How The S.P.A.R.K. Acronym Helps us Lead Courageously
Have you ever avoided conflict? Maybe you’ve felt uneasy or anxious about having an equity conversation? Perhaps you’ve felt nervous about telling someone that their actions or biases impacted you? Maybe you didn’t want to say the wrong thing, so you chose to say nothing at all OR keep things polite?
If you nodded your head to any of these questions, you’re not alone.
I am a big believer that we are products of our environment–until we know or learn otherwise. And, whether I like it or not–growing up in Texas I was conditioned to avoid conflict, avoid topics that create tension, and to basically “put on a happy face” –rather than express my authentic feelings when they weren’t positive.
The people I saw in positions of leadership around me either: a) came across very polished, put together, and positive, OR b) engaged in unproductive communication or had aggressive outbursts that were so negative that everyone walked away feeling unheard and possibly misunderstood. So, I avoided conflict because I had no positive examples of productive, courageous conversations. I became an expert at brushing things under the rug and putting on a happy face. Especially in group settings. I wasn’t consciously avoiding conflict—I just didn’t know any other way.
It wasn’t until I took on a leadership role that everything changed. I realized I didn’t have practice offering constructive criticism and feedback to my staff, and that was problematic. I didn’t want to be confrontational. At the time I didn’t know the difference between being confrontational and being someone who could confront with care.
I only became more comfortable with conflict when I got crystal clear about my mission, which was to interrupt patterns impacting marginalized communities in disproportionate and inequitable ways, and I saw what was at stake if I didn’t speak up. One day I made a choice—to be courageous and take a risk—because I knew if I didn’t students’ lives were at stake. I knew I had to hold up the mirror for my staff in order for them to invest their way into caring about equity as well. So, in my seven years leading and facilitating conversations about racial equity, I’ve learned that, when I share my core values openly, co-construct goals with my team, and I confront with care, powerful shifts ignite.
I learned the difference between interrupting patterns versus interrupting people. Focusing on patterns and impact, and grounding it in a person’s goals/values allows the feedback to feel less personal. I also noticed that, when I prepare with intentionality and show up with integrity, carefully confronting the behaviors and patterns (not the person), I see that my perspective offers valuable input for the person I’m supporting and builds on a foundation we’ve already built together. No matter how strong the relationship, it takes courage to confront with care.
In case it’s helpful to know how I define “confronting with care”, I see it as raising awareness of the gap between someone’s intention and the impact of their choices, which may be at odd with their values.
Now, let’s bring this to life for you.
Think about a time when someone gave you constructive feedback that really helped you grow and learn as a leader. What was it about the WAY they offered feedback with you that impacted you? (feel free to jot down your response on another piece of paper).
I often get asked: “how do I know when I need to confront with care?” Here are a few thoughts:
- Whenever someone’s intentions/values are at odds with the impact they are having
- When their behaviors are impacting others in negative ways
- When you see patterns causing inequities or injustices for subgroups of people.
- When you hear yourself blaming / judging / or saying these types of things about people you respect and care about.
I’ll note that confronting conversations are ideal one-on-one, not whole-group. However, there are instances (ie: if we’ll never see the person again, if a comment is so egregious it must be addressed, etc.) that where we have no other option. Remember: If we don’t say something, we can’t keep blaming them. It is our responsibility to do something when we see or hear someone say something that’s biased, judgmental, stereotyping, or causing inequities. We are doing a disservice to our community when we avoid topics that impact our core values, so we must demonstrate courageous leadership and confront with care.
Back to your context…
- What is a conversation you know you need to have?
- What’s a pattern you want to interrupt?
- Has someone you love and respect said something about another group that upset you?
Some questions/statements shut people down and others open up possibilities and opportunities (*see below*). That’s why setting intentions before entering into complex, courageous conversations is key.
I often set the intention to show up with grace. To me, that means showing empathy, genuine respect, and to be free of distress. I don’t have to agree with all that’s said, but I can acknowledge the other person’s experience and respect their truth as their truth. I remember that I can’t force anyone to listen or change. I do my best to check my ego at the door and manage my own emotional triggers. Then, I choose my words, staying tethered to my intentions AND listening to my intuition. Being authentic and speaking from my heart is key.
*Here are some phrases and questions that might be helpful to have in your back pocket*
When you don’t agree:
- When you said____ it really impacted me.
- Through my eyes, my experiences have led me to believe____
- Are you open to hearing another perspective?
When you’re curious and genuinely open to hearing a different perspective:
- Can you share more about why this is ___ for you?
- Tell me how you understand things…
- I hear your concern about____.
- What I heard you say was____. Did I get that right?
When the tension is taking over (and you are triggered):
- I care about you and our relationship, and I don’t want this to sever things. Let’s take a pause.
- I value ____ about our relationship and believe it’s possible to respect our differences.
- I need to think about that more…
Phrases + behaviors to avoid: (that tend to lead to defensiveness/blame/judgment)
- Yes, but… (always go with “yes, AND” –that demonstrates a growth mindset versus deficit thinking)
- You’re wrong / I don’t believe you / You will never understand. / You’re not listening.
- Exaggerated movements (hands in the air, overly vocal sighs, slamming doors, eye rolls, throwing anything, pounding table) or interrupting
The S.P.A.R.K. acronym ALSO strengthens our emotional intelligence.
Here are some S.P.A.R.K. reminders for your consideration and support:
Show up authentically
How can you show up authentically and with love? When I say “love,” I mean imagine that the person across from you could be your family. To love is to show respect and to assume positive intent.
Showing up with authenticity and love, you might say…
Pause. Prepare, Set intentions, and Listen.
Pause: don’t jump to conclusions or preconceived notions. Breathe, what do you really want from this conversation? People can be so plugged-in a reactive that we are not actually pausing and checking in with ourselves for intention- what do you want to walk away feeling? Clarity or positive around?
Then and imagine that happening, this is a brain visualization exercise. Prime your brain in a positive way. What do you really want? Set those intentions, set them for yourself, and get ready to listen to the other person.
Food for thought:
Affirm + ask intentional questions (don’t assume someone’s truth).
Ask Don’t Assume: this is about asking the right question to get to the outcome you are trying to get to. Questions are our best friend. I have to remind myself to ask: What question will help me better understand their perspective? How can I draw out their biggest frustrations so I can have the outcome that you want? Remember: Listen. Affirm their experience before asking. (Ie: “I hear you. I understand where you are coming from.” Etc.)
Here are some more statements:
Respect multiple perspectives
Here are some more statements / questions to consider using:
Kindly expect some tension
Here are some more tools for your toolkit:
When you use the SPARK acronym your experience is intentionally more predictable, authentic, and positive.
You’ll only get better at confronting with care if you practice.
A few things to note:
There is not a single “right way” to do this work. Context matters. You may fumble, mumble, and even bumble around, but it’s worth it AND these courageous conversations will get easier with practice.
Finally, it need be noted that there are moments when you should pause and not engage at all. Use your critical judgment and always put your safety first. I’m not a therapist or a counselor. I’m offering this lens to be supportive to those who need it. Your best network is your support system; so lean on the people you love.
Rachel Rosen is on a mission to spark a global conversation about inclusion, racial equity, and courageous leadership. The Founder of S.P.A.R.K., an inclusive community card-game, and S.P.A.R.K. Leadership, she helps leaders uncover their blindspots and take their diverse team to the next level with intentionality and integrity. With a Masters from Stanford, and extensive training in leadership, coaching, team and organizational development, S.P.A.R.K. experiences are grounded in theory and practice.