January 19, 2022

Let’s Talk About Race (and Other Hard Things): Nancy A. Dome, Ed.D

Fear, avoidance, division. The safest path can feel like the one without dialogue regarding conversations about equity and diversity. What if you offend the other person? What if they challenge your beliefs? What if you ruin a relationship? When it comes to hard topics, effective communication skills are an asset, vulnerability is necessary and forgiveness is vital. Let’s Talk About Race and Other Hard Things communication expert and equity consultant Dr. Nancy Dome provides you with a framework to recognize feelings, interrupt flawed patterns, and repair relationships. 

Utilized in business education and communities throughout the country, Dr. Dome’s process makes space for vulnerability and helps participants engage in empathetic dialogue. Conflict is normal and survivable. You don’t need special skills or experience to navigate it. You just need practice. Complete with extensive research and case studies, this step-by-step guide shows how to lean into difficult conversations recognize the role that emotions play when we are not in control of them. It creates a solid foundation for change, progress, healing, and resolution. Here’s my conversation with Nancy Dome. 

This is the Author Hour podcast. My name is Benji Block. Today, I’m really excited, because I’m joined by Dr. Nancy Dome. Nancy, welcome to Author Hour.

Nancy Dome: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me, Benji. I am grateful to be here.

Benji Block: For sure. You’ve just come out with a new book, the book is titled, Let’s Talk About Race (and Other Hard Things): A Framework for Having Conversations That Build Bridges, Strengthen Relationships, and Set Clear Boundaries. So with the title like that, Nancy, I think we’re going to be here about five hours. I have so many things I want to talk to you about and directions, rabbit trails I wanted to take this conversation. So it’s going to be really fun. We won’t be here for five hours. I won’t do that to us, but for listeners that might be new to you and some of the work that you’re doing, can you give us a brief background and the work you do now?

Nancy Dome: Yeah, absolutely. About six years ago, after having a 20-year career in education, teaching high school, teaching elementary, teaching at the college level, I really wanted to have a greater impact so I started a business called Epoch Education. The idea behind it was, how do we work with school districts and leadership specifically, and teachers to support the diverse population that we’re seeing in schools, and making sure that students can see themselves represented it, that they feel that they belong? So we’re dealing a lot with issues of equity and trying to erase a lot of the institutionalized racism and marginalization that has existed in our system without us even knowing it. 

I mean, so much of it is, is invisible to us. It doesn’t matter what your color is. I mean, it’s invisible to all of us, because we are all a product of that system, right? So we started working with school districts initially to identify some of these barriers that get in a way of students’ success and doing coaching. One of the outcomes of that, which actually started when I was a professor at the university level, one of the biggest obstacles was our ability to actually have meaningful conversations. What does it look like when you and I disagree? What it started to look like, was that when we disagreed, people just avoided each other or they talked about each other, but they didn’t talk to each other. 

So I developed a protocol that if we follow these steps, we started to see that it really did have a positive outcome with giving us a tool to have difficult conversations and stay engaged and stay in relationship, which I think is the biggest thing. It’s like, we’re all different. Every single one of us is different. This idea that we would always agree and that it would always be easy is just false. I think it sets us up like a fairy tale. It sets us up for disappointment because it just doesn’t work that way.

Normalizing The Feeling of Discomfort In Order to Have The Necessary Conversations

Benji Block: Right. I’m so excited for where your book and this content takes the conversation and we’re going to get there in just one second because I have even follow-up questions on what you just said. Well, let’s do this. I’ll quote you here, because you said, “Every day it feels like we’re becoming more disconnected. This is my little attempt –” you’re talking about the book there, “My little attempt at being a part of helping us reconnect of being part of a solution.” I would argue, it’s not a little part or a little attempt. It’s a pretty big one. But just talk to me about that, how did this move from a disconnection that you were feeling to a book that you felt like you needed to write?

Nancy Dome: Well the protocol was created, compassionate dialogue, and the RIR protocol was created about 15 years ago. I had been using it just as a tool. As my business model, coalesced and developed, I realized that it wasn’t really a tool, it was a pillar. 

Benji Block: Interesting. 

