How to Have A Difficult Conversation About Diversity

Updated: May 4


This essay was first published on Medium.

“Diversity” and “inclusion” do not have to be dirty words.

However, too often I have witnessed people seemingly

offended at the very mention of them.

Some of this might be less of a reaction to the ideas of diversity or inclusion, and more of a reaction to the conversation that typically accompanies them — a conversation that identifies something in our behavior or environment needing to change.

And change can be uncomfortable. After all, we are creatures of habit.


But change is necessary for growth. And we grow by exposing ourselves to new information and experiences.

When we respond to “diversity” or “inclusion” from a place of discomfort, we ultimately miss out on an opportunity to stimulate growth and learning within ourselves.

We all have a desire to feel valued in the spaces we occupy — whether that is at work, home, or in entirely new environments. Diversity and inclusion is creating a space that values others in the same way that we are or want to be valued. We communicate value and leave our mark on one another every time we open our mouths. What are we doing to lean into these moments with empathy and openness?

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change” — Thich Nhat Hanh

Avoid Tactics That Diminish Others Too often, rather than leaning into these conversations seeking to understand and encourage others to speak their truth, the conversation shifts to tactics that do more to diminish that person than elevate them. And it happens under the premise of “challenging” assumptions, “sharing” valuable knowledge, or communicating a particularly “important” and divergent point of view.

I believe these tactics arise because of discomfort with the challenge of new ideas and experiences, and those tactics may manifest as —

  1. Ascribing Intent: assuming the intent behind a statement about a lack of diversity is really an attack on the identity or lived experience of someone else.

  2. Weighing Someone’s Experiences Against Our Own: invalidating the lived experience of someone because the statement doesn’t align with either a similar experience that happened differently for someone else, or a different experience occurring under similar circumstances.

  3. Highlighting Exceptions: invalidating someone’s lived experience by pointing out special cases.

  4. Critiquing Logic: evaluating someone’s beliefs based on their logic, organization, or diction rather than its substance.

  5. Creating Zero-Sum Scenarios: creating a narrative of scarcity — “there are only so many seats at the table” — and defending the qualifications of the people already at the table rather than discussing how we can expand the pool of candidates next time.

  6. Asking for Proof: requiring someone to fit their unique personal experience within our own worldview, to evaluate its merit.

  7. Intellectualizing: treating someone’s experience as a “thought exercise”, plugging in unrelated variables to help them be“more reasonable”.

  8. Pivoting to Diversity of Thought: expecting someone to represent their concerns in relation to “diversity of thought” rather than accepting that diversity in representation is enough.

While it feels like these tactics set the tone for “informed” and “balanced” conversations, these tactics can easily invalidate the experiences of others.

  1. When we ascribe intent, we assume we know more about someone than they know about themselves.

  2. When we weigh someone’s experiences against ours, we question the validity and uniqueness of their experience while expecting them to accept the uniqueness and validity of our own.

  3. When we focus on exceptions, we are invalidating the data and collective experiences of different communities that depict clear trends.

  4. When we focus on someone’s argumentation or logic, we are treating them as though they lack the intelligence to express their thoughts and feelings and miss an opportunity to listen and understand a perspective that is new to us.

  5. When we create zero-sum scenarios, we set the false expectation that inclusion has to come at the expense of something else.

  6. When we ask for proof, we send the message that being mistreated and ostracized is not a relatable concept on it’s own, unless it is also accompanied by someone doing the extra work of putting their experience into a world we can understand.

  7. When we intellectualize someone’s experience, we trivialize their feelings in the process.

  8. When we pivot the conversation to diversity of thought, we dismiss the importance of identity — our journey in this world as a certain race, gender, sexuality, age, affluence, ability — on the way that we now see the world, and the way the world sees us.

Embrace Empathy and The “Golden Rule” Talking about inclusion is an emotional conversation. Rather than trying to rationalize the conversation within our own framework of seeing the world, make space for other’s experiences by doing the following:

  1. Empathize. We must appeal to our ability to empathize and relate to the common experiences that define our journey as human beings. Only then will we be able to constructively approach the areas where we diverge with openness.

  2. Remember the golden rule. We can probably all relate to moments where we have been ostracized, felt like we didn’t belong, or felt like we couldn’t be ourselves. We can also all probably point to moments where our opinions, views, thoughts, or feelings were disregarded or ignored. I encourage us all to think about these moments and use them to shape how we view the struggles of others who express those same feelings of exclusion, even if we cannot necessarily relate to the circumstances or experiences that caused them. Basically, treat others in conversation how you would want to be treated.

Perhaps it is idealistic, but I truly believe in our capacity as humans to grow, adapt, learn from and, most importantly, empathize with the experiences of those around us. Idealism compelled me to write this and encourages me to continue creating spaces for conversations on allyship, diversity, and inclusion.

And, I welcome the opportunity to speak with people who agree and disagree with me, because it helps me grow and learn. I just hope, when you do reach out, that you approach me with empathy and grace :-) .

#inclusion #empathy

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©2019 by Corey Ponder.

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