Mindfulness: The Key To Bias Reduction

Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

It was a rainy day in Portland and I stood in the training room marveling at the presence of a coat rack (something we would never see in southern California) when I turned and looked at the line of people signing up for my diversity workshop. “Oh Oh,” I thought, spying the bearded long-haired man in the leather chaps and biker-jacket, “trouble.”

It is amazing how quickly a bias can be awakened by an innocent fashion statement. In this case, my inflexible belief about the meaning of the leather screamed: “This man has to be sexist, has to be chauvinist, and, most certainly, has to be utterly unreceptive to the issues of diversity.”

Well, as is so often the case when it comes to bias, I turned out to be dead wrong and, on my way to finding out how wrong I was, managed to allow that bias to compromise the success of the workshop. As a result of this miss-guided belief, I found myself subtly excluding my alleged biker friend from the rich discussion that was so important to the success of the program. Imagine my surprise when I later learned that he was a champion for diversity within his occupation (fire-fighting), had, in his younger days, been an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement, and was one of the few men in his division to support female firefighters.

Avoiding Disaster
Mistakes like this can be a disaster, but the good news is that there is a way to avoid them: Awareness. I know, I know, that is an over-used word, but it is overused for one simple reason: It works. Awareness or mindfulness of our biases gives us the knowledge needed to begin the extinction process. If we can’t name the enemy, there is no way we can attack it.

The question, you may be asking, then becomes, “How can I be aware of a bias that has been floating around in my mind for years; if I haven’t noticed it by now, what makes you think I can spot it at this late date?” You will be glad to hear that becoming aware of most biases is a straight-forward process—no shrinks, no psychotherapists need apply. It is a matter of practicing the art of observation.

All biases, even the most deeply sub-conscious ones, periodically toss up a clue to their presence in the form of a thought. It is our job to observe that thought and examine it to see what it tells us about our hidden beliefs. This means we need to watch what we think. This may seem like a weird request. “How can I watch my thoughts?,” you may be asking, “I am my thoughts, there would be no ‘me’ without them and if there is no ‘me,’ there is no one home to do the watching.”

The Nature of Awareness
These are understandable questions considering the nature of our culture in which thought and intellect are highly prized, but the truth is, we are not what we are thinking. There is a “you,” an awareness, that lies behind your thoughts and that is capable of observing and chronicling them as they rush by.

We’ve all watched our thoughts before. Have you ever, for example, played a word association game in which you were asked to say the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “cat,” or “house,” or “airplane.” You probably responded with “dog,” “home,” and “fly” (or, possibly, “bad food” or, more likely these days, “no food”). When you notice and then say the word that pops up, you are watching your thoughts. That’s all there is to it, we do it all the time; it’s just that when it comes to something more substantial than a parlor game—like becoming mindful of an attitude—we lose sight of how simple and familiar the process is.

Clues to Our Biases
Here is a brief exercise that provides a chance to watch and record thoughts that might be clues to your biases. The exercise consists of a list of groups to which I want you to react. (Stop!: Don’t look at the list until you are ready to do the exercise). As you read each item, jot down the first thought that comes to mind regarding a characteristic of that group. There are just a few rules you’ll need to follow:

  • Take only five seconds to come up with your response. If you can’t think of anything by then, move on to the next category.
  • Try to decipher quickly if the thought that emerges is what you really feel or if it is a stereotype held by the culture at large that came to mind merely because you have heard it so often. If you are certain that it is a general cultural bias and not your own, don’t put it down. If you have any doubt at all, go ahead and record it.
  • Resist the urge to edit your response.

Most important, do not fear your answer, no one will see the list but you. Also, remember, the result here is just a red flag and represents the possibility of a bias. The purpose is not to find you guilty, but to alert you to a way of thinking that just might be getting in your way.

Write down the first characteristic that comes to mind as you read each of these categories. Feel free to add to the list any groups about which you have strong feelings.

An older person:
A Muslim:
A fundamentalist Christian:
A black person:
A 50 year-old white male:
A person in a wheelchair:
A person from Vietnam:
A gay man:
A female engineer:

Are there any categories for which you were unable to come up with an answer? If so, good for you! This is probably the only test you will ever take in which a blank answer is the right answer. The harder it was for you to quickly think of a characteristic of a group, the less likely it is that you hold a bias against them.

The Next Step
The next step in the process is to take the practice of watching your thoughts out into the real world. There, instead of a list, you will have a variety of real people to react to.

Here’s the task: For the next two weeks, notice and write down the first thought that comes to mind when you encounter someone from another kinship group. (Examples: What is the first thing you think of when you see an Arab name on an application? What hunches rise from your belly when you learn that your colleague is gay? What conclusions do you draw when you see a skin color, the slant of an eye, or spy a Phi Beta Kappa key dangling on a chain?):

If you keep this exercise going, the act of being mindful of your first assumption will gradually become automatic. Once that stage is reached you are well on your way to having the power to manage the biases that all-too-often compromise our ability to live and work and lead effectively.

If you’d like to learn more about how to become aware of your biases, click here to preview the video Is It Bias?

The material in this article is based on Sondra’s book, Making Diversity Work: Seven Steps for Defeating Bias in the Workplace and in her video training package, Is It Bias: Making Diversity Work.

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.

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