Nancy Dome: Because anything that, any change, any innovation, anything that we want to do, requires that we’re able to communicate with each other effectively. My clients were saying “This is a great tool, Nancy, but when we leave this space, we forget it. We don’t know how to use it.” It got me thinking too, what does that 10,000 repetition rule — you got to do something 10,000 times. So, if my clients are working with me and they’re practicing the protocol six times a year, there’s no way they’re going to get to any level of mastery. 

What I realized is, I needed to provide a resource that when I wasn’t in the room with you, that you could actually practice yourself, that you could read and develop your own understanding and set your own benchmarks that would allow you to develop the skill and hone in this practice to become a more effective communicator. The book was just a natural — it was just time and also with enough just people who have used it successfully, enough of those kinds of case studies to support the value and effectiveness of this tool. It was just time to write a book and just give people a little bit more of a step-by-step on how to.

Benji Block: Yep. So one more follow-up question there, more on the practical side of, why write the book and who is it for? You’re talking about past clients. I can totally see the need for a resource they can refer back to. Talk to me about outside of past clients, who would be the ideal reader, the ideal person to pick this book up?

Nancy Dome: Yeah. Anyone who has conversations.

Benji Block: Easy enough.

Nancy Dome: Because the nice thing about the book is it really starts from the beginning. If you’re familiar with the protocol, then it’s a good refresher and a good inspiration. If you’re not familiar with the protocol, it actually teaches you how to use it, it provides resources to practice. I mean, one of my business models — personally, and I think it’s because my background is education — is that I think that a large part of our resources have to be free to people. 

If we really want to see change happen, there can’t be a price tag on every single thing to lead to that change. So we give free resources away with coaching models all the time. The idea behind this is we want people to be able to use [it]. So you’ll buy the book, but we give the tools in the book that you can use and you can replicate and you can take to your own teams at your own worksite and use them because if we really want to get past the division that we’re seeing, people have to use these tools and they need to be accessible. 

Benji Block: Absolutely. I’m one of those people that didn’t really know some of the protocol and all of that. Obviously, I’m reading the book, but you did a great job for beginners and then I was looking you up online and finding other resources and blogs, so I can attest to that. Definitely, there’s a lot of great content that you guys have created. Excited to chat here about it.

You lay out right from the outset, we have a communication problem, something you’ve already mentioned here. I mean, it can be that we maybe don’t talk, because we’re afraid to say the wrong thing, you mentioned that. It can be that maybe we say things that cause confusion, right? Because they’re lost in translation, it feels like we’re speaking different languages. As a communicator, for me personally, that’s really, really frustrating. Why — maybe lay for us a little bit of groundwork. What are some of those things that hinder us from understanding each other, some of those core things that we should be paying attention to?

Nancy Dome: I think the bottom line is always fear, fear of something, right? Fear that I don’t know the right thing to say or that I’ll say the wrong thing. Fear that it might jeopardize my position, that there might be some form of retaliation, just the level of discomfort. We are operating in a society that is actually pretty much trained us to avoid conflict. So a lot of it, and I’ll do this on a regular basis, I’ll say how many of you will enter in conflict willingly. I’ll get in a room of 400 people, like 10 people who will raise their hands. We’ve been trained not to engage in when it feels like, it’s conflict. We avoid it, we walk away. So a lot of that too is just conflict avoidance. It’s like, oh, I’m feeling uncomfortable. Also, because I haven’t really checked in with my own feelings, which is the first star of the protocol. Do you recognize what that discomfort is? 

We labeled discomfort as fear or being afraid of something. So you go from being uncomfortable to just saying, you’re unsafe, which then gets a brain [in] just fight or flight. You start moving away from wanting to engage because now you’ve translated the discomfort to unsafe. Those are completely different things, but that unsafe is the biggest detour to us actually being able to have a conversation. So, if you tell me you feel unsafe talking to me, everything’s derailed. You’ve derailed me, you, you’ve derailed yourself. Part of what we’re doing with the work is, how do we normalize a level of discomfort, understanding the difference between safety, physical and emotional safety. If you feel truly, physically unsafe, then you shouldn’t be having the conversation, right? 

But if it’s just discomfort, how do we normalize that? It’s like an athlete, the first time you work out, you’re going to be sore, but the more you do it, you’re not sore anymore. The conversations do the same thing; the first time you do it, it’s going to feel super uncomfortable, but the more you practice at it, that benchmark moves, that that line moves, and you realize that you’re able to tolerate discomfort at a much higher level. All of a sudden, because you also see the beneficial impact of being able to engage that you’re actually willing more willing to lean in.

