Courageous Conversations Explores How to Foster Belonging

5 mins read

From COVID to the election to our racial reckoning, this year has been a time of great change, trauma and truth-telling. It’s been a year that has illuminated fractures in our civic life that require healing. How do we begin to rehumanize each other and repair the breaks in our relationships? On December 9th, Courageous Conversations welcomed guest speaker, Michael O’Bryan to share his thinking on “Healing Our Communities” during this season in our lives. Hosts Rev. Dr. Zina Jacque and Jessica Swoyer Green welcomed O’Bryan, founder and CEO of Humanature, to a virtual session of Courageous Conversations presented by Barrington’s White House and Urban Consulate.

Aprina’s Revolutionary Love

O’Bryan’s research is centered on the fields of community development, organizational culture, and human wellbeing. He has spent more than a decade working directly with resilient yet underserved populations, including veterans, adults in recovery, returning citizens, and families experiencing homelessness. His presentation focused on the science of bias and belonging. The evening began with a beautiful live performance of Ben E. King’s classic song, “Stand by Me,” performed by Aprina’s Revolutionary Love.

Then Rev. Jacque opened with big questions:

Are you human? What makes us human? If we are going to heal as a nation, we need to begin by seeing our shared humanity — and allowing other people, as well as ourselves, to be fully human, in all of our complexity.

Here were a few key takeaways:

1. Bring Bias to Light

To foster belonging, O’Bryan says understanding and identifying bias is a good place to start.

Michael O’Bryan: “Bias is a part of your body’s processing at the molecular level that really operates at the thousandth of a second. These systems are very fast, they’re primal and they’re built for your survival… It’s about wayfinding. When you show up to a space, you are making sense of things based on the lay-of-the-land and your memorized patterns and shortcuts based on things like usage of space, relationships and dynamics of power. Your brain has used shortcuts to manage expectations and predict outcomes. Bias is about filling in gaps with whatever information is available to make a complete and whole idea, even if it’s wrong.”

2. Avoid Dehumanizing Others

O’Bryan says bias is one of three things that often lead to dehumanization, which he defines as “a collection of viewpoints, processes, and activities that accost or ignore the dimensions of human development, ultimately depriving an individual or group of human qualities or attributes.” He suggested we be aware of these three influences within ourselves:

  • Bias: “pre-judgment in favor of or against one thing, person or group compared with another”
  • Heuristics: “mental shortcuts that allow people to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently”
  • Mental Models: “that permit reasoning about situations not directly experienced… based on generalizations and analogies from our own experience.”

Because our assumptions, judgments and generalizations of other people are not always accurate, O’Bryan says learning to be conscious of how our brains work when we interact across difference is a big step in the right direction.

3. Actively Engage in Debiasing

While bias may be “an inescapable construct,” O’Bryan shared that we can practice “debiasing” by “actively engaging in activities to disrupt, lessen, or minimize the thinking and activities that are a result of the bias mechanism.” We can do this by “asking questions and engaging in activities that purposely make us view a situation, problem, or task in new or different ways.” O’Bryan offered two short videos to help with this:

4. Consider the Conditions that Shape Us

O’Bryan posed a fictional question: If you are a farmer and your crop of potatoes is rotten, where would you look to determine what went wrong? Would you blame the potato for being rotten? Or would you test the soil, the air, your methods & equipment? His point was that part of rehumanizing each other and fostering belonging is being mindful that we are each shaped by conditions often beyond our control. For some, this could include chronic stressors, traumatic experiences, or environmental factors. When experiencing discord with someone different from you, O’Bryan suggests leaning into curiosity and empathy, and changing the question from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”

5. Lead with Questions, Not Assumptions & Know Your Social Capital

O’Bryan reaffirmed a common theme of Courageous Conversations — that “building trust requires listening, and the question we must ask ourselves is how can I show up and be an active listening participant in this relationship?” He encouraged us to “lead with questions, not assumptions” while staying mindful of three different kinds of of “Social Capital” at work in our lives.

  • Bonding Capital: fostering connections between individuals who share an identity.
  • Bridging Capital: fostering connections between those who do not share a common identity
  • Breaking Capital: eroding and destroying trust, connection and healthy relations between individuals and groups.

6. Trust the Intent but Own the Impact

O’Bryan suggested that we be aware of what separates our intent from the actual impact of our words and actions.

Michael O’Bryan: “Often our intentions are noble. We mean well. However, those same intentions can still lead us astray or create unintentional harm… If my good intentions and activities destroy the opportunity to “bond” and to “bridge”, it doesn’t matter what my intentions are. The results are what matter and whether I am willing to learn and challenge what I believe I know.”

As discussed in the October session with guest Courtney E. Martin, part of understanding impact and practicing inclusion is asking what is wanted and needed before assuming that for others. Then listening and being genuinely open to answers.

7. Build Relationships with “Truest Empathy”

When it comes to building trusting relationships, O’Bryan offered that “empathy works better by identifying shared emotional experiences rather than projecting oneself into the identity-based experience of another person.”

Michael O’Bryan: “Activate what I would call ‘Truest Empathy’ that leads to service on behalf of another person. Invest in active inquiry. Ask, ‘How does your identity relate to or possibly impact people you work with or are in relationship with?’ You can begin to ask those questions, ‘How can I be a better ally? How can I be a better listener? How can I better show up on behalf of another person?’… If there’s one thing you can take from this… (it’s that) what makes us human is the fact that we can practice compassionate inquiry and show up in relationships in support of the fullness of someone’s humanity.”

Did you miss December’s Courageous Conversation with Michael O’Bryan? Here are some questions participants discussed together if you’d like to continue the conversation at home:

Breakout Questions:

  • Is a house a home? Why or why not?
  • How do you identify? How might your identity (or identities), directly or indirectly, relate to or impact the people you serve?
  • What makes us human? 

Suggested Reading:

Interested in learning more about the social science of bias and belonging? O’Bryan suggested the following books that are available at Barrington Area Library:

Additional Resources:

Are you signed up for Courageous Conversations? Every Second Wednesday, 7pm:

Here are past articles for our takeaways from the 2020-2021 season of Courageous Conversations:

Courageous Conversations is presented by Urban Consulate and Barrington’s White House and made possible by your ticket purchase and generous support from Jessica & Dominic Green, Kim Duchossois, Tyler & Danielle Lenczuk, Cobey & Erich Struckmeyer, Susan & Rich Padula, Julie Kanak & Mike Rigali, Barrington Area Community Foundation, and BMO Wealth Management. To learn more, visit

Photos from Courageous Conversations at Barrington’s White House by Linda Barrett.

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