Investing in Dialogue with Rhonda Fitzgerald







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In this episode, we are pleased to welcome Rhonda Fitzgerald of the Sustained Dialogue Institute. As managing director at the Institute, she works to train, mentor, and provide guidance to a broad range of institutions and individuals seeking to transform their communities through Sustained Dialogue.

Listen in to hear how these techniques led to diplomacy breakthroughs like the Camp David Accords and the Dartmouth Conferences, the longest running continuous bilateral agreement between the former Soviet Union and the U.S.A.

Today, these five principles are being applied to facilitate healthy conversations around difficult topics such as race, gender, and religion. Join us as we dive into the process and how it may vary across industries, as well as the evolution of dialogue in an increasingly virtual environment, and an example of an off-the-shelf event used at a hedge fund. Whether you invest your money or time, you expect a positive return, and we believe this conversation will pay dividends.


Rhonda Fitzgerald

Managing Director, Sustained Dialogue Institute

Rhonda has been with SDI for 12 years, working with students, faculty, senior administrators, campus leaders, and facilitators to build lasting structures. Rhonda has a passion for developing college aged leaders with civic competency and cultural humility. Rhonda also supports dialogue work across the globe including Sustained Dialogue efforts in Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, and Somalia in partnership with the Life and Peace Institute. Rhonda is an alumna of Princeton University, where she participated actively as a moderator and leader of Sustained Dialogues, leading difficult conversation and action planning across identity and belief.


Greg Dowling

Chief Investment Officer, Head of Research, FEG

Greg Dowling is Chief Investment Officer and Head of Research at FEG. Greg joined FEG in 2004 and focuses on managing the day-to-day activities of the Research department. Greg chairs the Firm’s Investment Policy Committee, which approves all manager recommendations and provides oversight on strategic asset allocations and capital market assumptions. He also is a member of the firm’s Leadership Team and Risk Committee.


Greg Dowling (00:06):

Welcome to the FEG Insight Bridge. This is Greg Dowling, head of research and CIO at FEG. This shows spans global markets and institutional investments through conversations with some of the world's leading investment, economic, and philanthropic minds to provide insight on how institutional investors can survive and even thrive in the world of markets and finance.

Greg Dowling (00:30):

On the Insight Bridge, we mostly tackle topics of investing money or capital. Today, we're going to talk about investing your time and talents, and whether you invest money or time, you always expect a positive return. Like many of you, I have witnessed a lot of arguments and tension over politics, race, and the pandemic over the last year. And all of this conflict has been further amplified by the news and social media. So how can we narrow the gap and have a more respectful debate and dialogue? How can we achieve that positive return on the investment of our time? Well, we have just the right person. Today, we get to speak with Rhonda Fitzgerald, who is a managing director at the Sustained Dialogue Institute. The Institute has worked on major international breakthroughs from the Middle East, such as the Camp David Accords, to the Dartmouth Conference, which was the longest running bilateral dialogue between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. In recent years, the institute has expanded its mission to work on conflict resolution on university campuses, race and diversity issues in the office, as well as developing and mentoring the civic leaders of tomorrow. Big FEG welcome to Rhonda Fitzgerald. Thank you for joining us today.

Rhonda Fitzgerald (01:48):

Thank you for having me, Greg. I'm excited to be here.

Greg Dowling (01:50):

We, FEG, got to know Sustained Dialogue Institute through a client, the Kettering Foundation, a nonprofit rooted in cooperative research. Our current president, Becky Wood, even joined your board. So we know you pretty well, but for our listeners, maybe a little background on the history and mission of SDI. And maybe if you could even throw in a little bit on Hal Saunders.

Rhonda Fitzgerald (02:14):

Oh, absolutely. So many people are familiar with this work when they think of diplomacy work. So the founder of the Sustained Dialogue Institute, which is a nonprofit based in Washington, DC was Dr. Harold Saunders, one of the key architects of the Camp David Peace Accords and one of the diplomats who served over 400 days in a row during the Iranian hostage crisis. So after he left government decades ago, he began to write down what became a formal peace process that's now taught to future diplomats. And by way of chance, this later turned into a nonprofit where I've been for the last 12 years now. So it's been exciting work. The work takes us all over. The mission is to actually figure out how the world can work justly and peacefully through the process of dialogue in five stages that Hal wrote down in his books. One is called Politics is About Relationship, for those who are readers out there, and then another is called Sustained Dialogue in Conflicts.

Greg Dowling (03:17):

I'm just fascinated by the early history, especially the Middle East peace process, the work with the former Soviet Union. I know that he was even kind of a character in the movie Argo. Maybe share a story or two on either the Middle East or the former Soviet union.

