not sure we will ever be able to. If we do not come from these communities, let’s not assume there is an equivalence with our own background. Let’s not assume we know what another person is going through. I’ve seen too many conversations where people are dismissive of one another’s experiences. Let’s agree not to do that. 

5: Let’s be gracious in accepting difficult feedback: When someone gives us feedback, especially those who come from backgrounds completely different from ours, it is a valuable gift. And it often comes with a price for the person giving the feedback, as they frequently must share vulnerable personal information in order to bring some “credibility” to their feedback. This year I got uncomfortable feedback from people with disabilities as well as well as from advocates from the trans community (blog posts from these experiences will likely come later). It is easy to be defensive. It is far harder to accept that we made a mistake, or that our well-intentioned actions may have negatively affected someone. Let’s give ourselves the grace to be imperfect humans.

6: Let’s forgive ourselves and one another: We’re all going to make mistakes, as I mentioned earlier in “Hey, you got a little racism stuck in your teeth.” The world is so complex that it is impossible to avoid screwing up from time to time. Yet so many of us are terrified that making a mistake means we are a racist, or sexist, or ableist, or transphobe, or ageist. In this field, being called those things when many of us are actively fighting for social justice cuts at the core of our identities. Even the thought of anyone even suspecting us to be any of those things hurts deeply. When someone makes a mistake, it does not mean they’re a bad person. We have to forgive ourselves when we make mistakes, and we must try to forgive others.  

7: Let’s not give up on one another: I’ve seen too many people leave discussion groups and online communities because the conversations get too intense. I know it is difficult to stay. But we cannot build a strong community if we cannot converse with one another, have hard conversations, disagree once a while, and learn from one another. Yes, this does mean that occasionally we feel uncomfortable and riled up. But so much of the situation our country is currently in may be because so many people in our society refuse to talk to people who hold differing views. Let’s not give up on one another. Let’s stay and let’s talk through the hard stuff. And if we do need to take a break, that’s understandable, but let’s leave the door open to come back.

Thanks, everyone. The days—and years—ahead are likely going to be difficult. Let us, through our actions and interactions, build the kind of community we hope to see.

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65 thoughts on “7 agreements for productive conversations during difficult times

  1. Judy Levine

    So sorry to hear about the flu that hit your household. I remember those times – they’re so focusing because there’s damn near nothing else you can do! In a way it may have served to help you suspend time so you could process your grief a little more slowly… maybe.

    Hope you’re all better now (physically). Unlike where our country is at…

  2. Lisa Barton

    I’d also add, Let’s agree to listen more. After a some hard conversations during the past few days, I have pledged to simply listen for a while and see what I missed and how my assumptions are misplaced.

    1. IndependentDEvoter

      The editor of the NYT recently published a similar thought. As an independent voter, I was deeply offended every time in the last eight years that I disagreed with a specific Obama administration policy and was always, every single time, automatically labeled a racist because of it. I have worked to improve the lives of minorities for decades, and encouraged Colin Powell to run for president several times. How is that racist? It is an irony, in my view, that those who were so fast to label dissenting opinions with hate speech are now “reeling” from perceived hatred from conservatives.

      Many Trump voters hated his outlandish comments but voted for him in spite of them. Partly because the opponent was at least as bad on character issues, but mainly because we felt we needed a new direction to support businesses that create jobs. Based on the stock market the last two weeks, a lot of others feel he will do exactly that.

  3. Miguel Guillén

    Thank you once again. It has indeed been a difficult week. I’ve been looking forward to your post today.

    1. IndependentDEvoter

      It’s been a pretty awesome week for about 1/2 of Americans. Give the new president a chance.

  4. Webdunce

    All we can do is try. For me personally, this hurts so bad because many of my friends and family actually voted Trump. They’re not necessarily racist (although a few are), however there is one thread that connects them all. Every one, to a letter, are profoundly ignorant of government, how it works and the potential consequences of this election. I’ve been working in the nonprofit sector for over 20 years, as an advocate and lobbyist. I do understand “politics” and what can happen when emotions override logic and reason. I also understand public policy. Today, I simply cannot even speak with the people in my life who voted Trump. Hopefully, in the future, I will be able to. There is going to be a serious reckoning in the country and I believe there will be many who dearly regret the action they’ve taken at the poles. That will be the time when we will have to come together. Our future as a nation will depend on it.

    1. OHvoter83

      I am also really frustrated with Trump voters who tell me that he really isn’t going to implement all the policies that he promised (build the wall, deport 12 million people, etc). So he lied about it? And you (Trump voter) are okay with that?

    2. IndependentDEvoter

      It hurts them that you did not vote for Mr. Trump. Look at it from their perspective, as well. Both parties, and especially both candidates, left much to dislike… in fact had the highest negative ratings in US presidential election history. We can’t be inclusive and then be hurt because someone is in the other political tent.

