Honest discussions about diversity and inclusion aren't easy. As one association professional discovered, the range of reactions can be difficult to manage, but that doesn’t mean he'll shy away from fostering those conversations. Here's a glimpse of what you might encounter when you discuss D&I.
Writing a blog post that would engage more comments than any I had previously published was not my intention. But when I wrote about the lack of diversity, in both race and new perspectives, on a Great Ideas Conference panel I was invited to join, that's what happened.
The ensuing conversation on my blog and others was a learning experience, in regard to both diversity in the association community as well as the dynamics and challenges of such a discussion. If you're going to lead a discussion on diversity and inclusion (D&I), be ready to handle a wide mix of reactions. Reflecting on this experience, I've discerned a few lessons that might help you with similar discussions:
Some people may feel a need to be "right." Former Harvard Business School professor Chris Argyris has noted that individuals come into relationships with four governing values: to win and not lose in any interaction, to always maintain control of the situation at hand, to avoid embarrassment of any kind, and to stay rational throughout.
As a facilitator, I regularly see these values during group interaction. They can become problematic in D&I conversations, as these discussions need to involve cooperative exploration and discovery rather than conquering others' viewpoints and emerging with the winning perspective.
The conversation should be about learning, not blame or judgment. By definition, if some people need to be right, others will feel wrong or wronged, neither of which helps advance dialogue or D&I efforts. In my case, I tried deliberately not to assign blame. Instead, I wondered out loud how we hadn't made more progress in offering a diverse mix of presenters at a major conference. For some, though, as I learned, the very act of posing such a question implies that someone failed.
Even when careful to not point fingers, you may find that people feel defensive and need to justify their efforts. That's understandable, but moving forward won't result from defending the past. It requires learning from what was tried and identifying what different approaches might produce different results. You must make a constant effort to keep the conversation focused on learning.
Perspectives are personal and local. This is particularly important in a D&I conversation. The identity and experience that each person brings to the discussion vary tremendously, so much so that it is easy to end up talking at people instead of having dialogue and discussion with them, particularly in online forums.
The Quaker tradition emphasizes that "everyone holds a piece of the truth." We can only have meaningful D&I conversations if we create forums in which we can weave together more holistic understanding from the pieces of truth that each individual contributes. We need to support more personal disclosure in order to become better professionals and a more diverse and inclusive profession.
Some will see no need for discussion. Some blog commenters said they saw little or no need for being affirmative in our membership, volunteer, or speaker recruitment. They said that opportunity is open to all, and that individuals only need to step up and get involved.
Joe Gerstandt, a speaker and facilitator who has addressed D&I issues in presentations at ASAE conferences, has helped me rewire my thinking from focusing on our efforts to examining the evidence. This approach can help identify the need. When you look at your association or conference or industry, ask others what the evidence tells them and what efforts they might need to undertake.
Judging by the evidence from these D&I conversations, we have significant unrealized potential for dialogue and debate about difference and differences. We are different. Our community has differences. Learning how to better engage them for our shared aspirations is where we should direct our efforts. The conversation has to be personal, and it won't always be polite or pretty, but I remain convinced it is one we should keep having.
Web Extra: Additional Resources
See Jeffrey Cufaude's blog post on diversity and inclusion, as well as follow-up posts by fellow association bloggers:
- "Getting More Players on the All-Star Team," by Jeffrey Cufaude, Idea Architects, August 24, 2011
- "Diversity in Association Management - the Association Subculture Weighs In," by Shelly Alcorn, CAE, Association Subculture, August 26, 2011
- "Are Some More Equal Than Others?" by Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE, Thanks for Playing, August 25, 2011