How to Have More Inclusive Conversations

Workplace discrimination remains a serious problem for many companies, especially those struggling to increase diversity. Both conscious and subconscious biases limit opportunities for employees who are outside the “norm,” with the norm usually referring to straight white males. 

A workplace that’s perceived as hostile to minorities has to contend with multiple issues, including the possibility of litigation under anti-discrimination laws. A non-inclusive environment increases employee turnover and makes it difficult to attract and retain top talent from an increasingly diverse workforce. As such, it’s vital to have conversations about inclusion and to be aware of how societal assumptions work against diversity and acceptance. 

Barriers to Inclusive Conversations

When talking about inclusion, it’s important to tread carefully. Discussing discrimination outright can actually cause employees to be less willing to accept diversity. Some people will perceive such discussions as a personal attack and become defensive. Many people are unaware of their biases, and any attempt to talk about diversity is seen as a suggestion of prejudice. 

This tendency to take an objective conversation personally has derailed many an inclusion discussion. Even worse, talking about bias often reinforces it. In some cases, this is a “don’t tell me what to do” response. In other cases, it’s more complicated: people can leave inclusivity discussions assuming that discrimination is a widespread — and therefore acceptable — state.

How is this logical jump even possible? Let’s look at an Arizona State University study by Professor Robert Cialdini, in which Cialdini and his team tried to stop people from taking petrified wood from the Petrified Forest National Park. (If you’re wondering what this has to do with inclusive conversations, bear with us).

First, the team posted a sign stating, “Many past visitors have removed wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest.” The warning had no effect on theft rates, which remained at five percent. Thinking a more severe sign would solve the problem, the team replaced the first sign with one that read, “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.” This warning had a definite impact: theft jumped to eight percent. 

Cialdini speculates the second message essentially told people, “everyone’s doing this.” If everyone else was stealing wood, the act was socially acceptable, so more people went home with illicit souvenirs. A similar reaction can occur when discussing inclusivity; when people discuss bias and discrimination, they can come to the conclusion that discrimination and bias are so common, they’re normal. Between this assumption and personal defensiveness, inclusion conversations can become thorny issues.

Fostering Healthy Inclusion Conversations

If the first part of this blog post has you feeling discouraged, fear not. It is possible to hold productive, healthy discussions about inclusion. Doing so requires authenticity and vulnerability, both of which require a safe, non-judgemental environment and a degree of mutual trust. Below are some ways to improve the outcome of inclusion conversations while respecting the concerns and opinions of coworkers.

Identify Your Own Biases

The society we grow up in influences our biases. You might not want to confront them, and you may not agree with them, but they’re most likely present. Few people — if any — grow up without absorbing some societal prejudices. Identifying bias in yourself doesn’t make you a bad person. Instead, it serves as a reminder of how pervasive social conditioning can be. 

Here’s a profound example of how bias can affect a person’s thoughts. A study of racial bias in perceptions of pain found registered nurses, medical students, and patients held the erroneous belief that black individuals are somehow more resistant to pain than those who are white. This has serious consequences for healthcare, as black patients are therefore less likely to receive adequate pain medication. What was surprising was most of the black nurses and patients surveyed also held this view. The societal racial myth was so firmly entrenched that the very people it harmed were convinced it was true.

Biases based on social expectations are powerful, and only by identifying them can we move forward in minimizing them. Fortunately, we’re not bound by societal bias. Just because social conditioning has created a personal bias doesn’t mean someone has to act on or agree with it.

Whether you openly discuss your own bias with others is your decision. Framing bias as a social consequence people can choose to opt out of may help prevent others from thinking the conversation blames them. 

Adjust Your Speaking Style

When discussing inclusion and bias, it’s best not to speak in absolutes. Expressions like “everyone” and “we all” should be avoided. A person from a different culture or background is likely to have a very different experience than you, so avoid using language implying everyone feels or thinks the same way. 

Instead, end statements with questions to express the possibility there’s more to discuss and explore. Affirm people’s contributions to the conversation, and listen for values and feelings as much as facts. Inclusion conversations are often as much about emotions are they are about hard truths.

Listen and Accept

Be aware that different cultures, ethnicities, and even genders have different communication styles. Welcome different styles and methods of communication, and strive to understand how individuals prefer to interact. The more comfortable people are that you’re hearing and validating their experience, the more openly they’ll talk about inclusion. 

Do Your Own Research 

While it’s usually good to ask for clarification, it’s not always helpful to ask minorities to explain bias and prejudice to you. Minorities deal with bias every day and may not have the energy or inclination to spend time explaining how it affects them to a well-meaning colleague. Instead, listen when they offer their perspective, and read up on the challenges members of that minority face on a daily basis. 

Put rather bluntly, no one who experiences discrimination needs to spend energy explaining it to people who don’t. Expand the energy yourself and take advantage of the many writings, videos, and media that provide personal and historical discussions of discrimination. 

Build Relationships and Trust

Trust is as vital to inclusion conversations as it is for effective 1:1 meetings. Without trust, people are unwilling to share their experiences, open up, or express vulnerability — all factors that make for productive inclusion conversations. Conversation participants who trust each other are more likely to discuss the uncomfortable and upsetting aspects of diversity issues.