  5. dunwithitall

    Thank you for taking time to step back and write this post – I can’t imagine it was easy. Please know the wisdom and perspective you’re shared here is so welcome. I’d wager many, many of us (including you) are still reeling and the balm of thoughtful words acts as a beacon toward, if not peace, at least respite from the storm. So, thank you.

  6. TGAJen

    Vu–this is once again, in my opinions, such an excellent piece. I have to say your post last week came at a time when it was exactly what I needed to hear–so much so, in fact that I shared it on my FB wall, which was the only “tip of the hand” I had given about the election (working in Development I have to tread pretty lightly on political topics). So, at least I found it inspiring and comforting at a very dark moment. You have amazing posts, and I think these are great points–we’re all experiencing really different things right now. Thank you for your voice.

  7. Brooke Battle

    Very good advice — we will share. Anytime I feel down, I just refocus on the work in front of us which is more important than ever.

  8. Brandy Steffen

    Thank you so much for another great article. I really appreciate how many great discussions are taking place right now; I especially need another person’s perspective as I try to deal with the election results. Thanks!

    1. Anonymous11

      It’s already on facebook. All you have to do is share his post and the source (credit) is there. Nonprofit With Balls is the name of his facebook page.

  9. Patrick Taylor

    I would just add that this list applies to those who voted for the other guy, to whatever extent they support his policies. Writing off a quarter of the electorate as racist misogynists isn’t going to help us move this country forward or find any sort of workable future. We need those people on our side if we are going to make lasting positive change.

  10. Bryan Tolar

    You are a very talented writer. I enjoy your creativity and your commitment to sharing your perspective in the non-profit sector. As the head of a non-profit myself, I am envious of your literary skills.
    I must also say that pandering to the strong liberal base of your audience is unappealing and a recipe for disaster. We are fortunate to live in the good ol’ USA and we have endured a lot of mistakes, both fiscally and morally, under the current White House administration. No doubt you wanted to see those continue under the guidance of Hillary Clinton. Well, you lost. Suck it up and quit whining about how this could have happened. Those thinking they need time to cope with and adjust to what is ahead for our country have the same mentality of “everyone gets a trophy.” America doesn’t have time for whiners like yourself and those that you are empathizing with, but she does have time for those that want to work, actually work, to make the men and women in uniform proud of what they fought for and continue to fight for. Take a good hard look at the American flag – those stars and stripes are not for those that want to go through life in the fetal position. Get up and get to work. There is much that needs to be done.

    1. Mehitabel

      Vu’s post talks about patience, compassion, tolerance, and community. There is not one partisan word in it. I’m saddened that you felt the need to politicize it in such a negative and counterproductive way.

      1. Bryan Tolar

        Ummmm…not partisan???? Here are a few lines that are nothing but partisan.

        “It’s been a really rough week for many of us due to the election results.”
        “I hallucinated that the election results weren’t the way they were, and we all woke up to a bright and sunny morning where the world is the way we hope it would be, and everyone is happy and inclusive,”
        “Unfortunately, that is not our reality. Many of us in the sector are still going through the stages of denial, anger, and sadness.”
        “It will take us a while to understand what happened and what we need to do.”
        “Many of us are heartbroken and tired. I have run into colleagues who have literally been crying for days…This is not the ideal environment to discuss heavy topics like racism, classism, urban/rural dynamics, etc. It is important that we reflect on these issues so we can better strategize, but let’s remember that many of us are still in shock and fear.”
        “Right now, many communities are hurting. Latino kids are getting “Build that wall!” chanted at them. Women wearing hijabs are attacked, or threatened to be set on fire. Black university students are getting pictures of lynchings texted to them. Many of people from marginalized communities don’t feel safe anymore, and some of us are not sure we will ever be able to.”
        “The days—and years—ahead are likely going to be difficult.”

        1. 2x6L6

          Seriously – you call this partisan?
          “Right now, many communities are hurting. Latino kids are getting “Build that wall!” chanted at them. Women wearing hijabs are attacked, or threatened to be set on fire. Black university students are getting pictures of lynchings texted to them. Many of people from marginalized communities don’t feel safe anymore, and some of us are not sure we will ever be able to.”

          1. Bryan Tolar

            Seriously??? YES
            Because NONE of those things would have happened if Hillary had been elected…in Vu’s perspective. Stop rounding up supposed victims. Stop blaming Trump for your convenience. The whole exercise is beyond embarrassing. Wow! Sorry I had to explain it to you.

