How to Talk About the Las Vegas Shooting

October 2, 2017, 2:57 PM UTC
Reported Shooting At Mandalay Bay In Las Vegas
David Becker Getty Images

I’ve written these words too many times since this column was established a year and a half ago: Today we wake up to reports of a deadly mass shooting event.

Last night, a gunman, “a lone wolf”, a retired white man with a pilot’s license, an accountant, a person “known to police,” opened fire from the 32nd floor of a hotel in Las Vegas, into a large crowd gathered for a country music festival. The death toll is now more than 50 people.

We currently know nothing about his motive or what clues the above descriptors reveal about his deadly rampage. Online trolls have been working overtime, spreading disinformation, identifying wrong assailants, making unsubstantiated claims, and amplifying the horror.

It’s a terrible day for Las Vegas. It’s also a terrible day for any innocent person who fears being targeted for sharing characteristics with the shooter, both real and invented, regardless of how tenuous.

Difficult conversations are ahead: About guns, violence, the definition of terrorism, why “deadliest mass shooting” modifiers tend to erase communities of color, and the consequences of white male resentment. About politics. About desperation.

We’ll also need to talk about how to talk about these things, a leadership imperative that seems to have been lost, at least on the public stage.

But I’ve learned one thing in the time we’ve been working together. In private, these conversations are happening. I know, because you’ve shared some of them with me – along with the hard work that goes into creating the space that allows them to happen at all.

This work has involved re-configuring how you survey and listen to employees, along with considering what “psychological safety” means in your workplaces. “It’s going to mean different things to different employees. Does it mean I can say whatever I want without being challenged?” Dnika J. Travis, the vice president, Women of Color Research & Center Leader, Catalyst Research Center for Corporate Practice tells Fortune. “Or do we need to put real language around what and how we talk about traumatic events?”

It has also involved ensuring that front-line managers have the training and support they need to handle painful issues when they arise in meetings, or in one-on-ones.

I had a long talk with Alison Davis-Blake, professor of business and the former dean at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, following the police shootings of July 2016. “This isn’t a natural disaster, where everyone is aligned right away,” she said, in a now poignant marker of a simpler time. “This is difficult stuff to process.” That part is still true.

“But a compassionate organization cultivates a sense of empathy for those who are suffering,” she says. “And the first thing is for leaders to be present, talking, listening, and acknowledging that something specific has happened and that some people may have concerns.”

The University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations was created after the attacks of September 11th, specifically to help organizations respond to challenge and pain in more inclusive ways.

I will leave you with the best advice I’ve collected working the inclusion beat. It was from David Kyuman Kim, professor of religious studies and American studies at Connecticut College whose work focuses on race, religion, moral theory, and public life.

As tempting as it is to want to look away from a crisis, Kim has found that the opposite is actually the way forward. It requires a profound humility to give people the courage to talk about their lives. “We have a responsibility to draw our attention to co-workers, to community members and ask a simple question – ‘how are you doing?’” he says. “And then listen, really listen, as if you don’t already know the answer.”

Let us know how you’re doing.

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