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Step outside your comfort zone

Starting conversations about diversity and inclusion isn’t easy, but the payoff is well worth the time and effort.

Step outside your comfort zone
A leader committed to exploring issues of diversity and inclusion must realize that it’s not a one-time conversation but an ongoing conversation about your values, your practice, your work culture, and the overall value of your employees and clients.

Talking about diversity and inclusion is hard; it is uncomfortable sharing your innermost thoughts about how you see difference, what it means for you (or not) in day-to-day interactions, and how you think that might affect the way individuals move through the world. Talking about diversity sparks strong emotional responses around how we view fairness, equality, access, deservedness, marginalization and superiority. We worry about how our thoughts and values will be viewed by people with whom we engage. We worry that we do not have the right vocabulary, and we worry that broaching the subject is going to spark an unpleasant interaction.

Casual observations of media highlight the potential difficulties, and at times toxic turns, that conversations about diversity and inclusion can take. We have learned that a 200-plus-character tweet about race, gender, geography and other topics can send the news cycle into a tizzy for days on end as we parse the meanings of words individually and contextually.

A recent Pew Research Center report found that 65% of Americans say it is increasingly common for people to express racist and other insensitive comments openly, and nearly half said such behavior is becoming acceptable. An earlier Pew report found a chasm among racial groups on whether inequality in America remains a significant issue. These findings provide insight into why meaningful discussions about diversity and inclusion can be so challenging. These discussions can be so challenging that we are pushed to practice avoidance.

To avoid meaningful discussions, we construct protective emotional buffers that emphasize constructs. For example:

  • Colorblindness (“I didn’t even notice you were black!”)
  • Privacy (“What you do at home is your business; don’t tell me about it!”)
  • Dismissiveness (“We dealt with sexism so long ago, women are fine now!”)

The discomfort and subsequent avoidance in talking about diversity and inclusion means that we fail to engage those around us on these topics in any meaningful way. Diversity comes in many forms; we are confronted with difference every day. The effort to sanitize those experiences by denying their existence bars us from truly connecting with others, limits our ability to resolve conflict, and greatly hinders our ability to leverage the benefits of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Saying “Just do it!” is easy when someone suggests that folks press forward in having these discussions. The reality is that several things can guide your efforts toward a meaningful conversation about diversity and inclusion.

1. Be Willing to Face Your Fears and Be Uncomfortable

Fear and the fear of discomfort are powerful barriers in many areas of life. Countless memes and quotes urge us to consider what we could accomplish if fear was not a barrier. Navigating a discussion on diversity and inclusion can be incredibly uncomfortable, especially to a neophyte who might worry about not using the correct lingo or presenting beliefs that might put the individual in a negative light among colleagues.

Two questions that might help you prepare to initiate these discussions are:

  • What are the consequences of saying or doing nothing?
  • Are those consequences better or worse than what you are currently feeling?

The questions can be extrapolated to the work environment. An act of discrimination or harassment has been brought to your attention. What happens if you do not address the issue, and will a decision to ignore the event harm the work environment?

At times you might be willing to accept the consequences, but if you are interested in constant improvement and long-term personal and professional development, I encourage you to consider initiating the courageous conversations anyway.

2. Establish Ground Rules

What is critical when facilitating challenging conversations is to establish ground rules for participation. Commit to not make things personal or take things personally. Maintain a commitment to mindfulness and mutual respect.

Free speech is not the same as being free from consequences, so constructing boundaries for the conversation is imperative. Active listening, rather than listening to respond, must be practiced. Remember to set reasonable expectations for the discussion.

3. Do Not Expect People With Marginalized Identities to Lead the Discussion

A frequent expectation of individuals with minority or marginalized identities is for them to facilitate, educate and generally do the general lifting in conversations about diversity and inclusion. You want these individuals to participate and share their stories, but do not expect them to assume the emotional burden of educating everyone else. The conversations should be authentic, inclusive and communal. Individuals who will lead the discussions should engage in preliminary research and have clear expectations about participation. They should avoid burdening individuals with inappropriate expectations.

4. Stay Present Even When Things Get Weird

Talking about diversity and inclusion is not always easy. The conversation strikes at the heart of individual core values and can elicit strong feelings. What is important is to engage key facilitation strategies to keep your team focused on having a meaningful conversation about leveraging diversity and creating a culture of inclusion. Know when to give the group a break and when to create opportunities for personal and group reflection. Synthesize and document action items that help move your team toward the goal of creating the culture you desire.

5. Accept That Resolution Can Be Elusive

Your conversations about diversity might not have a “winner,” and you might not have or learn all the answers, so the conversation could have gaps. You might not bring everyone on your team to your way of thinking, and that is OK. It’s a process.

The purpose of engaging in conversations about diversity and inclusion is not about winning. The goal should be about creating space for respectful discussion and education on these topics as they relate to advancing veterinary medicine and your practice. A leader committed to exploring issues of diversity and inclusion must realize that it’s not a one-time conversation but an ongoing conversation about your values, your practice, your work culture, and the overall value of your employees and clients.

Real Talk

Conversations about diversity and inclusion can be challenging but also incredibly rewarding in that they open meaningful dialogues about how we see the world and how that view shapes the way we engage others. Our views on these topics underlie how we approach the practice of veterinary medicine thanks to unconscious bias, stereotypes and potentially hostile views on members of the community.

Initiating and making conversations about diversity and inclusion a regular exercise can strengthen your team by reinforcing your practice’s core values and directly connecting those values to the practice of medicine. It is a process, and you and your colleagues will get better at it with practice.

And now that you have some tools, just do it!

Diversity Toolbox columnist Dr. Lisa M. Greenhill is senior director for institutional research and diversity at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. AAVMC’s “Diversity & Inclusion” podcasts are available at http://bit.ly/2APLtk4.