Did you ever go to a middle school dance? Remember how the whole school showed up, but the boys and girls each stuck to their own sides? Even as adults, how often do we go to a friend’s house, and the men gather around the barbeque while the women gather in the kitchen? What we have here is a classic representation of diversity and inclusion: People from different sides of life gather in the same place, but they do not share the same conversations or engage in discussion with the people who are less like them. We see diversity, but not inclusion.

Diversity and inclusion is a hot topic these days. The U.S. is more diverse now than it’s ever been, and we know that companies benefit from embracing a diverse workforce. Where we really need work is around inclusion. It’s not enough to show up to the party. It’s important that we all dance together.

So, where is the work to embrace diversity and be inclusive? Why is it so difficult to build an inclusive work culture, and what work can we do now to move in that direction? The real work is in improved communication. It’s important to work on how we communicate with each other and how we see each other – on how we avoid boxing ourselves and each other in.

What does this mean? How many times have we heard people say things like, “I don’t think that’s a problem, and we need to focus on more pressing things” or, “This is great, but we’re not ready for it” or, “I don’t understand where you’re coming from, and this is the way we need to do things” or, “No need to get so emotional” or, “You’re taking this too personally”?

When we dismiss someone’s input or point of view because we don’t understand it, we’re shutting that person out and avoiding a conversation that would allow us to come to an understanding. We don’t encourage discussion by asking that person why they think the way they do or what has influenced their perspective on the issue at hand. We shut each other out, and we internalize the way we feel about the situation rather than allowing ourselves to embrace the initial discomfort and have the conversation.

As a child and adult, I have been constantly bullied. I was told that my gums were too big, my neighborhood wasn’t the best, I was too empathetic, I was too radical in my ideas, I was too direct, and on and on. To be clear, I embrace feedback and value understanding how other people react to the things I say and do. But it’s important to think about where this feedback is coming from. Why am I being told I’m too direct? Why do people say my ideas are too radical? Would they say the same thing if anything about me were different? It’s this last question that influences the context of the feedback, and it’s where the conversation should begin.

Humans are visual beings. We have a tendency to put ourselves and each other in boxes based on what we look like, and we learn this strategy from an early age. Our instincts tell us that anything that doesn’t look like us is dangerous. We have the privilege of being evolved beings, and we have the capacity to see through that misperception – to understand that people who look different from us are not much different from us. We just need to practice that belief and have the conversation with the person who is different to understand their perspective.

The key to progress on inclusion is to close our eyes and listen – listen to what people are saying instead of looking to debunk what they say based on their color, gender, marital status, job, etc. I feel a rise in potential for this change with the increasing popularity of podcasts. We have more opportunities to learn about a topic by listening to someone talk about it. With podcasts, we’re not distracted by visuals, and we can just listen to the words the person is saying, what they’re not saying, and the perspective and insight they bring to the topic.

We need to stop only looking to what we know, and we need to have more conversations with people to learn about what we don’t know. Actively listening to each other leads to education. You don’t have to agree with everything you listen to, but here’s my challenge to you: Infer. Use what you’re listening to and what you’re educating yourself on to infer why this person is telling you something, why it matters and what you can learn from it.

Diversity and inclusion is the output of a human workplace and constant open communication. As you meet new people and form new connections, ask yourself, “Am I learning, or am I judging?” When you disagree with someone, ask yourself if you really understand their point of view or if you’re focusing on making sure they understand yours. When we shed the habit of judging others, we give the gift of truly knowing and understanding who they are and who you are as people. This gift allows both of you to form an understanding and drive inclusive conversations. Think back to that middle school dance. When everyone is included, and when everyone makes a contribution, the dance floor is alive.

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