Most of us understand both the moral imperative as well as the strong business case for diversity at work. Being part of a diverse team makes us better at what we do. Research on the venture capital world by Paul Gompers and Silpa Kovalli suggests diversity is directly connected to a financial upside. McKinsey & Co’s study ‘Delivering through Diversity (2018)’ conducted over 1,000 companies in 12 countries finds a correlation between the diversity of the executive pool and their financial performance. Katherine Phillips (2014) in Scientific American discusses several studies that indicate the benefits of diversity not just for organizations, but also for teams and individuals. These include better problem-solving, more efficient information processing, innovation, and acceptance of a dissenting perspective. Phillips writes, “Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in a way that homogeneity simply does not.”
While we embrace diversity in principle, it is still tricky to turn around our personal attitudes. As we find ourselves in conversations with people who have different beliefs, different life choices and values, it can create discomfort and even a casual comment can reinforce the difference creating tension in the exchange. So the key question is if we wish to become more open-minded, how can we as individuals embody this spirit in our own interactions? How do we become an agent of acceptance and change through our behaviour?
The underlying principle is being able to suspend judgment, of self and others. We all have our own biases of ‘familiar and safe’ and ‘unknown and scary’ formed through our life experiences. It’s now a well-understood phenomenon that the brain does not distinguish between a physical threat and a perceived psychological one. So our biases are literally triggered in everyday interactions with anyone that appears ‘different’. Our brain (like any good machine) tries to economize on effort by categorizing, labelling, and stereotyping. The natural tendency is to set off defensive emotions like anger, fear, or disgust to keep us away from things we do not understand. It becomes a unconscious blinker that inhibits our ability to work in collaboration.
The good news is that inclusive acceptance is a learned attitude. By practising certain habits, we can actually manage our tendencies for judgments and ‘stay’ in conversations with people who are different. The trick is to reset our judging mind.
Here are 5 conversational strategies that can help us be more open-minded and collaborative.
Build a repertoire of phrases to use to create a pause for yourself
Have you asked someone in a casual conversation what they did and the response was so ‘whacky’ that it killed the conversation instantly? I once met someone who told me he managed rats in a lab. I gradually crept to the other end of the room, confused at my own inability to think of anything further to say. We all find ourselves in similar conversational impasses, like when someone you know discloses a deeply personal detail, or when you are witness to a mean comment about someone else for their lifestyle choices. Navigating this impasse can be tricky.
To reset your thinking in that moment, take a pause. Not necessarily a silent pause, but develop a technique that allows you to create a space to respond appropriately. When someone says something that catches you by surprise, practice saying “Oh really?” or “That’s interesting” or ‘Wow! Tell me more about that!”. It gives you time to recover from the initial shock and remain in the conversation. Think about what may work for you and refine it over the next few such conversations.
Regulate your emotion
Our own judgment of the situation spikes emotion. So when a situation is uncomfortable, we respond with anger, an attack, or avoidance. If we can take charge of this emotion, we can remain in the conversation longer.
One way to become aware of whether your emotion is triggered is to watch your breath. It becomes shallow when we are emotionally affected. So, the next time you feel agitated at work, focus on breathing deep and in a few seconds you will find that the emotion releases, and with that returns the power to think clearly. This could literally be as little time as 5-10 seconds, which is where maybe the phrase ‘count to ten’ originated!
Ask questions and stay curious
As an avowed dog lover, one of us (Sangeetha) finds herself reacting badly to those that don’t like animals. Recently, in a casual chat with an old classmate at a reunion, the classmate made a passing remark about how she had only taken on a pet because her daughter wanted one but never allowed the dog into the house. Sangeetha was immediately set off and ready to lecture her and write her off for good.
But then she remembered that she did care about her classmate and in this brief interaction, it was not possible to change her opinions or life. So she breathed deeply and asked calmly, “What is your dog’s name?”
Interacting with someone who thinks differently than you is an opportunity to find out what it is like for the other person. Use your curiosity and creativity to learn more. Ask questions to understand what their experience is. For example, other questions Sangeetha could have asked her here were, ‘How do you balance your work with caring for your dog?’ or ‘Tell me about how your daughter is with her pet’. These are all possible lines of exchange that are interesting to her, that will put the other person at ease and take judgment out of the equation. The conversation can move forward.
Connect to the purpose of the exchange
In a sensitive leadership meeting, one of our co-facilitators worked hard to create an open space for collaboration when one of the participants made some disparaging comment on the women managers in his team. Our colleague was personally irritated and berated him (deservedly) on his views! She found however that the scolding inhibited the flow. The conversation in the room got derailed from its core agenda, the participant in question sulked for the rest of the afternoon, and others got really wary about sharing anything. The safe space we had so carefully created crumbled to bits.
When you are triggered in this manner, it is necessary to decide what is more important in that situation. Is it really necessary to make your point? What impact will it have? What is your purpose of being in the conversation? Can you possibly come back to it at a more appropriate time? This will help you decide if and how to respond.
Practice—like you would any skill—having conversations with diverse people
The frequency of engagement is vital to becoming more genuinely accepting of difference. So seek conversations with those you feel you don’t have much in common with. The next time you are at a party, instead of finding your friends, walk right into that group that dresses/ talks/acts different from you. Remember to remain genuinely curious to find common ground, perhaps around a shared hobby or childhood experience.
We learn bias early and may not even be conscious that they guide our behaviour. It takes practice and patience to avoid stereotyping and become truly inclusive. Diversity is the mix of people, but inclusion is making the mix work. An inclusive workplace—and world—is a healthier environment for us all.
This article was first published on HBR Ascend.