How to make difficult conversations about bias easier

For a culture of inclusion, we need to be skilled at having difficult conversations.

4-minute read

The following scenario is based on an actual event. Imagine this happened at your office. A co-worker is hanging up decorations for Pride Month, when another co-worker passes by and says: 

“What’s this? Are we having a Care Bears party?” 

The decorating employee stops and glares at their colleague, who proceeds to saunter along, adding: 

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding. I’m an ally.”

Before reading any further, ask yourself: How would you handle this situation, either as a recipient or as a witness to the exchange? Would you: 

    1. Call-out: reprimand the person in public? 
    2. Call-in: take him aside and give him feedback in private? 
    3. Report him to HR?     
    4. Talk to the employee who was the target of the joke?
    5. Shrug it off, and let it be?

Knowing how to respond to these kinds of (problematic yet ambiguous) incidents is tough. Well-intentioned efforts can easily backfire and make the situation worse. But to create a culture of inclusion, we need a workforce that is empowered and skilled (top down, bottom up, and across) at having difficult conversations. This cannot simply be an “HR problem.” 

At LifeLabs Learning, we teach employees to have constructive dialogue – even around the toughest of issues. How do we know what works? We’ve studied hundreds of effective communicators to understand the concrete ‘behavioral units’ that separate them from average folks.   

Below is our method for addressing potential bias effectively:      

1) Start with an invitation. 

Instead of shaming folks in public, let the person know that you want to discuss the situation with them in private. This is the difference between calling out and calling in. By making the conversation an invitation, you’re showing respect for their time and reducing the likelihood that they will feel blindsided. Research shows the initial conditions of a conversation go a long way in determining the trajectory of that interaction. For example: 

“Hi, John. I overheard your comment to Jane about the Pride decorations. Do you have some time this afternoon to talk about it? I’d really like to share my thoughts with you and hear yours.”  

2) Separate the person from the problem.

To call-in bias successfully, separate what someone said/did from who they are as a human being. This is often difficult since, in the heat of moment, we often attribute perceived negative behavior to someone’s personality:  You’re racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. (even though we rarely think of ourselves in this way). This tendency is called the Fundamental Attribution Error. It’s a natural reaction, but it also guarantees the person we are speaking with will feel the urge to protect their identity and get defensive.

To increase the likelihood of the person actually hearing you out, talk about what happened rather than your interpretation. Think about yourself delivering an observation a camera could report. For example, instead of saying, “You made an insensitive remark.”  Say: 

“I noticed when you walked by Jane, you made a comment about a Care Bears party and, before she got to respond, you said you were joking and an ally.”    

3) Share the impact statement. 

One of the most important yet overlooked aspects of calling-in bias, is to let the person know why you are giving them the feedback in the first place. Doing so allows people to contextualize and see the problem from a different perspective. For example:

“I realize it wasn’t your intention, but I mention it because I’m concerned a comment like that devalues the significance and efforts of LGBTQ visibility. Jane may or may not be okay with it, but other people in the office (like myself) are affected by comments and jokes like that.”

4) End with a question.

One of the most successful ways to get buy-in in a tough conversation is to make sure the person receiving feedback is included in the discussion. This means shifting from a mode of criticality and defaulting to one of curiosity.

By inviting the person into the conversation, you not only walk the talk of inclusivity but also create space for genuine dialogue. The simplest way to turn the feedback into a two-way discussion is to end with a question. For example:

“I’d love to understand your thoughts/feelings on this. What do you think about what I shared with you? As a coworker and an ally, how do you think we can create a culture that is both playful and sensitive?”        

It’s important to note that by creating space for conversation, you are not necessarily agreeing with the person (although your perspective may shift) but simply understanding their thought process. Knowing where someone is coming from is essential for problem solving. It’s also an opportunity to make sure your message was received.

These four steps are simple, but they require effort. To give feedback on bias well, employees need training, encouragement, and modeling from leaders. But the effort is worth the investment. When we make it easier for employees to have tough conversations about bias and inclusion, we take steps to build a culture of respect, dialogue, learning, and growth. And that is something even the Care Bears would approve of.