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Nothing is Neutral: Navigating difficult conversations with Genevieve Smith, Social and Organizational Change Expert

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In this interview, you meet Genevieve Smith, an expert in social and organizational change, values alignment and data for social good who is also affectionately known by colleagues and work friends as a “professional bummer”. You’ll learn how and why she has earned that title as we talk about managing difficult conversations about polarizing topics, and how “nothing is neutral”.

You’re invited into a vibrant conversation about values alignment, and how to navigate conversations with anyone in a personal or professional light, from your racist uncle to your boss, about issues as complex and deep as racial equality, religion or gender issues.

We talk about how “woke shaming” is not a path that serves anyone, and how humor can open people to listen, get over themselves, and connect, even when we don’t agree. We have more in common than we often think, and this episode is a reminder that while “nothing is neutral” we have more common ground than we often think.

Genevieve Smith’s Advisory: This Month’s Action Page: Share your questions and your stories – connect with us on social platforms or e-mail us at:


Corinna Bellizzi: Hello, and welcome friends and fellow do-gooders, today I have the honor of interviewing a very special guest Genevieve Smith, an expert in social and organizational change values alignment and data for social good. In two words she refers to herself as a professional bummer so we’re going to find out what that means. She actually got connected to me through an interesting slack channel where women help women called women get paid. And through her appearance on another podcast I actually found out a little bit more about her. She appeared on Change Finance’s ESG podcast for environment, social and governance investing. I was impressed with her approach to social change and the methods, she uses to help people navigate uncomfortable conversations. So the first uncomfortable conversation i’d like to navigate with you Genevieve is what does it mean to be a professional bummer.

Genevieve Smith (she/they): that’s a great that’s a great place to start, and thank you for having me! so professional bummer it’s it kind of came from a joke at work. It’s really been like, “Oh no, Genevieve’s, here we just came up with this idea and she’s going to tell us what’s wrong with it.”And what it’s really evolved into is really owning that piece of my work, especially when working with. social change organizations and folks who are do gooders right and we’ve got a lot of beautiful collective rhetoric about making the world a better place. i’m the one who comes in at the lunch when everybody’s happy to talk about how much better they’re making it will wait hold on what about are you really what’s happening here. In a way, that is, I hope, accessible and somewhat friendly but really like what it comes down to is if we are to build the equitable world that works for everyone that many of us claim that we want to build we got a bum each other out and bum our families out. I remember after the unite the right rally in charlottesville there was this perfect tweet and all have to remember, who was the we can put it in in the sources. But it was something about like if if we really want to fight racism in this country call out your racist uncle like ruin thanksgiving. And that’s how I feel about being a professional bummer like if we’re really going to do the work like we say we want to we got to get a little uncomfortable but i’ll sit with you, while we’re uncomfortable like I won’t abandon you or yell at you.

Corinna Bellizzi: So tell me how many thanksgivings you’ve ruined.

Genevieve Smith (she/they): Oh. I’m not invited anyway.

Corinna Bellizzi: No, but I really think that’s an important conversation we’re all trying to have this right now, so what happens when you get to dinner, and you have a disagreement with your racist uncle, how do you navigate that conversation.

Genevieve Smith (she/they): Oh that’s it’s such a big question, and what I always come back to his first the self-care aspect of it all like if i’m coming into the conversation already fired up. And already you know ready to attack my racist uncle about genocide and colonization if i’m already pissed and I know he’s not going to agree with me it’s going to be more of a like self righteous vendetta conversation, regardless of how you know noble my my aims may be. But in any of those uncomfortable conversations if we’re coming at it ready to start a fire it’s not going to go well, but if we come at it, saying hey I really I really do genuinely want to understand where you’re at with this, which is not necessarily endorsing that behavior, right? Something that I always come back to and I’ve always got to ground myself in this I grow my clients, and this is compassion for somebody humanity is not endorsement of their ideas or their behavior so saying hey problematic family member. How are you feeling, because if somebody’s angry, or if somebody is so committed to this like black and white right or wrong way of thinking. There’s usually some fear under that and so being able to get under that and to say how are you feeling right now, like what are you worried about in the world. And who do you love like who are you worried about who are you worried about keeping you safe and really bringing it to that human piece of these conversations and to be able to relate to like hey I love my family too, because I think, on the whole. The majority of people don’t wake up in the morning and say I don’t care about my family I don’t care about my neighbors I don’t care about what happens to people in the world. May may not be actively thinking about caring about their neighbors and that may show up in very problematic ways. But to get back to the point. If I go into that conversation committed to him being wrong and being a jerk that I disagree with, I’m not going to go, but if I go in committed to recognizing his humanity… I’m not endorsing his racism, but I’m holding compassion for his humanity and that I’ve found, and these one on one conversations, is the only way that we’re going to even get any common ground.

