Hard conversations can change the world—an event with Fred Dust

Every day, the bold providers of MSI have hard conversations—from challenging taboos around contraception to supporting teen girls who are pregnant and don’t want to be. We know that difficult conversations are opportunities to learn, grow, and ultimately change lives.

Yesterday, MSI hosted an online conversation between Fred Dust, author of the book Making Conversation, and MSI United States President Marjorie Newman-Williams. Together, they talked about the essentials for making difficult conversations work, and some of the sensitive, challenging topics MSI’s providers deal with every day.

In Making Conversation, Fred writes:

“Everything in life is in tension, everyone, every family, organization or country is in constant tension. The work of “Creative Tensions” is to remind us that we can navigate them when we acknowledge they exist and are willing to discuss them as a collective.” 

For MSI providers, navigating that “creative tension” is crucial. In many of the countries where we work, women’s reproductive healthcare is still taboo. Providers like Damaless Mukaka in Zambia and Fatmata Sesay in Sierra Leone often arrive in remote villages where people are skeptical of contraception, even though they’d like to prevent or delay pregnancy. And it’s not just the women themselves they need to convince—men in the community, including religious leaders, are often gatekeepers, and their objections can prevent women from accessing services. How can we approach these conversations to make choice possible for vulnerable women?

One participant flagged the importance of “translating” messages, so they feel relevant to the audience you’re addressing. For example, some people might respond well to statistics, while others relate more to personal stories. At MSI, we know that messages must be adapted to be understood and accepted in different countries and communities where we work. Our staff, most of whom are working in their home communities, are adept at communicating effectively with clients because they understand the needs and aspirations of their communities.

Of course, the taboos around reproductive healthcare don’t just impact our clients—they affect our providers, too. At Provider Share Workshops, MSI team members, both men and women, share how their work impacts their lives. Some experience rejection by their churches and families because their work, saving women’s lives from unsafe abortions, is stigmatized. Others share deeply personal stories about how unsafe abortion impacted their sisters or friends. By sharing both the challenges and impacts of their work with each other, having hard conversations, they can better care for their clients, and for themselves.

As the discussion with Fred Dust continued, several participants noted that not every conversation will end with agreement. When you treat conversations as an opportunity to learn rather than convince, you build trust and open space for a more honest conversation. A trusted community member can open doors for women who are considering taking contraception for the first time. Marjorie described one visit to an MSI center in Ethiopia. She watched a woman go through a counseling session with the clinical staff—then walk outside to ask the opinion of the woman sweeping the yard. That was who she trusted most!

There’s no avoiding difficult conversations when providing reproductive healthcare. By speaking to people’s needs and aspirations, tackling taboos and building trust, we’re able to make choice possible for some of the world’s most vulnerable women. We’re grateful to Fred Dust for facilitating a powerful discussion about conversations that motivate change, and about MSI’s life-changing work!

Author Fred Dust facilitated a conversation with MSI United States President Marjorie Newman-Williams.


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