“Gateway Events”: How to Turn Diversity Tension Into Gateways to Understanding

Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

Gates 8'09 #2

Do any of these situations seem familiar?

  • You work with a team from around the world. Because you are interested in the issue of immigration, you would love to get the perspective of one of your colleagues but hesitate to bring up such a delicate subject. What do you do?
  • You are a team member whose parents are from China. While in the computer room at work, you overhear someone tell a joke about a “Chinaman,” a priest, and a rabbi. What do you do?
  • You are a top-level manager who has just hired a new assistant. In most ways she is great, but she does have a heavy accent that you sometimes can barely understand. You are worried because you need your communication with her to be flawless. What do you do?

These scenarios have one thing in common: Each serves as an opportunity to have honest conversation about diversity and bias.

Gateway Events: Portals of Understanding
The opportunities I am talking about here come in the form of any event that involves discord between or about people who are different from each other. Because these incidents are capable of bringing about productive dialogue and serve as gateways to greater understanding and reduced bias, I call them “Gateway Events.”

How to Prepare for Gateway Events: Getting “Diversity Fit”
Most gateway events swing open without warning. We rarely have time to prepare a response or sort out how we feel about what is happening. When this occurs, we are at risk of walking away or, worse, going into auto-responder mode spouting glib denials and politically correct nonsense. To prevent this dangerous meltdown, we must get in shape so we will be ready when the challenge arises. We need —you guessed it—to prepare a “diversity hard body.”

One way to get this “hard body” – to be diversity fit – is to become aware and, therefore, in better control of the fears that hamper our ability to enter into and function effectively in the middle of a Gateway Event. It isn’t necessary to exorcise our fears altogether, just the act of giving them a name has a magical way of bringing the emotion under our control. Maybe we are afraid of our biases showing, maybe we fear the commitment that comes with honest conversation, or maybe we are afraid of our own or the other person’s anger.

As you turn the handle on each gate, you will no doubt confront these and other fears. The more of these experiences you have in encountering, naming, and diffusing your fears, the easier the process will become and the more prepared you will be to take on any Gateway Event that comes your way.

Set a Productive Goal for the Conversation
Arguably the most common Gateway Events are those when someone has said or done something that offends us. This occurrence might involve a real or perceived slight, the use of terminology that we feel is inappropriate, or the expression of a view that we believe to be disrespectful of the group to which we belong. No matter what the specifics, events like this inevitably give rise to a lot of emotion.

The problem with emotion is that it makes it difficult to decide what our goals are with respect to what we want to accomplish in the course of the conversation. Knowing our goals is one of the most important components of any successful dialogue. Aimless conversation will lead nowhere or, worse, will lead somewhere you would rather not go.

Your specific goal will, of course, be shaped by the nature of the event itself. To continue with our example of being offended by someone’s act or word, here a few goals you could set:

  • The goal of embarrassing the person
  • The goal of making the person feel guilty
  • The goal of educating the person about what they have done and how you feel

I’m sure you see that the latter is the only good choice here. “Educate, not humiliate,” – it is always the most productive path to take.

When you really think about it, goal setting encompasses a core value of diversity: Respect. By setting an appropriate goal for the conversation, we communicate respect for ourselves and our colleagues by increasing the chances that our desired outcomes will be achieved and that the Gateway Event will indeed result in improved, not diminished, communication and understanding.

Employ Vocal Modulation
In radio, modulation means to adjust the transmission so the broadcast will be most efficiently carried. In human communication, modulation involves lowering our voices to assure that our message is heard. Whereas loud and harsh utterances cause most of us to retreat behind a soundproof wall of denial, a softer tone has a remarkable way of creating safety for and, therefore, receptivity in the listener.

So often, when we are in the middle of a Gateway Event, we are tempted to raise our voice out of anger or outrage. Next time this happens, consider the possibility that a softened tone just might be the best way to get your message across.

Employ Verbal Modulation
This lowering of “volume” applies, not just to how loud we speak, but also to the intensity of the words we use. Admittedly, verbal modulation is tough because American culture loves large language. We like to indulge in a kind of over-speak in which the finest eggs are always the biggest, buildings the tallest, and books the “best selling.” This is all very nice when pitching a product, but exaggeration is a sure-fire way to draw psychological blood and, thereby, inflame the dialogue or, worse, shut the conversation down entirely.

Understatement is usually more powerful than exaggeration. Let’s assume that a Gateway Event is triggered by someone’s offensive comment. Let’s further assume that your goal during the conversation is to educate the offender. You will have a far better chance of accomplishing this goal if you avoid exaggerated terms and accusations.

Conclusion: Really Listen
If you look back, you’ll see that there is a thread running through this article. That thread is the importance of listening. When we talked about becoming “diversity fit,” we were essentially talking about listening to our fears so as to diffuse their power. Setting productive goals involved listening to our own motivation in order to reach a positive result.

Now I’m talking about listening in the literal sense. The more carefully we listen, the more we are able to really hear what the other person is saying. Only in this way can the full breadth of the speaker’s thoughts and emotions be laid on the table. Only when these thoughts and emotions are fully heard can gateway conversations result in what we so desperately need – better understanding, reduced bias, and better working relationships.

This article is excerpted from Sondra’s video, Gateways to Inclusion: Turning Tense Moments Into Productive Conversations.

Click here to learn more about Sondra’s keynote presentation and workshop on the topic of how to turn tense moments into productive conversations.

Sondra Thiederman can be contacted for webinars and in-person presentations by clicking here or calling 619-583-4478. For additional information, go to www.thiederman.com.

© copyright 2013 Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

Feel free to re-print or re-post as long as copyright and web site (www.thiederman.com) information is attached.

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