How to Lead Controversial Conversations with Compassion

Updated: Jul 2, 2020

Around Racial Affairs, Using the Three Modes of Material Nature.

Opposing opinions on evident social justice issues and the repudiation of acknowledging privilege has placed the spotlight on the importance of having open and mature, yet “difficult and crucial” conversations.

We attempt or avoid difficult conversations every day in our lives-when dealing with situations around shame, guilt, vulnerability, opposing and disagreeing views, delivering bad news, etc. Difficult topics are characterized by emotionally charged triggers, leading to exaggerated sentiment that produce unexpected behaviors. The result of handling these conversations with intensity and reactivity can lead to blaming, frustration, rage, and out-of-the-line behaviors.

The current political scene involving the killing of George Floyd, affairs around racial biases and inequality, a perpetual pursuit for black liberation, in the United States are starting to resurface — forcing people to have tough conversations with themselves and their peers, colleagues, and family members.

When dealing with individuals who refuse to acknowledge their privilege and the need for social reforms within our nations, recognizing courage, and pain to some extent, is required to admit that they have been complicit in causing suffering to others.

Three Modes of Material Nature

In The Bhagavad Gita: As It Is, Krishna says to Arjuna:

“Material nature consists of three modes — goodness, passion and ignorance. When the eternal living entity comes in contact with nature, O mighty Arjuna, he becomes conditioned by these modes.”

“Sometimes the mode of goodness becomes prominent, defeating the modes of passion and ignorance, O son of Bharata. Sometimes the mode of passion defeats goodness and ignorance and at other times ignorance defeats goodness and passion. In this way there is always competition for supremacy.” — The Bhagavad-Gita

The effects of sattva-guna, the mode of goodness, are seen when an atmosphere of peace, serenity, and harmony prevails in our environment and ourselves. Rajo-guna, the mode of passion, is felt as an insatiable desire for temporary things, striving for more and more of them, and perpetual dissatisfaction. Tamo-guna, the mode of ignorance, is indicated when there’s laziness, depression, intoxication, and insanity. When dealing with high stake conversations, it is important to evaluate which mode — ignorance, passion, or goodness — are we influenced by and operating under.

An Analogy: What Responding with Jealousy in Each Mode Looks Like

Envy is a feeling of ‘discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possession, qualities, or luck.’ Envy is sprouted when we identify something in others that is valuable for our own ego.

Mode of Ignorance: Reacting to envy under mode of ignorance is drawing away from society and surrendering to the idea that we do not possess the qualities required to achieve the item of value that we are envious of in the first place. Altogether, we lose hope and give in to the circumstances. Language used under this mode:

“I will resent her forever and never speak to her again.” “I will mistreat and ignore her for the rest of my life.”

Mode of Passion Under the mode of passion, we react with anger, violence, and frustration. We plan vengeance to sabotage the possessions of others that we are jealous of. Language used under this mode:

“She doesn’t know who she is messing with. I will show her by retaliating.” “I will manipulate her until I have what she has.”

Mode of Goodness Envy in mode of goodness translates to appreciation. When we look at others’ possessions, instead of becoming angry and jealous, we recognize the hard work and dedication behind their achievements and seek guidance. Language used under this mode:

"I will seek guidance from her as my mentor to understand how she achieved something of value to me." "I will support and protect her possessions."

Keeping these in mind will aid in evaluating our own reaction when entering crucial conversations.

Now, Crucial Conversation and Three Modes in Action

Perpetual battle around racism is evident to such degree that when you come across members of the society who refuse to acknowledge its existence — anger, violence and frustration becomes a habitual response.

How can such ignorance be fueled when current, as well as historical, affairs show obvious need for social justice reforms?

In the case of dealing with individuals who are conditioned to certain beliefs, it is important to approach the dialogue around controversial topics in the mode of goodness. Keep in mind, these people have grown up convinced by the fact that privilege is a myth — or darker skin tones simply don’t deserve equal and fair treatments — yelling at them in anger won’t transform their viewpoint.

