Guiding principles to discuss race (and other potentially contentious issues) in forum

Discussions in forum about larger societal issues, such as race, racial identity, or race relations, have the potential to derail and to cause hurt feelings and a sense of being judged negatively. 

Before beginning such conversations, ask all members to review and agree to a set of guiding principles.  These eight principles (adapted and summarized from the Daring Discussions Toolkit) provide an excellent starting point.

Ground yourself in love.  Many social problems stem from our willingness to turn people into the “other” and deny their basic humanity. Holding onto hate hurts us deeply while love drives us to invest our time and energy.in each other in a more productive way, raising the level of relationship between us. 

Strength is compassion & vulnerability.  When we think of strength, we often think of toughness and inflexibility.  However, it takes bravery to be vulnerable and great strength to be compassionate rather than judgmental.

Suspend your first judgment.  When we judge each other, we shut down our power to listen to what others are saying.  Be aware of the impulse towards judgment and advocacy; then take a moment to breathe deeply.

Seek clarification before jumping to conclusions.  Assume others in the forum have good intentions and want to find common ground.  Rather than launching into a response based on judgment, or what you “think” another member meant, ask open-ended questions.

Be honest about your experiences.  Focus on sharing your direct personal experiences, as opposed to stories you’ve heard in the news or through other people.  This is the heart of forum: sharing as deeply and truthfully as you are able will help others feel empowered to do the same.

Be unconditionally accepting.  It is possible to both accept someone and disagree with them at the same time.  The goal is not to “win” a debate, but to find common ground, to see our own blind spots in new way, and to be enriched by the perspectives of others.

Reflective & intuitive listening.  Listen patiently and quietly, then reflect back before sharing what’s on your mind.  “I hear you saying that….” “I appreciate you sharing with me that….”

Be aware of the privilege you hold in the conversation.  Privileges we hold may be exactly those things of which we are least aware.  We can simultaneously hold some kinds of privilege or relative power, while experiencing some form of oppression as well.  Being aware of the privilege you hold is an important part of creating space in forum for others to share difficult and vulnerable truths about their experience.

Should I travel or not? Reflections on risk, return and priorities

You haven’t been travelling for months, and now the world is (maybe) slowly opening up.  As you consider making long-delayed or long-planned trips, what’s the right choice?  Should you bunker down or get on the plane?  Forum can be a great place to talk through decisions that are multifaceted, involve conflicting emotions, and require you to coordinate with family members or business colleagues.

Invite each member to share one or two upcoming travel decisions (either personal or business) that they’ve made or need to make.  Possible questions to address:

  • Why do you feel you need to make this trip?  Why now?
  • What safety or other practical concerns do you have and how might you address them?
  • If your spouse/partner or other family members are involved, how do their approaches/philosophies differ?  How might you resolve any potential conflict.
  • How do you think about risk vs. return in making this particular travel decision? What weight do you give to different factors?
  • How do you think differently about business vs. personal travel?

Each member has 2-3 minutes (timed) to share their answers.

After all members have shared, open up to general conversation, including takeaways and possible accountability to report back to the forum. What new perspective, insight or question are you taking away from this conversation?  Do you expect to make the travel decision you shared in the next month?  Would you like the forum to check in to see what you decided at the next meeting?

Can we talk about race and racial inequality in our forum?

I used to think that sex and money were the final frontiers in forum. If we are willing to share deeply about these topics, perhaps our forums have reached a level of trust and vulnerability that leads to transformational value.

In the America we now inhabit, I wonder if race and racial attitudes might be even more sensitive and taboo.  Some questions you might consider at your next forum meeting:

  • How has your upbringing influenced the ways you think about people from other racial backgrounds?
  • How would you describe the current extent and nature of your relations with people of other racial backgrounds? How do you feel about that?
  • What recent or long past personal experiences are you reminded of as you read about protests across America? Why?
  • As a business leader, how have you supported (or undermined) efforts towards racial equality and racial justice?

You may wish to read this excellent guide to Daring Discussions before you begin the conversation.

Two recent articles that forum members might read in advance:

“Who Gets to Be Afraid in America?” in The Atlantic by Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to be an Antiracist

“Don’t understand the protests? What you’re seeing is people pushed to the edge,” in the Los Angeles Times by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the N.B.A.’s all-time leading scorer

Reacting, Adapting and Growing in the Time of COVID-19

Thank you to James Isaacs from whose exercise this blog post is adapted.

