I remember some years ago sitting in my hotel room in Cairo, feet up on the sill, gazing out the window at one of the most amazing sights on the planet: the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Looming in the mist, it was grander and more elegant than its likeness in even the most touched-up travel photograph.
I wasn’t thinking much about bias reduction on that lovely evening, but the image stayed with me. Eventually, the Pyramid came to mind when looking for a way to describe a principle of good communication in the face of bias. It, in fact, formed the foundation for what I call the Pyramid Principle of communication. This strategy is particularly useful when faced with the uncomfortable, but necessary, prospect of speaking up when encountering a biased statement uttered by team members or colleagues.
This strategy is informed by what any architect knows about building. Whether it is when constructing the Pyramid of Cheops or Blenheim Palace or the Vatican or the Great Wall of China, the only way to proceed is one stone at a time.
When it comes to conversations about bias, this means we need to adopt the motto: “Think small.” This approach comes in particularly handy when, in the heat of the conversation, we become overloaded by the scope of the issue and the intensity of emotion. That overload can, in turn, leave us paralyzed and unable to act.
The trick to popping the clutch and getting moving again is to sidestep the main issue of the conflict for a moment—don’t worry, you’ll get back to it later—and, instead, build a foundation of small successes on which the solution to the big problem can ultimately rest. By thinking smaller, we create bite-size steps that can be swallowed without gagging and that are manageable even when we are lost in a maze of self-consciousness, anger, or fear.
Here are some of the smaller stones.
• Take a beat before speaking in order to gather your thoughts and get a handle on emotion: Stone number one.
• Then we might admit our discomfort and thereby crack open the door to better dialogue: Stone number two.
• Another element is to take turns talking for short periods without interruption or reprisal from the other: Stone number three.
• Then there’s the notion of making a pact that, should one person not understand something, he or she would ask for clarification: Stone number four.
• And, of course, there’s always that most important strategy of all – listen: Stone number five.
And wider and wider the base becomes and firmer the foundation until we have constructed, if not the Great Pyramid of Cheops, at least a modest structure of good communication with the potential of understanding and change.
The material in this post reflects the ideas expressed in Dr. Thiederman’s book 3 Keys to Defeating Unconscious Bias and in the training videos Defeating Unconscious Bias: 5 Strategies and Gateways to Inclusion: Turning Tense Moments into Productive Conversations.
© copyright 2019 Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.
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