Talking About Race: How to Have Tough Conversations That Unify

Talking honestly about race and social justice issues is difficult even among good friends. Facilitating meaningful conversations at work raises that bar exponentially. Groupthink prevails in most instances, and those who do hold opinions, thoughts, or feelings outside of what is believed acceptable tend to stay silent. Particularly in these times of perceived ideological divisions, having honest race conversations that contribute to diversity awareness without scapegoating or blaming is an essential goal for organizational success.

In an environment where change is constant, the importance of a shared purpose and improved communication skills cannot be understated. A clear purpose binds teams, motivating them to excel and collaborate. To reap the benefits of a firm culture built on shared purpose, however, the individuals within the organization need to be able to fully contribute and ease of communication is paramount.

Clear, open communication is key to collaboration and high performance. Creating a framework for exploratory conversations around the difference of opinion, appearance, thoughts, and perceptions can do wonders for facilitating every individual’s ability to connect and collaborate.

Not only does a shared organizational or team purpose help create cultures of belonging and inclusion, purpose will also build loyalty in your client base; help you attract and retain star talent; and build a lasting partnership through shared values and increased revenue. An honest dialogue on both the inner-personal and interpersonal levels, while not easy or comfortable, makes good business sense.

Creating a Unifying Vision

But how can this be accomplished so that the conversations heal, inform, and open curiosity to learning about one another’s perceptions and experiences furthering an organizational or team culture of belonging? Too often, attempted conversations about race and diversity can devolve into an experience of us and them, right and wrong, or black and white.

To move the ball forward, a vision of shared unity is required. We must step out of the old patterns of seeing everything in dualistic terms. Unity and shared purpose do not mean ignoring our differences, whether they involve race, gender, national origin, sexual preference, or any other variable. Rather the opposite. In seeing, discussing, understanding, and acknowledging our varied backgrounds, feelings, and thoughts, we can raise diversity awareness and grow to a higher level of inclusion for all. Unity—that feeling that we are in this together with all our messy differences—is powerful both individually and systemically.

However, even with a unifying vision, how do you create a safe environment for people to honestly express their views, uncover their assumptions, and explore what others who do not look, think, or act like them feel? How can you help your team or group develop the confidence to explore and engage in conversation that moves change forward?

A Powerful Model for Developing Diversity Awareness

The Diversity Awareness Ladder, developed by Dr. Peter Hawkins, is an effective model for creating a path of inquiry and learning about an individual’s innate and unconscious biases, along with a structure for outward group learning conversations. Hawkins, one of the world’s leading experts on systemic team coaching and chairman of Renewal Associates, an international coaching and consulting group, created the Diversity Awareness Ladder as a tool to facilitate inner learning around one’s perspectives and approaches to diversity. It is also effective in measuring team and organizational diversity awareness and creating a framework for facilitating team coaching.

Hawkins teaches that only through doing our inner work and understanding our basic human biases toward those who we perceive are different from us will we be able to embrace diversity and create high-value teams. Just as we all have implicit biases and unconscious patterns ingrained in us through our cultural and individual experiences, as humans we all have instinctive responses to those who appear different than us, according to human behavior research.

People instinctually tend to view those who they see as different as having inappropriate values, bad intentions, and even lower intelligence. In a group dynamic, this aspect of human behavior is magnified. According to Hawkins, “One of the biggest barriers to diversity in the workplace is people’s inability to recognize and manage this instinctive and dysfunctional reaction to difference.”

As a result, to have open and honest conversations of discovery with those who are different than us, we must first be open and honest with ourselves. This understanding of one’s self can then shine a light on our understanding of others, allowing for increasing acceptance and diversity maturity.

The Diversity Awareness Ladder and Stages of Awareness

Outlined below, Hawkins’ Diversity Awareness Ladder follows the five stages of adult developmental growth. It contains a learning dialogue with prompts for inner and outer inquiry to begin increasing diversity maturity, individually. and through teams and organizations. Through the Diversity Awareness Ladder, a shared language can be developed allowing individuals to uncover roadblocks and facilitate increasing awareness and understanding of others, and, perhaps more importantly, themselves.

Moving from the first stage of fear through wariness, tolerance, acceptance, and finally, appreciation for differences, the rungs of Hawkins’ Diversity Awareness Ladder progress up the corresponding stages of adult development. The initial rung associated with being closed to learning and more reactive is characterized by low awareness of self and others.

