How to Have Inclusive Conversations at Work
As part of The Council’s commitment to DE&I, each month we host Learning Circles, professionally facilitated discussion groups that offer a safe and brave space to have inclusive conversations.
This month’s Learning Circle focused on “Talking about race in the workplace.” It was incredibly powerful, and I wish everyone could have been part of that discussion. So I decided to continue the conversation here and share what I leaned from a Council member.
First, the basics. What is an inclusive conversation? It is having a talk in a way that everyone understands, feels free to express themselves, and accepts the differences in people. To effectively address our differences in a world that is becoming more and more polarized, it is critical that we learn how to have these inclusive conversations. Why is it important to have these conversations at work? During an average lifetime, we spend 30% of our time at work. (I know! Sometimes it feels like so much more than that!) “Therefore, the workplace can have a substantial influence on shaping the broader society as a site where understanding, kindness, compassion, inclusion and empathy are the norm…” according to Mary-Frances Winters in her book Inclusive Conversations.
Winters believes certain conditions are important for inclusive conversations to succeed.
Condition 1: Commitment—Inclusive conversations are useless if the parties are not committed to taking action for change.
Condition 2: Cultural Competence—This is a continuous learning process to gain knowledge, skills and understanding to discern differences among your own and others’ cultures.
Condition 3: Brave and Psychologically Safe Spaces—These make uncomfortable conversations safe to explore.
Condition 4: Understanding Equity and Power—Equity is the treatment of people according to what they need and deserve. It means that everyone has access to the resources, opportunities and power they need to reach their full potential.
Condition 5: The Ability to Address Fear and Fragility—A prime reason these conversations don’t happen is because people are afraid they will get it wrong and will not be forgiven.
Condition 6: Grace and Forgiveness—Grace and forgiveness recognize that no one is perfect and that we are all learning.
Condition 7: Trust and Empathy—Trust and empathy are necessary conditions for inclusive conversations.
Condition 8: Belonging and Inclusion—These two things go hand in hand. Inclusion is where a person feels appreciated for their uniqueness.
Many companies embrace the fact that this type of work needs to happen to create a more inclusive culture. But few know how to start—and some are afraid to start—for fear of doing something wrong. According to a Knowledge at Wharton article, Stephanie Creary, a Wharton professor who specializes in diversity, equity and inclusion, says, “Many managers feel ill-equipped to offer sage advice on ‘what to do’ when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion in their organizations.” This discomfort can stall the efforts. But these conversations need to happen to help make a firm’s culture more inclusive. There are many tools and resources that can help make these conversations easier.
For instance, an inclusive conversation about race may be difficult for some people. Creary has developed a “RACE” framework to prepare people to lead conversations about race.
R—Reduce anxiety by talking about race. People feel uncomfortable talking about race because compliance training tells them not to mention it. They believe they are supposed to be “color blind.” But setting standards of behavior to follow during these conversations can help people to engage in a way that allows everyone to feel safe. Some examples are:
- Build a safe or brave space—agreeing that all discussions are confidential.
- Practice respectful engagement—using “I” statements not “you” statements.
- Listen actively.
- Be constructive.
A—Accept that anything related to race is either going to be visible or invisible. Creary explains that some people are hyperaware of their race and, for others, their race is invisible to them. It is important to help employees find the space between hypervisibility and invisibility and try to normalize race as a dimension of diversity. If managers are willing to share their own positive or negative experiences regarding the visibility of their race at work and invite others to do the same, this may begin to normalize race.
C—Call on internal and external allies for help. Build a network of allies, both within and outside of your firm, who are invested in diversity, equity and inclusion and can share ideas, tips and resources with you on how to best facilitate conversations about race in the workplace.
E—Expect that you will need to provide some answers, practical tools, skill-based frameworks, etc. There are publicly available resources that can help you develop your own tools for how best to conduct these conversations.
Inclusivity in Action
I understand that initiating inclusive conversations can be daunting. But one Council member’s approach makes it seem very achievable. Paige Maisonet, senior director of people and diversity operations at ABD Insurance and Financial Services, shared with me how ABD began its efforts to have these difficult conversations with Diversity Story Sharing, which they introduced at their Employee Resource Groups. Learning quickly that everyone has something to share, last summer they raised the bar. They held small-group discussions based on a framework from Ask Big Questions. The site offers discussion guides and prompts (videos, stories, articles) to help facilitate inclusive conversations. The material is plentiful and free. Maisonet told me the first question they used—“What do we assume?”—was selected intentionally because it was so broad. It allowed everyone to share their thoughts and views. They established standards of behavior before the discussions began, which included:
- Be present.
- Keep the discussion private.
- Assume positive intent.
- Embrace silence.
- Understand that there may not be closure at the conclusion of the discussion.
The small-group discussions have continued throughout the year. I asked Maisonet what the impact was on the firm. She said they have opened more dialogue, made people more comfortable in these types of discussions, and highlighted the differences that everyone has.
Inclusive conversations are difficult, but they are necessary. And they are doable. I invite you to join The Council’s Learning Circles if you want to experience the conversations before introducing them in your firm. I promise you will not regret it.