Rhonda Fitzgerald (03:33):

So this is what's interesting. I'm an apprentice of Hal's. He passed away in 2016, but I worked with him for eight solid years. And one of the joys of my life was getting to witness and see some of the dialogue with Russian previously Soviet-American citizens. And that dialogue is a long-lasting one with very high-ranking officials and generals. So I entered that dialogue with translations going on all of these important people in the room--American citizens, Russian citizens with quite a lot of power. And what you might find fascinating, Greg, it was as emotional as any contentious dialogue that you've ever seen. So you can imagine a difficult conversation about race or religion. Watching dialogue between very seriously high-ranking officials was just as contentious, emotional at times, and personal as I'd ever seen any other dialogue that I've led in the U.S. or abroad.

Rhonda Fitzgerald (04:26):

And so I was shocked at the 70-year-old general saying, "I can't believe you think that about me!" Another fun story about Dr. Harold Saunders. He was the best listener I ever met. One of the things I asked him about once was, "So talk to me about trust in this process that you've written down, what's the trust-building process?" And he looked at me completely blankly. I know he knows the word trust. He said, "I never had the luxury of depending on anyone's trust. They came to the table and then we worked from there." I loved working with Dr. Saunders. He was a great man. Truly.

Greg Dowling (04:58):

You joined about 10 years ago. You have a little bit different focus, maybe share kind of what you're focused on, Rhonda.

Rhonda Fitzgerald (05:04):

Yeah. So depending in our organization, what languages you speak, what your background is, where you can go in the world easily and be seen as a peacemaker, that really determines the work you do. So a lot of the work I do is in U.S. contexts, especially in domestic issues around politics, race, gender, sexual orientation--all the things that... People kind of look at me--I'm a black woman from New Jersey, I have a nose ring--they kind of look at me and think that I might actually know something about those topics. Those are a lot of the fields I work in. However, some of the other contexts I work in because just the way that identity works in peacemaking work is we've had a long-standing, almost decade-long partnership with some youth groups in Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Sweden for the almost decade that we've worked with another partner in Sweden.

Rhonda Fitzgerald (05:52):

And that has been some really fulfilling work to do technical assistance in some of the most intense conflicts in the world. And all of it youth-led, which has been a particularly exciting part of my work. There's another area that I head up, unsuspectingly, despite the fact that I am wearing a hoodie right now, like Mark Zuckerberg. But a lot of the workplace dialogues that involve race, especially in the wake of what's going on since last May with George Floyd's murder. All of those contexts and places coming to us, I work in surprise places like hedge funds that are trying to approach race without losing their ability to work together. And so I enjoy the business side of things, and I'm also a hybrid person where I love the peace and the connecting work, but I also love to see how places can really maximize their work, like you were talking about--investing in the personnel's relationships within to be able to work better together.

Greg Dowling (06:45):

Pre-call we were talking about this and I was lamenting that a lot of the diversity inclusion training that we all are going through... It's so important. It's important for FEG it's important for the leadership team at FEG. However, at the same time, it can feel very awkward, canned, or unnatural. Because it's so important. How do we make it better?

Rhonda Fitzgerald (07:04):

I love this question, and I have a lot of respect for all the people out there doing what we would call diversity, equity, and inclusion work. And many times I am in that group. But one of the things that we are very specific about, because our approach literally comes from ethnic conflict: no activities. We do a no-activities approach.

Greg Dowling (07:21):

No trust falls? We're not going to do trust falls?

Rhonda Fitzgerald (07:25):

Actually, some of the work in Ethiopia is trust falls and that's how they measure ethnic trust across ethnic tribe and difference. But that's only in the evaluation process, it's not the primary go-to. So one of the principles behind our work is, yes, this is diversity, equity, and inclusion, but it's not just about topics, it's about things that people care about. So one of the goals that we always have is to actually figure out what people are there to talk about. And many of your listeners probably want to learn more about the five-stage process that Dr. Saunders wrote about. The first step is only having a coalition of the willing being there. This is like revolutionary for many organizations that think, "Well, no, maybe if I bring Rhonda and Sustained Dialogue Institute in and I bring them the people who've been really resistant or painfully processing these things with others, then they'll do some special magic activities. And they'll be a different person afterwards."

Rhonda Fitzgerald (08:17):

That's not my experience and it's also not a great way to do anything. I imagine that would be like having a holiday meal with your family but getting the people who don't want to cook to make it. It's not going to taste good. And so our work only starts from those who are really saying, "Wait, this is hard enough. Let's figure out how we can live in peace and work in peace. Let's actually make some progress together. Let's not just think we're going to come in and magically brainwash people." It doesn't work like that.

