SoundAffect: Dr. Nickolas Jordan on getting uncomfortable, taking risks, screwing up, and finding your truth.

Dr. Nickolas Jordan, Associate Dean of the Reich College of Education and licensed marriage and family therapist, gets real about getting real, taking risks, screwing up and - very importantly - staying in relationship.


  • Nickolas Jordan: If we're honest, we all think awful things, and often say terrible things, but how can we stay in a relationship with each other through all of that? I think that's where the problem is, the inability to stay in a relationship when we've hurt each other.

    Speaker 2: From Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, this is Sound Affect. Here's your host, Megan Hayes.

    Megan Hayes: Dr. Nickolas Jordan is Associate Dean of the Reich College of Education at Appalachian State University. Formerly an Assistant Professor and Program Director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program within the department of Human Development and Psychological Counseling. He's a licensed marriage and family therapist, clinic member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, and is an approved supervisor for the same association.

    Dr. Jordan specialized in work with low socioeconomic status individuals, couples, and families of color. His professional interests include university policy, work with diversity, social justice, and relationships created, maintained, and terminated through online video games, and other social media. He holds a PhD in marriage and family therapy from Syracuse University, and is involved in social justice work both in and outside of the classroom on Appalachian's campus. Dr. Nickolas Jordan, welcome to Sound Affect.

    Nickolas Jordan: Thank you, thank you, good to be here.

    Megan Hayes: It's really good to have you here.

    Nickolas Jordan: Thank you.

    Megan Hayes: I was describing you to somebody the other day, and I called you a, "Social justice warrior," and then I thought, "I wonder if he'd like me saying that?" Is that something that you would call yourself?

    Nickolas Jordan: No, no I would not call myself that at all. In fact, I'm totally inept when it comes to this work. I screw up, and I blow it, and I put my foot in my mouth. I say awful things, and think awful things all the time. I wouldn't call myself a social justice warrior, because I suck too much at it, and it's a constant struggle, as it is I think for everyone. So no, I wouldn't call myself that, I'd just call myself someone who has been treated unfairly, and poorly, and I don't want to do to others what's been done to me. That's just as basic as it gets for me.

    Megan Hayes: Don't you think everybody kind of on some level, at some point, sucks at doing that though? There's not a playbook for this, you know?

    Nickolas Jordan: No, no there's not, there's not. The worst part is, not only is there not a playbook, but there is no ... we don't talk about it. There's no talking about it. Even if there was a playbook, we're not allowed to talk about it anyway, right? We don't do that in polite society, so we're screwed all over the place.

    Megan Hayes: So sorry, I didn't mean to laugh at that, it was just kind of the way that you said it.

    Nickolas Jordan: No, no, we're screwed though, it is funny, it's funny, it's funny.

    Megan Hayes: Well, you know, this is interesting, because you and I have talked about this before, and Kama Bell was on our campus last week, and one of the things that I've heard him talk about before is how important it is to have awkward conversations, and that we must have the awkward conversation.

    I've heard you talk about ... slightly different language, but saying it's important to have conversations that you're not necessarily comfortable having. You don't have to be comfortable. Why is it important to be uncomfortable when you're talking to people?

    Nickolas Jordan: Because if we're not uncomfortable, we're not really talking about the things that exist in the world. We're not really acknowledging things like privilege, and power, and oppression if we're not pushing through that discomfort, and in that uncomfortable space, because those are uncomfortable topics. I think of being uncomfortable, at least for me, and how I try to train therapists and teach students that discomfort being a compass.

    Discomfort is not bad, it's having to push through it. If we don't push through it, that's bad, but the discomfort is a compass. If I'm uncomfortable with a conversation, that is exactly the conversation I need to be having. It just so happens that around all of these things, all of these isms, and privilege, and oppression, and all of that kind of stuff, that that's where people get kiddish and, "Shh," but that's exactly where we should be, and those are the conversations we should be having. That discomfort lets us know we're right where we need to be. Does that make sense?

