Talking Cultural Diversity

a discussion board for cultural and diversity issues by Thomas Kochman and Jean Mavrelis


By Thomas Kochman - 01.29.2010

One process that we use in the last day of our week long diversity training asks people from different groups two questions. The first is, “What do you want people from other groups to know about you or your group that you think they don’t know, or don’t know well enough?” The second question asks, “Why is it important to you or your group that others know this about you.”

The goal of this exercise is to promote candor and empathy –two things in very short supply especially in the workplace—and to enable different kinds of conversations to happen between members of different groups than could have happened before.

When people hear things they haven’t heard before –difficulties other groups face at work, for example– they often minimize them, saying things like, “The same thing happened to me!” or, “I can’t believe you’re saying that,” or, “How many years have you been with the company?” This last statement was made by a white male reacting to a black woman talking about being overlooked for promotion because of race.

So what is minimization and why do we, as referees and monitors of the process call “foul”, when that occurs?

Minimization is protective, self-serving denial: shifting the focus or making what others say less serious because of issues that we have with it –key, perhaps is what we otherwise would have to feel, or believe we might have to do, to make the uncomfortable feeling go away.

It is the enemy of both candor and empathy and effective group process.

No one really wants to talk to someone who doesn’t really want to listen.

So what do we tell people to do when they minimize what others are telling them?

We ask people to consider: “What’s going on for them that makes what they’re hearing uncomfortable” and also ask them to take ownership and responsibility for that.

We tell them that by working their issues they will become better listeners and more receptive to really hearing what others are telling them.

We also tell them that they will also benefit from others doing that when it is their turn to speak.

As in a court of law, only after issues of admissibility are addressed can the evidence itself be considered.

So only after dealing with minimization and other forms of resistance can a group move forward — the truth both told and heard– and real conversations begin.

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