At this exact moment in time, we live in a wonderfully diverse world — a world of options and choices. A world where you can get M&Ms in every color, jellybeans in any flavor and one famous ice cream store allows you to choose from 31 flavors. (In the history of their entire existence they’ve had over 1400 flavors on their menu). We also live in a world where the people we work with and encounter on a daily basis have unique traits, attributes and experiences that equally run the gamut.

When it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace, there is so much to address it can feel overwhelming, making the idea of having a one-size-fits-all solution to DEI learning wonderfully convenient. It’s human nature to want to simplify a topic so complex. Unfortunately, that’s not how this conversation works considering the varied personal experiences, cognitive skills and abilities of the wide range of individuals involved. This means that how we choose to move forward in addressing and discussing DEI must be intentional if we are committed to creating respectful, considerate workspaces where each employee feels valued.

Unfortunately for decades, DEI programming and training have been presented in a very unilateral approach: one way, one conversation, one style of delivery and a very one-size-fits-all application. This approach isn’t designed to support a learning experience that involves multifaceted, personal and emotional conversations that address a myriad of thoughts, ideas and experiences. Is it no wonder there is a disconnect for so many and a malaise that has turned into fatigue has slowly crept in? Vince Lombardi said it best, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” We cannot afford to have cowardice on such a critical topic. We must take the reins of this important conversation to ensure it involves everyone and encourages thoughtful debate, engagement and resolutions — not more division and polarization.

Start With the Basics

So, how do we solve this dilemma? It’s certainly not by overgeneralizing or simplifying an incredibly complex topic. But that doesn’t mean we should make it more complex, either. Start by breaking it down.

Don’t dismiss or ignore any aspect of DEI in your training programs, but understand that there will be a learning curve, just like learning a new computer program or new language, it’s important to start with the basics when it comes to DEI training.

The basics begin by understanding that there is no “one way” to have a meaningful conversation about DEI. Just as people have varying learning preferences in school and coursework, we have different learning preferences when broached with the topic of DEI. An equally important point to consider is that not everyone is in the same place on their DEI journey. While some learners have experience having these critical conversations, for others it’s uncharted territory. With all these considerations in mind, here are the top five things leaders can start doing today to make conversations around DEI more effective and inclusive.

  1. Meet people where they are. This can be done by implementing a few techniques, all of which require setting the ego aside. This means:
  • Not having a determined outcome in mind based solely on your input and actions.
  • Relinquish judgment when it comes to someone else’s experience or lack thereof.
  • Set the intention for the end goal to be a better understanding of how thoughtful DEI application makes for a more conducive work environment rather than simply “changing someone’s mind.”
  1. Open lines of healthy communication. Healthy is the operative word here. Healthy communication means that there is not just one person speaking and one person listening — that’s a lecture. Instead, aim for an exchange of words and ideas that can be freely expressed without fear of judgment or repercussion — that’s a dialogue.
  2. Be receptive and courageous. Talking about DEI can be difficult. Many times, we are faced with looking not just at society but taking an inward look at ourselves and how we show up. That can be uncomfortable. But that discomfort is remedied by the fact that it’s temporary, and there are rewards if we are open and receptive to learning something new, not just about others but about ourselves. This is where courage comes into play. Human nature has us programmed to want to be right. It takes courage to identify a common flaw, move past it, and be willing to hear someone else’s thoughts, ideas and experiences (especially if they are far from our realm of comprehension).
  3. Don’t expect instant results or buy-in. This is a process; treat it as such. There are a significant number of people who are shy around the topic of DEI, especially if they’ve completed multiple DEI trainings throughout their professional careers and haven’t seen much in the way of positive change or even have witnessed worsening scenarios. While many have had positive experiences, many have not. For those in the latter category, buy-in for “more programming” may take some serious effort. But with the right approach, more and more people will be inclined to participate in thoughtful learning opportunities that aren’t based on the old paradigms of victim versus villain, but that give people equal agency and voice in the conversation.
  4. Redefine Diversity. Yes, diversity is absolutely about the physical things we see and perceive – our ethnicity, abilities, gender, nationality… all the wonderful things that make us, us. But there is more to it than that; there’s more to being diverse and celebrating that diversity. We are at a pivotal time where we can consciously expand the idea of true diversity to include diversity of thought and ideas. This is paramount if we want to bring everyone into this conversation of inclusion.

We are not monoliths; we are not the labels given to us by others or the ones we’ve given ourselves. Stepping out of that inconsiderate and insulting paradigm takes us one step closer to creating spaces of belonging based not on the tangible things that make us diverse but based on all of the things that make us wonderfully diverse.

We must take into account that this is a DEI journey, not a destination. This is a living, ongoing conversation. It is as ever evolving as we are. As long as we are willing to learn, be open to new ideas and concepts, and always be considerate of one another we will be on the right track to creating workplaces where people feel like they belong and, just as important, want others to feel like they belong as well.