Corinna Bellizzi: So finding that common ground you’re actually doing by getting them to think about what they care about first like what do they actually care about why are they actually afraid of immigrants coming in from Mexico or refugees crossing the border, you know what is driving that what is making them so upset and so activated over something that probably won’t affect their daily lives.

Genevieve Smith (she/they): Exactly exactly and I’ve found, and this is something that I challenged myself to do all the time too. You know, for me, I can name what i’m against very easily and against fascism i’m against a punitive justice system, I’m against racism, homophobia. I’m against a lot of things. And I always come back to, especially when i’m like all fired up my adrenaline is going and at work i’m sad and I feel hopeless what am I forward yes i’m against all these things that still scans, what are the things that i’m for and it’s love it’s equity it’s Community based resourcing. Community power. And so, and this is how you know I think of this as sort of a strengths based lens rather than a deficit based lens because we were all really good at talking about like what’s wrong. And so, being able to like religion and say like Okay, but what do you like what lights you up Okay, and then can we expand that love you have, for your family or for part of maybe right into like well why doesn’t that expensive to other human people.  Right yeah with that, like compassion Is not endorsement.

Corinna Bellizzi: Genevieve I think you hit the nail on the head, at least for me personally, I mean, why do I call this a podcast for social good and sustainability, because even all those things that rally me up. The common thread that I think most of us can agree on is that we want to live well and we prefer to do good and so doing. I mean there are going to be the outliers that don’t give a crap really about anybody, but that’s not most people. They care about their families, they care about their neighbors, they care about their communities, whether or not that’s coming through in their actions of the things that they’re saying. So, given that I, like you to talk a little bit, or at least have a conversation with me about how you integrate that whole perspective into the work that you do to help companies kind of activate themselves and be walking the walk that they’re talking.

Genevieve Smith (she/they): I love it and just one more thing I want to add on to that personal conversation like big big caveat if that person doesn’t think that you should be alive, based on your identity, maybe don’t have a conversation like don’t go to thanksgiving. it’s like.  it’s really important to not carry every single boulder on our back some conversations are not for us and self care is community care that’s a really important umbrella to all of that.

Corinna Bellizzi: I agree, thank you for that clarification, yes.

Genevieve Smith (she/they): Yes, so what i’ve been really excited about is it’s all the same logic in working with corporations or working with. NGOs or teams, or you know, whoever is really getting to what do you care about and the trick with my work has been. Whenever we talk about values or these sort of abstractions of like integrity or quality or world peace. If we spend more than half an hour talking about what that means. Traditional corporate leaders can get very frustrated because it doesn’t feel like we’re actually doing anything and it doesn’t track to traditional productivity and it can feel really like. This is all just like whoo whoo we have it at the all staff meeting, but once we’re in the boardroom I want to make decisions. And so it’s being able to balance know we’re going to make these very concrete and tie them to your bottom line, and in order to get there. We’ve got to have some very vulnerable conversations so what’s been really helpful for me is I do work as a leadership coach so I’m able to sort of walk through those technicalities, while also reading. Okay where’s whatever resistance coming from if this does feel like it’s too, why are you uncomfortable talking about what peace actually means. Because part of really aligning values as in a quality integrity piece, all of these words that we find on the back of the boardroom walls or on beautifully branded websites. Not all that they mean. What do those words not mean because we see these words used in all kinds of movements, especially nationalistic movements, especially oppressive movements family values, you know love of country. We got to set some parameters and we got me where our mouth is so it’s been really balancing the seemingly philosophical question of what do these words mean balancing that with efficiency and running a business and being practical about what that means, so one of the ways that I do, that is, will define a value say, inclusion, and will define all of the aspects of that value so that’s not only it’s not just representation. it’s, how do we create a culture of belonging and it’s not only racial equity, because all of a sudden, people are learning about racial equity. Post, the murder of George floyd it’s also what’s your website accessibility can folks who are hard of hearing or blind access your content can your employees who are hard of hearing at your meetings oh you don’t have any employees who are hard of hearing what’s that about. And so it’s really digging into those wounds and then saying Okay, yes, this feels big this can feel overwhelming it can feel Harry let’s take a look at your business processes, whether it is your all staff meeting or your training material or. How you contract with outside contractors what is that language, and how does that map up to this very concrete definition of a previously abstract value.

