As a leadership and culture advisor for coaches of sports teams and their athletes, as well as working with corporate executives and their teams, I have participated in several Zoom sessions surrounding diversity and inclusion. A common theme is the perceived and real challenge of how to best begin a conversation, in this case, around race. I will share what these audiences have found extremely helpful in making significant strides inside their organizations and as individual leaders. I share insights I learned and employed as a leader in the United States Army, both in peace and combat.
In this capacity, I had the distinct honor and responsibility to uphold a sacred trust, a trust with the American people who shared her sons and daughters with me, and the very people I was charged with leading and ensuring their care and well-being. After all, how effective we were as a team of teams, clusters of vastly different individuals, correlated directly to our eventual survival and performance in combat. From the time I graduated from West Point, placed in charge of 25 people, up through my last leadership position in charge of 3,500 people, I was always immersed in diversity. For example, as a leader of a 500-person organization preparing for and eventually engaging in a year-long combat deployment to Afghanistan, I led an incredibly diverse group of people. Here is a glimpse of the demographics of my team:
Race/Ethnicities[i]: 68 different variations represented
Religious affiliation: Consisting of over 35 types to include but not limited to: Variants of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Agnosticism, Atheism, Sikhism, variants of African Religion, and variants of Native American Religion, etc.
Socio-economic: Spanned the socio-economic spectrum in terms of their formative years before entering military service
Representation from every state, the District of Columbia and five territories (American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and United States Virgin Islands)
Gender Identification: Several variations exist, to include but not limited to: Male, Female, Transgender, Non-binary, etc.
Education level: everything from high school through people with doctoral degrees
Creating an inclusive culture for an organization this diverse was always a challenge that I accepted and took responsibility for. Perhaps that is the first lesson to share. There is no diversity and inclusion without leadership. When seeking a diversity and inclusion director or executive, the first criteria must be a person with demonstrated leadership experience and attributes[ii]. Returning to the common theme from these various Zoom sessions, I will share how best to begin a conversation with people regarding race. Here are three considerations.
Everyone is an Individual. Please do not make the same mistake I did as a young leader of a 200-person unit. I thought I was enlightened and thereby engaged in several group conversations about equal opportunity and the like specific to race. I even participated in small-group and one on one conversations. Until one day, my first sergeant, a trusted advisor, came to me and suggested that while my efforts were commendable, my actions were less so.
1. Every Person is uniquely unique
His explanation made me realize I was approaching these conversations with preconceived, monolithic notions concerning race. I was automatically placing every person I engaged in a single race bucket of sorts. By doing so, I inadvertently stymied real conversation from the onset by starting from a limiting context. He suggested that I meet everyone where they are as an individual. He said, “no person of color is the same, any more so than any white person is.” So, let people who you engage in conversation with know you are meeting them where they are and understand that as a human being, their experiences and beliefs surrounding their experiences are uniquely theirs. Ask them to have a conversation about their experiences. Once you do this, you could ask follow-up questions such as, “how is your experience different or similar to your friends, colleagues, and family? Why do you think that is?” They will appreciate you recognizing their individuality, and you will experience more productive and more insightful dialogue. Your understanding and awareness will become elevated due to this approach, as will theirs.
2. I will Make Some mistakes
Acknowledge upfront that the conversation is likely to be awkward at first. It is okay to state that you know you may unintentionally use inappropriate or offensive words and phrases. Ask the person you are speaking with to stop you anytime you do, by calmly saying, “stop.” Further, ask them to help you re-state or re-frame whatever you stated, which was off-putting. Thank them and continue with the conversation. A key measure of improvement going forward is the less they have to say, “stop,” and the less awkward the conversation feels for both of you with each passing conversation.
3. Feelings and emotions
They are a natural part of life. “Emotions are neuro-physiological reactions unleashed by an external or internal stimulus (emotions are physical). Feelings are a self-perception of specific emotions, being a subjective expression of emotions (feelings are mental).” [iii] Feelings and emotions are the great equalizers because we all have them.[iv] The degree of severity associated with those feelings and emotions separates our perceptions of various experiences. It thus makes these uniquely our own – even for people who experience the same external stimuli. If you are a human being who has been on this planet for enough trips around the sun to reach young adulthood then you have experienced enough where you have likely felt all of these feelings: fear, anxiety, stress, shame, sadness, loneliness, anger, jealousy, disgust, frustration, happiness, delight, joy, admiration, etc. The point is we all have feelings, it is a place where we can begin to connect, not compare, but genuinely connect. When a person of a different race is describing anger or fear, you can connect because you also have experienced anger and fear. You can begin to empathize with them in a more profound manner than had you otherwise not taken this approach. Remember, feelings and emotions are familiar to us all! The severity of these, from not noticed to transformational, is where the difference and the understanding begins.
4. The Struggle is real
Understand that there may exist psychological and emotional fatigue on the part of the person you are trying to engage in conversation. They, rightfully so, could be tired. Tired of having to continually feel like they have to educate you and those like you. And so, while appreciative of your overture, they do not have the energy or desire to do so. So, first, do your homework. Educate yourself as much as possible first. Read, watch movies, listen to podcasts, etc. Convey that you are not seeking the dialogue to be educated, rather to understand better, gain some wisdom, and build on the self-education efforts you have conducted. You are seeking deeper learning and understanding so that you are better armed to fight with, not necessarily for, the disaffected people in the world. Your struggle to be able to do so is also genuine.
While this article is written during the current context of racial tension in our society, the lessons I share are just a few that I found compelling when approaching minorities about starting a dialogue of understanding and creating a culture of inclusion for everyone.