Diversity Conversations with Colleagues: Points to Consider

(Adapted from Talking With Co-Workers/Colleagues About Affirmative Action
and Proposition 187, University Health Services)

Given the breath and depth of issues around diversity, equity and inclusion, and how deeply people can feel about them, a conversation with co-workers can be anything from a wonderful learning experience to a departmental disaster. As you talk with others, here are some issues we encourage you to consider: 1. Think about how to begin. If you want to have a conversation with co-workers on your own time, ask people if they want to talk about it. Some people will not want to reveal their personal opinions to people they work with. If a discussion is to happen at an "official" work meeting, suggest that the group set ground rules (see previous section). 2. You can't spot opinions just by looking at people. Opinions cross racial, ethnic, color, gender, religious, class, education, job, income and other human groupings. A good place to begin dialogues, then, is with no assumptions about where someone stands. Let individuals tell you their ideas. 3. "Diversity" means different things to different people. There is no shared universal understanding of the phrase "diversity." If you're in a discussion, you may need to be specific about what you and your conversation partners are each talking about. 4. Be prepared for strong emotions. When talking about diversity issues, people can experience strong emotions, especially when personal stories are shared. “Each…group member perceives the emotional risks that come with honest self-disclosure. Changing the status quo, and most certainly our own, can be emotionally threatening. When the truth is told, we are face to face with pain—either theirs, ours or both. At moments like these most of us feel unsafe, and vulnerable to one another.” (Barbara Walker, Leading Core Groups, 1986). Acknowledge the various emotions that may be present. 5. How other people hear your words is not in your control. Although you control the speaking, your listener controls what he/she hears. What someone hears can be influenced by many non-obvious things, such as past experiences, work stress, even the morning's commute. What you can control is what you say and how you say it. Pay attention to your words. Slow down, think first, and take the time to say what you mean. Talk to people in person where they can hear your voice tone, see you and read your body language. 6. Silence means only that: silence. Silence does not mean agreement or disagreement. And people have the right to silence or other reactions that may not be comfortable for you. You can't be sure what a reaction like silence means unless you ask. Even then, someone may choose not to discuss reactions or the topics. 7. Don't assume you're not making assumptions. Remember that as hard as you may try, it's virtually impossible to rid yourself of all assumptions and value judgments. Often the response of the person you are

talking to sheds light on an assumption underlying your words. You may want to further explore your own ideas and where they came from, and acknowledge your assumptions. 8. Feeling judged and feeling respected doesn’t usually occur together. You can choose to act judgmentally or non-judgmentally. It's a good bet, however, that judging your co-workers won't take you as far as respecting them will. In the context of talking about diversity, equity and inclusion, for many people serious respect is a prerequisite. (And serious respect means using humor at your own risk.) Remember: judging others is a chosen activity; it's not mandatory. 9. People respond to the same stimulus in different ways. After a dialogue, people may behave in a variety of ways. Some may feel better for having aired their views or for having made it through the meeting and will be happy. Some may feel pain or rage at what they consider a personal attack. Some may feel a need to retreat to a safe place physically or emotionally to consider what they have heard, seen and felt. Provide space for these different reactions. 10. Scars don't always show. People with whom you work closely, unbeknownst to you, may be carrying emotional scars and pain from their experiences with discrimination. Dialogues may move quickly to a very heated and highly challenging nature. Casual, careless comments may elicit a stronger response than you anticipated. Keep in mind the impact model. Be willing to take responsibility for unintended impact, even with the best of intentions. We all have to keep working together. What you say in the work place today may be remembered for a long time. Try to respect differences: you and your coworkers can agree to disagree or agree. Let us try to have our dialogues in ways which support all of us as respected, contributing members of your unit and the campus community.