Talking about Diversity at the Holiday Dinner Table

Diversity Conversations Made Easier

Nearly half of all Americans avoid politics at the holiday dinner party (Harris Poll).  Many dodge the conversation if it does come up, or power through (with beverage in hand).  It doesn’t have to be so hard to talk about human issues and approach conversations about diversity with our families, friends, and communities. 

Yes, tis the season.  Many of us will collectively sit at a dinner table and have a sparkling conversation filled with gratitude. Or, perhaps your dinner table is not so picture perfect (and no one’s is) and people say things that might be uncomfortable or moderately offensive. 

You are not alone.

Meet People Where They are at

Everyone has a different set of lived experiences and different perspectives as a result. It’s unfair to judge someone based on one comment that they may have been repeating (and have been led to believe is acceptable) since their childhood. A lot of our biases and beliefs are very well baked in our childhood. It doesn’t mean that people can’t change or open up to new perspectives as they grow older, it simply means that it might be a little harder for a brain to rewrite those hard-wired scripts as we age.

People are a product of their lived experiences. For generations that grew up experiencing desegregation and the feminist and civil rights movements, things may seem to be much better than they were 50 years ago. They may hold some deeply racist, homophobic, and sexist beliefs as a result of growing up in a culture that reinforced these beliefs in media, politics, and virtually every where you look. That doesn’t mean we cannot call on folks to be better.  It is important to understand that most people believe themselves to be good, well-intentioned people.

Two things to keep in mind when stepping into a hard conversation about diversity and inclusion. First, assume mostly positive intentions. Of course if something is egregiously racist, sexist, or homophobic that’s a completely different story. Assuming they’re coming from a good place helps to meet them where they’re at. Second, take a deep breath. it’s really easy to have a knee jerk reaction and blurt out something that might veer the conversation off track, or end the conversation outright. When people go low, go high. Pointing fingers and going down a shame spiral is only going to guarantee a heated debate. 

Call People In

Practicing mindfulness in these situations can be an excellent tool.  Rather than call someone out and shame them publicly in front of everyone, think about the treatment you would want if you were in a similar situation and said something you would later regret. Practice mindfulness to take a pause and better understand what approach might be helpful in the situation versus perhaps the emotionally-charged approach you would love to take.

Find your allies.  Look around the dinner table and see who might also have an awkward look on their face or be looking elsewhere. That might just be an ally that could help. Interjecting with a simple ask for clarification – “what did you mean when you said that” or “help me understand” will help buy time for others to join in.

 Create space.  If a person is unwilling to have a conversation or is stanched in their belief system and you believe it will never change, don’t waste your time. Find an ally to go for a walk or spend time elsewhere. The only way a conversation about diversity can work is if both parties are willing to listen and learn.  That means modeling a  listening-first approach in order to then be heard yourself.

Ask Curious Questions

Adam Grant, author of Think Again, shares some terrific thought provoking questions to help someone reframe their perspective, or be open to a hearing other’s perspectives. Very rarely does spouting off facts and figures change someone’s beliefs.  Even worse, shaming will likely not result in behavior change or openness to new ideas, it may further entrench them in their own. Instead, ask “what information would you need to think about this differently?” Or, ask for permission, “if I were to offer a different perspective, would you be open to hearing that?” Or, one of my personal faves, “I used to think the same thing (has to be authentic), and now I look at it differently because…”

 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.  If you want to be intentional with diversity, contact us for a guest pass here.  You can try out the content for free for a few weeks and get your team to try it out too.