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Strategies for facilitating difficult conversations about diversity and inclusion

This is an excerpt from Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Sport by Ellen J. Staurowsky & Algerian Hart.

By Ellen J. Staurowsky

As a general observation, conversation about issues in sport abounds. Airwaves and the digital world are filled with passionate and lively discussion about fairness and equity in sport. Whole departments within sports marketing firms, franchises, leagues, athletic departments, gambling enterprises, and broadcast entities are devoted to engaging people in conversation about whether referees, umpires, and officials made the right call on any given play; whether ownership and management made the right decision about a player trade; whether one player versus another deserves to be considered a GOAT (greatest of all time); whether coaches and athletes violated rules to get a competitive advantage; or whether the health and well-being of athletes are being provided for and protected. From the proverbial water cooler to the chat box of a Zoom meeting, sports talk emanates out of a fundamental investment that justice should be served.

However, reflective of the larger society, talk about sport matters is shaped as much by the subjects that are avoided, ignored, or overlooked as it is by what is discussed. Sometimes there is a reluctance to discuss or even recognize key issues that emanate out of inequity because they are too difficult to talk about or the atmosphere is just too unsafe. We’ve all had those moments at one point or another in our lives when we wanted to ask a question or express a viewpoint that we thought would not be received well. We remained silent out of fear of retribution, awkwardness and uncomfortableness, anxiety at the prospect of appearing ignorant or stupid, threat of being labeled a troublemaker or not a team player, pressure to “say the right thing,” or a desire not to offend. All of these things can discourage engaging around issues that need to be discussed in order to foster understanding and appreciation for people’s differences.

So, how do we proceed? As sport leaders, how do we approach conversations about ageism, gender and racial inequality, religious bigotry, political power, athlete exploitation, intolerance, and a host of other issues? A starting point is to acknowledge that there is economic value in promoting diversity and inclusion, legal reasons to ensure that those working in and competing in sport are not discriminated against, and moral imperatives to treat athletes, colleagues, and peers with respect and dignity.

Experts who work in the area of diversity and inclusion report that open, sincere, and productive conversations do not happen by accident or magic. Rather, consideration needs to be given to establishing ground rules, cultivating empathy, and helping people understand why these conversations are important to their work as leaders and citizens. According to the CoachDiversity Institute (2020), there are 10 strategies or practices that can help facilitate difficult conversations:

  1. Set the stage. When having conversations about bias and discrimination in the workplace, in a classroom, or on a team, make those who will be participating aware of what the topic is in advance. Give thought to how the discussion is going to be framed and explain to those participating what the purpose of the discussion is.
  2. Establish discussion guidelines. These should be developed by the facilitator or put together in conjunction with the group to promote an environment that is safe and respectful. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL, 2020) recommends that discussion guidelines include a consideration of “listening and interrupting, how to deal with strong emotions, establishing trust, confidentiality, sharing ‘air time’ and dealing with differences or disagreements.” Another key consideration is “making room for mistakes” and acknowledging in an explicit way that “because we are products of a biased society, students may not be cognizant that everyone has biases and holds stereotypes” (ADL, 2020).
  3. Shape discussions around questions that participants can brainstorm and problem-solve. If appropriate, such questions could include an examination of an existing program and its effectiveness. (For example: Do we have a plan to ensure fair and equitable hiring? How effective is that plan?)
  4. Set the expectation that there will be different viewpoints, and encourage humility. There are numerous approaches to fostering open dialogue, one of them being establishing an understanding of the differences between a debate (where each side is arguing to be right, setting up a point/counterpoint) and a dialogue (where the emphasis is on listening, being collaborative, and being supportive) (Hastwell, 2020).
  5. Listen more than you speak. Take a pause before responding; ask questions to clarify what was said. Defer judgment and speculation about motive.
  6. Encourage curiosity and questions. Create a space where genuine understanding can occur when questions are asked and answered in a nonthreatening environment.
  7. Check your privilege. Ask participants to consider how their advantages in life affect their perspective, experience, and worldview on issues.
  8. Be mindful that the climate of the discussion is one where people are safe to express themselves, with an understanding that they will not be shamed or humiliated. Genuine dialogue can reveal naïveté, ignorance, strong emotions, and frustrations. Figuring out how to keep an open dialogue can be both challenging and rewarding.
  9. Anticipate that roadblocks to progress will happen. Conversations about difference occur over time, and it is likely that there will be setbacks, resistance, or hesitancy to tackle certain subjects.
  10. Recenter and refocus the conversation back to the purpose. It can take a conscious effort to work together toward equity and inclusion and the benefits of being aligned with those values (CoachDiversity Institute, 2020).

Skills learned from participating on teams are transferable to conversations about diversity and inclusion. The following are skills that are reinforced in athletic settings and can be drawn upon and relied on in conversations designed to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion in sport settings.

  1. Stay focused when others are speaking.
  2. Pay attention to body language.
  3. Be aware of the goal.
  4. Be invested in the success of the group and in bringing out the best in everyone.
  5. Be supportive of others.
More Excerpts From Diversity