Leaning into Uncomfortable Conversations

What is an uncomfortable conversation and why should we have them?   Join Cassie Gillespie & Kate Cunningham as they dig into uncomfortable conversations, what happens in your body when we try to have them, and some tips to have them more effectively.

Host Info:

Cassie Gillespie, LICSW is the Workforce Training Team Lead at the Vermont Child Welfare Training Partnership and works as a trainer, coach, consultant, and podcaster.  She is also a part time faculty member in the UVM department of Social Work. Prior to joining VT-CWTP, Cassie worked in the field as a child welfare worker and has field experience working in housing, crisis response, & residential roles.

Kate Cunningham, MS is a training & coaching specialist with the Vermont Child Welfare Training Partnership .  Kate is a licensed School Counselor who started her career in child welfare in 2005 as a Family Engagement Specialist with Easter Seals.  In this role, she focused on working with kin and adoptive families to support the youth in their care, as well as, facilitating Family Safety Planning Meetings and coordinating Family Group Conferences.  She also supervised Family Time Coaches before becoming an assessment and investigation worker in the Burlington DCF office.  This DCF role was not long lived though because when the opportunity arose to support the DCF workforce and promote growing their practices, Kate took it and joined the Child Welfare Training Partnership in 2012. Secretly, she takes every opportunity possible now to talk with youth and families, so spending time with Jaylynn and Ashley, the two youth in this podcast who had been through the DCF system at different times in their lives, was an incredible gift.

Show Notes:

  1. Harvard Negotiation Project
    1. Difficult Conversations by Sheila Heen, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton
    2. Sheila Heen on the Time Ferris Show: #532: Sheila Heen of The Harvard Negotiation Project — How to Navigate Hard Conversations, the Subtle Art of Apologizing, and a Powerful 60-Day Challenge
  2. Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man by Emmanual Acho
  3. SCARF Model– David Rock
  4. Burnout by Emily & Amelia Nagoski


Cassie Gillespie (00:02):

Hello, I’m Cassie Gillespie. And you’re listening to Welcome to the Field. A podcast produced by the University of Vermont’s Child Welfare Training Partnership, and the State of Vermont. Welcome to the Field is designed for child welfare workers, caregivers, and community partners. However, this season, we will be talking all about uncomfortable conversations and each episode will touch on a different type of uncomfortable conversation. So even if you’re not working or caregiving in the child welfare field, this season might be for you. Here we go.

Cassie Gillespie (00:34):

Hello listeners. Thanks for joining us for our first episode of season three. Today, we’re going be talking about uncomfortable conversations, what they are and why we should have them. But before we jump into it, I wanna tell you a little bit about how this season is gonna work. So every episode we do will be themed around this idea of uncomfortable conversations.

Cassie Gillespie (00:55):

We’re gonna lean into topics that we’ve been taught are not polite or are inappropriate. And we’re gonna talk about sex, racism, adoption, workplace tension, conflict, and a whole lot more. And as our team was kind of plotting out this whole season and linking them together, we realized that it might be really helpful to have an opener episode kind of a primer on what constitutes an uncomfortable conversation. So here we are today. I have the amazing Kate Cunningham here in the studio with me. And we’re gonna walk you through what an uncomfortable conversation is, what happens in your body when you try to have one and why it’s worth pushing through to have one anyway, and be sure to listen through till the end, because we’ll give you lots of tips and tricks about how to have them more effectively and support you in leaning into discomfort. So welcome Kate.

Kate Cunningham (01:48):

Thank you. It’s really great to be here. And this is my favorite topic, as you know, not. It’s actually one of my favorite topics. It’s not my favorite thing to do.

Cassie Gillespie (01:59):

It’s totally true. It’s funny that we’re the people having this conversation, cuz we have such different styles around this.

Kate Cunningham (02:05):

We do. I know! I am the person who doesn’t wanna step on people’s toes and would kind of rather just ignore it and think it’ll go away. And it doesn’t.

Cassie Gillespie (02:18):

and I’m the person who cannot settle until I get the hard conversation out of the way. And so then I might inadvertently maybe push someone to have a conversation a little before they’re ready and maybe because we’ve worked together long enough, we’ve actually had that experience.

Kate Cunningham (02:35):

I know we’ve worked together for about 15 years, both in the field in child welfare and for 10 years, just about at CWTP at UVM.

Cassie Gillespie (02:45):

Yeah. We did the math and realized between us. We have something like 30 years combined experience and I think almost 15 years combined experience supporting the child welfare system. And so for anyone who’s not familiar with that, what that means is that Kate and I support the workers in the districts and often that does involve uncomfortable conversations. But Kate, you also have another role, another supportive role.

