How to Talk About Sensitive Topics
Anatasia S. Kim and Alicia del Prado: It’s Time to Talk (and Listen). New Harbinger, 2019.

How to Talk About Sensitive Topics

Psychologists Anatasia S. Kim and Alicia del Prado offer a timely conversational model to help you engage in constructive conversations.

This guide seems almost seems quaint in this polarized era. Cognitive behavioral psychologists Anatasia S. Kim and Alicia del Prado believe that people with conflicting beliefs can sustain a constructive, mutually educational dialogue.

Kim and del Prado’s ideology is anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-homophobic, and although they hope their approach will build bridges, their book and its examples may appeal primarily to people who already share their point of view. Still, they equip everyone to reach out, discover, respect and listen to beliefs that oppose their own. They recognize that few people are absolutist in these views. Talking at someone, without any real intention to hear the other person’s experience, does not qualify as a constructive conversation. Kim and del Prado believe in the desire of people to communicate. That alone, you might say, makes them idealists.

Constructive conversations

When someone says something you find offensive, you may want to educate that person. But Kim and del Prado grasp that in a politicized culture, strong emotions interfere with authentic engagement.

Now is the time to start connecting, talking, listening and healing. It’s long overdue.

Kim/del Prado

That’s why Kim created an eight-step model hoping to facilitate conversations that profoundly affect their participants. Her model – and her and del Prado’s approach – have met with approval. For example, Monika Parikh, cofounder and board president of Partnerships for Trauma Recovery, says, “Kim and del Prado’s intentional approach to bridging these divides is vital…The authors rightly emphasize the need to attend to one’s own emotional reactions, to allow for an openness to another’s truth.”

Emotions inhibit constructive engagement

The authors urge you to understand your own motivation and your expectations. Don’t allow an uncomfortable situation to trigger impulsive responses, they warn. Kim and del Prado offer self-awareness exercises like deep breathing, meditation or journaling. And they recommend identifying your internal roadblocks to engaging others. This advice has many useful applications: Ask what negative thoughts and behaviors stop you from constructive conversations? Do you worry people may reject you if you share your views? Do you hesitate to show vulnerability or to use your power? Kim and del Prado maintain that carefully considering your responses to these question will make you a more productive conversational partner. They want you to be conscious, too, of your own privilege. If society places you in an advantageous position because of your race, gender, age or other factors, they insist you have these difficult conversations.

Harness Your Values

Kim and del Prado define values as “qualities and traits by which we measure our own and others’ merit.” These remind you of your conversational goals. The authors believe that engaging in constructive conversations about social injustice is an act of courage. One look at the news today proves they are right.

The invitation is to join a collaborative connection and a mutual exploration that can lead to healing.

Anatasia S. Kim, Alicia del Prado

What matters, say Kim and del Prado, is to express your values as you invite the other person to talk. Use a steady and calm voice, medium volume and a slow speech tempo. Kim and del Prado tell you not to cross your arms, frown or look down. They regard every conversation as an act against oppression and state plainly that doing nothing preserves an unacceptable status quo.

Perhaps unconsciously echoing keystones of 1960s personal growth movements, the authors think that sharing your experience and your emotional response fosters understanding. Kim and del Prado say their model for interaction works with parents, kids, your spouse, your boss, your employees, your coworkers, students and friends. But it seems that these people – who engage with you regularly – might be more open than a stranger whose views contradict your own.

Listen

Listening is complex and requires care and attention. The authors hit the nail on the head when they write that people often hear only what they want to hear. Kim and del Prado assert that conscious listening helps you understand the speaker’s intention. Hold onto what you feel, they advise, while paying close attention to what others say. Show appreciation for your conversational partner’s willingness to engage. If his or her answer hurts you, share your pain. Again, assuming an almost perfectly symmetrical set of conversational intentions, the authors hope you can make yourself vulnerable. To engage without anger or being triggered, Kim and del Prado ask that you be ready to handle someone else’s truth, no matter how much you may disagree.

Habit and action 

When reflecting on your conversation and learning from it, the authors want you to avoid replicating a typical online exchange that devolves into mutual insult. They advise against faulting the other person.

It is not possible to connect honestly, with the intention of having constructive conversations, if you don’t show your true colors.

Anatasia S. Kim, Alicia del Prado

Kim and del Prado favor scheduling a regular conversation. Their goal is an ever-expanding mutual understanding. Though that seems a collegiate or starry-eyed notion, the authors are adamant that it is achievable.

Kim and del Prado are activists. They avow that thwarting injustice requires civic engagement. They exhort you to fight institutional oppression, racism, classism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism and xenophobia. Your dedication, they trust, will inspire your friends, family and community to take action to foster a more just society. And, who knows – maybe they will. Any work seeking to reduce rather than increase a society’s polarization is laudable. As Steven R. Lopez of the department of psychology and social work at the University of Southern California, wrote, ”This is a very timely book given the current sociopolitical context.… Their model gives us hope that we can cross multiple divides to see the humanity in others.”

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