By Eleonora Smeriglio '22
“If you know how to lead and manage a difficult conversation, then it’s probably not a difficult conversation,” Professor Valerie Purdie-Greenaway advised as we wrapped our weekly one-on-one for my independent study on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). I was seeking advice after leading a student conversation on ethics and law where I proposed a question about what principles mattered in ethical decision-making—a divisive topic with no clear-cut answer that had inevitably sparked visceral reactions from those in attendance. Participants expressed diametrically different views: some argued that the law was the ultimate point of reference; others stated that tragic events in recent history often occurred under the law and that these regulations cannot guide ethical decision-making. After acknowledging both sides, I quickly—and probably prematurely—ended the discussion. But how should I have handled this difficult conversation? What was the right thing to do as a fellow student?
The truth is that there aren’t always two sides to an argument. There’s often fifteen, one hundred, perhaps even one thousand relevant points of view because in discussing ethical questions nuance matters. As a philosophy major in college, I often debated value-based theory and utilitarianism with myself: When assessing an ethical dilemma, what should I consider? Was it the principle that inspired a specific action, the action itself, or the ultimate consequence that the action generated? I could not reconcile my intuitive views in one consistent framework because I was coming up with too many exceptions whenever I thought I had found the answer.
Being able to dissect and apply ethical frameworks to real-life scenarios helps me rationalize feelings and order my thoughts, but this situation wasn’t about finding a conclusive answer. Instead, it was about clearly listening to what everyone had to say and having the courage to allow the conversation to unfold—a learned skill that will take practice to grasp.
After much rumination about this scenario, I had stumbled upon my “ah-ha moment,” as I like to call those quick realizations that forever change the way I understand something. We are often so focused on letting the world know about our views that we forget to use perspective, especially around topics that feel personal to us. People have very different biases, judgments, and views because they often come from very different places. And I don’t just mean geographies. I mean cultures, educational backgrounds, gender, and socio-economic foundations. Each of these factors inform the way we create narratives about reality.
One of the big barriers we face as humans is that we can only make sense of life through our very limited individual experience. None of us can fully comprehend what it is to think and feel and perceive things through someone else’s lens, especially if that someone else is biologically, socially, and mentally designed to be our opposite.
If we are going to be leaders, whether in an organization, a political party, or a private household, we have to understand this. We must learn to pause, listen, and meet people where they are when entering the conversation. None of us holds the key to the ultimate truth, and none of us is going to have the definitive answer we deeply desire when it comes to difficult—and sometimes controversial—conversations.
To this day, I still think of those five difficult and uncomfortable minutes in class. But I have grown from shuddering at the memory to appreciating its opportunity. To become the inclusive, diverse, and globally minded institution we strive to be, Columbia Business School needs to teach its future leaders how to step into difficult discussions with an open mind and with the understanding that challenging dialogue can be an inflection point for evolution and change.