Kate Cunningham (03:10):

Yeah, I do. I Moonlight if that’s still a term on I think so at the emergency services program, which is the hotline for DCF and on nights and weekends, we get plenty of calls from a lot of caregivers, alternative caregivers, foster and kin caregivers who are, you know, dealing with struggling youth. And there’s times we have to talk to the youth and we support them there through, through uncomfortable conversations that they need to have.

Cassie Gillespie (03:39):

Yeah. I mean, there really isn’t a single component of working with families or youth in crisis that gets to avoid uncomfortable conversations. But for our purposes, we really wanted to structure this conversation around the types of conversations that might happen for child welfare workers or for caregivers. But what I think is really important to note is that uncomfortable conversations come up in all aspects of your life. You know, personally, professionally they’re all over the place. So hopefully these same strategies will be applicable for you in a variety of different settings. So to that end, we realized that the first place to start is probably to give a word about the difference between comfort and safety. You can’t see me, but I’m nodding at Kate and she’s nodding back.

Kate Cunningham (04:24):

Giving thumbs up

Cassie Gillespie (04:25):

so one of the things that happens in uncomfortable conversations is that folks sometimes when we’re supporting them to kind of lean into discomfort into a growth edge, people will name up that they don’t feel safe that doesn’t feel safe to give that feedback, or they don’t feel safe to receive that feedback or they can’t talk about that with that person. Safety comes into the conversation a lot and we just wanted to pause right off the bat and kind of name up this idea that everyone has a right to safety, but sometimes especially when we’re activated most of us conflate comfort with safety. And so as you’re listening to this conversation today, please be mindful that if you find yourself thinking of the word safe or using that construct to really check in, is it actual physical or emotional safety you’re thinking or referencing? Or is it just discomfort because those are, those are different things. And we wanna encourage leaning into discomfort while ensuring that everyone has safety.

Kate Cunningham (05:23):

It’s such a great distinction. And so what do you consider to be an uncomfortable conversation?

Cassie Gillespie (05:30):

Well, it could be an actual conflict where something that’s occurred and someone needs to give feedback. And Kate, like we pointed out earlier, right? When that happens, I’m the person who’s trying to resolve it immediately right after. And you’re the person who I’m chasing around, cuz you’re trying to have some time. Does that feel fair?

Kate Cunningham (05:48):

That sounds exactly right.

Cassie Gillespie (05:51):

But we wanna also name up an uncomfortable conversation. Doesn’t actually have to be like a disagreement. It can also just be when you’re hearing information or taking in any type of information really, and you start to feel activated, you start to feel uncomfortable. And so what we mean by activation is actually, and this is the definition ready? Here’s my prep from the Encyclopedia Britannica, it’s the stimulation of the cerebral cortex into a state of general wakefulness or attention. So what we mean is that idea that as you’re sitting, either listening, talking engaged in conversation, you feel it in your body, it’s a body based reaction. Does that track for you?

Kate Cunningham (06:32):

Yeah, that actually is exactly, I think just the term uncomfortable right, even implies the comfort level in your body, right? It’s uncomfortable in your body. You’re having emotions, you’re having feelings and that activation is what actually makes the conversation harder to engage in.

Cassie Gillespie (06:50):

Yeah. So for our purposes, both in this episode today, and as we move through the season, think about a comfortable conversation as uncomfortable when you start to notice it in your body. And the reason we wanna call that out. So explicitly is that’s the place where people sometimes start to lean into that. Get confused about whether it’s a safety issue, right. Then, then there’s a bunch of responses that happen when people get uncomfortable. And so, you know, if nothing else you take away from today, let’s just start with it’s okay to pause and notice that you’re feeling it in your body and when that happens, you know, what’s next.

Kate Cunningham (07:23):

Yeah. It makes me think too of that quote by Emanuel Acho, right? From uncomfortable conversations with a black man is a book that he wrote kind of that started with a podcast and then went into a book and it’s, it’s wonderful. But he says in the very beginning that everything great is birthed through discomfort and he’s so, right, right? If we don’t move into that discomfort, things don’t grow.

Cassie Gillespie (07:47):

It’s so true. And it tracks with a lot of what Brene Brown talks about. Even the neurobiological research and the psych safety stuff, that’s connected to safety culture. We have to really be willing to be authentic and at times vulnerable to have these growth opportunities. So that’s a little bit about which conversations we are considering as uncomfortable, but I wonder if it’s helpful to give some concrete examples of what those might look like for our listeners. So, you know, I was thinking back when I was in the field, sometimes a conversation would be really uncomfortable if I knew that I was gonna have to like go out and give family a family, some news that their case plan goal had changed. Right. Maybe we’re no longer looking at reunification, but we’re now looking at, I don’t know, adoption or some other type of resolution. Yeah.