We are passing through one of the most disrupted periods in recorded business history.  There has never been anything like this.  Kudos to all who are still standing!

While there are glimmers of green shoots coming up around us, and the teasing possibility of “re-opening” from Shelter-in-Place, the cold hard reality is that these current recessionary conditions are going to persist for some time into the future.   Forum is the ideal place to talk through how we are reacting, adapting and growing in this time.

Each member prepares in advance to give a brief (5-7 minute) presentation using the following questions to stimulate their thinking.

Reacting – Since we last got together a month ago:

  • What was your best moment in reacting to something?
  • What was your worst moment?
  • What have you done that has worked best in reaction to something?
  • What have you done that has worked least well?
  • Was there some reaction that you would love to have a “do over” on?
  • What was a great decision you made?
  • Is there a decision that you are just not facing up to? Why are you avoiding the decision?

Adapting – Since we last got together a month ago:

  • What is something that you have changed in either how you operate your business, how your family is functioning, or how you act personally in relation to COVID-19 that shows healthy adaptation?

Growing  — Since we last got together a month ago:

  • How have you grown in the last month?
  • What is a strength or attribute you are showing that you didn’t before?
  • Starting with the axiom, “this might be the best work I ever do” under this stress, how have you shown some of your best work this last month?
  • What behavior, strength, attribute, tactic, strategy, attitude, motion, action, movement, etc. do you think you need to get through the next stage of this?

A few notes:

  • You do not have to respond to all questions. Respond to those that speak to you.
  • Feel free to use other approaches to express your thoughts and feelings.
  • Try to touch on your personal, family and business life.
  • Go for the 5%, your deepest feelings and issues which are most difficult to share outside of forum.

Allocate 2-3 minutes after each member’s presentation for others to resonate, notice, share experience, pose a thought-provoking question, or connect the dots between multiple members’ experiences.

Meeting in pairs to build deeper forum connections

When we meet in person, we informally connect one-on-one during breaks, and can socialize over drinks and dinner afterwards.  When we are meeting virtually, the opportunities for casual, pairwise connections are almost non-existent.

To make up for that deficit, consider implementing this plan to encourage paired meet-ups between forum meetings:

  • Set up a round-robin schedule with pairs of members (plus one trio if you have an odd number in your forum). The pairs rotate after every regular forum meeting or on a monthly basis.
  • Pairs are asked to meet by whatever means works for them: a virtual “coffee” in Zoom; a conversation by phone, perhaps while each is going for a walk; or email, text or WhatsApp exchanges.
  • The plan can be left open-ended and flexible with no reporting back to the full forum, or each member can be asked to share one thing they learned about their partner at the next meeting.

Try this for a month or two, and then check-in with everyone on whether all would like to continue on a regular basis, or only as long as the forum is meeting virtually.

Masked and unmasked updates

These days we all need to wear some kind of mask when we leave our homes and can’t socially distance from others. Forum, meeting on a virtual platform, is one place where we can take off both our physical and our “psychological” masks, be vulnerable and discuss what really matters.

Consider doing this combined icebreaker/update activity at your next virtual forum meeting:

  • MASKED: Please bring and show your favorite or usual mask, and tell its story (up to 1 minute each, go around the “table”)
  • UNMASKED: Take off the “mask” you are wearing in front of your colleagues, family, and/or self. How are you REALLY feeling at this time? What is the Most Important Thing you want to tell the rest of us? Can you be vulnerable with your fellow forum members, and can you ask for what you need? Up to 3 or 4 minutes each (depending on length of meeting and number of members).
  • NOTICING (Optional, 10 minutes): Members have one minute each to quickly notice what was said or unsaid, tone and body language, anything you resonated with by deeply listening. No dialogue, questions, judgment, or advice giving. Members will not have time and are not expected to comment on every other member’s update.

Note: It’s best to tell members in advance about this exercise so they can have their physical mask handy, and can reflect on the suggested update questions.

Credit: Thank you to Melissa Weiksnar for sharing this exercise.

Who do I choose to be during the COVID-19 crisis?

We have all experienced a range of emotions as the pandemic has changed so many aspects of our lives.