Benji Block: Right. We have to build that muscle memory that allows us to remain there. I mean, I would say, right now, in the conversation, I know you address this in your book. It seems this idea of political correctness and cancel culture also play a huge role in why we aren’t having these conversations. Everyone has their opinions in silos, right? But we don’t talk about those major core things, whether it’s race or religion or politics, because we have some of these things where we could be labeled as politically incorrect, or we’re a part of cancel culture. What role do you see those buzzwords, buzz phrases playing in the current landscape?

Nancy Dome: Yeah. I mean, I think they play a huge role. We’ve seen it over time, that people — you’re not allowed to make a mistake. Not only are you not allowed to make a mistake, you’re not even allowed to make mistakes. So if you made a mistake when you were 18 years old and immature and foolish, you’re paying for it now if someone has any proof, right? There’s no grace and there’s no room to say that we are humans having a human experience developing, that we’re growing the person. 

Thank goodness, really. The person that I was when I was 18 is not the person that I am now at 55. Part of me getting to this place now is because I was able to make those mistakes and learn from them. So there’s got to be a level of grace that looks at, we have to look at intent and impact. Right now, we’re just focused on impact. I don’t want to minimize that, because impact is important. If what I say or what I do negatively impacts you, I have to own that, but there’s got to be a place for intention to that says, it wasn’t intentional. I didn’t mean to hurt you, although I acknowledge that I did. 

Coming from that place, there’s no place for canceling in that because we have to give each other the room to grow. We only grow by making mistakes and learning from them. So if my intent is malicious and my impact manifests that maliciousness, then that’s a different story. So I do think there is a place for that canceling and letting people know that this is not okay. You’re not going to get away for it. I think that we have to remember to look at intent.

Benji Block: Yep. I love that. I love that you said there has to be an acknowledgment of, “Hey my intent wasn’t that, but if it’s coming off that way. I’m also going to own it.”

Nancy Dome: Yes. 

Benji Block: That’s such a big, big component, because there’s also a denial that happens, whether like, “Well, that wasn’t my intention,” but that’s not maybe an apology for how you came off. That’s a huge part of communication is, how you are perceived in conversation. 

Nancy Dome: Yeah. 

Benji Block: I love the way you laid that out intent plus impact. I have a little whiteboard and I wrote that down immediately. I already read so many notes from what you’ve said. It’s fantastic. What were some of, and this would be more on the personal side, but I’d love to hear some of the pivotal moments for you that led you to devote your life to this work. What really drives you? What were some of those moments?

Nancy Dome: Yeah. It really stemmed from my childhood. I’m a twin and I have three older brothers and my mother left probably when we were 11, my grandmother had a stroke shortly after, and we just didn’t have a lot of guidance. So we were definitely trial and error. There are a lot of key people in our life who showed up, probably around middle school, mostly our teachers who just showed up and were supportive, who understood, who didn’t judge us and didn’t punish us, who had higher expectations. 

As black kids growing up in West Hollywood, it was relatively diverse, but it wasn’t diverse with black families so much as it was diverse with Israelis and Afghans and Peruvians and Mexicans and Koreans, and just different people, but there weren’t a lot of black families. It would have been really easy to pigeonhole us into the stereotype of what America thinks it means to be black, which is not accurate whatsoever. So I just think that that gave me a very early passion for kids and for people and for really trying to build bridges. I’ve always been the connector and the bridge builder. So when I stumbled into education, my first after I taught one year as a first-grade teacher, which is great, great.

Benji Block: I believe it. 

Nancy Dome: Nothing but respect and honor to elementary teachers, because you’re in it. I realized that I wanted to work with the alternative education population because I felt like they have been so misunderstood. They’ve been put on this trajectory, where there’s really no way out for them, that most of them were on probation, expelled from public school. The first year I worked with them, my heart was gone, it was theirs. I just stayed committed to how do I serve the most marginalized and whoever they are, whatever they look and that has been my passion and my goal.

Intent Plus Impact

Benji Block: What are a couple of the gaps that you see in that, as your hearts being given to this that you’re going, “Man, we have to create solutions for this specifically.” Because you’re identifying that group and you’re saying you felt they were misunderstood? Were you seeing things systematically that you’re like “that’s off and we need to fix that”? What were some of those gaps you identified?