Kate Cunningham (08:31):

I had one very concrete experience. When I was in the field was I went to knock on, on a client’s door and I overheard a conversation in the apartment. Before I actually knocked, that was a danger. I heard a dangerous conversation and I had to, I didn’t talk about it when I, oh, when I went in and I left and called my supervisor and we decided, you know, this was something that needed to happen again. There was that kind of, I retracted right in that moment of, I don’t know what to do. And so I did have to go back in and have that uncomfortable conversation. And not that we overhear things often, but just the fact that we have to have conversations about situations, both that clients are in that youth are in something that happens with a caregiver. You know, even with the youth that we have to address.

Cassie Gillespie (09:30):

Yeah. I mean, there’s so many and it’s so multifaceted. So in your work I’m imagining, well we do work together, but in the work that you do at emergency services, I’m imagining at times caregivers are calling, raising up some uncomfortable conversations.

Kate Cunningham (09:45):

Yeah. I think some of the harder ones are, and I think of kind of, how do we support caregivers to have uncomfortable conversations is also part of it, right? Like, because a lot of the calls we get are situations where a caregiver may find out that the youth wasn’t where they were supposed to be after school and they need to have that conversation with the youth or they’ve started that conversation with the youth and everyone was so activated that the conversation has gone really poorly. Yeah. And said, we’re backing it up a little bit.

Cassie Gillespie (10:14):

Well, and you know, also I think that some of the hardest conversations are with youth, you know, even for the workforce too, like if you have to share that for any number of reasons, a placement has to change or someone has to move, there’s so many, I mean, we could literally list all the daily tasks of FSWs or the things that caregivers move through in a daily basis and, and pull out what’s uncomfortable. But you know, one of the things that I know we’ve heard a lot in our work supporting district folks is the idea that when you have those conversations all day, as part of your job tasks, it can get so hard to then lean into those conversations with your colleagues. You know? So when you’re back in the office and one of your peers does something that is activating to you, it’s really hard, right. To have the stamina to like raise it there too, you know, like, do I really need to address this issue with the fleet car or someone eating my snacks?

Kate Cunningham (11:08):

Yeah. And I think what happens again, I think we’re going to talk about some skills and strategies to actually, you know, engage in the uncomfortable conversation in a way that’s effective. Because I think what happens is a lot of us will, when we’re at our wits end and we’re activated from either being in the field or it’s the last straw, we respond in a way that is ineffective at getting our needs met and being compassionate towards our colleagues and or anyone else that we might be working with. Yeah.

Cassie Gillespie (11:37):

Yeah and that’s just so tricky because in this, in this field, you know, the support that you get from other folks being in a healthy and reciprocal relationship is so essential to your long term survival. So yeah. It can feel really silly to have to like problem solve these small issues, but it’s impactful. It’s impactful if we, if we just let them lie and don’t show up authentically into those things. Yeah. Okay, well, so listeners, I feel like we’ve caught you up now, right? You’re you’re following what we’re talking about. What we’ve defined here. Kate, I’m gonna pass this to you. Would you tell us a little bit about what’s happening in the body? So like what is that activation?

Kate Cunningham (12:12):

Sure. So, and again, I think it’s the activation and the emotional response that happens in the body that makes the conversation uncomfortable and difficult. And so what happens is with when something triggers us, right? A situation, something doesn’t sit, right. Our bodies respond biologically. And so, and that’s emotionally. Emotions are biological responses in the body. They’re physiological.

Cassie Gillespie (12:42):

We feel like we forget that sometimes.

Kate Cunningham (12:43):

I know, because what we tend to do is we talk about emotions as feelings and feelings are actually psychological. They’re the actual psychological response to the physical, emotional response. And we don’t have control over that. Our emotions, they just happen. But what we need to do is recognize that we’re having them. And I think sometimes we get trained or we’re practiced or it’s society or cultural that we downplay them that we ignore them or that we consider them wrong or bad. And so we really try to ignore them and pretend that they’re not there and they don’t go away.

Cassie Gillespie (13:27):

Yeah. Well, and the less power you have in the situation too, right. You’re supposed to be more, more controlled. Like the more power you have, you get a little more leeway with that kind of thing.

Kate Cunningham (13:36):

Yeah. You do. And because you aren’t in that position of vulnerability, as much as you are, if you’re not the one in power. And so the thing about emotion and activation is I think the first part of it is just noticing that you’re actually having it really being aware. And again, I think some of us are so trained to kind of ignore it that boy, you know, somebody said something and all of a sudden I’m feeling like flush and my mouth is dry and what’s going on. Right? Like I get to notice that and take that moment to actually recognize what’s happening in my body because that is going to influence my feelings and then influence my, my thoughts and my actions.