Greg Dowling (08:43):

You mentioned one of the steps. Without giving away the secret sauce, maybe you can hit on the other four.

Rhonda Fitzgerald (08:48):

Oh yeah. The other four, they're going to be intuitive to all the change leaders out there who do change management processes, because if you look at it, this isn't that complex. But the idea of, "first we start with getting people to the table who are committed to be there," that's the first stage of sustained dialogue. That's usually the longest and hardest stage. In fact, Dr. Saunders reviewed the classic book Getting to Yes, the negotiations book. His review--I'm not sure if they used it, actually. His review was like, "This is a wonderful compendium of knowledge about what to do once people are at the table, but in conflict resolution, getting people to the table to believe that there's possibility is actually the longest, hardest step." So for instance, in one of the workplaces we work in, a tech workplace, it took at least six months to get people--even the willing--to get into dialogue with each other about race. Even the willing.

Rhonda Fitzgerald (09:36):

So that's stage one, deciding and committing to engage. Stage two of sustained dialogue is what people think of when they think of dialogue. It's the actual exchanging of stories, experiences. That's where I hear, Greg, what your background was as a part of a basketball team that traveled to the towns nearby, or something like that. It's airing of things that didn't work previously that could be better. And it's actually quite honest, intense often, conversation. And so that's why I say no activities. We might have to really work to tailor to that group what they can do, but that honest conversation is incredibly difficult enough, we don't need to have some hypothetical there.

Rhonda Fitzgerald (10:14):

Stage three of sustained dialogue is the root cause, finding what's going wrong and what historically has gone wrong. And so the joke within all the organizations I work with is that that's where we look at the set and the budgeting process of the 1970s, no matter what it is, it was always a budgeting process in the 1970s or a merger and acquisition that put two workplaces together that never figured out how to de-silo, frankly. Stage three is the actual figuring out what the root causes of the tensions internally are. And it's usually not just the way people have talked to each other or who they are.

Rhonda Fitzgerald (10:46):

Stage four is a classic brainstorming stage, but in the world of diplomacy, this would be called scenario-building, trying to imagine how we might leave differently. The people in the room who have been experiencing this conversation, what can we put together that might be different that relies on all of us taking new steps that we maybe previously wouldn't have. And then stage five is actually taking some action around the conversations that we've had. So it means leaders saying, "What do we never want to see again internally? How do we actually mix up the way that we do things around here, everyday work?" That's the five-stage process.

Greg Dowling (11:20):

So it seems like a lot of workplaces say, "You know what, boy, I'm getting some pressure. Let's do that D&I training. Boom, check the box, we're done. Ooh, that was awkward." How do you make sure it actually becomes muscle memory and people are held accountable and then you can measure it? It seems like those five stages are really important, but if that's all you do that may not be enough.

Rhonda Fitzgerald (11:41):

Well here's what's brilliant about your question, those stages can take up to a year. So talk about building the muscle. And I love that analogy that you bring up because that's exactly how we talk about it. Giving your workplace skills and ability to do these conversations can't just be a one-time thing. We've been in a pandemic for quite some time so I've been trying to do stretches that I haven't done in a while. It takes a long time repeating a habit to actually get some efficacy with it. That includes talking about religion in ways that are counter to what you've been taught to do about religion, which is to ignore it in the workplace, it's unprofessional. And so what we're hoping to do with these engagements is build long-term habits.

Rhonda Fitzgerald (12:23):

For instance, just to give you a walkthrough of what another organization's doing, they started a dialogue two weeks ago. They won't be done their five-stage process until May or later. That is the amount of effort that they put in. An hour and a half weekly, sometimes multiple meetings for multiple stages. And that's the same exact process that the peace accords of Ireland go through. So this is literally the global process of peace-building that they're engaging with and there's an overlap, but a big difference between thinking you can do that peace-building work in one day. I wish. I'd have a lot less work if all of the relational issues behind the work we're doing could get solved in a day. I'd love that.

Greg Dowling (13:02):

I think you're saying something really important in terms of the process. You're applying it to a lot of different areas and there's nothing unique about having arguments over politics or race or religion. It's the same thing, right? It's the same type of steps that you need to have understanding, acceptance, dialogue, and all these things. There's not a different approach for dealing with race versus dealing with religion.

Rhonda Fitzgerald (13:25):

Nope, nor football.

Greg Dowling (13:27):

[laughs] Nor football. Which could be as passionate, right? I mean, people are...

Rhonda Fitzgerald (13:30):

Extremely, actually. Some of our work in Alabama has taught me that the most sacred things are.

Greg Dowling (13:36):

We have a client down there, so I'll just say "Roll Tide."