Nancy Dome: Yeah, absolutely. Well, the biggest gap is that the majority of kids that are in Alternative Ed. in our country are kids of color. 

Benji Block: Right. 

Nancy Dome: That could have easily been my sister and I without the right supports and guidance. Unless there is an inherent belief, and I think there is for some people, that kids of color, particularly Hispanic and black children are just naturally predisposed for bad behavior, then it didn’t make any sense to me why they would be 90% of enrollment in a district that doesn’t even have, that has a low number of these kids anyway, right? So you start to see Alternative Ed district that is 90% kids of color, and when they’re going to school districts where they only make up 12 and 8% of the population. 

The majority of them are being expelled out of school. Actually, my dissertation was looking at learning styles and how there was a disconnect between the kids that were put in Alternative Ed and expelled out of public school and how we taught school and traditional education. What we found, what I found in my research was that most of the kids that ended up Alt. Ed. were very kinesthetic learners, which was really contrary to how we teach in schools. So they need to talk, they need to move, they need to act. Many of them have special education designations. 

You start to see this pattern of, you can almost predict just — they say now that you can predict that third grade, who’s going to flunk out of school. At third grade, which is crazy to me. That means the system is already messed up. If you can tell in third grade who’s going to flunk, then the system has to change, right? We can help them at third grade and now we’re going to do it and 12th grade or ninth grade? I just think that the way that schools have been designed, really have been to create what I just called sheep — and this is coming from an educator. 

I don’t think that it really — we talk about critical thinking, we talk about self-actualization using Maslow’s hierarchy, but I don’t think a lot of the things that we actually practice, actually encourage what we say we’re trying to teach.

Benji Block: Well, it takes us back to the beginning, right? Because it’s the water we swim in. It’s the systems that were created before us and then it becomes impossible to see them, sometimes. We’re operating in them, wondering why it’s not working. It’s something that can easily seem to be invisible to us. We’re just becoming products or creating kids that are products of systems that are broken and need adjustment. There’s a lot there like I said, I could have a five-hour conversation with you. My wife’s a middle school teacher. I resonate with this in a different way. 

One of the things that we need to talk about, you talk and outline really clearly different communication styles. This impacts how we interpret each other and how we come off and are perceived. Talk to us a little bit about the different styles and how to go about those harder conversations. What do we need to be paying attention to, because we all communicate so differently?

Nancy Dome: The styles are really important for us to understand because it dictates how we show up in our conversations, right? So for instance, we talked about, there’s aggressive, there’s passive-aggressive. There’s passive and then there’s — my mind just did a blank, but I have don’t have it in front of me, but all those four styles are completely different, right? So, if you’re a passive communicator that means that you may not necessarily be saying everything that’s on your mind. You’re just laying back, you may not speak up, but if you’re talking to me and I’m assertive, thank you, because I have to think about myself. I’m very assertive. And actually assertive, which also because then you throw my skin color on it, you throw my size on it and people assume that my assertiveness is aggressive, right? Again, impact and intent. 

I say, I’m assertive because I’m going to speak truth and I’m going to tell you, but I’m never going to try to hurt you and people will see it as aggressive. That is an example. If I don’t understand that you are more passive in your communication more timid in your communication, I can come off way too strong. It’s not about me being the only one changing it, but if you’re aware, also that you’re passive, and you’re communicating with someone who’s assertive, how do you move to the center a little bit? 

If you think about these being at the four quadrants at the very far corners the extreme — the extreme passive, the extreme assertive and extreme passive-aggressive, extreme aggressive — how do we meet in the middle, so that I temper my assertiveness and it’s still going to, I’m going to be direct, but there may be more of an entry, like more of an opening that now I’m more concerned about creating a space where you feel that you can say something to me, that you feel safe in the communication. But also your responsibility as a passive communicator is to lean into that discomfort a little bit and be willing to take a risk on the hope that we can meet somewhere in the middle.

So understanding that is important, but if I don’t understand that, then I’m never going to do anything to mitigate my own communication style to make space for you to be able to show up. I can be overpowering easily. For me, I know that I recognize [that] I need to sometimes step back. I need to listen. I need to breathe and I need to let someone who doesn’t communicate as strongly as I do, have the floor so that I can hear them and then respond and let them know that they’re active participants.

