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What Do You Do When Your Colleague Is Biased? Try These 5 Phrases to Professionally Call It Out. Biased statements are unfortunately commonplace. These often unintentional, yet harmful behaviors can signal to others they do not belong and reinforce harmful stereotypes. Simple phrases like these can open the conversation.

By Julie Kratz

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If you have heard of unconscious bias, you've probably heard that all people have bias. While this is true, most people exposed to unconscious bias display polarizing views about diversity. They tend to think everyone has bias so it's not a big deal, or we all have bias and we're all bad humans. Neither extreme is reality.

A commonplace example of bias is in the form of microaggressions or non-inclusive behaviors. These biased statements although often unintentional, are still harmful to marginalized groups (women, people of color, those with disabilities or in the LGBTQ+ community). They often reinforce the harmful stereotypes of a group onto an individual. They are analogous to "death by a thousand cuts" or similar to the cumulative effect of many mosquito bites rather than the itch of only one mosquito bite. The idea is that repetitive behavior over time harms people, rarely the singular event.

Specific examples of microaggressions or non-inclusive behaviors might include:

  • "Where are you from?" (or really from is even worse)
  • "Your culture is so…" (insert stereotype)
  • "Can I touch your hair?" (with hand invading personal space)
  • "You're so articulate" (with surprise)
  • "Why do your people do this…" (with judgment)

Related: Are You a Performative Ally? Here Are the Signs.

These are a few commonplace microaggressions. A microaggression is any statement that could potentially feel othering or make someone feel less than others because of their association with a marginalized group. For marginalized groups, these types of statements and behaviors occur at higher frequencies.

Bias is a problem when it's uninterrupted. This is when someone witnesses a biased statement and chooses to ignore it or does not take action to call attention to it. Much like when we drive past a car wreck or witness someone in need of help, the more people that are around, the less likely we are to speak up or help. This is being a bystander.

Bystander behavior is problematic because it is the same as saying the behavior is acceptable, increasing the likelihood of it happening again. By contrast, an upstander calls attention to the biased statement and uses it as a teachable moment for others around them to prevent the behavior from happening again.

Most of us like to consider ourselves to be upstanders, yet at the moment, emotional flooding can prevent us from speaking up. Our brain's amygdala fires our fight or flight responses and it can be difficult to think clearly. That's why having some back pocket phrases can help. To practice being an upstander, the next time you witness a biased statement, consider trying one or more of these five phrases.

Phrase 1: "What did you mean by that?"

On the heels of a microaggression, sometimes we need to buy ourselves some time to think more clearly and calm down our emotions. Asking for clarity while assuming positive intent can help someone become more self-aware about their problematic behavior. Rather than elicit blame and shame, triggering defensiveness, this simple question helps someone explain their rationale and invites them to self-assess how it could be perceived differently than what they may have intended.

Phrase 2: One-word audible such as "woah," "ouch" or "eek"

Following non-inclusive behavior, it is critical to acknowledge what happened is not acceptable. if you don't have the right words to say at the moment, bringing attention to it through a one-word audible can slow down the situation, signals to others you saw it and invites others to join the conversation to help the person learn. Ideally, we would have a conversation at the moment, yet if emotions are high, it's best to call a timeout and circle back later, usually within 24 hours.

Related: Diversity Is Broader Than Just Race and Gender. This Is the Often-Overlooked Piece of the Puzzle.

Phrase 3: "Help me understand where you are coming from…"

Rather than call someone out for their behavior in a way that creates division or makes the person feel like a bad person, give them space and grace to learn. Meeting the person where they're at and inviting them to share their perspective before sharing yours, creates an environment for reciprocal understanding. Rarely are our perspectives the only possible perspective. Hearing others' perspectives makes it more likely that they'll listen to your perspective, especially if it's different.

Phrase 4: "I'm curious…"

One way to avoid judgment in a potentially negative situation is to maintain a healthy level of curiosity. It is impossible to be judgmental and curious at the same time. Simply starting your statement with "I wonder" or "I'm curious" shows that you're willing to learn from the other person which will make them more likely to want to learn from you. Rarely are arguments or different views resolved by telling the other person what to think. Instead, by asking questions, we stay curious and invite others to stay curious as well.

Phrase 5: "That is not okay."

If a situation is a severe form of microaggression or the person is a repeat offender, accountability is in order. It's important as hopeful upstanders, that we call attention to what was unacceptable and draw the line for it to not be accepted again. As a leader, it's even more important to model this behavior and to be firm on boundaries. For severe forms of microaggressions or habitual behavior, a one-on-one conversation is likely best.

Unfortunately, biased statements are commonplace. Next time you witness a non-inclusive behavior consider asking "what did you mean by that?" or saying "woah" or gaining clarity by stating "help me understand where you are coming from…" These phrases can open the conversation, rather than offend or shame others that make well-intentioned mistakes.

Related: 10 Ideas to Drive Your DEI Initiatives in 2023

Julie Kratz

Chief Engagement Officer

Julie Kratz is a highly-acclaimed TEDx speaker and inclusive leadership trainer who led teams and produced results in corporate America. Promoting diversity, inclusion and allyship in the workplace, Julie helps organizations foster more inclusive environments. Meet Julie at NextPivotPoint.com.

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