Rhonda Fitzgerald (13:38):

Excellent, great. Roll Tide for you out there.

Greg Dowling (13:41):

You also spend a lot of time on college campuses. What do you do there?

Rhonda Fitzgerald (13:45):

The work on college campuses is eternally energizing. Our main focus is to build the capacity of future leaders on campus, who can... Just like I might say I have 12 years of experience leading tough dialogues about any topic that's needed to come up with a really deep and respect for everyone involved, that's what we're training students, faculty, staff, and senior cabinet leaders to do. Some of the skills we teach might seem basic, but people really desperately during a pandemic want to practice their active listening skills. They want to practice the skills of being able to talk about the experiences that they've had that no one knows that they've had. The things that make them credible in areas that no one knows that they're credible in. And so a lot of our work is technical assistance and capacity-building to make people better listeners and able to deploy this five-stage process when it's needed.

Rhonda Fitzgerald (14:37):

I did want to briefly say many people think of college campuses as a very difficult place to work because there's so many different trends in terms of how people speak. This is very much a "learn how to speak openly about the difficult things" process without simple right answers. And one fun thing about sustained dialogue is you shouldn't do it if you already know the answers that you want to come out of it. You don't need a long dialogue process for this. This is for more intractable conflict. Meaning, we're trying to figure out how faculty and staff relate better fundamentally, knowing their different roles. And so we have a lot of fun building that cadre of leaders who can say, "Wait, I think I know a process for what's needed here." And they take that throughout their lives, it's a lifelong skill set.

Greg Dowling (15:19):

We have a lot of clients in the higher ed field, and we know right now is a very challenging time. So you have the pandemic, you've had the protests around Black Lives Matter. You've had political issues. I mean, there's so many things going on. Even the students, dealing with this in the prime of their lives. So there's immense need, but I know that in higher education budgets are tight right now. So how do you bridge that gap and still do all that great work when there may not be the funding for it?

Rhonda Fitzgerald (15:47):

I love that question because I just heard from... Another member of our board us an administrator at a small college, doing their best during the pandemic. And I just wanted to give a quick shoutout to those people really making things work--not just since last year, but since 2008 and before, knowing that budgets have been tightening, tightening, tightening. And so for those colleagues, we know that that's the primary audience that we're working with. And one good thing is we are structured as a non-profit, so one of the things that we've done in the pandemic is for campuses that are interested, they can go online at Eventbrite, using some personal development monies or a P-card internally they can get their colleagues trained in sustained dialogue and start grassroots initiatives for, I think, $200 to get trained one at a time. That's not the most wide-reaching thing on an individual campus, but overall, we've trained more than I think, 5,000 people in the last year, just opening up our workshops to virtual.

Rhonda Fitzgerald (16:40):

And it's been the joy of my life because it means I don't have to go to the airport. And so because of that, we try to really work with campuses. And there are free resources online on our website for those who get into sticky situations and say, "Whoa, I just had a conversation really go in a challenging way. What are the key concepts I might've missed there?" There's free resources for that. They come with a lot of warnings that this does take skill and practice, but we try to make sure that we're accommodating all types of schools, knowing that some schools work with us for a long time and some schools are really trying to figure out more shoe-strap ways to get things done in terms of building these muscles.

Greg Dowling (17:14):

One of the things during the pandemic, when we've all adapted new technologies--and that's great, we're able to do things remotely--but I've often noticed that it's much harder to have personal conversations when they're virtual. You can't read body language as well. Many people have their screens turned off. Are you finding that maybe the dialogue isn't as deep if it's over Zoom?

Rhonda Fitzgerald (17:35):

This is why that stage one of sustained dialogue, which is where people decide and commit to engage, is so key. Our evaluations show that people are enjoying dialogue more from the comfort of their own home than they were previously in person. I don't what that exactly is about. It could be as simple as not having to smell people or be near them physically or having the anxiety of this pandemic physically present. But there's been something restorative of having one virtual meeting that's totally differently structured than any other. So this is not a set of meetings that there's going to be a PowerPoint where someone teaches you. You're actually surfacing the concerns that you wanted to talk to your colleagues about, you wanted to talk to your fellow peers about. Some students told me, "This is the best dialogue I've ever been in virtually." And I think that's maybe related to the fact that they're allowed to make pasta in the middle. [laughs]

Greg Dowling (18:25):

Yeah, I mean, it's probably important. I think even if you sign up and say, "Hey, I want to do this." You're probably knowing that it's going to be awkward at some point and you're going to have to be vulnerable. And maybe it's easier to be vulnerable in sweatpants on your couch.

