A Model for Talking about Culturally Sensitive and Controversial Topics at Work

by Daniel B. Griffith, J.D., SPHR, SHRM-SCP

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In Talking about Controversial Topics at Work, I discussed parameters for higher education employers to consider for engaging employees in necessary, though difficult, conversations on culturally sensitive and controversial topics. I noted the importance of fostering an environment where employees may engage in such conversations, as appropriate to their work settings. In this article, I present an approach for facilitating such conversations.

A Different Paradigm - Understanding and Utilizing Dialogue Principles
Many employers implement diversity training, but with mixed results. Such training should not involve shaming, guilt, and judgment, and should instead help individuals learn skills, behavioral expectations, and competencies related to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. Employees seek such development, particularly to enhance their capacity for engaging in conversations on such matters and for responding to hateful and negative messages perpetuated by others. They don't want poorly-conceived diversity training that presumes to "educate" them based on assumptions about their ignorance, lack of sensitivity, or need for correction.

I have worked with colleagues on my campus to incorporate intergroup dialogue (IGD) processes that afford opportunity for participants to learn by sharing experiences and listening to the experiences of others in a safe, supportive, non-judgmental environment. We have adapted the IGD teaching model developed by the University of Michigan Program on Intergroup Relations for facilitating sustained, i.e., multi-session, dialogue processes on race, gender, sexual orientation, and other social identities. We have facilitated numerous dialogues for employees and implemented a certificate in intergroup dialogue for undergraduate students. We also use this model to encourage civil discourse over debate for single-event forums and workshops. I rely on these experiences to suggest practices for facilitating meaningful diversity conversations and learning opportunities instead of forced diversity "education."

A Model for Consideration
Traditional diversity training often assumes participants are prepared to learn and talk about differences from the start. Rather, borrowing from the IGD model, facilitators should consider the following processes, in the order presented, to support meaningful conversations in a safe learning environment:

Convening. Intergroup dialogues involve intentional conversations on a specific aspect of social identity, such as race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. They typically involve 14 to 16 participants. This number permits multiple voices, yet is not so small that the same individuals are burdened to speak all the time. They require a balance of participation among individuals representing the social identity under consideration. For example, a race dialogue requires general parity of representation between white participants, i.e., the majority or "agent" group, and people of color, i.e., the minority or "target" group. Dialogues are also co-facilitated by peers who represent this parity, such as a white person and a person of color as co-facilitators for a race dialogue.

Many single-event forums, workshops, and dialogue processes do not afford this luxury of pre-planning. Even so, considerations about balance of participation and participant voices are essential prior to engaging in deeper discussions. Any such process should reinforce the following concepts and practices:
  • Emphasis on dialogue over debate. Debate emphasizes "either/or" responses where participants argue their points and fail to acknowledge and often seek to defeat the arguments of perceived adversaries, whereas dialogue encourages exploration of all perspectives in an environment of civility and respect, acknowledging the possibility for "both/and" approaches where multiple divergent viewpoints are considered valid.
  • Ensuring safety while acknowledging discomfort. Dialogue involves critical analysis of differing perspectives, but in an environment where participants can share concerns, even to express strong disagreement, misgivings, or lack of understanding, without fear of personal attack or belittling reactions. Such conversations are inherently uncomfortable, so safety is essential to help participants push through their discomfort to promote learning, growth, and change.
  • Tending to triggers. When discussing culturally sensitive topics, participants may respond with anger, confusion, anxiety, frustration, or sadness, or react with "flight" responses such as withdrawing, or "fight" responses such as becoming more animated, verbal, and argumentative. Triggers are natural. Participants are encouraged to understand these triggers and establish approaches for managing them in themselves and respectfully addressing them in others.
Learning. With this understanding of basic dialogue principles, the group moves to sharing experiences related to matters involving diversity, equity, and social justice. Dialogue involves more than expounding our views in a vacuum without a context for why we hold such views. Our experiences inform our beliefs and perspectives. We must be open to considering different perspectives that may challenge us to reevaluate our perspectives. Taking time to consider these experiences will aid our understanding of others and their beliefs and actions before we engage in deeper dialogue.

