5 tips for productive conversations about diversity

Instead of avoiding potentially contentious engagements, we can use them as stepping stones to increase awareness, mutual understanding and growth

Aug 4, 2018 @ 6:00 am

By Brian Thompson

Having difficult conversations sucks. Often you feel like you're running in circles, going over and over the same issues and not being heard. When the conversation turns to race, gender and sexual orientation, discussions become especially difficult. So much anxiety, shame, fear and vulnerability are involved. However, if we really want to move the needle forward on diversity and inclusion, we need to start learning how to make these difficult conversations easier and more effective. Here are some tips on how to do that.


In his extremely popular Ted Talk and book "Start with Why," Simon Sinek argues that the most inspirational leaders motivate others to action by explaining why they do what they do (i.e., the purpose, cause, belief). Only after nailing down the "why" can you address how things need to be done and what the result will be.

The "why" behind having difficult diversity and inclusion conversations stems from us all wanting to become more knowledge, more accepting and better people. Additionally, avoiding these conversations will only make the problem worse.

Last year, Kira Hudson Banks wrote "How Managers Can Promote Healthy Discussions About Race" for the Harvard Business Review about how avoiding discussions about racial tension can lead to stakeholders feeling unheard, perpetuating a cycle of misunderstanding and misinformation. Fear of "saying the wrong thing" can actually result in worse outcomes. Instead of avoiding potentially contentious conversations, we can use them as stepping stones to increase awareness, mutual understanding and growth.


According to resolution expert Maggie Lea of the Denver Foundation, what makes most conversations difficult is not necessarily the content of the exchange, but the context — specifically, our feelings and emotional investment around it.

"Many of us have been conditioned by society to not speak our minds, and so we haven't acquired the skills of navigating difficult conversations," she said. "Without practice in something, confidence lacks, and fear often sets in."

In order to make these conversations less difficult and more effective, Ms. Lea suggests getting outside of ourselves and empathizing with the other person.

1. Start from a place of humility: Genuine curiosity, vulnerability and respect for the other person as well as yourself typically elicits mutual trust and facilitates shared understanding.

2. Approach the conversation with an interest in problem solving, instead of needing to be "right": Frame the conversation in a way that puts you and the other person (or people) shoulder-to-shoulder, tackling a problem together.

3. Focus on what you're hearing, not what you're saying: For every statement the other person makes, restate it in your own words to signal you're listening and that you want to understand.

4. Put yourself in the other person's shoes: In doing so, consider how this allows you to gain some distance from your own experience, and consider how the other might interpret the same situation.

5. Expect a positive result: Focus your attention on the possibility of mutual gain. When your attention is focused on potential benefits of the conversation, it will shift your thinking toward a more constructive approach.


Study after study has shown that being inclusive and diverse in your workplace generates positive, bottom-line results. For instance, support for diversity and inclusion:

Helps people hear and share different perspectives and ideas that can inspire creativity and motivation

Produces greater opportunities for professional and personal growth

Expands business opportunities in your local area and beyond

Enhances productivity and teamwork

In short, we all benefit from diversity and inclusion. But it won't happen by itself. We have to do our part to be the change that we want to see, create safe spaces for these types of conversations and learn how to effectively navigate difficult topics.

Brian Thompson is a financial adviser and founder of Brian Thompson Financial.


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