Cassie Gillespie (14:22):

Yeah. It’s that bottom up psychology, right? Where we have to attend to kind of our, our reptilian brain, our primate brain first.

Kate Cunningham (14:29):

Yeah, absolutely. Cause if we don’t, we get trapped

Cassie Gillespie (14:32):

By it. You know, what I know for me is one of the signs that I’m getting a little activated and I didn’t learn this until later in life. When I find myself trying to catch someone’s eye, this was even something I think someone said in grad school, like that thing you do, where you look at your siblings, when your parents are being freaky and you’re like, Hey, you see this listeners, you can’t see me, but I’m doing it. I’m making the eyes.

Kate Cunningham (14:52):

Okay. You’re giving me the eyes.

Cassie Gillespie (14:53):

Yeah. But like, you know, as a professional that might happen in staff meeting or, you know, I can think of a bazillion other scenarios, but I have now noticed that that’s a place where usually I’m activated. If I’m looking to check in with someone else and a, can you believe this kind of way, something’s come up for me. So it’s a red flag. Like, okay, there’s some something to do here.

Kate Cunningham (15:15):

Yeah. And just, even in that scenario, because I think people will relate to this, that you may be getting activated and look to somebody else in a meeting say to kind of like connect and, and be like, whoa, we gotta connect here. Cuz relationships are really what, what life is all about. Right? And someone else may see you do that and get activated themselves.

Cassie Gillespie (15:37):


Kate Cunningham (15:37):

Because they think you’re making eyes about something else. Yeah. They tell a different story to themselves.

Cassie Gillespie (15:41):

For sure.

Kate Cunningham (15:42):

About what’s going on.

Cassie Gillespie (15:43):

What are Cassie and Kate looking at over there?

Kate Cunningham (15:45):


Cassie Gillespie (15:46):

You should see us. the eyes that we’re doing. Yeah. It’s really complicated.

Kate Cunningham (15:52):

And without having the conversation about the activation or what, what the trigger is, it’s, you know that, why is my, why are my emotions doing this? If we don’t have the conversation, it just builds. It’s a relationship breaker, you know, it doesn’t go away. And so I do know that that’s why we need to pay attention to what’s going on and move forward into that. And kind of identify, wow, what am I feeling? Why am I feeling this way? And I need to talk about this.

Cassie Gillespie (16:25):

Yeah. I think we were gonna chat about this a little later in the skills, but I wanna bring it in here. The Harvard Negotiation Project and the staff over there, they have a book it’s called difficult conversations. I think there’s a new issue coming out soon. And we use that at the partnership is the basis for our curriculum on courageous conversations. But one of the things that Sheila Heen and the other authors talk about in this book is that there’s, you know, three parts of a difficult conversation. And one huge part of it is the feelings conversation, you know? And so like what is actually happening for you? And have you been able to share that with the other person in this conversation? Because all too often, as you were just saying, we don’t, you know,

Kate Cunningham (17:04):

Yeah. We let it fester.

Cassie Gillespie (17:06):

Mm-hmm .

Kate Cunningham (17:06):

And then the relationship suffers for it. When we could be actually growing the relationship and getting, making it stronger, which we know in child welfare, but no matter what your role is and whether you’re in the field, whether you’re a worker, whether you’re a caregiver, whether youth, we need these relationships and we need to, to build trust,

Cassie Gillespie (17:25):

I wonder what it would be like if we just normalized activation and emotions in that way, you know? Yeah. I think that would be a really cool, really cool idea. But before I jumped too far down that rabbit hole, so what gets in the way I know we’re talking about that these feelings are coming up, right. And, and we’re tempted to avoid them. Is, is that in your opinion, all that gets in the way of having these conversations?

Kate Cunningham (17:50):

No, there’s so many things that go on and one of the beauties of our brains is that it does a lot of work for us. without us actually knowing it. And so I think we, we can come up with excuses, not to have the conversations based on the feelings that we’re having without even recognizing that we’re doing that. Sometimes we recognize it and sometimes it’s just so easy for us to dismiss. Sometimes we won’t, we won’t, we can get activated and recognize that something needs to be discussed and talked about, but not do it because we’re afraid of, of hurting someone’s feelings. We’re afraid that if we actually, if we say something it’s gonna make it worse, even though we’ll say right now, it actually is a, it’s a relationship builder. Right. When you do bring it up, but I think there’s that fear. I don’t wanna hurt their feelings. I don’t wanna make them mad or there’s also that, that thought that, you know what, I can say something, but nothing’s gonna change. So is it worth it?

Cassie Gillespie (18:43):

What’s really gonna happen here.

