Here's How to Have the Most Powerful DEI Conversations
Critical discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion don't have to feel difficult or uncomfortable. Community agreements are the answer.
Many people feel nervous or on edge when conversations around racial discrimination, pay inequity and inclusivity issues come up in the workplace. But, there is a way to have powerful DEI conversations that move the needle towards change without anyone feeling left out, misunderstood or disrespected.
Community agreements are an important step to having powerful DEI conversations. These are the rules, norms and mutual understandings that help guide respectful group dialogues. I've used community agreements for years with clients during our learning sessions. I've seen how intentional agreements can pave the way for diverse groups of people to connect over important issues.
Today, I'm sharing seven community agreements that I use to transform difficult discussions into powerful DEI conversations.
1. Leave assumptions at the door
Harmful stereotypes about certain groups can cloud your judgment. It's a good idea to check in with yourself and make sure you're not carrying any assumptions that can get in the way of having an open mind during a dialogue.
2. Name what you need to feel safe
In DEI circles, we often say "this is a safe space," but the reality is, calling a space safe doesn't make it true. Most people aren't mind readers. It's important for all participants to name what they need to feel safe up front so others in the room can honor and respect it. Assuming everyone feels safe in a conversation is a pitfall that should be avoided. It's a good idea to have someone tasked with checking in with participants to make sure their needs for safety are being met throughout the session. This allows them to feel brave enough to contribute in a meaningful way.
3. Be your authentic self
The most fruitful conversations are the ones where people show up authentically. Authenticity can make some people feel vulnerable, but there's strength in it as well. Making sure people know they don't have to put on a facade to be present is important to creating a safer space. It's essential to give people in the room permission to let their guards down and share their unique wisdom and perspectives with the group. When more people show up authentically in DEI conversations, more opportunities for learning and connection arise.
4. No topic is off the table
Part of having powerful DEI conversations is allowing topics and tangents to come up naturally. It's okay to keep the dialogue focused on one particular issue, but if related thoughts, anecdotes, experiences and questions come up, it's important to acknowledge them. These discussions are designed to allow people to express their thoughts and ideas without judgment. Placing limitations on which topics can be discussed can stifle the conversation and leave some feeling unheard or unacknowledged.
5. Honor your growth
In these conversations, you may notice you or someone else in the room has an epiphany. This is a tell-tale sign that they are experiencing a moment of growth. Growth can look different for everyone. For some, it's offering a genuine apology can be a sign. For others, it's listening first instead of speaking. Whatever that looks like, lean into the transformation. Think about how the conversation could be evolving the perspectives and development of people in the room.
6. Express gratitude
Being present and vulnerable in DEI conversations isn't always easy. That's why expressing gratitude and commending your colleagues is so important to encouraging participation. A good way to show gratitude is to give affirmations. That can look like saying thank you to the person sharing or nodding your head in agreement when something resonates with you. Leaning into acknowledging others encourages them to continue to share, and therefore makes the conversation that much richer and more meaningful.
7. Expect and accept that there won't be closure
We're conditioned in the business world to expect to-do lists, objectives and solid takeaways after meetings are held. In DEI conversations, that's not always the case. Sometimes when the conversation ends, people need time to process what they heard and experienced. Practice giving people space to do the internal work they need after the dialogue. Don't expect people to have action steps right away. This community agreement allows those who participated in the conversation to process the information on their own time and come back later with more meaningful reflections.
Next time you're gearing up to have a company-wide DEI conversation, encourage leadership to take the 10-15 minutes ahead of the meeting to name community agreements. This list is not exhaustive. You can certainly include other agreements suggested by participants. These seven are merely a stepping stone for you and your team to build on.
Community agreements are not the only solution to having powerful DEI conversations. Ensuring that you have the right atmosphere, the timing of the meeting is on point and that people are mentally prepared for a conversation are also important aspects. As you progress with agreements in mind, DEI conversations will become more productive and effective over time.
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