Rhonda Fitzgerald (18:37):

Absolutely. And there's this funny thing--you might have a lot of listeners who resonate with this. There are a lot of us professionals out there who really want community with others. We really want to be in non-superficial conversations about these things, but we want to make sure it's not going to be a waste of our time. This does seem to scratch this bridge-building need that a lot of people have. These are the people who are going to be involved in something and they're willing to sign up and give some time towards, "Yeah, how can we make this place de-siloed? How can we work better together around this really sticky situation between departments?" And so those are the people who are willing to just say, "Hey, of course." And they can do it from their couch now.

Greg Dowling (19:16):

You know, race has always been an issue here in the states, and it kind of goes in waves. I've never seen a bigger firestorm in politics as we've seen the last couple of years, and especially this summer leading up to the election. How do you deal with that? I expect race to be difficult. I know people argue over politics, but it's gone to new levels. How do we have that dialogue? Or what are the things we can do or issues that you've had to deal with here more recently?

Rhonda Fitzgerald (19:39):

Well, we go in very intentionally. So you should see the intake, the "application" to begin dialogue with your workplace. The questions are really strange application questions. They ask things like, "I understand I'm going into this group not to educate other people of my own background or other backgrounds and I'm not there to be educated by people of my own background or other backgrounds, I'm actually here to learn how we got to different perspectives in a really trying-to-find-shared-meaning type of way." Another question says, "Hey, it's a stressful time--and it is--do you think you can listen deeply when someone phrases something in a way that you would never phrase it or says something unpleasant, like reveals a case of discrimination or an experience in which they were maybe doing something that they would not say is the most popular thing to do about race or politics?"

Rhonda Fitzgerald (20:32):

And what's funny about this is people really think and reflect on these questions. We ask them, "Do you think you'll have trouble with this new way of doing things?" And some of them are honest and say, "Yeah, that'll be challenging, but I'll try it." And that's where we work in. And that's the optimism, is that there's people who are saying, "You know what? I think I might have some latent skills here. I've always been a person who cared about the perspectives of others. Let's see if I can formalize the skill set and apply it to the company I'm in or the workplace I'm in."

Greg Dowling (20:58):

How do you interject yourself? Because I'm sure there's a lot of people that are like, "Hey, I'm willing to educate you on why I'm right." So even the people that are willing, when there's a breakdown in answering that first question where they think they're signing it one way and they're not, or not living up to it, how do you kind of step in and say, "Whoa"?

Rhonda Fitzgerald (21:14):

It's really fascinating. And the question you ask is so deep. Many people have a fundamental faith that when people disagree with them, it's simply a difference in education. And it's not. It's frankly not a misunderstanding. It's not a misperception. It is just two separate lives that maybe are surprisingly being joined in this one conversation. There are things I hear from folks that are quite controversial, and so we're trained very specifically when it's not something extremely painful, we ask things like, "Can you clarify what you mean by that?" And then I have to interject as a facilitator and ask questions like, "Hey, I hear what you're saying about, for instance, you don't believe that we should focus on race. Can you tell us more about which experiences you've had that really have made that an important thing to you?" And so one of the consistent things that we're trying to do is get people out of this butting heads, my opinion is right and I can educate you about my opinion being right, into...

Rhonda Fitzgerald (22:07):

If you can share your experience, something firsthand that you've seen that has made this live and present for you, that's when our mirror neurons fire, that's when we can understand. And that's when someone else could say, "Well if I was raised like that, I would believe that too." That takes so much work and so much intentionality and so much care for the other, that most people, when we describe it that way, they say, "Oh yeah, I don't want to do that. I'd actually rather tell people I'm right." And that's an important part of the world too--education, being an expert--but for those in-between people who are saying, "I think there might be a third way of doing things rather than just teaching people what would I think or debating them about what they shouldn't think. Maybe I can have a dialogue and understand where they're coming from so I know how better to interact and lead folks with this background or similar backgrounds."

Greg Dowling (22:49):

Do you have to kick people out and say, "You know what, you're just not ready yet."

Rhonda Fitzgerald (22:52):

What we would call that is an opt-out point. And we try to structure in lots of opt-out points. And in fact, no one's allowed to be there mandatorily, obviously. No one can be forcing their junior folks: "You should be in a dialogue about that." That's a great recipe for failure in a peace process, frankly. But there are times when I have to ask, "Hey, it doesn't seem like we're meeting our goals and look, our time is money here. Should we continue meeting?" And the group really decides from there. And that is a very dangerous thing to do. I often have very strict contracts in place about exactly how many hours we'll be meeting. But frankly, we can't waste people's time if we're not doing our best effort to do some new skill building. And so it happens all the time where people are surprised by their own goals or they find something was sacred to them they didn't even know was sacred. We know that that's coming, but we try to make sure that people are there with really clear expectations about the difficulty of building these muscles in particular, because they're under-practiced.

