The Feelings Conversation

As the authors of Difficult Conversations point out, difficult conversations aren’t just about what happened, they also involve emotions (12). While we often try to leave emotions out of academic discussions because feelings seem “messy,” “inappropriate,” scary or uncomfortable, acknowledging that emotions are involved may actually help resolve conflicts.   That said, it is hard not to judge other people’s feelings.  When I was an adolescent, I used to love to read “Dear Abby,” whose catch phrase seemed to be “your feelings are never wrong,” though the subtext of her advice often seemed to be “however misguided they may be….” The goal in understanding that emotions are involved, however, is not to prove how misguided other people’s emotions are, but to recognize how our own emotions are involved and that the other side’s emotions may come from legitimate places.

Here is a summary of the Assumptions and Goals made in a Feeling Conversation (Difficult Conversations 18-19; reproduced in html by  The goal is to get past the “battle of messages” and move into a “learning conversation”:

Conversation A Battle of Messages A Learning Conversation
The Feeling Conversation Challenge: The situation is emotionally charged. Assumption: Feelings are irrelevant and wouldn’t be helpful to share. (Or, my feelings are their fault and they need to hear about them.)
Goal: Avoid talking about feelings. (Or let ‘em have it!)
Assumption: Feelings are the heart of the situation. Feelings are usually complex. I may have to dig a bit to understand my feelings.
Goal: Address feelings (mine and theirs) without judgments or attributions. Acknowledge feelings before problem solving.


1. Have students read through Jonathan Kaufman, “Blacks and Jews: The Struggle in the Cities,” in Struggles in the Promised Land: Towards a History of Black-Jewish Relations in the United States, ed. Jack Salzman and Cornel West. NY: Oxford UP, 1997. 107-22. AND Watch either Blacks & Jews (California Newsreel, 1997) or the following excerpts on YouTube:

The authors of Difficult Conversations suggest that to get to a learning conversation, one should assume that “Feelings are the heart of the situation. Feelings are usually complex. I may have to dig a bit to understand my feelings.” Ask students given the context the students have just read/seen, what are some emotions that might be brought by at least some African Americans to the conversation about Jews, race, and slavery?

2. Next, have students  read the following pro The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews article.  As they read, they should pay less attention to the argument and more to the feelings being raised by the author.  What emotions does the author bring to the table?

3. Finally, have the students reread the article and read the online reviews of The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews on with an eye towards the emotions that the article and reviews might raise for Jewish readers.  How might Jewish readers feel about the “pro” responses?  What emotions do the 0-1 star reviews bring to their comments?

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