          2. 2x6L6

            Brian, I simply cannot fathom why you would leap in and call people names like that and then continue to post with such a haughty, mocking tone. Don’t you get that that is exactly the type of behavior Vu is discouraging in his post? Couldn’t you have found a way to disagree without name-calling and put-downs?

          3. Bryan Tolar

            Yep…I’m the bad guy. No fetal position here. Just a proud American that is more than ready for people to step up instead of curl up. Go back to your rainbows and unicorns. 🇺🇸

          4. 2x6L6

            You seem to have a fabulously endless supply of vitriol. Interesting. No fetal position for me, nor rainbows or unicorns. But thanks for thinking of me. And honestly – I’m a very VERY proud American. Glad you are too. Try to be nicer to people. You will find they more readily listen to you and take you seriously.

          5. Bryan Tolar

            If telling people to act like adults is wrong, then I don’t want to be right. Kinda reminds me of a country music song…Barbara Mandrel perhaps. Others will more readily listen if those disappointed in the election results would stop the public sulking. Good luck to you and yours.

          6. 2x6L6

            I appreciate your well wishes, but have to admit that since you continue to use putdowns to make your point, I’m not sure if you are sincere. Please understand that your message continues to be obscured by your vitriol. I don’t generally take kindly to nor need other adults who I don’t know, telling me to act like an adult – I’ll take that judgment from a friend but otherwise experience it as an unnecessary judgment/putdown. Brian, why am I engaging with you? For one reason only – as a fellow American who loves this country, I am firmly convinced that if people like you and me cannot change the tenor of our conversation at this little lowly level, we are doomed to dig deeper divides as a nation. There will be a point of no return and I am ever hopeful we have not already reached that point as a people. I am trying to meet you halfway at every turn, to see if civility is possible.

      2. Natalie Komuro

        Bryan, look at how caring this community is. So many people trying to save you from being an asshole. Alas, not all can be saved.

      3. IndependentDEvoter

        Vu’s post was inherently political. The very notion that entire segments of the population are somehow physically threatened is misguided. he plays into the far-left mainstream media’s hate and scare tactics. The political pendulum swings back and forth and always has, and hopefully always will. When that stops, that is when Americans need to be afraid.

    2. Natalie Komuro

      Wow, Bryan. Way to completely miss the point. I’ve been working on critical social issues for 30 years. Doesn’t matter who is in power, the work is always there. Claiming that anyone who cares about social justice is just a whiner who wants to give everyone a trophy tells me you must not know many of us. Perhaps if you spent a little more time judging a little less, you might see that.

      1. Bryan Tolar

        I never saw a whiner as a leader and definitely not someone I want taking our American flag into battle. You can call it social justice if you like…its whining. Put on your big boy/girl britches and get to work.

    3. Ann Tydeman-Solomon

      Bryan, this is exactly the tone Vu is asking us all to avoid. Calling names is not conducive to having a conversation. We don’t all agree, and we never will. However, in this space I think we can & should all agree to be civil.

      1. Bryan Tolar

        I pointed out that whining gets us nowhere and hard work is what America is all about. Sorry you disagree, but it is the truth.

          1. Bryan Tolar

            I’m impressed you can type while in the fetal position…or maybe you are using the talk/type feature. Hi-tech. Stay strong…

    4. Claire

      Have you considered that this post isn’t “pandering to the strong liberal base of your audience” but is in fact relfective of Vu’s POV. His blog is his own creation, he is not expected to maintain an unbiased view.

      Also, as a person that has needed time to cope and adjust. I don’t need everyone to get a trophy. But I need everyone to feel safe and respected in this country, which is not the case for many women and minorities right now…

      1. Bryan Tolar

        I’ve been a subscriber for quite awhile and I believe it is a blog on non-profit management and ideas, not liberalism. This particular post, and hints of others, have become unhinged for the left. Vu has a right to submit his comments for others – he does it very well. I chose to contribute to the conversation, as did you. I care about America and I’m sure you do too. America selected Trump to lead our nation, just as we selected President Obama the previous 8 years. Wipe the frown off your face and move forward. Better days are ahead because of our decisions and actions, not because of someone we elected. Thanks for your comments.

        1. Claire

          It is certainly a blog on nonprofit management, but he has every right to express his personal views as well. The electoral college selected Trump, but the majority of Americans voted for Clinton, which is a large source of anger for many of us. Also, I’d respectfully request you not use terms like “wipe the frown off your face” or “put on your big boy/girl britches”. These comments are dismissive, feel sexist, and do not engage the conversation. They belittle the person you are speaking to on a personal level instead of speaking to the points they are making. This sort of language, from both the left and right, is not healing and does not unite us as a country.

          1. Bryan Tolar

            The electoral college isn’t new and it serves an important purpose. We are a republic…not a democracy. Your comments are so off the wall, I’ll just give you a pass. Bless your heart.