“Some rules are nothing but old habits that people are afraid to change,” — Therese Fowler

Understand that other’s ignorance is a habit. Changing such pattern requires change of consciousness and perception, acceptance of defeat to personal ego, as well as extensive determination and concentration — not everyone’s cup of tea.

Reforming people with deep conditioning is not facile — and approaching them with bad temper, in most cases, won’t fix the root cause of the issue.

In mode of ignorance and passion — anger is characterized by:

  • an increased heart rate

  • feeling hot or flushed

  • shaking

  • cursing

  • barring teeth

  • tense muscle and clenched jaw

In response, we tend to become passive or aggressive and lash out at the opponent by shouting, making threats, and being vengeful. Transforming anger to the mode of goodness, however, we can use rage to energize us.

Let anger serve us as a positive force to motivate us to stand up for ourselves and others, while we creatively work towards finding solutions to the challenge we are trying to tackle. Listening and reflecting on their words to construct plausible premises to back up our arguments is more constructive than losing control of the situation by lashing out.

A good argument is straightforward and gives other the reason to be persuaded towards a certain conclusion.

Read the following article that argues Why It’s Problematic to Say “All Lives Matter" as an example of a quality argument.

Acknowledging Our Own Emotions and Self-Care

In order to lead with compassion and change people’s hearts in a way that generates lasting impact, acknowledgement of our own emotions is a prerequisite to transforming viewpoints.

Before stepping into controversial conversations, reach out to the people who really know you to gather feedback on your own behaviors in the past. Are you usually reactive in high stake situations? Do you respond with impracticality in a ferocious manner or with pragmatism?

In most cases, you have formed a relationship with whomever you are going to be engaging in a dialogue with — either it be your mom, dad, brother, colleague, or boss. These people are conditioned to your past behaviors and responses — so you have to, first, establish the trust that you genuinely want to have a mature discussion.

Go in the conversation with a clear and concise understanding of what the message is that you are trying to get across.

Then, take the time to listen and to understand their perspective. “Seek first to understand then to be understood. Seeking real understanding affirms the other person and what they have to say.” — Steven Covey

You may never be able to fully grasp their position, but at least take little steps towards understanding their experience in the world they are residing in.

We are, unfortunately, living in one of the most intense times in modern global history — characterized by intense human suffering due to major global pandemic & economic disruption, Australian bush fire, death of Kobe Bryant and George Floyd, murder hornets and many more similar tragedies. Globally, people cannot seem to catch a peaceful breath. There are events taking place, one after another, that are emotionally, mentally, and physically draining to the people.

Keeping this in mind, creates a dynamic, where ideas, opinions and viewpoints can be shared with an open heart and maturity. Say, “I want to have an open dialogue about what is going on in the world right now.”

Instead of attacking a racist family member with rage — say, “I expected you to respond in this way about this situation — but instead you did this. Can you explain why?”

Now, gather up all your attention on listening to this person’s perspective with levelheadedness and calmness. Everyone around us is processing information in an unique way; so an unclouded understanding of their perspective will better prepare you to get your premises across without coming on too strongly.

When I was young, I would always hear people advising to live within my means, spend less than my earnings, save more, budget, etcetera. I did not do much with this information, instead I would spend all my paycheck money (and some more) on clothes and food. As I became an adult, my responsibilities grew. All of a sudden, I had to pay for shelter, education, healthcare, AND clothes and food. With new responsibilities dumped on me, I came to understand the importance of living within my means and budgeting.

Similarly, sometimes you can bark at someone all day and they will continue to act insensible and unconcerned about your opinions. From birth, people are conditioned to different systems of beliefs and opinions. Willingness to unlearn such conditioning becomes a task that fools cannot complete. For sake of your mental health and sanity, it is in your best interest to understand that you completed your part in attempting to educate them. Just like my financial situation, possibly one day, they will be forced to transform.

Planting the seed was your task, watering and growing it for survival is theirs.

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