Kate Cunningham (18:44):

Yeah. it’s not my job to say something right. Either because I don’t feel like I have the power to, or I’m just like, that’s the RCS job. They can go have that conversation. I don’t wanna do that. RC is a resource coordinator for anyone that’s listening.

Cassie Gillespie (18:59):

Oh good catch!

Kate Cunningham (19:01):

Using my acronyms. And there’s the fear of actually, or I don’t know if it’s fear, but just not having the skills like I’m activated and I’m not sure what to do with it. And I don’t think I can go have this conversation without yelling and screaming and saying something I’ll regret later.

Cassie Gillespie (19:16):

Well, and I, you know, I’m kind of pausing here to debate how to lead into this, but I think one of the things is not just knowing your feelings, but knowing your style, you know, when Kate and I started that way to contextualize this, I think your family of origin and a lot of other factors can, can impact how comfortable you are with, with yelling at people. And whether you see that as a safety issue or as like a cathartic kind of interaction, right. I’m, I’m talking with my hands over here while I’m saying this. And I think that just having a real recognition that we each have our own relationship with the experience of sort of talking through hard things and that it may not feel helpful.

Kate Cunningham (19:57):

Exactly. And I think even just thinking about the difference in styles, like if, if I’m the way I typically approach these is I’m probably too soft. I don’t wanna like hurt feelings. And when I come in from that, what happens is if I’m kind of skirting around the issue for you, your brain’s gonna be like, oh, this isn’t a big deal. Like right. You know, is nothing.

Cassie Gillespie (20:21):

She tell me.

Kate Cunningham (20:22):

Yeah. You’re not gonna recognize it as any sort of like feedback that I, that something was wrong.

Cassie Gillespie (20:27):

I think we’ve had that experience where I then stop and say, is this feedback about this?

Kate Cunningham (20:31):

Yes, we have. You have.

Cassie Gillespie (20:34):

Cause I didn’t catch it.

Kate Cunningham (20:35):

Yeah. And then what also, I’m just thinking of like, what also can happen in that is somebody’s too direct. And the person receiving that on the other end is, you know, takes it as a threat, right? Like again, your brain shut down. Yeah. You either shut down or you get defensive and move forward. So you’re either retreating or, or getting aggressive. And then the person who’s giving that information about, you know, kind of how in the conversation, the feedback or about this situation can get all dysregulated themselves based on the regulation. And so you’re both kind of mirroring each other in dysregulation and the conversation just doesn’t go anywhere.

Cassie Gillespie (21:09):

And this is entirely what parenting’s about. also, I mean, we, didn’t a little bit for the caregivers talking with the youth and their care, but I think it’s you know, these constructs that we’re talking about for a child welfare setting, they just play out in so many different areas of your life with your partner, with your loved ones, with your children, with your colleagues, with people that you’re caregiving for in your home. It’s just so vast.

Kate Cunningham (21:32):

And because we communicate with everybody, right? Yeah. So really it goes all over every relationship you have, this can apply to

Cassie Gillespie (21:40):

Oh boy. Well, so should we get into some, some helpful kind of skills and tips yeah. About how to have them. Yeah.

Kate Cunningham (21:46):


Cassie Gillespie (21:46):

Do that. Okay. So, you know, I know I shared one of the kind of three parts of a difficult conversation and that’s that feelings conversation, but there’s two other parts. The first, which is my favorite is the, what happened conversation, which I like to make sense of as why you are wrong. And I am right.

Kate Cunningham (22:04):

Also the, the truth trigger, right? Like,

Cassie Gillespie (22:07):

Yeah. Yeah. This idea that what I experienced is the version. It is true. And often if I’m needing to bring it up, I might feel wronged. You know, that from that sense of activation, I may have made sense of that, that I have been wronged or that something you’re saying is factually incorrect.

Kate Cunningham (22:23):

Yeah. I think that idea that we’re just holding onto our truth is very strong. And I think of there’s a wonderful book by Kathyn Schultz called Being Wrong. Oh yeah. She also does a, a great Ted talk too called On Being Wrong, I think. But she, she asked the question, what does it feel like to be wrong? You know? And the audience is like, oh, you’re embarrassed. You feel shameful. You feel bad. And, and she points out that when you feel wrong, you don’t actually, you, you notice you have those feelings when it’s pointed out to you that you’re wrong, but we actually feel right. Even when we’re wrong. Right. so this, that, and that can create the rub between we’re both feeling. Right. Right. You’re wrong I’m right.