          2. Claire

            Of course I know the electoral college isn’t new, people were frustrated with this same outcome in 2000. But just because a system exists, doesn’t mean that it is just. Once again, I respectfully ask you reconsider how you use dismissive language like you just used to write off my comments because they were “off the wall”, it is disrespectful and perpetuates a myth that women are incapable of having rational discussions because of our emotions.

          3. Bryan Tolar

            I wasn’t writing to women…I was writing to you. Good luck with that “victim” role you so covet.

          4. dunwithitall

            Your patronizing tone is overshadowing every word you write, making it impossible to take your perspective as anything but heavy-handed, sarcastic and devoid of empathy.

          5. Bryan Tolar

            Not offering empathy…none deserved. I’m “heavy-handed” because you are a victim. You need more rest and time to cope with the tragedy of the electoral college.

          6. dunwithitall

            I pity your children, if you’re a parent, and your loved ones who have to cope with your self-righteous rigidity. No, none of us are victims here. We’re strong enough to work in the nonprofit world, not for the faint-hearted, and maintain our humanity. Which means we don’t view emotion as weakness, or healing as shameful. Too bad you feel the need to do both.

          7. Bryan Tolar

            Emotion isn’t a weakness and real healing isn’t shameful. Never said it was. Wallowing in disappointment certainly isn’t an acceptable response to a political election…it’s actually sadly disturbing. Nothing self-righteous about it. It’s called having a spine.

          8. velcro53

            Funny you mention 2000. Are you aware of how outraged conservatives were in 2008 and especially 2012? The “other half” of the nation doesn’t exist, according to liberals.

    5. Tarn

      “1) Let’s give one another a break…”

      It’s literally the first one.

      Deep breath…sigh…another deep breath…

  11. Mehitabel

    Thank you for this post. I just wish people would try a little harder to at least keep their hate and intolerance to themselves. I can’t stomach it anymore.

  12. Carol Clarke

    Thank you, Vu. Your words and feelings are helping me to stay centered in the storm. Once you know somebody hears and understands, it makes it easier. That’s you, Mr. Six-pack 🙂

  13. Unicorns for Hire

    I find myself prefacing statements responding to cruel and harsh insults to people I care about with “How dare you say that about this person”. So here, “How dare anyone insult Vu, who has given so freely of himself, and who has always challenged us to ensure that we are doing no harm while we try to do good.”

    1. Unicorns for Hire

      I first used the word “criticise”, but even Vu would agree that there is a time and way of raising concerns and challenging ideas, and that it is important to do so to create continuously deeper understanding and improvement. But that way does not involve insults.

    2. IndependentDEvoter

      Or, “how dare Vu insult Trump voters by implying we will somehow attack entire segments of the population”?

  14. velcro53

    I attended a protest of the election results last night, because my organization required me to. It was interesting see the juxtaposition of chants of “Love Trump Hate”, and some of the vilest names slapped on conservative Americans. If you can’t even TALK to someone who voted for Trump, maybe that’s one coping mechanism that helps, but beyond that, introspect on the question “why can’t I, what does that say about me?”

    1. IndependentDEvoter

      Pretty sad when an organization ‘requires” its employees to participate in political demonstrations. So much for freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.

  15. Vu Le

    Hi everyone. While I welcome and even strongly encourage disagreements, as I believe this is the only way we can build a vibrant society, once anyone starts resorting to insults and character attacks instead of focusing on the exchange of ideas, they will be blocked from commenting.

  16. Morgan Mack-Rose

    Did anyone send out communications to their supporters/constituencies etc after the election? My organization works with students and I felt compelled to. I mostly received positive feed back but did get a handful of “unsubscribes” for “inappropriate content. I’m wondering if others had a similar experience.

    1. IndependentDEvoter

      Why would you even do that? Because you vote Democrat and hate anyone who isn’t? To scare your students into believing that fiscal conservatives are somehow out to get them? When at least half the nation was in favor of a new direction, you probably risked cutting your support in half. I, for one, would never give you another penny, regardless of which party you had supported. And, in fact, I believe the IRS should revoke your tax exempt status for doing so.

  17. IndependentDEvoter

    Just as we managed to work for our communities during eight years of a constant march towards socialism, we will work for our communities while the other party marches us back to common sense. Nothing to fear, no one to hate, just American politics and diversity of thinking at their best.

  18. Katie Kosseff

    Vu, finally got a chance to read this post. Beautiful and eloquent as always. Thanks for your thoughtful words and for your humble leadership in encouraging us all to bring our best selves to the conversational table. I really appreciate your insights.

  19. Michelle Husby

    Why’d you have to go and fat shame in the first paragraph? It made it hard to keep reading and the rest of this is probably really good.

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