Authentic conversations about difference

Having authentic conversations about difference can be hard. This is especially true in the workplace. Sometimes, leaders can feel like they might say something wrong, so they choose to say nothing. In these instances, they can miss valuable opportunities to increase awareness of racial, ethnic, and gender differences and to create greater inclusivity on their own campuses.

Having spent over a decade in my early career working primarily on diversity and gender equity issues, I know it can feel intimidating to wade into topics of equity, diversity, and inclusion, especially as a white, middle-class woman with privilege. I also appreciate those who work hard to genuinely understand difference and create inclusive work and learning environments.

Understanding and creating a climate where difference is respected and honored is not just a nice thing to do, it has real benefits. Research from Catalyst shows that “employees reported feeling included when they feel both valued for their uniqueness and a sense of belonging. When employees feel more included, they reported being more team-oriented and innovative.”  Authentic conversations where different viewpoints are encouraged and shared and “outsider” perspectives are honored, can set the foundation for building good working relationships, fostering collaboration and resolving conflict.

So, are you wondering how to get an authentic conversation started? If so, Catalyst has created a wonderful tool to help, called: Engaging in Conversations about Gender, Race, and Ethnicity in the Workplace. The 29-page booklet published in 2016 is full of excellent information to help you navigate talking about difference. To give you an idea, here are a few of the conversation starters and suggested actions included:

  • Ask people who are different from me how they experience their own gender, race, or ethnicity—and then really listen to the answer.
  • Talk to my colleagues about what the most salient issues are for different ethnic groups in our country, in our organization, and in our work team.
  • Ask my colleagues what fears or misconceptions prevent them from having discussions about differences.
  • Encourage one-on-one or group discussions about traditionally “unspoken” issues related to race or ethnicity in the culture in which I am working. For example, “I’d like to talk about how we can make our team meetings more inclusive and build trust among teammates. What are one or two issues we need to put on the table, but are usually overlooked or considered undiscussable? Why do we find these issues undiscussable? Why are they important?”
  • Ask my colleagues to think about times when discussing “difference” (in any sense) has led to a positive outcome.

As Catalyst authors say, “Openness and the ability to have difficult conversations are needed to effectively communicate across our differences and build inclusive workplaces.”

In recognition of Martin Luther King day, I want to challenge each of us as leaders to find opportunities to initiate more conversations about difference. Go ahead, try it out in a one-on-one conversation, or your next team meeting. Be bold! Why not think about facilitating a large group discussion about difference in your workplace? You’ll be modeling an inclusive workplace.

Anita Rios

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