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“We Don’t Talk About That at Work”

September 25, 2020

Respectful Workplace Communication for a New Era

Navigating conversations about sensitive topics like race, religion, and culture is at the top of mind for many of us these days. While such topics have often been viewed as taboo at work, more and more people are recognizing the importance of acknowledging and addressing sensitive social issues in order to build more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces. Respectful communication forms a cornerstone of both personal and organizational DEIA (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access) efforts. But what does respectful workplace communication look like on a day-to-day basis?


Listen actively

We often equate communicating with talking, but in reality, listening is the most fundamental part of interpersonal communication. To truly listen well, though, we need to listen actively. Active listening means listening with the intention of absorbing and understanding what the other person is saying, rather than simply listening to respond with whatever we wanted to say next. When we engage in active listening, we are better able to relate to and learn from those around us. In addition, active listening helps to make all parties in a conversation feel heard and respected.


You can practice active listening in several ways. Put your phone or other devices away and turn away from your computer monitor. Use body language to indicate that you are engaged in the conversation: nod your head, make eye contact, and keep your arms uncrossed. Provide feedback or ask for clarification through statements like “What I’m hearing is… Am I understanding you correctly?” or “What do you mean when you say…?”


Watch Out for Microaggressions


Most people do not intend to be offensive, but sometimes we don’t fully understand the impact of our words and actions. Subtle, often unintentional, verbal and nonverbal slights and insults that imply hostile or negative messages about marginalized groups are known as microaggressions. While they may not be blatantly racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive, microaggressions are nonetheless harmful to individuals’ mental and emotional wellbeing and to workplace cohesion. Examples of common microaggressions include complimenting a person of color on how well they speak or dressing up as another ethnicity for Halloween.


Recognizing and addressing microaggressions in yourself and others requires delicacy, humility, and open communication. It’s important to approach these conversations with the perspective that it is not the person who is racist/sexist/offensive; rather, it was a specific action or statement that was offensive. It is equally important to recognize that the feelings of the person on the receiving end of a microaggression are valid and worthy of listening to and acknowledging.


Identify Your Unconscious Biases

Research has shown that a significant portion of our thought and behavior patterns are driven by our unconscious mind. This “behind-the-scenes” thinking serves us well in a lot of ways but it also creates unconscious biases: involuntary stereotypes or assumptions we use to assess people and situations. For example, if you hear that your company has hired a new administrative assistant and automatically assume that the new hire is a woman, that would be a case of unconscious bias. These biases can be subtle but when acted upon consistently throughout a company or culture, they can add up to significant disparities.

Unconscious bias is normal and does not make you a bad person. However, it is important to begin to identify when and how these unconscious beliefs are impacting your behavior. You can start to identify your own unconscious biases by taking the time to question why you made a certain assumption or decision. You can also take the Implicit Association Test to help better identify your own individual patterns. The more you begin to slow down and think about your patterns, the easier it will be to recognize when unconscious bias is driving a decision and to choose how to speak or act more consciously.


Own Your Mistakes

Occasionally we all put our foot in our mouths and unintentionally say something hurtful or offensive. When it comes to sensitive topics like race or religion, however, here is a key concept to remember: impact over intent. This means that even if your intentions were neutral or even good, if the end result is that someone was hurt, that hurt needs to be acknowledged.

If a co-worker approaches you about something you said or did that they found offensive, try not to jump immediately on the defensive. Remember, impact over intent. Don’t insist that you “didn’t mean it that way” or “were only joking.” Instead, actively listen to what they have to say, acknowledge their feelings, and apologize for the hurt your words or actions caused, however unintentional.


Be Open to Learning and Changing

Having open conversations about race, religion, gender identity, and other sensitive topics in the workplace is brand new territory for many of us. As we navigate these new waters, we are bound to make mistakes and to learn new concepts and perspectives that we had not considered before. By embracing these opportunities to learn and grow rather than avoiding them, we can improve our relationships with our colleagues and show our desire for respectful, open, trusting communication. This will not only improve individual employee morale and job satisfaction, it will also help drive overall company culture forward to new levels of inclusion and equality.


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