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March 26, 2018 BIZ BOOKS

How to talk about race, religion, politics at work

“We Can't Talk about That at Work — How to Talk about Race, Religion, Politics and Other Polarizing Topics” by Mary-Frances Winters (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, $18.95).

Winters, a diversity consultant, sees management's “don't go there” statements as a barrier to inclusiveness in the workforce. Why? By making topics taboo, management inadvertently sets up barriers to dialogue that could promote understanding of various viewpoints.

What happens outside the workplace “has a direct impact on employees, and they are talking about it whether management likes it or not.” By avoiding discussion, management comes across as not caring about the impact of the non-workplace environment on employees.

Winters acknowledges that “lightning-rod” conversations make people uncomfortable because they often trigger emotional responses. But having such conversations tempers emotional responses by replacing biases and fears with knowledge and understanding. Most biases are the result of hearing the same story over and over, which results in assuming its true. Dialogue introduces other stories, which results in reexamining perspectives.

Winters makes this point in her seminars by showing a video of a man wearing shoes entering a room followed by a barefoot woman. There's food on the table; the man eats before the woman. When they leave, the woman follows a few steps behind the man. The usual stereotype that comes to mind: Man considers woman subservient. BUT — what if the man precedes the woman because he wants to ensure there's no danger ahead; what if she's barefoot because only a woman can communicate with the earth; what if he eats first to ensure that the food is suitable for the woman? In some cultures, that's the case.

While Winters provides advice on numerous ways to shift from “don't talk” to “let's talk,” the shining example can be found at Sodexo, which provides employees with dialogue-across-difference tools.

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