Perspective Taking is Critical to DEI

Taking on the perspective of others is a critical DEI skill.

Rather than pretending to be someone else, try instead to find out what perspective they might have, and is most important when it is different from your perspective. Perspective taking is defined as trying on the perspective of another without fully agreeing or understanding the complexity of their perspective. Then, you can search to uncover and learn why they may have that perspective.

Remember the 5 W’s framework (Who, What, When, Where, Why and How)? Chances are you learned this as a child. You can use this problem solving framework to investigate. Problems can be complex and multi-layered, and solving one part of a problem rarely addresses the full problem. I compare it to looking at the tip of an iceberg, you cannot see what is below the surface of the water. By asking the 5 whys, you can go “under the surface” of the problem so that you can have a clearer understanding and take measures to solve it.

Once they learn how to speak, toddlers can be very inquisitive. If you’ve been around small children, you know they ask a lot of questions. They seek to understand why things are the way they are and all too frequently, ask the question “why”, to almost everything.

Why do we lose this curious nature as we get older? It’s because our brains are able to recognize patterns, make assumptions based on those patterns, and stop thinking of other possibilities. This is based on the understanding that extra thinking requires mental energy that could be saved for harder tasks. The brain is an energy conserving organ. This simple thinking might be helpful for remembering how a stapler works, turning on your computer, or other mundane tasks, but it is not so helpful when interacting with others.

People are complex and rarely fit into nice clean boxes. In relation to diversity and differences, our brains will oversimplify and categorize by race and gender because we think we can see these categories (and oftentimes cannot). We need to help our minds broaden the definition of diversity beyond just race and gender to understand the array of uniqueness that makes us human beings.

DEI is more than race and gender.

In my corporate DEI training work, I often display a piece of ambiguous artwork that can be interpreted as many different images. Some say it looks like a face, a coat, and others see a dark hallway. I’ve had so many interesting responses when presenting this artwork. The point of the exercise isn’t to get it right, but to share what you see and then compare notes with what other people see.

I have found that there are many different interpretations of this image. How is it possible to look at the same exact picture and arrive at completely different meanings from it? Our brains make instant decisions based on patterns it has established from our own lived experiences. Because we have different lived experiences, our context is unique, and we all see the world differently, which is a good thing. I love this activity because it allows us to re-examine the artwork and see the perspective of someone else. It usually takes a minute or two, a conscious effort, and then the light bulb goes off and people see the viewpoints of someone else. This exercise isn’t limited to interpreting artwork, it can be applied in many different situations so that we can better understand, and more importantly, hear one another’s perspectives.

There is no us vs. them, there is just a collective us.

The minute we judge people that are different from us, we dismiss their humanity. To open up your perspectives, consider comparing notes with somebody very different from you. Someone you also have a high degree of trust or rapport with. Please keep in mind, we never want to ask people different from us to educate us on what it’s like to be them.

Here are some questions to get the conversation started:

  • What were your experiences like growing up?
  • How have your experiences shaped who you are?
  • What is something you wish people knew about you?
  • What challenges do you experience?
  • What is one way someone could be helpful if they wanted to be a better ally?

This should feel like a conversation, not an interview. There is no script. The only way to empathize with others different from you, is to learn more about them. While there are no guarantees this will work, we do know with exposure over time, our empathy muscles strengthen. It’s hard to categorize someone or “other” people once you understand them better. You humanize them.

Othering is making someone feel less than because they are a part of an underrepresented group.

Othering could be asking someone where they are from (because they are not white), or assuming they have certain skills or interests based on their association with a group. Any curious, yet harmful questions that single someone out and make them feel they are not a part of the group. Well-intentioned people say these things all the time. Just compare notes with a person of color if you are white or a LGBTQ+ identifying person if you are straight and cisgender or with a person with disabilities if you are able-bodied. These “othering” experiences happen much more often than people in the majority group realize.

As allies, It’s always important to do your homework first. For example, you can sit down with somebody you know that is of a different race, ethnicity, cultural background, religious background, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, abilities, or gender identity with the intention to better understand them. That’s the goal. The goal is not to impart your thoughts, not to share your story. Empathy is putting our egos aside.

I have had my share of mishaps by making conversations about me as an ally, especially when I’m in protector mode, experiencing the expert effect, or wanting to stay in control. Some techniques that have helped me counteract these impulses are:

  • Slow down your brain. Your brain is working overtime and processing lots of information without your knowledge. Take deep breaths, walk off the energy, and focus on the other person fully.
  • Pause your judgment. It is impossible to fully turn off our brain’s love of categorization. It can be shifted for small pieces of conversations. Awkward silences are okay. It demonstrates you are listening.
  • Reframe. Rather than fall into the trap of making it about you, keep shifting it back to the person you are talking to. What is different about their situation? What do you not understand?
  • Ask open-ended questions. Most people think they ask more open-ended questions than they actually do. We love to test our assumptions with close-ended questions. Ask questions you truly don’t know the answers to.
  • Listen more than speak. When we listen, we learn. When we speak, we hear what we already know. Take an inventory at the end of an empathetic conversation on listening vs. speaking.

When people share hard things with you, rarely do they want your advice, judgment, or to hear a story about a time when it happened to you. They really just want to be listened to. Think about the last time you went through something hard personally. Did you want someone to give you advice about how to handle it? Did you want someone to tell you a story about a time when that happened to them? Did you want someone to feel sorry for you?

As human beings, we are wired for connection and belonging. As Maslow first said back in 1942, Once our basic physiological needs are met with food and water, and our physical needs of safety are met, we seek connection. We have a primal need to be accepted, to be seen, and to belong in all spaces of our lives.

We don’t stay places we don’t feel like we belong.

What’s next?

Want to do better, and not sure where to start? That is why we developed the Lead Like an Ally virtual self-paced training program, perfect for organizations struggling with accountability for diversity. You can also check out all of our other virtual and live program offerings.