Engaging in Difficult Conversations

Assume positive intent, in spite of holding opposing views.

The 2016 postelection season in the United States has brought an increase in reports of hate speech and bias-based actions. Many people of color and others from diverse communities are feeling unsafe. Those at the intersection of gender, race, and religion are feeling especially vulnerable, with hijab-wearing women reporting threats of physical violence.

What should the role of employers be in these uncertain times? Historically, a number of leading corporations have been at the forefront of civil rights, setting groundbreaking precedents for others to follow. For example, in the wake of civil unrest in Rochester, New York, in 1968, the CEO of Xerox pledged to hire more African American managers. And in 1969, Xerox founded the first racial minority employee resource group in the country. In 2015, CEOs of 45 companies filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in support of retaining affirmative action at postsecondary institutions. In their view, diversity in higher education is critical to business success.

Many CEOs continue to set progressive agendas and trends, including sending postelection messages to employees to reaffirm their commitment to diverse and inclusive workplaces that offer opportunities for all.

A natural extension is ongoing dialogue. It’s important to enable employees to have difficult conversations to communicate across differences and build inclusive workplaces. Catalyst has developed guidelines for facilitating such tough and sensitive conversations—keeping in mind that it often takes both courage and humility to do so. Engaging in Conversations about Gender, Race and Ethnicity in the Workplace offers ground rules, identifies roadblocks to having conversations across differences, and provides tips to make progress.

One ground rule is assuming positive intent, in spite of holding opposing views. Another is engaging in interactive dialogue, which requires active listening rather than debate. Ground rules also include demonstrating cultural humility—not assuming that you know all there is to know about the other party’s background—as well as being open, transparent, and willing to admit mistakes.

One roadblock to conversations across differences is the perception that there is no benefit in talking. It’s important for people to reflect on their past experiences in discussing differences, identify any positive outcomes, reflect on the actions that led to the positive outcomes, and consider how more of these conversations can be encouraged. It is also useful to reflect on what happened when conversations about differences in background or experience have become heated or uncomfortable. Did people shut down? Speak up? What might have encouraged people to keep talking? Reflecting on how to avoid assigning blame is important.

Another roadblock is the fear of negative consequences. For example, someone from an underrepresented group may have been labeled as “too sensitive” in discussing perceived slights against her community. Minimizing someone’s experiences can raise tensions, lead to defensiveness, and reinforce exclusion, as well as shut down authentic conversation. Those from majority groups should empathize with the person and be open to learning more about her experiences. A conversation starter can be, “I know this is important to you. . . . I’d like to understand more about your feelings.”

Having these conversations will not only reinforce workplace inclusion, but will also provide powerful examples for other workplaces and settings—providing a strong bulwark against hate and intolerance. DW

Katherine Giscombe, PhD, is Catalyst’s Vice President and Women of Color Practitioner, Global Member Services


Founded in 1962, Catalyst is the leading nonprofit organization accelerating progress for women through workplace inclusion. With operations in the United States, Canada, Europe, India, Australia, and Japan, and more than 800 supporting organizations, Catalyst is the trusted resource for research, information, and advice about women at work.catalyst.org.

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