Cassie Gillespie (23:05):

Right. And that makes me and I’m yelling at out. Right. Absolutely. Yeah. And so then the I’ll give you the last part of the conversation and then we can figure out what the skills and tips are. But the last part is the identity conversation. And this one’s so important because if you play this forward a little bit, it’s like in this, let’s say hypothetical argument. I’m having with Kate. If I am wrong, if she’s right, that I am just being angry about this, what does this actually say about me? What does this say about the type of person I am? What does this do to my own sense of self? And so what the Harvard negotiation project and the difficult conversations work has taught us is that part of what makes a conversation difficult or a conversation uncomfortable is this kind of swirling activation of not only the feelings and not only our sense of what happened and who’s wrong, but also how we use those things to make sense of who we are and our own sense of self in that conversation. I feel like you actually see this all the time in equity work, right? When we start to talk about maybe white privilege or white supremacy culture, and people will say, are you calling me a racist? Right. It goes straight to the identity part when, you know, perhaps the dialogue was actually about different ideas, but that person receiving is made it entirely about, you know, what does this say about me?

Kate Cunningham (24:23):

Yep. Who am I? Yeah. Right.

Cassie Gillespie (24:25):

So do you wanna offer some tips and skills for the feelings conversation? Part?

Kate Cunningham (24:30):

Sure. The steps are really the first one is to understand and recognize that you’re actually feeling that in your body, you’re having an emotional response

Cassie Gillespie (24:39):

and so the first step is admitting it

Kate Cunningham (24:41):

Well, it’s being aware of it, right? And then admitting, then you can get to like saying it, right. Like, Ooh, something’s going on? Because I think in our busy day lives too, it’s like, we run from thing to thing. We’re doing thing to thing and we don’t always pay attention to what’s happening in our bodies. So recognizing it that self-awareness of, Ooh, I am feeling something I am activated, something’s going on here. And then taking that moment to actually pause and say, huh, what’s going on? And what’s the feeling behind this? Because again, emotions are kind of the basic physiological response feelings are how we’re psychologically understanding that, that biological feeling in our bodies. And so recognizing that, recognizing that you’re having a feeling and then trying to identify what that’s about. Right. What is, what is it like? Is it that I feel like I’ve been wronged? Is it that I feel like my autonomy has been stripped away. Have I been belittled or undermined, or do I have this when I feel like, you know, I’m ineffectual, right? Like what is it that’s actually triggering

Cassie Gillespie (25:51):

That that’s driving that yeah.

Kate Cunningham (25:53):

The emotional response that’s happening within my body, understanding that, identifying that actually there’s that the term of like name it to tame it. Oh yeah. And, and so if we actually call it out what it is, I like, Ooh, I’m, I’m recognizing this. This is what it is. So then taking that pause, what do I need to do about it? What’s my self talk. And, and what’s a good way to actually step into this conversation and ask basically, usually it’s like, Hey, do you have a couple minutes to talk about what just happened?

Cassie Gillespie (26:24):

Right. No, that makes sense. Cuz I feel like when I don’t do that is well, there’s probably a lot of ways it could go, but one of the ways it sometimes goes is I get flooded so I recognize that I’m upset. I don’t do anything about it. And all of a sudden I have to respond to a question, but I can’t cuz I have cry voice and everyone now knows. Right. Like it all came out anyway. It, it wasn’t a secret only now I’m overwhelmed or you know, the other way you can get really angry about stuff. I do. I’m not saying that’s true for everybody, but it’s easy to go to those places of kind of being really, really tender or really angry as a, as a protective place. When I haven’t taken the time to kind of pause and really check in with what is that what’s underneath that.

Kate Cunningham (27:06):

Yeah, absolutely.

Cassie Gillespie (27:07):

One of the things that the Harvard Negotiation Project, Difficult Conversations book says we should do about that is to share our feelings when possible. And I think that mirrors exactly what you were saying is, is that idea of naming it to tame it,

Kate Cunningham (27:22):

I will say, I think and myself included, I, my feeling vocabulary is quite limited. And so whenever I pull out like a feelings chart, which has, you know, hundreds of actual feelings that spread out from the emotions, cuz there’s only really well, there’s some, some variation in, in beliefs and research, but there’s really about six emotions that we have and then the feelings come from that. And so I even would suggest like grab a feelings chart. Right. We can put it in the, in the notes at the end. There’s a, there’s so many great ones and be like, build your vocabulary about your feelings. Because I think sometimes we use the wrong feeling for the emotion that we’re having that’s coming up.

Cassie Gillespie (28:04):

Well, and I think we’ve all been taught that to be professional means to not be emotive. Right. And that if we, in that model, when you’re recognizing feelings, it’s just suppress them. Right? And that’s not what we’re talking about at all. We wanna notice activation and notice the feeling in your body with like a gentleness, a curiosity, and maybe a naming, if that is available to you in the, in the situation you’re in.