    Megan Hayes: It does. I mean, I get that, "Shh," feeling a lot. I'm somebody that pays a lot of attention to communications-

    Nickolas Jordan: And I still do too. I hate it. I do, I do. Even sitting here talking to you now, even talking about talking about it makes me feel slimy.

    Megan Hayes: It does a little. Well, I don't know about slimy, but it does, it just kind of makes me tense up a little bit, you know?

    Nickolas Jordan: Yeah, yeah. I spend so much time trying not to draw attention to the fact that I'm a large black male, that any kind of conversation around this stuff, like it's ... here it comes, you know? I feel it, I feel the discomfort. No matter how much I do it, no matter how much I practice it.

    Megan Hayes: I want to be a good white person, so that's probably why I feel that way.

    Nickolas Jordan: Right, yeah, yeah.

    Megan Hayes: One of the other things that Kama talked about that we're kind of touching base on right now is not tip-toeing around issues, and not tip-toeing around words. I mean, I feel like I tip-toe around words a lot, you know?

    Nickolas Jordan: Which ones?

    Megan Hayes: Privilege. The other day, I said something about, "Oh, we shouldn't build a wall around ourselves." Now the word, "Build a wall," has meaning that it didn't have, even like a couple months ago. Just like every time I try to choose my words really carefully, and think about all the different people. "What is this going to mean if I were to say to this person, and how would it have a different meaning if I said it to that person? How can I communicate in a way that it's relatable, no matter who I'm talking to?" That can just be difficult. One of the things he was saying is just, "Get it in your face. Just throw it out there."

    Nickolas Jordan: Exactly, throw it out there and know that you're going to put your foot in your mouth, and know that it's going to land on somebody the wrong way, and that's ... it's not okay, but that's no excuse to not have the conversation, and it's no excuse to just kind of pull back. I think when we put our foot in our mouths, and we make mistakes in these kinds of conversation talking about these things, that's okay.

    We have to stay in that relationship and keep going, and be able to acknowledge, "Hey, I'm sorry that that landed on you this certain way, and you perceive this. I did not want to do that, even though my intent doesn't matter, but those are the consequences of my actions. What can I do to stay in a relationship with you, no matter what? Okay, I put my foot in my mouth, but am I going to withdraw from you? Am I going to pull back? No, I'm going to stay in this with you." That's really difficult to do. It's scary, particularly around these things.

    Megan Hayes: I mean, do you think we're just too sensitive? You hear that both all the way to the right, and all the way to the left. You hear everybody accusing everybody else of like, "Oh, they're overly sensitive."

    Nickolas Jordan: I don't know if I would say overly sensitive, but I think we don't know how to stay in relationship with each other, and that's on all sides. We don't know how to stay in relationship with each other when we feel hurt or offended. Whether that means we're too sensitive or not, I don't know, but how can we even through our pain, still stay connected to each other?

    I mean, if we're honest, we all think awful things, we all think and often say terrible things. Those things are real. Those things are out there, but how can we stay in relationship with each other through all of that? I don't know if that makes us too sensitive that we can't do that. I think that's where the problem is, the inability to stay in relationship when we've hurt each other in all of these things.

    Megan Hayes: One of the things that I think that I worry about is accidentally screwing up. Like I'm going to have a conversation with somebody, and I'm going to say something really stupid. A lot of times I kind of sometimes suffer from diarrhea of the mouth a little bit. I'm an auditory processor, and things will come out of my mouth. Then three or four hours later, I'm like, "Oh my god, I can't believe I just said that."

    Now, how can I try to process that, repair that, not do that again? But you know, I guess I also kind of see the value in screwing up, and then trying to figure out how to fix it. I think I worry about ... I won't go places sometimes in having a conversation with somebody, because I'm afraid that I'll say the wrong thing.

    Nickolas Jordan: Whether you say it or not, it's still the relationship, it's still there. Whether a white person is going to have those conversations around race with me or not, it's still in the relationship with that person, whoever it is that I'm talking to. Those things still exist in the world, so regardless of whether we talks about them, they're still there, and they're having an impact on whatever communication and relationship that we're having.