Progress up the rungs indicates maturity in learning perspective, and an increasing ability to reach or approach the goal of appreciating diverse perspectives. While an individual may be at one stage or rung for one aspect of diversity, they may find themselves at an entirely different level when confronted with another diversity aspect.

In practice, always begin at the lowest rung exhibited by an individual or team member. As awareness increases, the inquiry can move up the ladder. As with any coaching or facilitation process, remain open to fluid movement between the rungs, as progress may appear more like a roller coaster with its ups and downs, twists and turns as individuals confront their inner biases and learn differing perspectives.

The First Rung: Fear

On the lowest rung, we encounter individuals who avoid self-knowledge and inner examination. Fear of the unknown masks and blocks curiosity of the perceived other. A concerted effort is made to keep the status quo, as difference is seen as a threat. Bigotry can emerge in extreme cases. Inquiry into the shadow self must begin to initiate the process of acknowledging the fears and bringing them to light.

Facilitation of an inner conversation for these individuals is needed to move them through their fear to increased inner awareness. Questions to prompt this inner journey would include: What am I hiding from myself? What about this person is scary for me? What are the stories I tell myself about this type of person?

When exploring racial perspectives between team members or individuals, the outer conversation looks to develop or expose common ground. Discovering similarities helps to lift individuals out of fear and into an understanding of shared commonality. What are our common goals? What about me gives you pause or concerns you? What do we both value?

The Second Rung: Wariness

The wariness stage is reached when individuals understand that their fears are unfounded and irrational, but they continue to avoid being truly open to people who are different. This inability for openness stems from a lack of self-confidence, and courage to be vulnerable to others.

The wariness stage is characterized by the partner or leader who is concerned about saying the wrong thing. They do not want to offend and are concerned about being accused of bias or inappropriate behavior. As a result, these wary individuals fail to provide clear and accurate feedback or opportunities to those who are different, undermining both the team and individual.

Inner inquiry should invite curiosity around the elephant in the room. What will happen if I say the wrong thing? What will happen if I am honest with them? In turn, the dialogue for the team or group would include a conversation around the ability to be more open and honest with each other. What can we do to help each other feel safe and comfortable, while recognizing behaviors that make others undervalued?

The Third Rung: Tolerance

The third developmental stage rests on assumptions that the individual’s perspective is correct, and the other is wrong, misguided, or downright inappropriate. The tolerant individual operates under the presumption that their way is superior. No effort is made to understand other’s perspectives or experiences because, why would they, when their position is preferable?

Inquiry for the individual focuses on understanding their own assumptions and judgments about the other. What is the basis for these judgments? How am I creating barriers to understanding and communicating with this individual?

The outer conversation looks to create curiosity by taking blame out of the conversation. How can we work together more fluidly? What assumptions are we holding onto that create artificial barriers to our communications?

The Fourth Rung: Acceptance

How do I accept someone’s perspective as valid that is different from my own? At the acceptance stage, an individual can see differences of perspective as reasonable and even well-intentioned. They are open to working with those who see the world through another lens, and do not allow this fact to interfere with their ability to work towards a shared goal.

On the acceptance rung, the individual inner work looks to answer the question, “Can I accept this person as they are, even with perspectives different from my own?” Development of the outer conversations focuses on curiosity and learning of another’s values and perspectives without judgment. How can we collaborate towards our mutual goal? What values are important to you? How do you live those values?

The Fifth Rung: Appreciation

Optimal cultures of belonging and inclusion exist on this final rung. The appreciation stage allows for genuine curiosity surrounding perceived differences, and acknowledgment that these differences provide an opportunity for growth and learning The appreciation stage moves participants into mutual learning where differences are seen as an opportunity for growth, creativity, insight, and new perspectives. It is at this stage that a wider diverse community is sought out and experienced as valued.

The inner work at the fifth rung involves an openness and curiosity about what one can learn from another person. How could knowing them make me a more accomplished or fulfilled person? How can their perspective open my eyes to my own inner barriers? The outer dialogue runs parallel with team members asking, “What can we learn from each other’s unique perspectives? How do we create a mutual understanding of our goals and best practices for communicating?”

About the Author

Michele Powers is a certified coach for lawyers and law firms and is the chair of the Attorney Well-being Committee of the ABA Law Practice Division. Contact Michele at   

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