Facilitators reinforce learning by emphasizing listening and reflection. Participants share aspects of their social and cultural identity, as well as experiences that inform their perspectives. Sharing is often deeply personal, painful, and involves experiences with discrimination, negative and unfair treatment, and oppression. Other participants may want to inquire of these experiences, probe more deeply, or question their validity, or they may simply be curious because they have not had similar experiences. Facilitators encourage the group to "sit with" what they have heard, acknowledge and support colleagues as they share, and reflect on how the process of sharing and listening helps the group bond and form closer relationships, find areas of common ground, and prepare them for deeper dialogue on controversial topics later.

Dialogue. The IGD model focuses on deeper and more challenging dialogues as the third stage in order to provide context and to prepare participants beforehand. With these processes in place, facilitators introduce provocative questions and topics that challenge participants' experiences and assumptions about aspects of the social identity selected for discussion (i.e., race, gender, etc.). Such questions and topics may involve interpersonal issues, such as questions about how people with different racial or cultural identities interrelate or how they think or act based on cultural influences. Or, they may involve systemic or institutional issues, such as how various systems, laws, policies, or practices embraced by the majority group, whether in the nation, local community, or within the college or university, create barriers and adverse impacts on marginalized or disadvantaged groups.

Hearing and processing these issues can create discomfort and cognitive dissonance as participants must consider new realities and paradigms based on information they receive on matters involving social identity, social justice, power dynamics, privilege, and oppression. Facilitators encourage inquiry and the exploration of assumptions underlying stated beliefs and assertions. Participants should be prepared to support their assertions with facts and experiences, be open to challenges from others on these assertions, and be accepting of the possibility that hearing different viewpoints may influence them to modify their own. Facilitators also allow space for mistakes, misunderstandings, admitted biases, and supportive correction. Unless participants feel safe to acknowledge their limitations, biases, and lack of understanding, they will miss valuable opportunities for learning and growth.

The practice of engaging in dialogue is more important than how many issues the group is able to discuss in the time available or whether they are able to arrive at specific conclusions on a given topic. Facilitators engage in "dialogue after the dialogue," in which participants look back on the conversation they just had on a specific topic to explore their process of communication. What did they do that supported their and others' engagement in dialogue and from which they can build for the next dialogue topic? What happened to threaten safety, push triggers, or prevent others from fully engaging that participants can learn from and correct for the next conversation? Exploring the how of dialogue and not simply what participants discussed helps them develop dialogue skills and practices for future use.

Growth and Commitment. The fourth stage of the IGD model involves building alliances and empowering dialogue participants. It helps participants build capacity to engage in future conversations on difficult topics, particularly in daily life when pre-planned structured dialogue opportunities are not available. It also provides the opportunity to form commitments, individually and collectively, to serve as allies for others in response to individual and systemic discrimination, exclusion, and oppression.

At this stage, participants gain greater appreciation for what it means to be an ally for others who experience unfair or discriminatory treatment. For example, white participants are often predisposed to support people of color, but do not always understand what people of color value in true allies. It does not mean waving a banner and making public pronouncements about how much you care. It more often means seeking to understand what people of color experience, serving and supporting others without expecting praise or appreciation, and being honest and self-reflective about one's privilege, biases, and limitations.

Participants also explore their individual level of commitment to supporting others with the understanding that the development process is ever evolving. Awareness and education come first, and the more individuals learn, seek to understand the issues involved, and commit to supporting change efforts, the more they will deepen their capacity to serve as change agents. Engendering commitment to social justice and inclusion cannot be "forced," but creating an environment of mutual support and connection through dialogue can more effectively help participants develop skills, capacity, and greater confidence to support change than traditional diversity training could ever hope to achieve.