    I mean, I encourage everybody, take the risk, put your foot in the mouth. Do it, do it. The truth is, and this is just what I believe, and just because I'm talking doesn't mean in know anything. We all think crazy things, and when we don't speak them into the world, they fester as crazy things in our brain, but when we speak them, they sound ridiculous to us, and that allows us to kind of examine and critique what we actually think when we speak those things out loud.

    That's why I encourage people to say the crazy things that you think. Say those things out loud, because they sound crazier than when they come out of your mouth, than they do in your head. It's a good thing, it's a good thing.

    If you're somebody who's in the dominant group, so say when we're thinking about race here, but you know, gender, sexuality, all those things it could work, so say if you are in the dominant group, and you're worried about offending somebody in a subjugated place, in an oppressed position, the truth is, is that person has been experiencing ... there's nothing you're going to say that's going to be so terrible, and ruin that person ...

    This person's already heard the craziest, and been through the most awful things in the world. What are you going to say to them that's going to really change much, or add to that? Sure, sure, I mean, you know, it could sting a little bit, but that would just be something that happened in the last five minutes. Guarantee the two hours before, they've experienced at least three different microaggressions.

    So just go for it, go for it. I would much rather somebody say something that is slightly inappropriate, and then okay, we work with it, we have a conversation about it. We have a better understanding of each other, and we're more connected, and then we can move on.

    Megan Hayes: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You know, I've seen some examples where that has happened, the unintentional offense. Like you said, intent doesn't really matter, it's the consequence. Then I've also been in situations where I'm not going to say one in particular ... I'm thinking of one now that happened recently, but I don't want to identify someone. In this instance, the person who was in that other group, other category, called someone out on it, and it was clearly incredibly valuable experience for the person who was called out. That person was like, "Whoa," and learned a lot from it.

    As someone who is often in the dominant group, I see the value in that, and how that can help move forward. Then I've heard students of color a lot say, "I'm tired of being the person." They say, "Why is it my responsibility to make you be a better person?" I would just like to unpack that, I guess a little bit, in terms of the value of that, and the responsibility for that, and how as a community here, dealing with what we're dealing with at Appalachian, we can come to terms with that in some way.

    Nickolas Jordan: I go back and forth on this, because it's definitely not the subjugated person, or the person with the oppressed identity to train the dominant group how to be, and how to not be offensive and hurtful. It is definitely not their responsibility to teach that person. Then I go back to the ... I think in my head, "Okay, so what's my end goal? What do I want to do? I want this person in the dominant group to think and feel differently, and treat others like me in the future differently." That's what I want them to do.

    Do I swallow a little bit of pride in that moment, knowing that this is not my responsibility, but take that opportunity to teach that person something, in hopes that they'll be different in the future? Because really, that's what I want. I want them to be different. Or do I hold to that principle and say, "Oh god, you know, shut up," and just kind of shut them down, or whatever.

    I go back and forth. It's not that responsibility of that oppressed person, but what's your end goal? What do you want? I want the dominant group to be more sensitive to things, power and privilege. If I can take this moment and swallow my pride just a little bit, and speak to them about that, do some of that pseudo training in the moment, you know, maybe it's going to be good for my community going forward. That's exhausting.

    Megan Hayes: It is yeah, yeah.

    Nickolas Jordan: That's exhausting. I mean, and some days I'll do that, and some days I'll cuss at you. It can be, it can be really exhausting. Even that person who ... that person in the underrepresented group who takes the time to teach that dominant group person, or whatever, whatever takes the time to have that conversation, and then say a different time rolls by, and they don't, we're often punished for that. "Well, you were nicer here. Well, why didn't you teach this nice white person over here?" You know, like come on. Some days I can do that, some days I just don't have the energy.

    I go back and forth on whether it's a good idea or not. I don't want to add pressure to the subjugated group to teach the dominant culture how to be, but at the same time, I want more understanding. Sometimes it takes that white friend, or that gay friend, or that trans friend to teach this person how to be in the world. As painful as that is, it often works. It's crappy either way, it really is. You're stuck either way. Does that make any sense [crosstalk 00:14:40]?