Benji Block: Right. That’s one of, I would say like the first keys. And then you bring in this idea of compassionate dialogue. Here’s where we’ll get into the protocol as well. Let’s talk about that a bit. It’s been around, you said 15 years or so since its development. Talk about maybe the genesis of that and walk us through the protocol, if you would.

Nancy Dome: Yeah. Well, the genesis came out of a colleague of mine. We were getting ready for a conference and she walked into a district office in Southern California. They were hiring for new employees in the school district. The sign said, “Certificated Employees” which would be your teacher or your admin applications and that pointed one way. And then it said, “Non-essential Personnel.” It pointed the other way. So non-essential personnel, one who’s not essential in the school district, right? It was a message, a clear message that if you were a bus driver or a cafeteria worker or maintenance and operations that you were considered non-essential or not as essential as teachers. 

So, we were getting ready for a conference presentation. We were like, how do you interrupt this? That’s really what it came from. When you see something so egregious, how do you stop it, especially if it’s systematic, if it’s within the system? That was really the birth of the protocol. It wasn’t called compassionate dialogue at the time, it was just like, we were really looking at this very simple – how do we recognize, interrupt and repair something that is egregious in front of us? We did that and then after, I would say, we did that for two years. I left the university, it stopped. 

What I recognized in doing two conference presentations around it and really developing it out was that I started to use it in my own personal life. I started to realize that if I just slowed down a little bit — because I am high energy and I’m a lot, sometimes — I realized that if I started practicing, I was like, “Okay, I want to develop this further.” My colleague who the initial concept, Dr. Jennifer Jeffries. I reached out to her and said, “Hey, I want to run with this. Are you good with that?” She’s like, “Yeah. I don’t really use it. Do it.” I just ran with it and realized as it evolved, that the protocol was great. 

The RIR could easily, without the compassionate piece, just be another tool to cancel or what we say now weaponize, right? Because recognize, interrupt and repair, without compassion — I can recognize that I’m angry. I can interrupt by calling you a jerk, and the repair is that I never talked to you again, right? So those steps without the compassionate dialogue, is what actually – the compassionate piece is what brings us together and doesn’t separate us.

Interrupting Personally and Interpersonally

Benji Block: Yeah. I was going to say compassion and interrupt can easily seem an oxymoron, but in this approach, that’s it’s — if compassion is the intent, you would be interrupting, because again, you’re wanting to repair. You’re seeing something that can be done better, that is broken, that needs addressing. I love that you called it compassionate dialogue. Walk us through maybe another example of this RIR protocol and how you’ve seen it in action and what’s worked so well.

Nancy Dome: Well, I’ll use it for my own personal experience, because I’m always practicing and I know it’s a journey, right? It’s not a destination. Over COVID, I lived in a small town in Montana when COVID first kicked off, and also it was pre-election. We were getting ready for the election to happen. I have to preface this by saying that I’m probably one of maybe five or six black people in this town of 500 people. You start to get an idea that I’m very conspicuous. I ran into someone that I knew, who had worked on my house, and that I had a lot of respect for that I liked, and he had a MAGA hat on. I was caught off guard and there was a lot of emotions that came up for me. 

We said, “Hello.” We gave a hug. I knew that I had to do something. I also didn’t want, I really wanted to understand and I really wanted to also feel safe, because there’s — for me the recognized fear, anger, disappointment, all those things are happening and they happen in a split second. Once I rode what I call my emotional wave, because if I don’t do that and I speak, usually what’s going to come out of my mouth will not be effective. So, once I rode that wave, I formulated my question to interrupt. 

I knew what I was feeling. I just said, “Hey, what is that? What is happening to you?” He was a little taken aback, but he was like, “Well, it means freedom. It means –” He proceeded on and then he turned around, he says, “Well, what does it mean to you?” I said, “You know what, it represents hate to me. It represents this.” I said, “And I, right now, I feel very vulnerable as one of five black people in this town. With an election that’s very volatile, coming up, I feel unsafe. He goes, “Well, I’m not those people. I don’t associate with those people.” I said, “Well, how do the difference? How do you tell the difference between them?” He thought about that. He’s like, “Well, I guess I can’t until I talked to them.” I’m like, “Yeah, but for me, talking to them may be too late.” I just don’t know. It turned, we ended up talking for about 35, 40 minutes. It was an amazing conversation. 

