Tackling Tough Issues Through Courageous Conversations

people at tables

general mills

TAKEAWAY: Courageous Conversations, a guided discussion series sponsored by General Mills, is showing that people can discuss the difficult issues with open minds and respect for all.

Islamophobia. The MeToo Movement. Taking a Knee. Every day, these and other hot-button topics fuel thousands of social media conversations, many of them ugly. Since 2016, employees of Minneapolis-based General Mills have come together to discuss these and other polarizing issues through a program called Courageous Conversations. Participants come ready to listen, to discuss and, in stark contrast to the corrosive exchanges that now clog the internet, to treat each other with civility and respect.

Courageous Conversations, conducted six or seven times a year at General Mills, is modeled on the Forum on Race, an annual event in Minneapolis hosted by the city’s YWCA. The Forum brings together Twin Cities residents to “discuss the difficult,” notably, expressed and unexpressed viewpoints about race relations. General Mills employees attending the Forum shared their positive experiences with the company’s diversity and inclusion team, which created Courageous Conversations and launched it in April 2016. Participants, all employees of the company, convened at General Mills headquarters to listen to an expert speaker and then gather into small groups for guided discussion, led by trained employee-volunteers.

Courageous Conversations didn’t exactly take off. Only 30 people attended the first session. But right after the initial session, a police shooting galvanized the Minneapolis community — and this was in 2016. A Courageous Conversation titled “Black Lives Matter” brought out 300 employees.

From there, interest grew and so did participation. As many as 3,000 employees participate in each headquarters event, and satellite events are now held at General Mills facilities across the USA. Remote access is available for those in the field.

Each event focuses on a difficult and potentially divisive topic. General Mills finds an external expert to kick off the event with a talk. Then, employees organize into smaller groups for open forum discussions. These are guided by employee-volunteers who are trained on how to encourage conversation, engage all participants and diffuse arguments. Ground rules for the conversation are agreed-to by participants. Spirited discussion is encouraged. Uncivil dialogue is ruled out of bounds.

Courageous Conversations has tackled a wide range of headline topics across American society, from immigration policy to unconscious bias. After each session, participants are asked to share, anonymously, how they felt about the discussion. Many leave encouraging insights, such as this one, following a session on different generational approaches to work: “I am reminded to check my biases against how my team chooses to do work. Just because it’s different than how I may have gone about it, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It also made me think about parent choices and how to raise more resilient kids.”

Courageous Conversations is now a hallmark of General Mills’ culture and has strong support from senior leadership. It’s drawing greater interest from employees and is now a global program. That said, General Mills admits that keeping the program both courageous and conversational takes a great deal of volunteer effort, and a willingness by employees to accept pointed discussion as the price of progress. “We’re moving into territory where traditionally corporations didn’t tread,” says James  Momon, who leads the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts. “But we can never solve problems that we aren’t willing to speak about. Our goal is to continue increasing levels of understanding and empathy across General Mills, and, we hope, across all the communities we serve.”