Ten Strategies For Holding Difficult Conversations About Diversity

Ten Strategies For Holding Difficult Conversations About Diversity

Today’s successful businesses are weaving diversity, inclusion, and belonging into their culture, and they’re not shying away from the difficult conversations that may arise with an open dialog. The biggest challenge in dismantling racist or biased systems is getting people, who aren’t directly affected, to not only care but to be proactive in creating equal and unified communities.

Many people are unaware of their privileges. They’ve lived with certain advantages for so long that they become numb or oblivious to the fact that others don’t have them. This can lead to unconscious narratives that are hard to break:   

“This problem doesn’t impact me.” 

 “There’s nothing I can do about it.”

“It’s not my job to fix it.” 

“It’s probably not as bad as everyone says it is.” 

“This is just the way it’s always been.” 

Since adults spend a large portion of their lives at work, great changes for society can begin in the workplace. The only way to end bias is to teach others to unlearn it, speak out whenever they see injustice, and be an unwavering ally.

Because most CEOs and upper management are white males, they have an important responsibility to speak up on behalf of positive company change and to back their diverse employees with support. The burden should not be on those who face discrimination, but on those who don’t and who have the privilege of being heard and taken seriously without prejudice. Business executives and company leaders should consider, “How do I get someone who isn’t a minority to care about others who are?”

A business coach well-versed in diversity training can assist company leaders in mending toxic work culture and make the environment more inclusive. They have a special opportunity to shed a light on harmful workplace bias and favoritism and to help organizations change these behaviors. The first step is to have open discussions and call out injustices.

The tips below focus on planned discussions, but these techniques also apply to unexpected situations and will help businesses continue to have progressive conversations when needed. Here are 10 practices to get through difficult conversations peacefully and mindfully.

  1. Set the stage. Employees should know ahead of time that there will be a serious mandatory discussion regarding diversity. This will allow them to prepare questions and concerns they’d like addressed. Be clear about the purpose and goal of the conversation and the environment you hope to achieve through it.

  2. Establish discussion guidelines. Some essential ones are to listen without interrupting, give everyone an opportunity to speak, don’t criticize one another but challenge harmful social “norms” and ideas, avoid disrespectful language and attacking, and allow others to ask questions without judgment.

  3. Make the conversation a brainstorming session. Solving division should be a common goal between employees that encourages unity and teamwork. Prepare some questions to get the conversation started in a warm and welcoming way so participants feel safe to discuss and share. 

  4. Expect different viewpoints and encourage humility. People’s identities and opinions are deeply rooted and influenced by their families, community, religion, gender, etc., since early childhood. There’s always a high probability that the conversation will make at least one person react defensively. Open the conversation up by reassuring employees this is a safe space to express vulnerability and curiosity. The whole point is to show empathy, respect, and a desire to understand the struggles of others. To create an even playing field, many people will first need to get a little uncomfortable.

  5. “Listen more than you speak.” Encourage your students to take a pause before responding and really consider if they understand someone’s meaning or feelings before making assumptions or reacting defensively. If you’re holding the conversation in smaller groups, it’s good practice to repeat in their own words the points that others share to show they’re listening, engaged, and want to understand. If you’re leading larger group discussions or seminars as a neutral facilitator, you may want to do this on behalf of the speaker to make sure everyone heard and understands. Prompt employees for additional explanation when needed.

  6. Encourage a lot of questions. Ask questions on behalf of the group and urge audience members to ask as well. It gives them the chance to experience what it’s like being in someone else’s shoes. The more of someone else’s perspective they understand, the more empathetic they will be.

  7. Check your privilege.” Ask your students to consider how the advantages they’ve had in life might contribute to their opinions and actions, or how it has kept them from understanding or experiencing the struggles of others. Asking others to be mindful of their privilege should not seem derogatory, but call attention to a true reality in which there’s an opportunity to help others.

  8. Don’t shame or humiliate. Be prepared to shut down shame and humiliation. Embarrassing or chastising others for their opinions, upbringing, or naivety will backfire because it will make them hesitant to open up again. That fear then creates a resistance to help and stagnation for the cause. Again, these conversations may get heated, but the anger or upset is likely directed at injustices in the world in general, rather than someone in particular.

  9. Address hesitancy in the conversation. Do some digging to discover why it’s difficult to discuss. They may feel embarrassed to comment because they’re getting emotional or are afraid of what others will think of them, but odds are good someone else feels the same way and is too afraid to speak up. These open interactions help people feel more connected because they can see their similarities with one another.

  10. Remind everyone of the common goal. Everyone is working toward true equality, understanding, empathy, and ending discrimination once and for all, so focus your attention on the mutual gain.  Keeping the benefits of the conversation at the forefront of everyone’s mind will make it easier to think constructively the entire time and refer back to those who have been marginalized on how they think they would be better represented, respected, accepted, and cared for in the workplace and in society.

Talking about these issues, like race or sexual orientation, can be one of the most intimidating and difficult conversations in schools and workplaces today. However, in order to disrupt inequity and provide a learning environment for people confronting their privilege, it’s necessary to dissect beliefs, mindsets, and behaviors that harm our ability to be effective in true equality. One uncomfortable conversation is nothing compared to the discomfort and fear that some people live with every day.

Businesses benefit from having neutral mediators like coaches because they’re able to objectively see the areas in an organization that need repairing and can give employees and leaders the tools to incorporate those changes thoughtfully. Offering a third-party perspective and acting as a moderator to difficult conversations means you, as a coach, can help businesses become more progressive and unionized through lasting goal-oriented mindfulness and empathy techniques.

CoachDiversity can help you lead difficult conversations in your workplace, school, or community. Learn more about our Certified Diversity Coach training programs here