Greg Dowling (23:44):

What is the hardest step? Is it that first step or is it somewhere in the middle?

Rhonda Fitzgerald (23:47):

The first step of getting people to the table with optimism that something can change is the hardest step by far. Last night I was facilitating a group of faculty and we were giving them the conditions about when dialogue works and when it doesn't. So it never works by coercion. It never works by saying, "That person needs to be there. How do we get the people who need to be there, there?" That never works. And so by the end of the time, we explained it, everyone who would be the bridge-builders of this organization said, "Hmm, sounds hard." These people are at the top of their field. They're trained in their particular skill set. And they said, "Ooh, that seems nearly impossible." But it's like anything else. Like golfing, it's getting it into the hole in a narrow putt where everything has to line up correctly. The pre-conditions are the most important thing, but once something's started, there's a magic in the room, and I really believe that.

Greg Dowling (24:36):

So you get some momentum. I would think too, once you get people in... I said middle phase because I might be willing to listen, I just may not be willing to give in. Right. Like "Yeah, I hear you. Maybe my views are antiquated" or whatever they are. I'm like, "Yeah, but I really don't want to change."

Rhonda Fitzgerald (24:54):

Yeah. And this is where the definition of dialogue that Dr. Saunders has comes in. He defined dialogue as listening deeply enough to be changed by what you learn while also not giving up your identity, but recognizing enough of the other's valid human claims so that they might act differently towards the other. This is fascinating. So there's kind of a ban in our dialogues on trying to change someone else. You're not allowed to try to change someone else. You actually have to go in knowing you may not change anyone. And it's very frustrating for many people in the beginning. Many people are realizing in those first few meetings, "Wow I really need them to change, but why do I need them to change this much? How is this so important that they do X?" So those first meetings are frequently the stuff that many people would want to be a fly on the wall for. But handled with care, they create some ability to do new actions that no one would believe are possible and some new consensus that maybe wouldn't be possible without going into that deeper valley.

Greg Dowling (25:47):

I wanted to ask if you have to modify your approach at all by industry. I know you've worked with the IMF, you've worked with a lot of different hedge funds, and these are performance-based firms, maybe different than a industry like the medical field or retailing. Especially hedge funds, it's Darwinistic, it's dollars and cents. Do you change your approach at all?

Rhonda Fitzgerald (26:07):

Absolutely. So that five-stage process is not going to be something that every place can actually deploy. So I expect places that are nimble, trying to run on their feet, they're running fast and they're running hard, they're not gonna be able to engage in this unless there's serious buy-in. And so we don't expect that to be the case. So a place like an off-the-shelf event that was done at a hedge fund, one thing that they did for an hour and a half, Friday at 4:00 PM--actually I believe the agenda was an hour. We took three weeks to prepare, got applications and coached people. And that may sound weird, but I'll tell you what we had coached them on. We had them answer in June of 2020, a month after George Floyd was killed. "How have the recent events involving race, how have they been relevant to experiences you've had in previous workplaces or in this workplace?" We structured it so that everyone had a little bit of listening skill as they got started. And four employees--not all of them black--some white decided to come share their story with 700 of their colleagues.

Greg Dowling (27:05):


Rhonda Fitzgerald (27:06):

One hour. They had like a seven-minute timer where they just shared their stories for seven minutes, and then we had a clear protocol. "Do you want people to talk to you about this afterwards? Or is this like a one-and-done thing where you open up to these people just once?" I couldn't believe the positive impact of this hour, which was characterized just by that experience-sharing. And we did a lot of pre-work of getting folks to the table who wanted to be there. Of course this wasn't mandatory. Of course there wasn't time for people to ask Q&A where it's like, "Well, don't you think that you actually experienced X, just to play devil's advocate?"

Rhonda Fitzgerald (27:37):

We didn't even have time for that. So even though an hour is a lot for 700 employees, many people are doing the math on that saying, "Woah!" Even that is quite a bit. A coalition of the willing who's actually saying, "No, I care enough about my colleagues I do want to hear how this has to do with them and how they live." It was extremely powerful. And that's something I recommend. Folks can get in touch with us for that. We can just tell them quickly how to structure that technically and give them a few slides to make sure that that's something well done and not poorly done, because there are ways to do exactly that and completely get weird about it. But that's an off-the-shelf thing that can see what there is in a place internally that doesn't mean committing to a five-stage peace process.

