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09 Sep. 2015 | Comments (0)

Increasingly, D&I specialists are challenged to foster healthy dialogue on tough issues in response to turbulent D&I conflicts around the world. Many find it difficult to discuss tension-filled D&I topics, such as same-sex human rights debates, racially-motivated violence, religious frictions with refugees and immigrants, or acute gender inequalities. Given these challenges, constructive dialogue is essential to gaining understanding, building relationships, addressing problems, and seizing opportunities to create positive change in how we live and work together.

No simple training module or toolkit can provide a complete solution to this complex challenge, but evidence suggests 3 orientations that can enhance D&I dialogues:

  1. 1. Focus on Elevated Outcomes

In D&I, people can be passionate and highly committed to their perspectives. This energy is valuable in light of the challenges faced, but conversations can reach an impasse when participants focus on being right about their positions. In Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High, Patterson and
colleagues explain how participants committed to higher goals for stronger relationships, greater understanding, and collective benefits can engage in a safe, healthy, productive dialogue on difficult topics. Recommended techniques include demonstrating that you care about the other person, actively inviting others to share their own position, focusing on facts, agreeing when appropriate, comparing opposing views rather than suggesting that others are wrong, and apologizing when necessary. Employing these tactics can create a healthy atmosphere for moving forward together. 

A valuable example of this kind of approach to respectful, inclusive dialogue amid disagreement can be found in the Civil Conversations Project (from On Being with Krista Tippet). In one installment of this series, Jonathan Rauch (Brookings Institution) and David Blankenhorn (Institute for American Values) share insights from the Achieving Disagreement Project which has brought together people from different sides of the US same-sex marriage debate. Starting from the premise that it is essential for us to find healthy, fulfilling ways to live together amid differences, they demonstrate how making a genuine effort to see an issue from another’s perspective and being open to the idea that you might not always be right can promote productive dialogue, enable empathetic discovery of other points of view, and provide insight into the limitations of our own perspectives.

2. Share Stories  

Across sectors there is recognition of the productive power of storytelling, particularly when participants are open and deliberate in communicating their experience as well as active in listening empathetically and with openness to being influenced by what they hear. One example is the work of Aspen Baker, co-founder of Exhale, an organization seeking to shift from conflict to caring conversations about abortion centered on the principle of “pro-voice”, or listening to all stories in a kind manner. As Baker explains, true listening builds empathy, enables us to see differences with respect rather than fear, and reveals understandings that demand a shift in perceptions. The principles of this storytelling approach can be applied in efforts to foster constructive dialogue about the span of experiences across diversities. Without requiring participants to agree or come to consensus, Baker’s approach encourages storytellers to be vulnerable and wholehearted in sharing their experiences and advises listeners to ask open-ended questions and respect the language the storyteller uses. For example, in a TEDTalk Baker explains, “If someone kind of looks like a he, but they say they’re a she – it’s cool. Call that person a she.” Storycorps is another excellent source for guidance in listening and telling stories with its inclusive mission to provide opportunities for people across different experiences and beliefs to share stories that “remind one another of our shared humanity,  strengthen and build the connections between people, teach the value of listening, and weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters.”

3. Reframe Questions

Traditional approaches to D&I work have led to important accomplishments. Yet much work lies ahead, and we are finding that practiced ways of thinking and talking about our work can unintentionally deepen divisions rather than achieve solutions critical to the individuals and organizations we serve. In moving conversations forward, there can be value in reframing how we talk about difference. One approach is to engage discussions that explore both/and solutions rather than either/or answers. In his work on polarity management, Barry Johnson (Polarity Partnerships) provides practical guidance in this effort, highlighting the benefits of engaging with tensions. Applied to a D&I context, this approach challenges us to take part in conversations that do not seek to resolve common polarities that can divide us; instead, we can explore how to move forward in a way that recognizes and seeks to balance opposing differences.

Another reframing strategy that can further productive dialogue in D&I is to focus on what ties us together, rather than on what divides. In an episode of the Civil Conversations Project focused on race, John A. Powell (Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society) provides a powerful example of this. He challenges us to shift our conversations about race and ethnicity to focus on a common need for belonging. By starting with acknowledgement that we are connected and all seek to belong, powell explains that we can begin to ask, discuss, and explore how we express and celebrate that in our daily living. New paradigms are critically important to D&I discussions. Different frameworks can lead to imagining different means of interdependent relating in ways that accept tensions, cultivate inclusion, and shrink “us vs. them” orientations to create a “bigger we”.

Moving Forward Together with Courage, Competence, and Practice

Open dialogue takes courage, healthy dialogue requires competence, and productive dialogue takes practice without unrealistic demands for perfection. Bold D&I dialogues are not easy, but they can transform our relationships and ourselves on the path to breakthroughs in cultivating inclusive individuals, organizations, and societies.

What is your organization doing to foster D&I dialogues that address our most important and difficult challenges?


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  • About the Author: Rebekah Steele

    Rebekah Steele

    Rebekah Steele is a senior fellow providing diversity & inclusion (D&I) expertise for The Conference Board. She serves as program director for both the Diversity & Inclusion Executives and…

    Full Bio | More from Rebekah Steele


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