Navigating Difficult Conversations Using Nonviolent Communication

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Photo courtesy of A. Padrinan

During a recent strategic planning session, participants were working in small groups when I overheard the following comment: “In a minute she's going to slap me like Will Smith!” The presumed racial composition of the small group was one black woman, two white women, and one white man. The white man had directed this comment to the black woman.

Initially, it took a minute to process what I'd just heard. But I quickly regained focus, touched base with my co-facilitator, and we brainstormed a course of action. In this case, we turned to nonviolent communication (NVC), though there are lots of other approaches, strategies, or methods that could have been used (e.g., community agreements). In the last year, the Event Garde team has added NVC to our repertoire, developed a conflict resolution model around it, and continue learning about and practicing its application.

Although there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to how something like this is handled, I know the following three things are true for me:

  1. I typically shy away from conflict. And even a couple of years ago I may have ignored this interaction altogether.
  2. As I continue my journey to not only learn more about racism, but also take actions to dismantle it, I recognize my responsibility to interrupt acts of racism whenever possible.
  3. I have tools currently at my disposal to navigate these difficult conversations when they arise, I just need to grow my confidence in using them through consistent practice and feedback.

While I’m uncertain of his intentions, I witnessed his colleague, who had previously been fully engaged, withdraw from participating directly after the comment was made. So here’s how I handled the situation. 

During break, I pulled the person who made the disrespectful comment aside privately and navigated the following four steps: “I heard you say X and I observed Y impact on your colleague (e.g., checking out). As the facilitator, I feel concerned because of my need to create an environment that allows all participant voices and perspectives to be heard and valued. Are you willing to be more thoughtful about your comments and interactions moving forward?” 

The conversation was relatively quick (though my heart was racing in the moments leading up to the discussion). He was receptive to my concerns and request, and it immediately prompted an apology to his colleague. My co-facilitator and I monitored the situation for the balance of the day and jointly determined that an additional check-in with the other participant was not needed. Her participation nearly immediately returned to full engagement. 

In this case, I chose to address the comment privately vs. with the full group because it had occurred in a small group setting. I’m certain my response would have been different if it had happened as part of the full group. For starters, transparently processing the four NVC steps (i.e., observations, feelings, needs, and requests) on the fly would have been a bit more clunky. 

But I find that the more I rehearse these difficult conversations with others I trust during down/prep time, and the more practice I get in the “real world” during my facilitations, the more prepared I feel to do it in the moment, whether one-on-one, with a small group, or in front of a large group. 

Additionally, this is one of many reasons why I encourage co-facilitation. Since everyone was working in small groups at the time, I had the opportunity to consult with a trusted colleague in the moment to help me quickly process the situation and commit to a course of action. Although that’s not always possible, it most certainly resulted in a better outcome.

If you or your team has another approach for addressing inappropriate/racist comments among participants, please share with us your tips, tricks, and recommendations using the comments below or by emailing us at 

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