tough conversations racism sexismContributed by Libby Rutkey, freelance writer and editor.

In times of crisis or social unrest, fostering a culture of respect and inclusivity in your organization becomes even more critical. And key to that goal? Productive conversations.

Simply put, words matter. The right words create space for honest, safe dialogue. The wrong words prolong divisiveness and inequality. 

Consider these tips as you navigate tough conversations and address challenging social issues at your organization:

Don’t stay silent.

As a leader, you model how to explore tough topics and even how to respectfully disagree. To stay silent is, at best, a missed opportunity and, at worst, an unspoken consent to maintain the status quo. 

Assume the best.

Begin conversations with a positive mindset. Believe that talking will lead to good outcomes.  

Invite dialogue, not debate.

Foster open-ended conversations, where you express your perspective and learn from others’. Learning from each other is the goal, not convincing or winning.

Ensure that people feel respected and valued for the different perspectives they bring to the discussion. 

Be humble and willing to admit weakness. 

Put aside your ego and assumptions as you listen and learn from others. Accept that you might not say the right thing, but acknowledge that your goal is to understand and grow. 

Speak up against exclusionary, divisive behaviors.

Be a champion for inclusion and equality whenever possible. Even if you’re unsure whether you’re doing it “right,” there’s value in calling out discrimination.

Watch for common roadblocks in conversations. 

The nonprofit research firm Catalyst identifies three assumptions that prevent successful, productive dialogue:

  1. “There isn’t a problem.” This roadblock prevents meaningful conversation around tough topics by simply negating the existence of challenges. For example, you might hear someone say, “I don’t see skin color, only people.” Or, “We’ve hired many women and people of color, so I don’t see racism or sexism as an issue here.”   
  2. “Talking will lead to negative outcomes.” This obstacle occurs when people fear repurcussions or worry that they won’t say the right thing. It may also come up when people feel their experiences are minimized.
  3. “There’s no point to talking.” When people feel talking doesn’t make a difference or only divides people further, they naturally avoid any dialogue. 
Be intentional in your word choice.

Words can reinforce negative stereotypes and undermine an individual’s perspective.

As you engage in conversations, reflect on whether you use the same langauage with men and women. Look back on performance reviews and assess your language for differences in standards or expectations.

For example, do you hold women or people of color to higher standards? Are your goals for men on your team different than their female peers? 

For more resources and information on leading through crisis, visit the #EOTogether platform.

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