Human Relations: Courageous Conversations

At Fire-Rescue International 2015, Cobb County (Georgia) Fire and Emergency Services shared the successful way the department approaches inclusion. The presentation emphasized finding unity where people often see differences and focusing on courageous conversations that can bridge the gap between department members, enabling them to find common ground or reconciliation.

It’s important to have these courageous conversations, but it’s equally important to understand where your words and opinions originate and what effect a conversation can have. The lessons shared by Cobb County can translate into meaningful dialog and eventually a cohesive workplace.

Where do your words and opinions come from?

Every conversation begins years before those current words are spoken or even formed in our minds. Everyone retains the thousands of memories, experiences, opinions and lessons life has taught us, and these contain our opinions and biases. And we all bring those into our current conversations.

Cambridge Dictionary defines bias as an unfair personal opinion that influences judgment. Our conversations contain those judgments, which are often expressed outwardly in our words, and in spite of further examining the possible merits of alternative opinions.

In her research as a psychologist, Lisa Williams says, “Beliefs about characteristics of a group of people are all around us. They work by allowing for quick decision-making by providing a bit of preinformation to guide our judgment. Because it is a generalization, it will almost always be wrong in its application to any one individual.”

The challenge we face in our departments is cutting through the preinformation and the generalizations people make. We must recognize that there’s a justification for a personal point of view. Instead of creating a barrier because of this difference of opinion or experience, we should try to understand one another and examine our own beliefs.

The Impact of Unabridged Conversations

Uncomfortable conversations can play out in every fire station where opinions are discussed openly and freely without regard to race, gender, sexual orientation, size and just about anything else about our coworkers.

Recently, at a very diverse firehouse with members of different ranks, ethnicities and genders, the conversation around the kitchen table was directed at a firefighter who had recently been divorced. Much of the conversation expressed how horrible the ex-wife was; phrases like ball and chain, stay single, miserable and other anger-induced terms were used.

Some members at the table were clearly uncomfortable while others lapped up the advice from the seasoned firefighters at the table. Those engaged in the conversation probably never considered how their words were affecting others in the room.

Conversations in today’s firehouses have audiences—directly or indirectly—of different people with different beliefs from different walks of life. Just as you’re a product of how you were raised, your environment, your culture and your beliefs (your “otherness”), so is everyone else in the room.

Improving Conversations

It may not have crossed your mind that you need to take care when having a conversation at the firehouse. You may need to recognize that you may be making a generalization or acknowledge that some of the preinformation expressed in your word choice is an inherent part of you that could affect your judgement of an idea or situation.

As we examine our personal positions on many topics, can we look at how our firefighting culture has been shaped through the generations of conversations between the firefighters before us and their use of images, words and actions on display throughout firefighter history?

Does this culture still exist? Do we still value the images, the words and the actions of those eras? If we truly intend to be inclusive, we must be aware of and overcome these cultural biases often heard in conversations at the firehouse.

Each one of us is unique, yet we’ve all earned the title of firefighter. In our stations, there will be some who are similar to us and others who stand out because of differences in ability, interest, size, shape, knowledge or attainment.

We need to be attuned to the fact that our words could also reinforce the judgments and perceptions of those around us, both positively and negatively. When having a conversation, look over the entire room and to choose your words appropriately. The earlier you understand and embrace this dynamic, the better your conversations around the fire station will become.

It takes time and energy to cultivate and grow an inclusive firehouse, and the first step is to recognize and remove longstanding viewpoints that are embedded in our own words: do we say fireman or firefighter, manning or staffing? Through these courageous conversations and though our ability to treasure the qualities in every firefighter, progress can be made.

Reiterating the underlying message from Cobb County, we should learn about each other through open and genuine dialog and accept each other as we are and for what we are. These actions will reshape our biases and help us build and maintain inclusive environments in our fire stations.

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