I didn’t change his mind. He didn’t change his mind, but there was a deeper level of understanding that happened. I’m able to stay in relationship with him now, fast forward. I don’t know if I had this impact or not, but I saw him a few months later in the store and he wasn’t wearing the hat. Then if he thought about it, it’s like, I’m not trying to violate, those are his beliefs and I honor those. I know where he’s coming from, but that bit has become a symbol, at least to me, of division and hate and at least I wanted him to understand that. It had an impact on me and then supposedly somebody you care about. 

Benji Block: Yeah. 

Nancy Dome: Then also, for me to understand him, where he’s coming from, if he had it on again, at least I know for him what it means to him. So I don’t have to be afraid of him, right? So there, it was a way to heal it, but for me, that’s what the protocol has done because I think that without the protocol, I would have seen that hat, I would have probably said, “Hello.” In that moment, I would have tried to get away from him as fast as possible. I could probably guarantee you that I probably would have tried to avoid him or not speak to him again, just because nothing nice was going to come out of my mouth. Now I don’t have to avoid him. Now I can see him each time and genuinely be happy to see him knowing that we don’t agree and that’s okay. My goal is not that we agree. My goal is that we understand each other.

Benji Block: Exactly, yeah. I mean, forgive me if you have this, because again, I’m new to RIR. But when you’re explaining it, it feels you have an internal RIR happening and an external one. You have this —

Nancy Dome: Absolutely.

Benji Block: You recognize your preconceived notions when you see the hat, right? You have to interrupt your internal dialogue around it, even to be willing to try to repair, right? Because it’s just a triggering thing you see. You can easily have a bunch of different responses, if you aren’t able to recognize that internally, it’s going to be really hard to do RIR externally with him, right? Then it starts and externally you have the communication. You recognize the hat, you interpret, you tell him what you’re seeing, and then you have to repair the relationship there as well. 

I love how easy in a sense RIR is, because I need no more than three steps, if I’m going to remember it. It’s also just it’s so practical because it’s conversational, but then also this whole conversation, when we talk about systems, when we’re talking about signs we see in schools. You can use RIR in a litany of ways. Thank you for sharing that story too, it really brings it home and what you’re trying to communicate and get across and the book breaks it down even further, obviously.

Nancy Dome: Yeah, yeah. That’s actually really astute because there are three ways to use the protocol. The first one is interrupt personally. That’s us doing our own work. Interrupting ourselves, our possible bias, beliefs, and behaviors and then there’s the interpersonal, which is our dialogue with another person. Then ultimately, there’s organizational that we can begin to use the exact same techniques with different questions to interrupt systemic organizational issues that we see.

Benji Block: I love it. Anything else you want to mention about the book, as we start to wrap up here? What people can expect when they pick it up? Some of the other things you discuss?

Nancy Dome: Yeah. I think that what they can expect is, it’s really meant to be a conversation. Like the one we’re having now. It’s written — I always say that everything I want, I write. I want to write so that my mother can read it and my mother is by no means illiterate, but she doesn’t have a college degree, and after writing a dissertation where she needed a dictionary next to her to decipher what I was saying in my dissertation. I’m all about comprehension, so I think it’s really approachable. There’s real-life stories that people can relate to. I think the biggest thing is that it lets you know that this is a journey and that we’re not seeking perfection. We’re just really seeking about, how do we put compassion front and center, even with people that we don’t think that we have anything in common with.

Benji Block: Fantastic. Dr. Nancy Dome. Thank you for being on Author Hour, for those that want to connect with you further, where do people stay connected to your work? Where could they reach out?

Nancy Dome: They can reach out at drnancydome.com. That’s where they can find me. If they’re interested in the work that my organization does, it’s epocheducation.com. Both of those, you can find me there.

Benji Block: Great. The book is called Let’s Talk About Race (and Other Hard Things). You can find it on Amazon. Going to be a great resource for so many. Thanks, Nancy for being on the show.

Nancy Dome: Thank you so much. I have enjoyed it thoroughly. Thank you for the thoughtful questions and engagement.