Afraid to Talk About Sensitive Topics at Work? Read This Guide First

women working on computer looking worried

Imagine this: you are at a meeting where some colleagues are beginning to talk about a sensitive topic, such as race and racism in higher education. You know that there is a possibility of accidentally offending someone with your thoughts, so you decide it is better to stay silent— even though you have insights and ideas to share. You leave that meeting feeling slightly resentful that you weren’t able to participate.

We are living in a highly polarized time. As a result of not wanting to offend or be called out, some people prefer to keep their thoughts to themselves. But productive growth and learning cannot come from place of disengagement or fear—so how are people to thoughtfully participate when there is a possibility of causing harm or hurt? These seven steps provide a gentle guide for moving through “PC paralysis” and give you the tools to learn from mistakes related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

1. Do your homework

If you claim to care about a particular issue, it is important that you spend time learning about it. Research its history, its contemporary manifestations, and perspectives of those who have been marginalized. It is particularly important to do this work when you are someone coming from a place of privilege.

For example, a simple Google search on “history of racism in the United States” or “transphobic language” or “microaggressions” should yield some useful resources. You can also ask colleagues, friends, or other networks about books and articles that may be helpful for you to read, what documentaries and shows to watch, and what trainings or workshops you can register for. Robust participation in DEI-related conversations often requires some fluency in subject matters. 

2. Lower your defenses

While it is never fun to be called out (or called in), being held accountable for an “oops” moment is an important part of learning. Try to notice what you do when you feel defensive. Do you go on the offensive to deflect attention? Do you completely shut down and disengage? When you go into a self-protective mode, are you able to hear perspectives that aren’t your own? How might you be able to prevent yourself from doing some of these things so that you position yourself for openness and growth?

3. Focus on impact, not intent

Sometimes, to protect ourselves, we overemphasize the purity of our intent with statements like “I never meant to say something hurtful,” or “I wasn’t trying to be sexist when I said…” or “You know me, I’m no racist.” But by understanding the differences between intent vs. impact, you can more readily position yourself to learn about things you hadn’t yet considered. 

4. Accept responsibility.

You are the greatest agent of change and growth in your own life. The best way to exercise the gift of agency when it comes to DEI is to accept responsibility for any harm or hurt you may have caused, regardless of the nature of your intention. Consider: if your intention was X, what external and internal factors could have led to negative impact Y? What are things you can do to prevent this from happening in the future?

5. Offer a genuine apology

Apologies can be incredibly generative. They demonstrate the desire for self-accountability and are an exercise of humility that can be refreshing amidst challenging conversations. A real apology shows that reconciliation is more important than one’s pride. Crafting and offering a simple but genuine apology can signal to people that you are willing to acknowledge your responsibility and have a desire to learn and grow.

6. Make a plan to learn.

Now that you’ve gone through this cycle, you are likely able to identify what you want to learn more about. Perhaps you learned that you didn’t quite understand the nature of racial microaggressions and now you want to read more about it and participate in a training. Maybe you learned something about the relationship between your power/privilege and how much space you take up during a meeting. Once you have identified what you want to learn, you can then make a plan for your growth. 

7. Rinse and repeat

Genuine DEI work requires a growth mindset. Humans are inherently complex and messy, and yet we are capable of incredible growth and change. One of the best ways to absorb new knowledge and apply it is through iteration.

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Do you have ideas on how to promote meaningful DEI engagement before, during, and after an “oops” moment? Please share with us!

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