Kate Cunningham (28:27):

Absolutely. And if you can’t name it, that’s okay. Just name it, whatever it feels like. And, but at least identifying that you’re having that. And I just super quickly on that note, which just thinking about emotions and the activation there’s that, that book it’s Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski. And they talk in there about the fact that emotions have a beginning, middle and end. And if we don’t actually work through the emotion, it doesn’t end, it sits in our body and that’s where we become unhealthy. So really understanding like, okay, recognizing that, yep. I got this emotion and what am I gonna do about it? Like, can I move, can I dance? Can I cry? Can I yeah. Go outside and yell. Can I, you know, what is it that I need to do to kind of work through this emotion so that it actually goes through me. It doesn’t mean that the feeling isn’t still there afterwards.

Cassie Gillespie (29:16):

Right. But you,

Kate Cunningham (29:17):

You really need to work that emotion through the body

Cassie Gillespie (29:19):

Whenever I need to do that. I just channel my, my four year old . She’s one of those emotive little, little people that doesn’t, there’s no way at the other end of an emotion for her, but through.

Kate Cunningham (29:30):


Cassie Gillespie (29:30):

And so she models that for me every day.

Kate Cunningham (29:33):

Yeah and isn’t that beautiful.

Cassie Gillespie (29:35):

It is. Mostly.

Kate Cunningham (29:37):


Cassie Gillespie (29:38):

Okay. So when we’re talking about the, what happened conversation, right? The I’m right, you’re wrong. Brene Brown has a really fascinating little video on blame. If you want more about this, that’s a great, I think it’s like a five minute, little clip to check out. We’ll put it in the show notes, but what she talks about there and what the difficult conversations folks talk about is this idea of shifting away from being right to acknowledging what you contributed to the situation. And it could be positive or negative. Likely, probably there was both but what the research shows is that if Kate and I are having an argument and I genuinely and gently discussing my contribution, I guess it might have felt a little bit aggressive when I came after you and made you kind of problem solve that with me in that moment that the other person is more likely to feel willing or vulnerable enough to own their contribution as well. And then you get to start having a dialogue about what was true for both of you versus who’s right. Yeah.

Kate Cunningham (30:35):

And again, I I’m gonna bring that back to self-awareness right? Yeah. The more we can, I like take those moments in the day to stop and be like, okay, what am I doing? How am I feeling? What am I thinking? Right. And just start to really be aware of ourselves because that’s when you’re gonna pull back and say like, you know, maybe, maybe I was a little tough, right. Or maybe, maybe I was a little aggressive there or maybe I pushed my point really hard. Yeah. And it wasn’t worth that.

Cassie Gillespie (31:01):

Right. And you know, building right there is this next part, this key phrase. And if you’ve done work with Kate and I, or anyone else on the team in the field, you’ve heard us talk about it, separating intent from impact. So, you know, to build off of what you were saying, maybe it wasn’t worth it. I might be tempted to say, well, it wasn’t my intention. It wasn’t my intention to do that. And intention does matter. It is relevant, but it’s not the only thing that matters. And so I think when we start to talk about impact versus intent and bring both into the conversation, that’s a really nice way to start to bring in contributions and how each person affected the other person, which without getting to like a finger pointing kind of exercise.

Kate Cunningham (31:41):

That makes me think of Ken Hardy, who did our three part series on racism with Tabitha Moore last season talks about intent and impact or consequences. And one of the things I’d love that I think is perfect for these conversations is, is that the person can take an explanation, right? Like you can explain your intent, but you don’t wanna try to justify it.

Cassie Gillespie (32:06):

Oh yeah that’s a nice.

Kate Cunningham (32:07):

Because you still digging your heels in. If I’m justifying why I was doing what I was doing, I’m not actually open up to seeing your perspective. I’m still trying to keep it from my perspective.

Cassie Gillespie (32:19):

Right. Yeah. It’s a defensive maneuver there.

Kate Cunningham (32:21):

Mm-hmm .

Cassie Gillespie (32:21):

Yeah. And you know, all of those strategies exploring the other, person’s kind of stories and thinking about contributions and intent versus impact. This is really just to get at the other person’s perspective. It’s an acknowledgement that, you know, most people are walking through the world trying to do the right thing and that they have good reasons for whatever it is that they did. And when you show up kind of genuinely curious about it, you can learn a lot and come to a common place a lot easier than if we are like entrenched on our, on our sides.

Kate Cunningham (32:49):

And I think giving people, like you said, giving people, grace, yeah. Identifying that maybe I misread that maybe I came from my own point of view, which again comes from my culture, my background, my education, my family experience. Right. And so coming in from my point of view, I may have completely misread what you were meaning or what you were trying to do.

