In my first job after college, I found myself explaining to a customer how to use a tampon.
Par for the course, as I worked on the customer experience team for a company that sold period and sexual health products. During one of my first few weeks, the customer wrote in asking how to use our tampons — she couldn’t figure out how to use the applicator. Her message was apologetic. It was clear that she was embarrassed to be asking the question.
Understandable, you may think, but consider it this way — there would be no shame in asking how to use a new vacuum cleaner. But because she was asking a question that related to her period and her body, the interaction felt so much more sensitive and personal.
As I wrote back to her, I thought carefully about my tone and the way that I balanced conversational friendliness and clear information. My goal was not only to answer her question, but also to put her at ease and assure her that this was a perfectly normal question to ask. The end result? Not only did she appreciate having a better understanding of how to use the product, but she also felt comfortable asking more questions, knowing that they’d be received and responded to with care. Through that interaction, we built trust.
Trust is crucial to create engaged, healthy communities. It allows members to show up authentically, creates spaces that encourage more in-depth conversations, and sets a foundation for genuine relationship building. But trust can be harder to build when your community deals with topics that may be more sensitive or uncomfortable, or when these types of topics arise in your community.
In these moments, communities look to the folks leading them to create safe environments for them, and so navigating these conversations is a skill that is important to anyone in a community-facing role. Between starting my career in the period and sexual health space (Lola), and now leading a community that centers on conversations about money (Public.com), I’ve had my fair share of personal, sensitive conversations. These are my strategies for approaching them.
Break the ice
As a community leader, you are respected and looked up to by the folks in your community. If you show that you’re comfortable talking about something that is traditionally seen as uncomfortable, others will follow suit.
Always be willing to share first, and if you can, rely on personal anecdotes or examples. When we first started building the community at Public.com, instead of strictly talking about investments, I would share stories about how I first learned about personal finance topics to make it clear that this was a space where conversations about money didn’t need to be solely technical or analytical. Similarly, at Lola’s in-person community breakfasts, our Community Manager would start the event by sharing her first period story before asking attendees to do the same.
Lead by example
Your members look up to and respect you. They look to you to see how you’ll react to or engage with certain topics, and you get to set an example for others to follow. If you demonstrate that you’re comfortable talking about something that might be seen as taboo in a mature and respectful way, others will follow suit. You can also put others at ease by being willing to share or speak up first.
At Public, I find it important to share personal anecdotes or examples of my experiences learning about personal finance and investing, and to be open about the fact that there are plenty of things that I have left to learn too. In doing so, my goal is to create a space where everyone feels confident participating in conversation even if they don’t feel fully confident in their understanding of finances or investing.
The same goes for conversations that come up within your community organically! If a community member shares an anecdote or question about something sensitive, the way you react will inform the way the majority of your community reacts, too. If your response is affirming and open, other members of the community are more likely to engage with the conversation in a similar manner.
The language you use in conversation guides its direction, too. I’m a big proponent of specific language, because it signals comfort with subject matter and an openness to engage. When talking about period health for example, using the words “periods” and “menstruation” instead of “time of the month” or “aunt flow” helped send the message that there is nothing embarrassing or shameful about talking about periods.
Slang can have a lot of complex connotations that can be avoided by using specific language. If your community meets in person, body language matters a lot too. Make eye contact, avoid slouching, and avoid mumbling or speaking in hushed tones. The way you embody physical space can do a lot to put your community at ease.
Help people find their entry points
Even if you’ve created a safe space for uncomfortable discussions, your members still may need an extra nudge to jump in. At Public, members of our community who are newer to investing may not feel like they have enough knowledge to actively participate in conversations.
But by learning about the products that they use in their day-to-day lives, we can often make connections to publicly traded companies that they actually know a lot about. A runner may have a favorite apparel or shoe brand, and if that’s a publicly traded company, then talking about that company gives them a foothold (pun intended) into talking about investing.
In your role as a community leader, you’ve likely put in the work to get to know your members, so put that knowledge to use to ask questions or help point out areas of connection for them. Identifying areas of familiarity for a member within a larger discussion is a great way to encourage them to be a more active participant.
Protect the space
Having clear community guidelines is crucial for any community, to set expectations around what behavior is and is not acceptable within your community space. If your community is covering sensitive or uncomfortable topics, community guidelines become even more important in order to protect the trust built among members.
Inclusive language or personal privacy may be especially important to you as you define rules for your community. Make sure your community guidelines are clearly outlined and easy to find (Alex Angel wrote a great post on that here), and react swiftly anytime the rules are violated.
As the leader of your community, protecting the space will reinforce your members’ trust in the safety of the environment where uncomfortable conversations are taking place.