Corinna Bellizzi: So Genevieve as you talked about all of these different words that we’re working to define and how they might mean different things to different people like if somebody on the alt right is championing pride and country that that could mean something different that even today there are people on the other side of the aisle that consider themselves more liberal that may be afraid to put an Emblazoned American flag out on fourth of July now so i’d like to talk about this concept that I heard you talk about on another podcast. Nothing is neutral and what that means and how we can kind of work through that challenge.

Genevieve Smith (she/they): Yes, thank you for bringing it up, it informs all of my work as well as the way I move through the world, nothing is neutral. And I think it’s important to you know those are both really extreme examples you know the alt right and pride of country or love of country, and you know more left leaning folks who may be worried about what patriotism means right now Those are two really important examples it’s also really important to note the nuance of this stuff, especially in companies and on teams. You know I often say if you’ve got five people in a boardroom and they all say they believe in integrity ask them what that means, you will get six and a half, different answers. Some of them may be overlapping, there are a lot of venn diagrams here but everybody’s got a different Frame of Reference so it’s it’s holding space for not only the really extreme stuff. but also your neighbor who voted the same way that you do you know composts instead of recycles great. How much in an ECHO Chamber are you actually because we go through the world sort of assuming that we mean the same things and often whether it’s in a personal relationship business relationship, a policy argument in a think tank six months down the road we go, oh no oh you thought we were talking about this, no, I was talking about this thing. So really just getting clear on those definitions it’s so important, but to come back to this idea that nothing is neutral. I have found that we tend to hide behind neutrality and we tend to hide behind you know I don’t want to get political. So I don’t want to talk about this thing at work we’re not going to make a statement about black lives matter because we’re not political pals my friends, it is not political. And it gets too i’m sure many people saw it on signs, or maybe even carried these signs and protests silences violence when we don’t speak up and when we’re not very clear in our intention, we leave a lot of room for values that are or are not ours to run them up. And this isn’t an argument for censorship it’s also not an argument for like really self righteous like here’s what I think all the time it’s anytime we move through the world whether it’s walking to the grocery store ordering delivered groceries interacting with the cashier using the self checkout at the grocery using a plastic bag using our own bag and every other errand we run how we do our laundry. How we heat our homes up to who we’re hiring what messaging we’re using what words and rhetoric we’re using every single action or inaction has an effect on the world around us, even just thinking on like very, very granular terms like i’m moving my hands around a lot when I talk and the air around my hands is moving so it’s nothing is neutral is not meant to scare or overwhelm folks because it can feel big and it can feel paralyzing sometimes like oh no nothing is new draw I don’t want to mess up I better just not move it’s not that. Especially because 100% alignment of values is very hard, if not totally impossible, not only in the current system that we live in, but values can be intention on the corporate side you’ve got Transparency and privacy. Those are always intention with each other and it’s a matter of balancing them, and you know, a personal value that I think a lot of people but up against is inclusion and then the minute somebody doesn’t agree with them, they fly off the handle. Hmm is that inclusive, so we get to also give ourselves grace and say you know what I did pretty good today and i’ll do better tomorrow, but if we try to move to 100% alignment and then use that as a way to shame other people that’s only feeding into that larger system.

Corinna Bellizzi: seems to be a hobby for some now it’s called I think woke shaming right like you’re not woke enough for what is the term now if you refer to yourself as he or she or zim or them, you know, suddenly, somebody makes a mistake, they goof… they say the wrong pronoun and everyone in the room gasps I mean, I live in Santa Cruz county where we’ve come further down the road than some other communities around the world. And so we’ve been having these conversations, for the past 20 years and they’ve been getting more in depth in the last 10 and then five and then to, to the point where. I think we’re fairly comfortable as a Community with gender issues or gender inclusiveness and people feeling like they can be who they want to be. But they still have the same sort of challenges, every time they step outside of our bubble, and I think it creates a little bit of anxiety for them, but then, also for the others who don’t know or aren’t comfortable with or haven’t figured out yet how to absorb this and consider it at a level where it becomes ingrained and normal to them because reality is it still isn’t normal to a lot of people they can’t see it that way… yet. We’re all moving in that direction, so how do we encourage that without inflaming somebody to the point where they say I give up this is all too hard, I still refer to people from you know South Asia as oriental or something to that effect, you know, like it’s. it’s a very challenging issue, I think, to navigate through and it’s, particularly in some areas of the country. 