    Megan Hayes: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense, because as you were saying that, I was remembering times in my life when I have not been a member of the dominant group, and just thinking about it's like, "You know, do I want to do this? Do I have the energy to do this today?" When I was younger, I had a lot more energy to do it than I do now.

    Nickolas Jordan: I've noticed that too, after a while. I don't want to mess around.

    Megan Hayes: Yeah, and I also have in some ways, at some places, I have more filters, and some places I have fewer filters, so you know, it just kind of depends I think on where I am that day. Hopefully, like you said, hopefully at the times when I do choose to do that, it makes a little bit of a difference. I feel like I get a lot of eye rolls, but maybe. You know?

    Nickolas Jordan: Yeah, and then if I'm getting eye rolls, am I going to be more likely to have any understanding moving forward? It's a minefield.

    Megan Hayes: When you're working with and teaching students in the classroom, what's the advice that you find yourself giving them, or what's the advice that you wish you could give?

    Nickolas Jordan: It's never okay to say, "Nigger." That's the first thing I say to them.

    Megan Hayes: Gosh, you have to say that?

    Nickolas Jordan: You know, that is I think the biggest public service I could teach, but particularly my black students, is don't say that. You don't get to say that word, you never get to say that word. I'm being a little bit funny, but the truth is, is that I try to teach through my words, what I say to them, and through kind of how I am in the world. That while I may have opinions about issues around how women talk about issues of gender, or how the LGBTQ community talks about sexuality, or how Muslim folks talk to other Muslims.

    I might have opinions about all of that, I don't really have a say in that. All I know, is that I have something to say about what happens in the groups that I'm a part of. I'll have conversations about how whether or not it's okay to use the Ne-word amongst my own folks, and all that kind of stuff, but I ain't got nothing to say about a woman who chooses to use the Be-word, Ce-word, or whatever the case may be.

    I will not use that language, because that's not my community, I don't really have anything to say about that. That's one of the things I try to teach, is that we ... don't open your mouth about things that you don't necessarily understand, and add your opinions about groups that you hold privilege with, if that makes sense. You don't get to have that conversation.

    That's something I try to teach them, that the next biggest thing ... and that's through actions and with my words, but the next biggest thing I really push is empathy, just understanding of the other perspective. I am somebody that I have very few beliefs, very few truths in my life. In fact, I only have one, and I encourage folks to have fewer beliefs, and to really examine, and be flexible in what you think. I think in that flexibility, that's where empathy comes from. I really try to push that. I really am big on taking another perspective on everything, if that makes any sense at all.

    Megan Hayes: Yeah, I think that to kind of just take that to another level, or I don't know, not another level, just take it further maybe, is it seems like when you can have empathy with somebody, it's easier to call them out on stuff, and forgive them, and maybe work through some of that stuff that can just make us so mad.

    Nickolas Jordan: Right, because we all suck. We all suck, especially around this stuff, and dealing with these issues, and talking about these issues. We all suck. If we all suck, then we can have more empathy when others mess up, and be able to reach out, and find that forgiveness, like you're saying. It's really important. That's a really big thing that I try to teach my students.

    Megan Hayes: One thing that I was just thinking about that you and I have talked about before, that I've heard a lot of people talking about around this campus, particularly with our students, is the importance of resiliency, and how important it is for our students to hopefully develop some of that before they get here, but once they get here, part of our role is to help make sure that they don't leave here without having had some failures, suffered through those failures, and figured out how to move on past them.

    Do you mind talking a little bit about that, and just kind of your role, or philosophy, or just ideas about what the importance is of ... Because like you said, we all screw up. What happens next?

    Nickolas Jordan: You know, my students would tell me that I'm really mean to them. My students would tell me that I don't think about my words, and how they hurt them, and things like that. I'm tough on them, I'm intentionally tough on them, because I want them to experience failure, I want them to experience struggle, I want it to be difficult for them. We do serious business [inaudible 00:19:53] all the time. We do serious business, and you need to have your A-game at all times. When you don't, I'm going to tell you. I'm going to tell you that you don't have that.