Cassie Gillespie (33:14):

Well, and that links us beautifully to that last part. Right. Which is the identity conversation. And in the very beginning in the intro, we told you this season, we’re gonna talk about sex and racism and adoption and workplace tension and all of those things. And you know, I think what can happen is it can be harder to be kind of generous to be giving grace to someone else when you’re already all activated, because whatever the topic is that came up is something that you are not comfortable talking about. Right? You have been taught that this is not polite. This is not professional. It’s not my job to talk to kids about sex. It’s not my job to educate my colleagues about racism. It’s, you know, whatever it is that’s coming up for you. It can be a lot harder, you know, you can’t see me listeners, but I’m bringing my shoulders up by my ears. Right? Like I’m all tensed up kind of ready to go. In that space, once you get into that identity role, it’s just so much harder, I think, to take the pause and, and be curious and, and relax into the conversation.

Kate Cunningham (34:09):

It makes me think too, of the Brene Brown Shame, right? Like if we’re bringing shame into it, it’s gonna be so much harder for us to take part in that conversation in a way that, that we will grow and we can lean into that discomfort.

Cassie Gillespie (34:24):

Yeah. And so I think when we’re talking about that identity, part of the conversation, maybe just having a little bit of knowledge, you know, around what part of your identity is getting pulled in here, is that the part of you that is so dedicated to caring for children that any insinuation, you know, from the woman answering the emergency services call that you should have done something different is hard, right. Or any insinuation from the youth you’re caring for that you don’t care, you know? Oh, so triggering.

Kate Cunningham (34:50):

Those are perfect examples. Thank you for saying those. Cause I do think that’s, that is, it’s just understanding all of that. Yeah. And we need to, to recognize what we’re bringing in for all of those topics also that you said and know where we’re coming from.

Cassie Gillespie (35:05):

And one of the things that I love that Sheila Heen says in a podcast that’ll link to in the show notes is, is this question for, for really kind of genuine perspective taking is what worries you about this? And so now, like all of these prompts you could do, ’em in a jerk way. That wouldn’t be nice. Right. So no, it good to be, well, what worries you but a really genuine, I’m not sure. I understand. Tell me what worries you about this can really bridge that gap between what’s going on. For me, my feelings, my understanding, my identity, and open the door to learn about what you’re experiencing.

Kate Cunningham (35:40):

I think that’s that’s a great point.

Cassie Gillespie (35:42):

All right. So I think that’s mostly what we wanted to cover with you all today. If it’s right, I’m gonna do a really quick recap just to stitch this all together. So what we wanted folks to know and hear about today is just some basic strategies for dealing with uncomfortable conversations. And at the very top, we talked a little bit about making sure right at the outset to do a little bit of a check in between comfort and safety, right. Is it uncomfortable or am I actually unsafe? And if I’m unsafe, you have a right to safety, but if it’s just uncomfortable, well, let’s challenge each other to kind of lean in. And then from there, you know, we walked you through these different components of the conversation, the, what happened, the feelings and the identity part of the conversation. And I, I would say Kate, I don’t know if this would be yours, but my top takeaway from this whole conversation would be to know that it is normal and okay. To feel activated and to use that as information as opposed to something that needs to be suppressed or controlled.

Kate Cunningham (36:41):

Yeah. I agree. I think it is. We need to, I think that awareness, that ability to accept it, own it, feel it identify it is all gonna help kind of move through it and get us going. And I think one last thing just to, again, to quote Sheila Heen from a, a Ted talk, I think it was, I loved, she did say like, if you’re getting, there’s like a, a researched ratio of kind of positive feedback to critical feedback, and it’s five to one, it’s kinda the ideal ratio that you wanna be at for any sort of positive to kind of critical or corrective feedback. And, you know, she said, why wouldn’t you think 10 to one would be better? Like the more positive you have the better. And basically what she said is if you’re not, if you’re having like 10 to one, you’re actually not having good uncomfortable conversations.

Cassie Gillespie (37:34):

Oh yeah. Well that makes sense. Yeah. So let’s challenge each other.

Kate Cunningham (37:38):

Yeah we need those. We need those uncomfortable conversations to be real. To be authentic cuz they happen.

Cassie Gillespie (37:46):

Well and that’s the bridge to relationship. Right. That’s what’s gonna keep us all safe. That’s what’s gonna keep us sustaining in the work and feeling like what we’ve done is meaningful. All right. Well thank you so much for joining us today and we’ll see you next time.

Kate Cunningham (37:59):

Yeah. Thank you.

Cassie Gillespie (38:02):

Welcome to the Field is produced by the University of Vermont’s Child Welfare Training Partnership and the State of Vermont. Our theme music is composed and performed by local band Brick Drop and our sound production and engineering is brought to you by Egan Media Productions. We’d also like to give a special thank you to our in-house technical production assistant Emma Baird. For Welcome to the Field, I’m Cassie Gillespie and we’ll see you next time.

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