So I have a question from our Community. Dale asks: “How do you find common ground when it seems both sides are at an impasse and are virtually irreconcilable, especially around race, gender and faith.”

Genevieve Smith (she/they): yeah it’s huge and it goes back to the you know the very first thing that we talked about it, like if you go in and you’re lit up and you’re ready to throw a Molotov cocktail don’t have the conversation straight up don’t have the conversation, and this consistent sort of looking in the mirror holding up the mirror, not only to other people about their problematic behavior but if you’re not willing to hold up your own mirror it’s hypocritical. It mean and it doesn’t do the movement any good So yes, nothing is neutral, but also be nice. And it goes back to that same idea of compassion is not endorsement, and the second half of that is accountability is not policing and what I mean by that is holding somebody accountable to once they know better do better does not mean punishing them or you know, putting the the idea of like canceling when it’s actually canceling there are things that get called canceling that are not canceling but is once somebody says, “oh whoa I didn’t know that,” which is a scary place to be especially when you are used to being the smartest person in the room, or the person with the power. All of a sudden your competency is gone and you feel really vulnerable, not to say that that’s the right thing, but it is a feeling and so being able to work through that with folks I think is really important, but to get to that question finding common ground. First checking in with yourself and understanding what your come from is do you want to find common ground, and this is a question that’s not an attack right that’s a question I have with myself all the time, sometimes I don’t want to sometimes i’m just mad.

Corinna Bellizzi: mm hmm.

Genevieve Smith (she/they): And I have no actual desire to find common ground so i’m not going to have a conversation. When I do want to find common ground it’s those same questions, what do you care about. What do you love, who do you love, how do you define love, which takes vulnerability on both sides, what do you believe in and reframing the question in terms of what are you for rather than what are you against and seeing where those venn diagrams sort of like lineup. And same caveat if this person doesn’t have an intention of finding common ground with you spend your energy somewhere else, this is not we don’t mean to like punish ourselves or other people about this so it’s got to be a consensual conversation.

Corinna Bellizzi: Right, well, I think you just answered Patricio his question, he said, “People often approach, a disagreement with a mindset of winning the argument and viewing the other party as an opponent. It will be interesting to hear her thoughts on how to reframe that interaction. Before you engage, how can we show more compassion towards our fellow human beings and work towards a common goal versus combating with the other person?” 

I mean the way he asked that question was so perfect because. It shows he’s definitely thinking about these things, I had a friend on social spaces, who you know he’s not the most sensitive and he he makes some let’s just say leaps and judgment quite easily and often comments on things that he completely disagrees with and it isn’t always friendly, and so one of the ways that my friends have started to handle this is with humor. I think humor really deserves a little bit of a moment in the spotlight to what they’ll say is things like “Oh no, uncle so and so came to ruin the bbq.” And I find myself for a moment just going, “YES, you know I should have said that,” but I stayed silent, because I was sick of being the Moderator of this conversation from somebody who’s consistently trying to inflame people he doesn’t agree with so, I wonder what your thoughts are on finding a humorous way to approach this in some cases, like, I think it has a potential to backfire but also the potential to get people listening.