    If we don't fail, if we aren't allowed to screw up, if we aren't allowed to screw up, then we don't have practice like I was talking about before, staying in relationship. We don't have practice ... "Okay, so I really messed up, well how do I push past this? How do I stay in contact? How do I find the resolve to keep moving? If I don't fail, I can't practice at that." I don't want my students to fail, but I do want them to fail. I want you to screw up. I want you to screw up and figure out a way to push past it.

    We do a real big disservice to our students, and to ... I actually think faculty and staff too, but that's a different story. I think we just do a disservice to them by not letting them blow it, and then reaching out to them when they do. "Okay, well you messed up. All right, so how are you going to fix it? How are you going to push past it?" There is no relationship that is going to be perfect, we're going to screw up and hurt others. How do we dig deep to stay in connection with them, stay in contact? Does that make any sense at all?

    Megan Hayes: Yeah, as a parent I can really related to that, because I mean, I want my kids to be successful, but I also ... I know they have to fail in order to get there.

    Nickolas Jordan: I'm going to secretly be happy when little girl brings home a Di plus. I'll be like, "Good, good. I hope there are tears. I want to see you cry about this. I want to see the pain on your face, because I want to see you get through this." But you know, you don't want them to fail, but they need to. They need to.

    Megan Hayes: Right, right, yeah, yeah. There's one more thing that occurred to me, that I was thinking about when we were in here, and that is a lesson that Wendy Wagner actually taught me, because I am interested in, "How can I be part of a solution, as someone who is most of the time on this campus in a dominant group, how can I be a part of the solution?" What she taught me was, "Shut up and listen." I have tried to do it as an extrovert who is an auditory processor, I've tried to practice the shut up and listen approach.

    Nickolas Jordan: Right, and it's difficult to do, because we always want to jump in and fix it. "Okay, well what can I do to fix it? Well, what can I do to help you not have this pain?" Which comes from a good place, and there may not be anything you can do to fix it right now, and that's okay. Just sitting in that mud, in that shit with somebody, can be very healing to that person who is struggling or going through something, just to hear them, and sit with them, and acknowledge that pain. That is a beautiful thing, beautiful thing. Big fan of the shut up and listen [crosstalk 00:22:56], big fan of it.

    Megan Hayes: I'll try to do more of it as I move forward.

    Nickolas Jordan: I do it too, though. I want to fix it, I don't want to see somebody I care about in pain, so I jump to the solution, "What can I do to fix it?" Sometimes it just can't, it just cannot fix it. Sitting in it for a little while is okay, it's all right.

    Megan Hayes: Wow, Jordan, Dr. Nickolas Jordan. Thank you so much. I'm so glad you're here on this campus. I'm even more glad that you have agreed to continue this conversation with your own podcast, which I think we're going to call, "What's Your Truth?," because you talk about your truth.

    Nickolas Jordan: Oh yeah, that will be fun.

    Megan Hayes: Yeah, so What's Your Truth? is coming soon to and iTunes. You'll be the host and be interviewing some other people, and talking about whatever you want to talk about, and what your guests want to talk about, and how we can continue as a campus hopefully to have some of these difficult, awkward conversations, and make us a better place, hopefully.

    Nickolas Jordan: Looking forward to it, looking forward to it.

    Megan Hayes: Well, we're looking forward to it, too. I know we are, and I think everybody listening today is now looking forward to more of this. I am looking forward to shutting up and listening to you, so. Thank you very, very much for being here.

    Nickolas Jordan: No problem.

    Megan Hayes: Today's show was written and produced by Troy Tuttle, Dave Blanks, and me, Megan Hayes. Our sound engineer is Dave Blanks, with assistance from Wes Craig. Our web team is Pete Montaldi, Alex Waterworth and Derek Wycoff. Research assistance comes from Elisabeth Wall, and video and photo support come from Garrett Ford and Marie Freeman. Our theme song was written and performed by Derek Wycoff of Naked Gods.

    Our podcast studio is dedicated to Greg Cuddy. Special thanks to Stephen Dubner for the inspiration, advice, and moral support. Sound Affect is a production of the University Communications Team at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Thanks for listening. For Sound Affect, I'm Megan Hayes.