One of the sources of unresolved conflict at work and elsewhere can be unconscious (or conscious) bias and prejudice. But instead of reacting, you can choose to respond and communicate.
A few years ago, I unexpectedly encountered anti-Semitism at a business networking meeting. It shocked me and shook me up, but I was able to use my understanding of the roots of racism and my skills in how to communicate clearly about difficult topics, to talk directly to a group member I’ll call Bob, who used the horrible phrase “J-w them down.”
I gasped audibly when Bob used this offensive term in his self-introduction to the group, sharing how as a child he got started in construction. I knew I would need to talk to him about it at the end of the meeting, which made the rest of the event very uncomfortable for me. Just before the meeting ended, Bob stood up and made a sort of generic apology if his “religious reference” had offended anyone.
I went up to him afterwards and this, as closely as I can remember, was our conversation.
Me: (calmly) I appreciated your apology, Bob. I assume you used that phrase because you had heard it from those around you many times, but as a Jew, and one who has experienced a great deal of discrimination, I was deeply offended.
Bob: I am so sorry. I knew right away I had said something wrong. It just slipped out and I feel really bad. I’m not prejudiced at all. I’m in construction and people talk like that around me all the time.
Me: I’ve learned we all have biases. Anyone who tells you they don’t have any, hasn’t looked at these issues. The key is how we deal with them and work to heal them once we realize.
Bob: (surprised expression and pause). I’m really sorry. I wanted to make a good impression on the group, and then I said that. I feel terrible. I don’t know what else to do.
Me: Well, I know something else you can do. The next time you hear someone use that phrase, speak up and tell them you’re offended and to please stop. It will help you remember not to use expressions like that and help them, too.
Bob: (expression brightening) Yeah. I could tell them about what just happened to me.
(We shake hands).
I was still upset for awhile, because hearing words that reflect old hatreds and biases hurt, and triggered old bad memories from my childhood. AND, at the same time, I felt good about how I handled it in the moment.
How did I use clear compassionate communication skills in this situation?
- I called him on his words; I didn’t call him a racist.
- I made it clear that I didn’t see him as an enemy, AND I told him calmly how his behavior affected me personally.
- I listened to him and believed/accepted his (genuine) apology and his handshake.
- I gave him a concrete suggestion for how he could make living amends by changing his actions in the future and letting others know this kind of language wasn’t acceptable to him.
- I supported his idea for how he could implement that.
It was thoroughly unpleasant to deal with this at a networking event, but I am grateful for my progress. I am still learning how to respond with detachment and kindness in these situations, but I know calling people racist or anti-semitic or sexist or homophobic doesn’t teach them anything or help them change; they shut their ears and react defensively. But, saying nothing when I feel strongly is bad for my health and my relationships.
My goal is to honor and respect myself while being compassionate and supportive to the offending person. We are all in this together. We all make mistakes and have prejudices we may not even be aware of. And, we all need to strengthen our skills and awareness so we can function well in increasingly diverse workplaces and communities. FYI–the photo in the collage is of my grandmother.