Talking About Listening and Validation

News subtitle

Dialogue Project event focuses on life-changing conversations about race.

Shanterra McBride and Rosalind Wiseman at the Dialogue Project
Shanterra McBride, left, and Rosalind Wiseman at the Dialogue Project forum on Tuesday. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)

Navigating conflict and disagreement over fraught social issues doesn’t come easily or naturally. It’s a learned and necessary skill, Shanterra McBride and Rosalind Wiseman said at a Dialogue Project forum on Tuesday.

Co-authors of the 2022 book Courageous Discomfort: How to Have Important, Brave, Life-Changing Conversations About Race and Racism, they were the featured speakers at an event in Rockefeller 003 on how to have substantive discussions about race.

Launched earlier this year, the Dialogue Project offers training in collaborative dialogue skills to help foster the respectful and open exchange of ideas. The speakers were introduced by Elizabeth F. Smith, dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Kristi Clemens, the assistant vice president for equity and compliance, who are co-directors of the Dialogue Project.

The idea of “courageous discomfort” and “brave conversations” sounds noble, but the work it entails requires a “tremendous amount of competence, faith, good intentions, and looking to see if actions are in alignment with what people say on both sides—and that’s a lot,” said Wiseman, a teacher, writer, and consultant at the State Department’s Office for Overseas Schools. 

She is best known as the author of Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World, the basis of the movie and Broadway musical Mean Girls.

There is a misconception, McBride said, that by going through the motions of difficult discussions, the issues are resolved. 

“No, it is a daily decision to do this work. It is a daily decision to show up and a daily decision to extend grace, especially when I think that people haven’t earned it,” said McBride, a teacher, consultant, preacher, and author of Love Your Jiggle: The Girls’ Guide to Being Marvelous, for girls ages 11 to 17. 

McBride and Wiseman are colleagues and close friends who are also experts in the field of social-emotional learning, with an emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion. “Our friendship developed out of a lot of hard work with each other,” Wiseman said.

The women described some of the salient principles in their book that have bearing on divisive social issues. 

Research has shown, Wiseman said, that such interventions as convening assemblies on bullying, pledging to be kind or to not be racist, and watching DEI training videos rarely have the intended effect. When it comes to younger people, older adults may have “wisdom to share but we often do not ask to understand the context in which younger people are living,” Wiseman said. Without soliciting their opinions, ideas, contributions, and experiences, it’s likely that any advice will be ignored. 

“A lot of the time we expect young people to just come and tell us what we should know, but sometimes our culture is not set up for people to feel that they can come and talk,” McBride said.

That raised for McBride, she said, the question and principle of relating versus validating. 

When someone says she relates to McBride, or that he has “heard” what McBride has to say, that raises a red flag. In her experience, that often means the opposite. “As a person of color, as a woman, if I don’t say, ‘thank you so much, that was really great,’ what will happen next? Will they do it again? Have they actually heard me?” she said.

What is more useful, Wiseman said, is to listen carefully and to validate someone else’s experiences of condescension, racism, and bigotry rather than tell anecdotes about your own life that may seem relevant, but often are not—particularly when a power imbalance is in play.

Dialogue Project co-directors standing at a podium
Dean of the Faculty Elizabeth F. Smith, right, and Kristi Clemens, who are co-directors of the Dialogue Project, introduce the speakers. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)

McBride said one of the hardest things about the summer of 2020 when George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis and nationwide protests followed, was listening to white people persist in asking her how she felt, and what her thoughts were. Inwardly, she said, she wrestled with anger and frustration even as she calculated whether answering or not answering, and how she might answer, would affect her personal and professional lives. 

“I had to be responsible for the entire plight of Black people in the whole world,” McBride said. 

“One of the things that’s been really hard is also hearing that I need to be patient. Patient for how long? And what are you going to do when I’m no longer patient?” she added.

Both women believe in working with and within institutions, Wiseman said. But it’s critical to know whether the people with whom you’re working take you and your objectives seriously so that if they ask for patience, you know that “your patience is a solid investment. You’re not being made a fool of, you’re not being tokenized.”

Without reasonable expectations, a timetable on which both sides agree, and transparency on why things are or aren’t happening, accusations of bad faith can easily swirl and communication can break down, Wiseman said. It is the responsibility of the people in privileged positions to disclose why something agreed to may not happen according to plan—and the reasons why.

“It is literally a show of respect to the other side’s work and their leap of faith in working with you,” Wiseman said. 

“What’s not being said out loud,” McBride observed, “is that people like conflict, and the people not involved in the conflict love watching it. People feed off conflict and division, they don’t want solutions.”

Both women emphasized the importance of redefining “respect.” It is not a matter of compliance or subjugation, as in “you owe me respect.” 

“Respect is earned; and dignity, the essential worth of people, is a given,” McBride said. 

After the discussion, Alison May ’97, assistant dean and senior director for student access services, said that she agreed with McBride and Wiseman: “Validating, not relating, is a really good point. By thinking that you’re validating, you’re actually not relating.” 

Malik Harvey, a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program and a teacher at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, N.H., said that he was interested in learning more about working with students in the creation of DEI programming. The distinction between relating and validating, and the nuances of respect and dignity, were “useful pieces to think about, when people are othering each other.”

“It is our hope that Shanterra and Rosalind’s insights will help each of us navigate difficult moments so that we can confront racial biases, become better advocates, and foster an even stronger campus community,” said Clemens, the director of student and staff initiatives for the Dialogue Project.

Nicola Smith