Whenever I post articles on social media, my intent is to engage, provoke thought and inspire. I’ve always felt that I am most effective in spreading diversity and inclusion gospel when I can engage in meaningful discussion; and I appreciate others who return the favor.
But what happens when an attempt to engage in constructive discussion is met with criticism and disagreement?
Last month on Twitter, I retweeted a post about “Black Twitter,” the unofficial name for African Americans’ collective and unique discussions around current events. The post encouraged people to support and follow African Americans accomplishing great things. It sounded like a great idea to me, so I liked and shared it.
Now, if you put yourself out on social media and state an opinion or choose a side, you are bound to get reactions—both positive and negative. Maybe because I had quickly shared without even adding a comment, I was caught off-guard when a certain gentleman questioned my Christianity because I supported Black Twitter. I was taken aback by his reaction. After some back-and-forth banter, and not-so-friendly messages from him, I had decided to just let it go. It wasn’t worth more energy and time…so I thought.
However, the next day, I received an email with the subject “Apology.” It was that same gentleman. He tracked down my email address and apologized for how he reacted. He wanted to know if we could have coffee and talk more on our opposing points of view. Refreshing…I thought, “Sure, I’d meet to discuss.” Afterall, I was intrigued to understand what could have set him off so, warranting what I viewed as a personal attack.
The thing is, about six months earlier, the gentleman and I had met in person at a Haggai International event in Greenville, South Carolina. This was an initiative my husband and I hosted along with a few others. Haggai is an international ministry which my family supports, and their mission is to see every nation redeemed and transformed through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Everyone in attendance at this event are believers of the Christian faith and are invited by someone affiliated with Haggai.
When we reconnected last month, it was over a coffee meeting that should have lasted 30 minutes, but turned into an almost two-hour talk. I learned more about where he was coming from, why he thought what he thought, and why he understood me the way he did. On the flipside, he also had the chance to learn what my intentions were when I reposted that tweet.
We walked away from that meeting with a much broader understanding of each other’s perspective. We challenged each other. We respected each other. But most importantly, we heard each other. At the conclusion of our meeting, we walked upstairs to my office so that I could gift my then acquaintance, now new friend, with copies of my two books. He offered to pay, but I declined, accepting instead a gifted copy of his own book he promised to send.
That story had a great ending. But not all online debates end in Starbucks meetings and a warm, parting handshake.
Not long after that, I posted a quote on LinkedIn, “To be African American is to be African without memory and American without privilege,” with my commentary, “Here is a bit of perspective for those who can’t understand why populations that have been historically oppressed (African Americans) can’t leave the past behind and move on. It’s not that we want to stay focused on the past, but so much of what occurs in our present and future becomes a constant reminder.” Almost immediately, two gentlemen I wasn’t connected to, jumped in on the conversation and started an online unfriendly comment thread, apparently looking for a battle.
When one of them commented to the other, “You won that victory, Nika clearly lost on that point,” I decided it wasn’t worth engaging any further. I let them know I welcome constructive discussions, but since this wasn’t indicative of that, I was ending the discussion altogether. With that, I blocked them and carried on with my day.
I was not willing to spend time and energy on someone who saw the exchange as a war, whereby one person was declared the victor. I wasn’t trying to win anything, and any time you go into discussions with that in mind, you’ve already lost.
When we put ourselves out there as vocal leaders or Intentional Inclusionists®, we encounter all types of people. You will encounter people eager to learn about your point of view, and you will encounter the ones who are so set in their ways that no amount of discussion helps. So, what do you do when you find yourself in situations like the ones I experienced, where civil discourse is at the heart of what needs to be accomplished?
Here’s what I learned from those experiences:
■ Determine if you are going to engage. Before anything else, it is important at the onset to reflect on the most important question: What is your end goal? What do you hope to walk away with? I have found that when I don’t try to win an argument, I experience healthier and more fruitful discussions. If you enter a discussion wanting to “win”, you have already lost.
■ Before you engage, try to assess the other person’s mindset. Are they set in their ways? Are they open? Where are they in their journey relevant to the conversation? How much do they know about diversity and inclusion? By putting yourself in the other person’s shoes you may be able to communicate better in a way that the other person understands. Diversity and inclusion teaches us to recognize and embrace our differences. Diversity and inclusion also means we acknowledge what isn’t the same and we seek ways to incorporate people in meaningful and valuable ways.
■ If you do engage, protect your emotional capital and focus on your intellectual capital. Do not get too wrapped up in your feelings. It takes practice to talk about a complex topic you are deeply connected to without sounding defensive. However, it is possible. Try to overcome being emotionally charged and separate the information from the person.
■ Figure out when to end the discussion. If the discussion no longer serves you and the goal you are trying to achieve, end it. It is also important to remember that no one has all the right answers, and that is okay. Many answers and solutions are still a work in progress, and so much of the work on diversity and inclusion is about dialogue and common ground.
■ When you do end the discussion, end it in the most civil way possible. Keep it short, sweet and simple. Be polite and give them something they can move forward with. Have something ready and available and point them to that resource. Don’t be afraid to express why you are disengaging, and be confident in your conviction to end the discussion. Perhaps the universe will find it appropriate to have the conversation circle back to you someday, and at that time, you’ll have a game plan for success.