Manju Melwani, a YPO forum facilitator, suggests possible actions and attitudes which may be either in the zone of fear, of learning, or of growth.

In forum we might ask ourselves:

  • In the last few weeks, when have I been in each of these zones? Why? How does that make me feel?
  • Not as a victim, but as an active agent, how have I chosen to learn and grow?
  • Looking forward, who do I want to be when this crisis is over?

Moving to a “wartime” forum footing

Earlier generations remember where they were during the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, JFK’s assassination, and 9/11.  All of us will remember the COVID-19 Pandemic.  These extraordinary times call for new modes of engagement with our forums, including these possibilities:

  • Meet more frequently but for a shorter time. Some forums are meeting every week for an hour.  Others are meeting for two hours every other week.  Still others are calling emergency meetings as needed.
  • Continue to emphasize the importance of being there for each other, but agree to meet even if you can’t have 100% attendance. Evolving needs mean that commitments are less certain than in more stable times.
  • Focus updates on M.I.T. – the Most Important Things on members’ minds, on which they think the forum can offer some support, ideas or experience. Get to the essence quickly, identifying 3-5 word headlines such as “Messaging to employees,” “supporting elderly parents,” or “conserving cash.” Combine any similar MITs into a single topic.
  • At the moderator’s discretion, or with member input via the chat function, identify the most urgent and important topics
  • Instead of longer, traditional presentations/explorations, try to allow time to address multiple topics, asking members to make short and concise requests for:
    • Ideas
    • Experiences
    • Feedback on any ideas/actions they are considering
    • “I Notice…” feedback
    • Connections and leads
    • “If you were in my shoes…” feedback
    • Opportunity to vent or emote (no feedback)
  • Be efficient. Everyone in the forum can offer feedback once about the topic.  No repeating; instead say “plus one” to another person’s thoughts. Avoid tangents. The moderator can call “tangent alert” to refocus on the topic at hand.
  • Encourage one-on-one, out-of-meeting connections to address or expand on what can be covered in shorter, virtual meetings.

Acknowledgment: Thank you to YPO and HBS facilitator Michael Bloch from whose work this blog post is adapted.  For more details, see Michael’s full “wartime forum” agenda.

For the unprecedented times in which we now live: Forum update questions

As you prepare your forum update in times of pandemic, you may choose to answer one or more of these questions:

  • What part of your life or family needs the most care right now?
  • What leadership challenge in your business has been exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis?
  • What personal or professional relationship has been stressed by the coronavirus crisis?
  • What is the greatest fear you have now?
  • How has/will the crisis affect your company or family’s burn rate (income vs. expenses)? What approaches are you considering to deal with the situation?
  • Do you feel you are over-reacting or under-reacting to the evolving situation?
  • What risks do you see to your business/industry as a result of changes to the global business environment?
  • How is the coronavirus global situation causing you to re-evaluate your priorities, if at all?
  • What can you stop doing right now that will help you focus on this current challenge?
  • What key transition is coming up in your life that you are most scared or uncertain about due to the crisis?

With every question you can also reflect: How does the situation or challenge make you feel? How can the forum help?

Ten tips for awesome virtual forum meetings

A forum member recently said to me his group’s mantra from the beginning has been “Forum is always on, always in person, no one calls in.”  In a time of pandemic, social distancing, and restricted travel, that approach may no longer be sustainable.

And yet, we need forum more than ever!  Consider following these recommendations developed by my facilitator colleague Vince Corsaro and others:

  1. Pick the right meeting platform.
  2. Use the technology well, following established best practices.
  3. Reinforce security and confidentiality.
  4. Set norms that support a virtual format.
  5. Plan a shorter agenda focused on deep, connecting conversations.
  6. Consider scheduling “virtual coffees” outside of full group meetings to support each other in tough times.
  7. Get back together face-to-face as soon as you can.
  8. Create a private social media platform (e.g., Slack, WhatsApp) to support ongoing communication.
  9. Use shared, community building apps (like those available for Fitbit users) to monitor members’ health and fitness goals.
  10. Find other creative ways to connect such as a virtual “happy hour” or a designated day to post selfies on the group’s social media stream.

For more details and suggestions on each of these ideas, see Vince’s Google doc.