12 Steps for Creating a Culture of Inclusion

With recent events in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore, Maryland; among other places around the country, and with the election of Donald Trump, people’s positions and opinions have become more and more polarized. Civil discourse and meaningful dialogue have been replaced by rancor, accusation, disrespectful language, and wild speculation unbefitting a civil and democratic society.

This past weekend I had a manager call me and ask what she might do that would help her leadership create a culture of inclusion. Creating a culture that values inclusion does not mean that we always end up agreeing with others or that we give them what they want just because they disagree. Inclusion does require that we make serious efforts to understand and respect one another in spite of our differing perspectives or opinions. It is in respectfully understanding one another that inclusion begins to become a value that shapes behavior, changes results, and produces a lasting effect within an organization.

Below are 12 steps that you might take as you attempt to create a culture of inclusion within your organization.

1. Check your intention. Every leader or manager needs to ask themselves if they really are interested in learning and understanding or just being right. If being right is the goal of your interactions with others, any attempt at feigning interest in understanding others will erode your credibility as an open and honest leader. Taking the time to check your intention and motivation for asking others to engage and share their perspective might help you to challenge and shift your thinking as needed.

2. Seek the facts. When people share their perspective, they often fail to share the facts or the experience that forms the basis of their thinking. Listen to their perspective and then ask for the facts or the experiences that have led them to believe as they do. People always have a reason for believing something, even if it’s just a tradition, something their friends believe, or an experience that shaped their belief. Even if it’s not “factual” there is some reasoning behind their belief. Understanding why they believe what they do will help you understand their perspective.

Sometimes a person may struggle to provide any factual evidence for their perspective. Simply explain that you are trying to completely understand what supports their interpretations or opinions or how they arrived at their conclusion. Sometimes you might have to postpone the conversation if the other person cannot identify the rationale for their thinking. Allow them this latitude if it is needed.

3. Know the facts. When you have the opportunity to share your perspective, be prepared with the facts or evidence that support it. Any time that people share opinions with each other, there is an opportunity for simply sharing countering opinions. This response leads to a downward spiral that usually ends in a shouting match or where one party shuts down and withdraws. Being prepared with supporting evidence will bolster your opinion and add credibility to your arguments.

4. Them first, you second. When making the effort at mutual understanding, begin by asking the other person to share first. You might do this by making requests, such as, “I’d really like to hear your view on this.” Or, “It is important for me to understand your perspective on this.” After making such a request, wait for them to respond and be patient rather than rushing to share your view.

You can also ask simple questions such as, “What’s your thinking on this subject?” or, “What’s your view?” What is important is that you give them time to think and to answer. Don’t be surprised if they don’t answer right away. You may not have ever asked for their input on this topic before. If they don’t answer, simply tell them that when they feel comfortable you would be willing to hear their perspective. Be patient and keep asking. Hopefully they will eventually come to believe that you are really interested in their perspective. Trust takes time when there hasn’t been any before.

5. Listen for what’s important. Often people can become animated or somewhat emotional when talking about something that is important to them. Emotion begins to show up when the person believes that what is important to them is not important to others. Negative or “hot” emotion generally signals a violated value. A person’s emotional reaction is the easiest way to pinpoint what is important. Also, if the person tends to repeat a point, that is also a way to identify what is important to them.

6. Clarify your understanding. If you have any doubts about what the person is saying or what is important to them, take the time to clarify what you have heard. You can do this by summarizing your understanding. You might say something like, “Let me see if I have understood. You wanted …. Is that correct?” Or, “What is most important to you is …. Is that right?” Notice that you always end in a question to invite the person to engage or to comment on what you have shared. You want them to tell you if you have understood correctly. If you have misunderstood, ask as many clarifying questions as needed until you have reached understanding. Clarifying communicates that you care enough to check your understanding.

7. Offer an alternative view. Once you have thoroughly understood, then ask permission to share your view. I have never had anyone say that they weren’t interested in my viewpoint after I had taken the time to understand theirs. You might begin by saying something like, “I have had a different experience than you. Would you mind if I share my experience with you and then tell me what you think about my experience?” Notice you are asking them for permission to engage and then honoring their opinion about what they may say even before you have shared your perspective. This establishes value for them and their perspective.

8. Ask them to comment. When you are done sharing, invite them to comment. Listen for evidence of their position. If they do not share any, then ask them for information that would support their perspective. Differing views are worth considering when evidence supports those views. The way to create REAL Conversation or dialogue is always to invite the contribution of others in a respectful way.

9. Seek common ground. Once all of the information or facts supporting differing viewpoints are on the table, seek to find common ground. Common ground is where you can mutually agree on certain points. Sometimes you will need to reach to a higher level to do this. For example, if two individuals cannot agree on the best way to use their shared resources, they should take a moment to stop, think, and then ask, “Based on what we each want, what would be best for the company?” Notice this question takes away the need to argue and forces each individual to consider a perspective that may be more elevated than their own.

10. Devise a plan. If the other person shares information that you haven’t considered or is important to consider, then devise a plan together that would be mutually beneficial. If the other person offers something that is important to them, but not to what you are trying to accomplish, acknowledge the importance of what they are sharing, and then explain what you need to do and why, rather than just saying nothing or blatantly refusing to consider their perspective.

11. Don’t beat your head against the wall. Sometimes if I am trying to help another person understand my perspective, they will be so entrenched in their own frame of reference that they are either unwilling or unable to consider another point of view. This is not uncommon. You may never know why such a person is so intractable, but at least you have made the effort. Recognize when the conversation should be terminated in order to maintain a respectful relationship, rather than trying to force your view. Some people just aren’t willing to explore perspectives that are outside the realm of their experience.

12. Avoid emotional reaction at all costs. Whatever you do, you must not become emotional in this type of conversation. If emotion begins to trickle into the conversation, then you would be better off to postpone the conversation until cooler minds can prevail. When a conversation turns into a shouting match, then no one can rationally consider another point of view. Both parties are too busy defending themselves rather than listening.

In a time where so many people are invested in being right and making others wrong, it is important that we return to civility with the emphasis on learning, understanding, and discovery. Only then can we truly understand one another, overcome the fear that we harbor of others and their ideas, and build solutions that are mutually acceptable.