Greg Dowling (28:16):

I think of the financial industry, especially the money management industry, as being very analytical and not as empathetic. That's why I asked that question. Being personal? People showed empathy and they were okay? And there wasn't, as you pointed out, "Well, what about this or what about that?" So it's all in the structure of how you do it versus the people that you deal with?

Rhonda Fitzgerald (28:35):

In another life I'm a money manager and I'm a pretty analytical person. Some would say I am more of a thinker than a feeler on these approaches. Here's what we do, honestly, we don't leave it up to chance. You don't leave the structure up to chance when you've got that serious of a ball game that you're playing. You make sure that if someone's going to share their story, that a, they know the risks of sharing their stories with their colleagues and b, that they're going to get hurt. So the precautions in place matter so much. I would say, don't begin to do this halfway. So unless people are saying, "Hey, here's what I'm willing to do beforehand to make sure everyone's respected and heard fully. And here's the structure so that everyone knows what to expect." You don't play around with this. It's a bit of playing around with fire to say, "Hey, we're going to merge the worlds." So I think the analytical folks who are dealing in a very intimate way with people's money. I mean, nothing's more intimate. Those are the perfect types. They understand the different values that folks have. I'd say they're a natural set of candidates for this work if they're interested.

Greg Dowling (29:30):

That's great. Pivoting a little bit, you'd mentioned it earlier about mentoring and spending time with kids. It seems like every generation is a little bit different, but it seems like the younger generation is much more open to these conversations. Are you just then providing the framework for them? What is the work that you're doing there?

Rhonda Fitzgerald (29:46):

Well, let's talk about Gen Z. They're coming into the workplace. I like to think of them as they push on the walls for change very quickly. And so industries are being completely surprised by their ability to say, "Hey, I think that everyone who works here as a manager should read X." I had a person interview for our workplace. And they said--during the interview they said this, and I thought this was fascinating. They said, "Hey, if I don't think something's just, I'm going to talk to you all about it. Is that okay in your workplace?" And I appreciated their knowing themselves that much. I took it to the rest of the team and said, "Hey, we're thinking about hiring this person--by the way they come with a note. [laughs] The note says, 'if they see something, that's not just, they're going to bring it up.' Is everyone okay with that?"

Rhonda Fitzgerald (30:27):

This is a credit to the Sustained Dialogue Institute, of course they were like, "Well, yeah, we'd love to know. We'd love for them to bring that to us." So I'd say the mindset for a lot of this generation is, "We're consultants on morality. Y'all have been weird about it." They've seen us shut down the government. They've seen us do all these weird things during their childhood. So honestly, I'd say even me as a millennial, they don't trust our moral compass. [laughs] They're worried about us. They're like, "I don't know if you know how to keep a government running," which is amazing to think about, that's why you see those hosts of Gen Z consulting with boomers and millennials and Gen X. They're trying to train us how to think about this.

Rhonda Fitzgerald (31:06):

But honestly, the work that I'm doing with college students, this is very specific peace-building work. Frequently we're stretching their minds and saying, "Guess what? There isn't just one way." It's not just they're going to read a book and then they're going to be an expert. What if they've already read the book and they just don't agree? Like, what will you do then? So I frequently have to talk to them very frankly: "I'm a black woman, and there are times when a New York Times article did not solve the equation." That doesn't mean that we can actually have dialogue. What you're actually talking about is academic education. And if you're talking about academic education, then what you're doing is teaching. And if teaching isn't always the solution, then what's next? And so we're there when they say, "Ooh, what's next?" I think that's a freeing thing for a lot of this generation saying, "Wait, I don't have to have all the answers and I don't have to be the moral compass of the globe." But that takes a lot of growth and time. And not to say that... I think they're onto a lot. They're trying to end racism within two years, and honestly, can any other generation say that? I don't know.

Greg Dowling (32:04):

That's one of the things I really appreciate with the younger generation is that they don't necessarily see hierarchies. They have no problem going to the president and just marching into the president's office and saying, "Hey, this is how we should do things." I think that's refreshing, but also how to deal with them is a challenge at times.

Rhonda Fitzgerald (32:19):

Yeah. And I love that challenge.

Greg Dowling (32:21):

What has been your hardest challenge?

Rhonda Fitzgerald (32:23):

Hardest challenge. Honestly, dialogue works with people. I meet, in a very honest way, lots of people. So I hear their thoughts about things that I never thought they would say. And it's both the best thing and the hardest thing, is to hear the truth from people. I enjoy it. I'm a naturally curious person, I want to know how you got here and where you're going with whatever you've got. But sometimes I realize that someone made a comment three weeks ago that's just been rattling around in my head and I've got all these non-disclosure agreements and confidentiality agreements and so I have to like really talk to myself about, "What does it mean that they believe that for you as a human?"

