Three Principles for Healthy Conversations About Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

I’m profoundly grateful that we are expanding our conversations about systemic racism in our workplaces. It is bringing up a lot for my clients, both individuals and organizations. In our sessions, we are returning repeatedly to the importance of good communication skills. The stakes and emotions are really high. As a result, it’s easy to get sloppy about communication, but at the same time, it’s never been more important to have healthy, conscious communication about race, discrimination, bias, and privilege.

While it’s impossible to summarize all the best communication tools in one article, I want to share with you a few consistent themes that are coming up in session.

I want to first claim several facets of my bias. Race discrimination feels intimate and personal to me. When we moved away from our Greek family in Boston to Iowa, my family was rejected by the white culture in Iowa because we were darker, from a different culture, with an accent, a different Christian religion, food, etc. My father was kicked out of places of work because he looked and sounded different. He struggled at first to make money. I was bullied at school for my differences, sometimes daily. I remember feeling absolutely terrified, especially when groups would gang up together to attack me. This in no way compares to growing up black, or in a severely impoverished or violent community. But it gave me a personal, emotional experience of being on the receiving end of discrimination.

During my childhood, we also bonded with families from other cultures and backgrounds. Some of their stories were far more terrifying than our own. As I grew up, I eventually experienced less bullying and discrimination because I learned to assimilate more into the dominant white culture; I am hyper-aware that that gives me an experience of relative safety and privilege that people of color may never experience. At the same time, I never totally lost the perspective of being an outsider, in some way always different or apart from mainstream American white culture.

This was part of my motivation to get a certificate (the degree equivalent) in Gender Studies at Northwestern University and also become a research assistant in the department. Our professors were adamant that we named and claimed our biases and that we understood the many complicated facets of discrimination: race, religion, economics, sexual orientation, as well as gender. We studied how discrimination shows up in many systems – government, education, language, media and culture, economic structures, and more. This education dovetailed with my experience getting a degree in Performance Studies; our professors constantly encouraged us to own our biases and use our creativity to illuminate the injustices in our society and have a positive impact.

Exploring discrimination, bias, and privilege was part of my everyday life. In college, I gained my initial training on how to have healthy, productive conversations on these topics, even (especially) when it was emotional and charged.

This learning continued long after college. Being comfortable as an outsider motivated me to learn and understand others’ experiences. I learned how to ask respectful questions and be a better listener. As a result, people in many different cultures and religions generously shared their stories and experiences with me. They patiently taught me about the challenges they face every day.

For example, I wanted to understand the injustices and violence in Chicago, where I lived after college. I made friends with people from neighborhoods where I was otherwise not welcomed and it was unsafe for me to visit. I have since been welcomed into many different communities as one of the few or the only white/woman/bisexual, etc. It has been an immense gift. I learned that no matter how different our experiences were, I could listen, feel, and have empathy for others’ experiences.

And this brings me to the first point of communication about diversity.

1. We are all students of the human experience.

One of the best attitudes we can all hold – no matter what our background – is to be open and willing to learn. It’s time for us to be more sensitive and attuned to the greater tribe of humanity all around us, not just our small circle of friends and co-workers. It is time for curiosity and empathy.

Most people assume that others’ life experience is like theirs in some way. The diversity of 7 billion peoples’ life experiences is astounding. There’s always something we don’t know, never considered, or wouldn’t even know to ask about. This is why being open to learning about others’ experience is critical.

With all that I’ve learned academically and socially, I’m aware that there’s always more to learn. Right now, I’m reading a book about the neuroscience of bias and how it makes us unconsciously susceptible to discriminatory thoughts. I just listened to a series of podcasts on racism in economic policy. Though I already have a wealth of experience as a student of humanity, this is a role I will have for the rest of my life. Understanding the human experience, human bias, and the legacies of abuse and trauma takes a whole lifetime.

2. Listening is the first component of communication.

I teach my Storytelling for Business students three components of communication: language, body language, and listening. Listening is the one we forget and neglect. Take time to listen, receive, and empathize with the speaker. Everyone wants to be heard and understood, including you. If you want to be heard, learn to hear others.

Have an open mind, an open heart, and an abundance of curiosity. Even if you think you know something, you might not know everything. Besides, every single person’s story and perspective is unique. I treasure the stories of my friends and clients; I almost always learn something new when I listen carefully.

Right now, understanding and empathy are two powerfully valuable building blocks for systemic change. Neither can happen until we listen first.

3. Think about impact, not just intent.

When I am teaching my students about storytelling and presentations, we talk about getting out of your own perspective and putting yourself in your audience’s shoes, and then reviewing your story or presentation through their eyes and ears. The same applies here. Mostly my clients have excellent intent when it comes to race or gender differences; they don’t wish harm on anyone. But, if careless, they can assume their intentions are automatically understood and thus they end up offending their friends and colleagues. They don’t always realize that they have to think carefully about how they a) express their intent and then b) communicate their thoughts or feelings to have their intended impact.

In an organization I work with, there was one person in particular who has been catalyzed by the Black Lives Matter movement. This is a wonderful thing. The unfortunate part is that this employee has been expressing his anger in a way that is not always conscious or thoughtful. Though he has been trying to create a positive impact in his work community, he has had the unintended impact of alienating some of the very people he wanted to bond with, including his colleagues of color. He thought his intentions were obvious. He never stopped to fully consider how others’ filters, experiences, perspectives, and emotions might be radically different from his own. I see this as a missed opportunity for the company. He has energy, insight, and hunger for change that could ultimately benefit the whole organization, but no one can benefit if he continues down this path. His new growth path is to see beyond his perspective, listen to and understand his colleagues more, honor his anger but channel it in a way that is productive, and communicate in a way that aligns with the impact he wants to have.

Moving Towards a New Beginning?

When I was in college, I never thought I’d be seeing the change we’re seeing today. The problems are so massive in scale and complex in detail that it seemed insurmountable. We still have an abundance of challenges to face, but now more people are paying attention. We are starting to ask the right questions. We are shining a light on things we kept trying to sweep under the rug for hundreds and thousands of years. That’s a start. For the very long road ahead, learning how to communicate thoughtfully and consciously is going to be more important than ever. These skills will support you through challenging conversations throughout your life and career.  

There’s so much more, let’s keep exploring. For 1:1 or team/small group support, contact Sonya.

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1 thought on “Three Principles for Healthy Conversations About Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion”

  1. What wonderful article, Sonya! Thank you for articulating these important points. For me, the piece about being aware of impact is my particular edge. It’s easy to be lazy in this regard. It takes energy / time to consider other viewpoints, but is necessary if I am interested in actually communicating what I want to get across.


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