Although the benefits of having a diverse workforce are touted throughout the business world, many companies struggle to create effective diversity programs. While hiring candidates who are diverse in terms of both demographics and thought is essential, it’s also critical that organizations have the culture of inclusion that will make these individuals feel that their unique contributions will be welcomed.

In a Harvard Business Review article, Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev (Harvard and Tel Aviv University, respectively) argue that while mandatory diversity training for employees is well-intended, research suggests that such approaches can backfire. They suggest that although participants who have completed such programs generally know how to answer the follow-up test questions correctly, their attitudes and behaviors may remain unchanged. In fact, mandatory programs might even increase bias.

What’s a trainer to do when tasked with facilitating a diversity initiative?

Let’s face it: Diversity can be a sensitive topic that can bring up a variety of biases, awkward feelings and politically incorrect beliefs that employees might be too uncomfortable to share. If the main focus of a diversity training is to teach people a variety of rules and “shoulds,” the organization may meet their legal obligation without actually altering attitudes.

Research has shown that people are more prone to recognize their similarities when they are in settings in which they can connect with others of equal status while engaging in tasks requiring cooperation. That’s why task forces and project teams can be so beneficial for allowing co-workers to build relationships, recognize each other’s strengths and learn from one another.

Is it possible to create a similar environment in which experiential learning can occur in a diversity training session? While it’s a tall order to ask of a facilitator when dealing with such a potentially sensitive topic, mindfulness can help.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is defined as the ability to stay in the present moment while maintaining a nonjudgmental awareness of your thoughts, feelings, body and environment. In other words, it’s the ability to be able to observe what’s going on around you while also observing your own internal processes.

Mindfulness is a skill that is enhanced over time. It is referred to as a practice, because it takes practice to learn to stay attentive in the moment, observing rather than judging. Still, educating your audience with some mindfulness tools is a useful first step that can help to foster a more productive dialogue when dealing with difficult topics.

Setting Ground Rules

To create an environment in which people feel willing to talk, it can be helpful to set some ground rules. These rules should focus on non-judgment—encouraging people to avoid making evaluative judgments about each other (or themselves). Acknowledge that everyone comes from different backgrounds, with unique perspectives, and that the group can benefit from hearing them. Point out that if group members are quick to judge others, they are likely to shut down the conversation. And if they are quick to judge themselves, they might be unwilling to examine their own biases or even to speak up.

It is also essential to emphasize the importance of not judging the experience itself. When individuals are forced to do something (like a diversity training), they can be more prone to rebel. As a result, many participants might be irritated or mentally checked out when they arrive to the diversity training. Encourage openness: a willingness to be influenced by the experience and the other people in the room.

Dealing With Uncomfortable Emotions

During these sessions, it is likely that people will feel uneasy at some point. Whether it’s in response to a perspective with which they disagree or something that triggers an emotional reaction, individuals might experience feelings like discomfort, fear, sadness, shame or anger. When that occurs, people who are not skilled at regulating their emotions might lash out or shut down. Thus, being able to help others navigate these feelings appropriately is critical for maintaining a constructive dialogue.

While it’s important to acknowledge the possibility of these sorts of reactions, the next step is for the facilitator to provide the audience with some mindfulness tools to cope. Encouraging them to “take a step back” in the moment can help them acknowledge what is going on externally and internally and help them avoid knee-jerk reactions of which they may be unaware. Taking them through a deep-breathing exercise can be a useful strategy that they can then use to calm themselves when necessary.

Closing Words

In a perfect world, a diversity training would have an audience with ample exposure to mindfulness. They would be skilled at listening, managing their emotions, staying in the present and dealing with discomfort. Still, as a facilitator, it’s worth exploring mindfulness at the onset of a potentially sensitive training seminar. Invest the time to let the group discuss concerns up front, and educate them on how to deal with anxieties in the moment. Doing so can mean the difference between an exercise that is a waste of time and a constructive, thoughtful dialogue that changes attitudes and promotes inclusion.

Dr. Patricia Thompson is president of Silver Lining Psychology, a management consulting firm devoted to helping companies select, develop and engage their workforce. She is also the creator of the Executive Mindfulness Online Course, which helps professionals enhance their effectiveness through mindfulness. Take her mindfulness quiz here.