Why are we afraid of conversation?
Chang serves as Co-founder and CEO of GenUnity.
90% of people feel “emotionally or physically unsafe” to share their thoughts. This shocking statistic underscores an increasingly hostile culture characterized by polarization, judgment, and close-mindedness.
This pervasive fear of conversation is undermining every institution - from our democratic governments to our businesses. Conversation is the foundation of how we understand problems, exchange information, and build the trust required for collaboration. In fact, the etymology of “conversation” is the “manner of conducting oneself in the world.” Instead, fear substitutes integrity with obscurity, humility with insecurity, and curiosity with arrogance. And while fear in today’s environment may be well-founded, it is not a feeling we have to resign ourselves to. Conversation is a muscle and, with the right exercises, we can foster productive dialogue where we are honest about our own thinking, learn from others, and spark new ideas that strengthen our workplaces and communities.
I know this is possible because I see it everyday. Just this month, my organization, GenUnity, launched our second Health Equity program in Boston which brought 44 residents together across differences - from those experiencing health issues to employees working in cross-sector institutions like Alnylam, Blue Cross, Boston Medical Center, or Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program. In less than an hour, with thoughtful norm setting and facilitated conversation, the energy in the room was palpable. Members described it as “relaxed”, “open”, “educational”, “moving”, “inclusive”, “vulnerable” and “intimate”. These individuals (and the organizations who invested in them to be there) recognize that opportunities to be in conversation with those closest to the problems is an invaluable source of personal and professional growth that inevitably leads to innovation. In fact, one of our members from Blue Cross is already translating their learnings into workplace impact - introducing changes to reimbursement structures to expand access to culturally competent behavioral healthcare.
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Admittedly, creating these types of brave, safe spaces is hard work, and in today’s environment, the cost of failure can feel overwhelming. But, this example should also spark curiosity and courage.
At this moment, we have a choice: between inaction that will only deepen our fears and erode our future, or courage to have authentic, challenging, joyful conversations that strengthen our civic culture, businesses, and communities.
If you’re feeling called to turn conversation from a source of fear into a source of inspiration today, start by asking yourself 3 questions:
- Do I believe I have something to learn from someone who has a different perspective from me, especially someone who is often unheard?
- Am I open to engaging honestly with them in search of deeper mutual understanding?
- Do I want to learn how to build the skills and create the conditions to have an honest, human-to-human conversation with this person(s)?