Greg Dowling (32:56):


Rhonda Fitzgerald (32:57):

A bit of the training of a bridge-builder or facilitator is "your feelings don't matter." So you're not allowed to just go like, "I can't believe that!" It would make me quite bad at my job. But it means three weeks later, sometimes I'll be thinking and thinking about what someone shared. I think everybody at our organization relates to that, and almost everybody in the field relates to that.

Greg Dowling (33:15):

So it sounds like the hardest things are some of those personal things that you're internalizing versus a conflict in the Middle East or Africa or the Soviet Union. It's the personal issues that kind of stay with you, personal comments that stay with you longer.

Rhonda Fitzgerald (33:27):

Well, those are common to every single conflict that you've just named all over the world. They're different, but they're painful, what people have been taught and believe to be true about other people. So the things I've heard in Kenya surprise me just as much as the things I hear in Washington state, that's globally in common.

Greg Dowling (33:45):

So we've been talking about conflict and how to resolve it. Tell me something uplifting, give me some optimism here.

Rhonda Fitzgerald (33:50):

Okay. This is a little out there, but there is a part of our brain called the amygdala. It's the part that is the source of reactions to conflict. This is sort of a joke, but it's also true. You can train your amygdala to stop being so flabbergasted by the things that people say. And this is like amazing physiology and biology. So if someone shares an opinion that you find to be kind of gross, like, "The only restaurant I'd ever eat at is Long John Silver's for the rest of my life." No offense to those who used to manage Long John Silver's or who own the business. Someone says something that you completely disagree with and you're like, "No, it's Red Lobster by a landslide!" You can actually train yourself to get your prefrontal cortex back online by pausing, breathing, and clarifying. Saying, "Hey, tell me more about what you love about Long John Silver's."

Rhonda Fitzgerald (34:35):

That actually is like a hack for your mental capacity to deal with difference. And that's something that almost every one of us could practice. So it's something actionable that I do every day. I separate "Hey, is that bothering me because it's an opinion? Let me try clarifying and giving myself some time and air and breathe a little and see how I feel about this. Because I'm going to learn something cool about Long John Silver's menu that I clearly don't know." Those are the types of things that give me some hope, is the fact that we're wired for connection. We want to be together. And every day people are kind of being there. Now, take that with a grain of salt. I only meet people who are willing to do this work. I don't let anybody who's been mandatorily brought there do anything. So what that means is I only see people who are like, "Yeah, I want to be a bridge-builder," which gives me hope every day.

Greg Dowling (35:16):

You can still use that technique if you're in the airport and you're having a rough go at it, you can just breathe and just calm your body. So that's important stuff. Very important.

Rhonda Fitzgerald (35:28):


Greg Dowling (35:28):

Well, very good. Well, I have been uplifted and I've been educated. So thanks for investing your time with us today, Rhonda.

Rhonda Fitzgerald (35:37):

Thanks for sharing this work with your colleagues and all the institutions out there doing great work.

Greg Dowling (35:41):

Thanks again. If you are interested in more information on the topic, please go to our website where we will have a list of relevant FEG publications. And don't forget to subscribe to our communications at www.feg.com/subscribe so you don't miss the next episode. Please keep in mind that this information is intended to be general education that needs to be framed within the unique risk and return objectives of each client; therefore, nobody should consider these FEG recommendations. This podcast was prepared by FEG, neither the information nor any opinion expressed in this podcast constitutes an offer or an invitation to make an offer to buy or sell any securities. The views or opinions expressed by guest speakers are solely their own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of FEG.


This was prepared by FEG (also known as Fund Evaluation Group, LLC), a federally registered investment adviser under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, as amended, providing non-discretionary and discretionary investment advice to its clients on an individual basis. Registration as an investment adviser does not imply a certain level of skill or training. The oral and written communications of an adviser provide you with information about which you determine to hire or retain an adviser. Fund Evaluation Group, LLC, Form ADV Part 2A & 2B can be obtained by written request directly to: Fund Evaluation Group, LLC, 201 East Fifth Street, Suite 1600, Cincinnati, OH 45202, Attention: Compliance Department. Neither the information nor any opinion expressed constitutes an offer, or an invitation to make an offer, to buy or sell any securities. The information herein was obtained from various sources. FEG does not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of such information provided by third parties. The information is given as of the date indicated and believed to be reliable. FEG assumes no obligation to update this information, or to advise on further developments relating to it. Past performance is not an indicator or guarantee of future results. Diversification or Asset Allocation does not assure or guarantee better performance and cannot eliminate the risk of investment loss. The views or opinions expressed by guest speakers are solely their own and do not represent the views or opinions of Fund Evaluation Group, LLC.


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