Effective communication matters. It matters at home and in your community but especially at work. In fact, negative or positive workplace communication can have a tangible impact on a company’s bottom line. Businesses with effective communication are 50% more likely to have lower employee turnover. Lower turnover means lower replacement costs. More than 80% of Americans say employee communications is a key factor in developing trust in the workplace. Trust builds teams that are more productive and effective. A survey of 400 companies with 100,000 employees each cited an average loss per company of $62.4 million per year due to inadequate communication to and between employees. These statistics, and others like them, prove that workplace communication has a direct influence on a company’s financial performance.

Positive workplace communication is crucial to business success, but it’s also hard. Especially when broaching diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) topics such as race, sexual orientation, cultural norms and more. In fact, 55% of respondents to a recent poll by RightTrack expressed that they are afraid to say the wrong thing in DEI-related conversations. Fear of saying the wrong thing leads to inaction and missed opportunities. While we’ve seen an increase in positive allyship intent, people still aren’t speaking up or acting out.

So how do we encourage folks to engage in productive and meaningful conversations? By giving them the tools necessary for effective communication. Read on to learn how to tackle DEI conversations like a pro.

Step 1: Approach the conversation with psychological safety in mind.

Psychological safety is the belief that one can speak up and share ideas without fear of humiliation or other negative consequences. It makes sense then, that when you are approaching a difficult conversation, you and the other person or people want to establish mutual psychological safety so that everyone can share openly. In order to create psychological safety, we recommend that you:

  • Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary. Your goal of any conversation should be to understand the other person, not convince them of something. Aim to find a win-win situation.
  • Move from critical to curious. Rather than assuming why a person thinks or believes what they do, ask. You may not have the full context.
  • Speak human to human. Always remember that there is a person — with beliefs, dreams and opinions — on the other side.
  • Anticipate reactions, when possible. If you know that what you have to say may land poorly, you might need to prepare some responses or data to share. This will ensure that the message you are trying to convey is the message that comes across. However, be sure that you are listening to understand and not just listening to respond.

Step 2: Assess and check your bias.

Everyone has implicit biases. Our brains process up to 11 million pieces of information per second, but our conscious mind can only process 40 to 50. Therefore, our brains take shortcuts and fill in gaps automatically. These natural cognitive processes are what lead to bias. Bias isn’t inherently bad, but we do need to be aware of and active in mitigating our biases.

If you haven’t already, try out some exercises such as Harvard’s Project Implicit tests, the Trusted Ten Exercise or the Father-Son Exercise. Then, spend time reflecting on what biases have appeared and where your assumptions may stem from.

Once you’ve identified your biases, it’s time to begin to mitigate them. A large part of mitigation is simply being aware. Be aware of how your biases show up at work, at home, at the grocery store, when talking with your neighbors, etc., and be mindful of not acting on the biases. You might also try mitigating your biases by increasing your exposure to new ideas and cultures, pausing to reflect when you have a knee-jerk reaction to something and embracing discomfort or awkwardness.

Step 3: Consider establishing ground rules for communication.

Some DEI topics are especially difficult to talk about due to peoples’ conflicting, deep-seated beliefs. In these conversations, it may be difficult to keep the peace even when arriving with positive intent. In these situations, we recommend establishing ground rules prior to the start of the difficult conversation. Some rules you might consider including are:

  • Assume positive intent.
  • Engage in dialogue, not debate.
  • Hold yourself and others accountable for demonstrating cultural humility.
  • Be open, transparent, and willing to admit mistakes.
  • Embrace the power of humble listening.
  • Create trusting and safe spaces, where a little bit of discomfort is okay.
  • Commit to having conversations that matter by speaking up to bridge divides.

However, be mindful that these rules should be adapted for your organization.

Step 4: Understand the difference between calling in and calling out.

“Calling out” and “calling in” are both tools that can be used to hold ourselves and others accountable for harmful actions, behaviors, and words. Both of these tools work to disrupt privilege and bias. Here’s how they differ.

Calling Out Calling In
More forceful and direct More private and more reflective
Necessary when someone is making a blatantly discriminatory comment or action towards someone else, with the intention of harming them. Necessitates an in-the-moment response to divert harm. The better option when any situation presents an opportunity for reflection, finding mutual understanding, considering other perspectives, and/or learning something new.

Having the tools and scripts necessary to call out and call in are crucial to having productive DEI conversations. Be sure to review scenarios for when each is appropriate and practice your script in the mirror a few times. This practice may sound silly, but it will empower you to speak up in the moment.

Step 5: Have specific responses prepared.

“Everyone is too sensitive these days.” “That’s too political for work.” “DEI doesn’t involve me.” These are just a handful of phrases that we hear everyday from within our client organizations. If you’ve ever had a conversation about DEI, it’s likely you’ve heard these, or similar phrases, as well. Preparing for these claims allows you to keep a tough conversation going when it would otherwise hit a roadblock.

Two best practices are to ask intentional questions, such as “Why do you think that?” Or, “How did you come to that conclusion?”, and tying tough conversations back to your organization’s values. For example, if someone says “I’m too afraid to speak my mind,” you might respond with “I understand these topics can be tricky. Our organization really values transparency which is why I thought it important to discuss this with you.” As with calling in and calling out, it may seem trivial, but practicing these responses out loud better equips you to act when faced with tough situations.

Conversations around DEI will continue to be commonplace as national demographics shift, social injustice endures, and as policies and legislation change and change again. Understanding how to communicate effectively in these conversations is a critical business skill, one leaders and employees alike must gain. Utilizing the tips above, you’ll be able to enter into these conversations more effectively and confidently.

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