Genevieve Smith (she/they): Oh yeah I mean it’s huge it’s huge and I know you know in my work and just with my personality, like, I know that when i’m in a workshop or when we’re in the middle of a really tough conversation, if I can get a laugh I it makes my job so much easier and I think not only humor and like you alluded to really intentional humor you know not making light on the subject, but making light of like wow humans are so fragile like Why is this so hard and. For me, I think a lot about you know learning in public and part of that compassion and part of that hey we’re in this together i’m not coming for you it’s not woke shaming it’s not impact Olympics like I’m here to learn to is to share where we’re at and to be willing to make fun of ourselves and especially if you know I think the stereotypes about white Liberals are incredible from are pretty funny. And so I think like yeah Okay, yes I listen to npr and yes yeah I have the clock that whatever it is right to let the person, they are people that you’re interacting with know that you don’t take yourself too seriously, because I think that that is one of our big communications problems as like a large group of people who are like minded is we come off as holier than now, and a lot of us are holier than now and own that like stopping self righteous dude and… Was I woke shaming, you know? And, and to be willing to like let people in, you know? I mean I think one of my big things when I talk about values alignment, because some people will think oh it’s Genevieve you know they know everything about being values aligned. Know like the pants that look really good on me are from H&M and I haven’t bought new clothes in a year because we’re you know, in a pandemic, and they were $25… But also, I had a pretty good idea of H&M supply chain and manufacturing… Whoa, whoa… but my butt looks good and stories like that to be able to say, “hey i’m not God! like it’s fine and I know that this can come off as somewhat… Carry on.”

Corinna Bellizzi: You should be living in a tree House you know, on a commune like this. 

Genevieve Smith (she/they): Exactly, yeah and I think the other thing is To also get to you it’s also really good barometer humor is a fantastic barometer that if a joke lands somebody coming with you. And I think it was George Carlin had some beautiful quote about you know laughter when you’re laughing your defenses are down and that’s when new ideas can get it. So from that aspect it’s really, really, really important and and when somebody just says something ridiculous like I am not afraid of being like Okay, how many red herrings are you going to put like the What about isms. To be able to be like yo what are you doing what’s happening here.

Corinna Bellizzi: “But what about…? what about…?” Right. Exactly.

Genevieve Smith (she/they): yeah but to have that sort of camaraderie or like hey we’re both people and, like we both come on what’s happening here.

Corinna Bellizzi: Well, very good before we wrap up i’d love to give you the opportunity to just share a few ways that our audience can get involved to create a little bit more social good out there any ideas do you have.

Genevieve Smith (she/they): yeah have the conversation and then have the not easy conversation, you know I think we all sort of have their like here’s my list of friends, I can talk to this talk about this stuff with.

Genevieve Smith (she/they): talk to the people who you feel like you can’t talk about social good or you know take it sort of I would invite people to take our kind of internal inventory of. Where do I censor myself about the things that I believe in and I know just through the work that i’ve done a lot of people feel like they can’t bring their values to work. which I understand, but at the same time, is a wild concept, so I would I would invite people to push themselves to have these conversations with the people who. They don’t know if they agree with them, you know get out of that kind of safety zone, because if it stays in the bubble we’ve stayed in the bubble for 50 years like what what progress has that has that gotten us, and so I think that’s really important, I also think listening and being really mindful about what our comm forums are, and you know whether you’re on the Internet or having a conversation with your boss or having an interaction with anybody really is really checking in and saying like Oh, am I reading this because i’m doing scrolling and I want to like take somebody down or not because I had a bad day. Or do I genuinely want to know what fox news is reporting, because I want to understand that perspective. And just really checking in with ourselves there, and if folks do run businesses and or lead teams take a look at your business practices with that frame of nothing is neutral and maybe once a month let’s look at one process and see if that’s aligned to your values.

Corinna Bellizzi: I love that now, I just want to thank you for a great conversation today, I personally really enjoyed it and for being a part of this Community, and this pod.

Corinna Bellizzi: i’d personally like to invite everybody who’s listening to visit the website care more be better dot com, I will have resources there, including Genevieve website GB advisory so that you can take a look at what she does, and perhaps even use her services. So let’s stay connected and do this again sometime.

Genevieve Smith (she/they): I really enjoyed it. Thank you so much for having me.

Corinna Bellizzi: Yes, and thank you to everybody who’s listening go out there and have a conversation with that difficult on goal it doesn’t hurt to try right.


  • Genevieve Smith

    Independent consultant, organizational behavior and change Genevieve is a social change and organizational behavior expert working with INGOs, Corporate leaders, and communities to connect dots, people, and ideas for equitable systems and worlds. She began as a data analyst in a small corner of a disabilities services organization, and quickly realized that we couldn't demonstrate impact because our data practices didn't have a mission at their center. Since then, Genevieve has been working with organizations to design their business practices around their mission and/or values—not the other way around.

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